Book Look - Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour Through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History, by Debra Hamel

How can you *not* enthusiastically endorse a history book that cites S. Morgenstern’s classic “The Princess Bride” as its inspiration? Here’s the author, Debra Hamel, explaining her intent in this book’s introduction:

“What’s needed with Herodotus, it occurred to me, is a ‘good parts’ version of [Herodotus’] ”The History”, a book for the everyday reader who’s unlikely to slog through all the ‘begats’ to get to the juicy bits. Hence this volume, a loose retelling of Herodotus’ account, with obscure references explained and the boring bits left out.”

I believe that William Goldman would wholly approve of Hamel’s final product. Here, in brief, are four reasons why you should really, really, really consider reading this book:

Context. Herodotus is considered to be the “Father of History.” What’s hilarious is discovering what passed for “history” back in 500 BC … a glorious mish-mash of actual factual accounts, hearsay, superstition, “spin”, and scurrilous gossip. While never wavering from her mission statement – to provide a thorough albeit heavily edited version of Herodotus’ original text – Hamel leverages her insights into ongoing Herodotus-related scholarship to provide intriguing insights into the truths (and untruths) underlying even the most outlandish tales.

The History. Herodotus’ histories focus on events related to the Peloponnesian Wars (that’s Greece vs. Persia for the most part, for those who aren’t up on their classical warfare). Sure, you can see “The 300” in theaters, but reading about the Battle of Thermopolae by a guy who had it from veterans who were *actually there* is waaaaaay cooler. Hamel does a great job of wading through all of Herodotus’ less-than-riveting prose devoted to numbers of troops, supply routes, engineering projects, etc. in order to present brisk, entertaining, highly-accessible accounts of each significant battle.

The Chapter Titles. The book is broken into short, highly readable chapters with titles that can’t fail to intrigue: “Sex and the City of Babylon,” “Horny Goats and Medicinal Urine,” “Madness and Mummies,” “Earless Imposters and Randy Mounts: The Early Reign of Darius the Great,” “Cannibals, Flying Snakes, and Gold Digging Ants,” “Severed Breasts and Wormy Deaths: The Persian Expedition to Libya.” Honestly, how could you NOT want to read on? Hamel’s sense of humor and ever-vigilant eye for irony brings out all the innate entertainment value in Herodotus’ accounts.

Bragging Rights. Sure, after finishing this you still won’t be able to say that you’ve actually read Herodotus, but what’s to stop you from making erudite comments in company and letting people *assume* you’ve read his whole, massive work in the original? (You to person you want to impress: “You know, if General Petraeus had only read his Herodotus, he might have been a little more cognizant of how easy it is to lose the favor of adoring masses.”)

Sure, reading “Reading Herodotus” isn’t all roses and lollipops and stirring battle speeches and triremes zipping over the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean in search of glory. The vast scope of Herodotus’ original text means that even Hamel can’t entirely spare us the cacophony of dozens of similar-sounding anecdotes, hundreds of place names that require no less than three maps to keep sorted, and what feels like thousands of character names, few of which clock in at less than 10 characters (Alcybiades, Intaphernes, etc.). Yes, you’ll have to work a little to keep from getting lost. But Hamel’s done so much of the heavy lifting, I doubt many readers will mind.

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