The Essential Herodotus
By William A. Johnson, trans.
2017, Oxford UP, 978-0-19989-795-7, $16.95 pb.
Reviewed by Robert W. Lebling on May 15, 2018
In the Internet age, it may be hard to interest readers in dusty old tomes of the ancient Greeks, but this book should prove to be an attractive portal to a wondrous world. It’s a perfect introduction to the fifth-century-BCE historian, with key excerpts from his history, freshly translated by a skilled classics scholar who captures the charm and conversational tone of the original Greek. Herodotus, a Greek of Asia Minor and arguably the first Western historian, wrote about the Persian Wars, in which the Greeks had been major players. He interviewed many participants. But the politico-military stories of this conflict were just the framework for Herodotus’s larger story about the peoples of Asia Minor, Egypt, Scythia, Greece and Persia. Herodotus writes with excitement, relating wonderful cultural details about the worlds he encounters. He describes techniques for mummifying pharaohs, ways of driving off winged serpents guarding frankincense trees in Arabia and Greek encounters with female “Amazon” warriors. He might not have believed all the tales he heard were literally true, but his sources usually believed them, and the stories qualify as true metaphors for a fascinating period in world history.