The father of history: Translating Herodotus; A new version of the most entertaining of historians

The father of history: Translating Herodotus; A new version of the most entertaining of historians

Sep 21st 2013 |From the print edition

Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Tom Holland. Penguin Classics; 834 pages; £25. Buy from

OVER the course of the past decade Tom Holland, a British popular historian, has produced a succession of highly readable works of fiction and non-fiction about the classical world. He has adapted Homer, Virgil and Thucydides for the radio and, as a labour of love and at a rate of a paragraph a day, he has translated Herodotus, the man Cicero called “the Father of History”. Mr Holland’s preface states that “Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians”, indeed “as entertaining as anyone who has ever written”. This lively, engaging version of the “Histories” provides ample support for what might otherwise appear to be a wild exaggeration.Herodotus wrote the “Histories” around 440BC, in the middle of the most important and exciting century in the history of ancient Greece. The centrepiece of his great work is the conflict, 40 and 50 years earlier, between the Persian empire and the diverse Greek city-states, of which Athens and Sparta were the most prominent. He describes the invasions of Darius and Xerxes and the amazing victories against the odds at Marathon, Salamis and Plataea that preserved the liberty of the people of Europe and sent what was left of the huge armies of invaders scuttling home across the Hellespont.

His account is full of rattling good yarns: Xerxes ordering his men to whip the waters that have destroyed his ships; Spartan soldiers disdaining the teeming enemy by stating that their arrows would provide them with welcome shelter from the sun; the defiant last stand at Thermopylae. At the same time the “Histories” have “something valuable to say to enlightened people…who believe that it is both desirable and possible to learn from history.”

The book is considered the first work of history, but Herodotus was more than just a historian. He was a man with a vast range of interests, a travel-writer, an anthropologist, a geographer who speculated about the sources of the Nile and to some extent a writer of fiction. The Greek word “history” meant something more like “investigation”, and Herodotus’s curiosity led him to explore the structure, customs and past of all the then known world.

He is believed to have travelled widely around the eastern Mediterranean. He observed, he listened and he remembered what he was told. Some of his tales are tall, too tall even. He describes flying snakes, fox-sized ants that unearthed gold dust, men with the heads of dogs and others with no heads at all whose eyes are set in their chests. But, as with reports of the intervention of the gods, he often distances himself by remarking that he is not sure if he can believe what he has been told. He would have been fun to travel with and his book has inspired such authors as David Livingstone and Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Certain themes and lessons recur. Man’s fortune is unstable, warnings are heeded too late, one evil deed leads to another, hubris is succeeded by nemesis. It is too much to expect the British government to add Ancient Greek to the list of subjects in which pupils must become proficient at GCSE (as they must in English and maths), but the minister for education could perhaps introduce some knowledge of Herodotus into the national curriculum. Certainly he should present each of his cabinet colleagues with a copy of Mr Holland’s admirable translation.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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