Herodotus Wrecked?

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It's hip to like Herodotus this year. The best-selling book Travels with Herodotus, by the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, has been raved about in the New York Times and on blogs like World Hum.

However, the book recently received a strange review by Glen Bowersock, an expert on ancient history who works at the Institute for Advanced Studies, located on Einstein Drive in Princeton, N.J. Mr. Bowersock has written quite a bit about the ancient world, and he says he likes Travels with Herodotus. But he slaps the book around with so many back-handed compliments that the publisher ought to sue for abuse.

Here are some key points:

»Kapuscinski claimed that he carried a copy of Herodotus's history of the Persian Wars with him during the two decades he reported on wars around the world. Bowersock finds this point—the premise for the book—implausible.

»Kapuscinski claimed he was so moved by the power of Herodotus's writing when he was in the Congo "that at times I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and the Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict, which I was assigned to cover." Notes Bowersock: Yet this is a conflict that Kapu´sci´nski himself characterizes by "frequent eruption of gunfights, the constant danger of arrest, beatings, and death, and the pervasive climate of uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability." He says that "the absolute worst could happen here at any moment and in any place." Did all that really pale before the Persian Wars?

»Kapuscinski talks about Herodotus as an early hero of subjectivity and relativism. This is not the interpretation that most scholars would give, says the professor. "Herodotus was the most direct and candid, if sometimes credulous, of all ancient historians. If there was one thing he was not, it was allusive for the purpose of conveying hidden meanings."

»Several "facts" in the book have been improved to tell a better story. For example: "In the opening pages of his book, ... the author recalls that he attended the lectures on ancient Greece by Professor Izabela Bieuska-Maowist at Warsaw University in 1951. He found no trace of Herodotus in what he describes as his "careful notes" on these lectures, but he assumes that the Greek must have made a momentary appearance. It happens that I knew Bieuska-Maowist, a superb and widely admired scholar. Perhaps Kapuciski missed a lecture or two in those dark days at the university, but we can have no doubt that Herodotus appeared significantly in that course in Warsaw. Even if the city lay in ruins, as Kapuciski says, and libraries had gone up in flames, Bieuska-Maowist knew her Herodotus well and would have given him the prominence that he deserved, even with due regard for the ever-vigilant secret police."

»The book "seems sadly superficial." For example, consider this passage from the book: "Where did this passion of Herodotus come from? Perhaps from the question that arose in a child's mind, the one about where ships come from. Children playing in the sand at the edge of a bay can see a ship suddenly appear far away on the horizon line and grow larger and larger as it sails toward them. Where did it originate? Most children do not ask themselves this question. But one, making castles out of sand, suddenly might." Ask any parent whether this description is believable. Few would say yes.

Well, that's one critic's view of the book. Feel free to weigh in with your own by posting a comment below.

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