A Commentary On Herodotus (Book I At Least)


OK, let’s say that we want a historical commentary on Herodotus.  Some mild research reveals that there is A Commentary on Herodotus I-IV by David Asheri, Alan Loyd and Aldo Corcella. This costs £172-40 from Amazon or £ 210-ish if you buy it in Blackwell’s.  But a little more mild research shows that this volume originated as the commentary from the first four volumes of an Italian complete set  of 9 volumes, which included text and translations.  So let’s try–as an example–the Italian Book I Erodoto: Le storie. Libro I. La Lidia e la Persia, a cura di David Asheri, ISBN 13: 9788804306665 at 30 Euro (plus rather a lot for delivery) from deastore.

This gives us a volume of 400 pages with an introductory essay, essay on Book 1, extensive set of maps (not very good in truth–I think they’ve been profitably reworked in the Oxford version), text, translation, list of scholia, commentary, index of names [etc].  Now let’s see what we’ve got by way of commentary.  Here’s an excerpt commenting on the beginning of Solon and Croesus:

29-33. II dialogo tra Creso e Solone sul problema della felicità umana è uno dei brani più famosi del primo libro, nodo cruciale del logos di Creso e di tutta l’opera; costituisce allo stesso tempo anche uno dei documenti più importanti per lo studio delle idee istorico-religiose e storico-filosofiche di Erodoto. Solone ha visitato i tesori di Creso: dovrebbe aver concluso che il proprietario è l’uomo più felice del mondo. Ma Creso resta due volte deluso dalle risposte dell’ospite, il quale assegna il primo posto in <<felicità>> ad un certo Tello di Atene (cap.30,3-5) ed il secondo a due giovani fratelli argive, Cleobi e Bitone (31, 1-5). Creso, irritato, provoca la predica didattica del sapiente ateniese. I termini che ricorrono nel dialogo per descrivere il benessere umano sono quattro: ὄλβος, εὐτυχίη, εὐδαιμονίη, μακαρίζω; la distinzione essenziale però e tra la <<felicità>> definitiva (ὄλβος) e la <<buona fortuna>> passeggera (εὐτυχίη). Si osservi che in Erodoto ὄλβος può significare anche <<richezza>> (cap.30,1,7); non riguarda in ogni caso la felicità spirituale, soggettiva, mistica, ecc., in contrapposizione alle gioie materiali ed oggetive di questo mondo. I due termini non si escludono a vicenda: <<felice>> può diventare anche I’uomo <<fortunato>> che non ha avuto contratempi sino alla sua morte gloriosa (Tello) o pacifica (Cleobi e Bitone). Come l’εὐτυχίη,  anche l’ὄλβος è la somma di una stessa serie di beni, eminentemente materiali e terreni: buona salute, buona prole, bell’aspetto, forza fisica, mezzi di sussistenza, ecc. La distinzione è tutta tra benessere passeggero e benessere interamente acquisito, definitivo e reso eterno nella memoria dei posteri (ved. T. Krischer,<<WS>> LXVII 1964, pp. 174-7). Si tratta di una concezione estremamente convenzionale, <<borghese>>, di aurea mediocrità, che trova un’espressione banale nelle onorificenze pubbliche, nelle invidie degli altri, in funerali, monumenti, ecc. (…..)

To look at this more comprehensively (and in English), what Asheri tells us about Solon-and-Croesus is:

i)  how the encounter and the different conceptions of  ‘happiness’ fit into Herodotus’s world-view;

ii)  that Herodotus has typically and implausibly placed the encounter at the apex of a pedimental schema for Croesus–after seven years of ascent, and before seven years of decline and fall;

iii)  how the encounter might be harmonised with the known chronology of Solon;

iv)  how σοφισταί ought to be understood;

v)    the superfluity in ἀνὴρ Ἀθηναῖος and how we should interpret νόμους;

vi)  what in fact πρόφασις might mean here (apparently ‘official reason’, without prejudice as to whether it is the real reason);

vii)  the Egyptian name of Amasis, and what is known of him and from what sources;

viii)  ‘three days’ as a typical unit of time for ancient literature in general;

ix)  Croesus’s desire for the superlative instance in ‘happiest of all’ as typical of popular fables of all times; and the interest in a second place ascribed to him as reflecting a mercantile rather than heroic (Homeric) mentality;

x)  what it is possible to say and from what sources (dependent on Herodotus) about Tellus;

and much, much more…it’s all very interesting!

The next question is how far this edition helps us to read the Greek text.  This is a historical, and possibly literary-philosophical, commentary meaning that linguistic explanation is restricted to explaining what particular words and expressions mean in this context, and where parallel instances are found in Herodotus.

But we can look at some of the items given in the Bryn Mawr commentary (which is meant to provide linguistic assistance) and see how far the Italian translation provides the same information.

30.1  αὐτῶν δὴ ὦν τούτων “for these very reasons then”–the Italian ‘Per questo motivo…’ ignores the emphasis

30.2  ὥς οἱ κατὰ καιρὸν ἦν  “as it was in season for him => when the time was right”, It ‘quando venne il momento opportune’ tells us the answer but not of course how to get there

30.3  τῷ ἐόντι  “i.e. the truth” It ‘si attenne al vero’ makes the same point

30.4  τοῦτο μὲν…τοῦτο δὲ  “in the first place….in the second place”, It ‘mentre….’ glosses this over

τοῦτο δὲ τοῦ βίου εὖ ἥκοντι  “for him prospering in his livelihood”, It ‘in questa buona condizione di vita’ doesn’t lay this bare.

So we can agree with BMCR (on the Oxford incarnation) that this is not going to help us read the Greek.  In fact, the general prospectus for  the “Scrittori greci e latini” series describes the books as being meant for scholars on the one hand or general readers with little or no Latin or Greek on the other; so those who need some help in reading the original are excluded, at least by omission.

Given that it’s evidently a prestige project on the part of the Fondazione Valla, the printing could be a lot better.  The Italian text varies wildly in places from very faint to severely overinked, and while the Greek text is better printed, the font seems to have been chosen for prettiness rather than legibility–in particular, where you have a breathing under a circumflex, it’s impossible to tell which breathing it is.

Still, a jolly good historical commentary and a pretty serviceable Italian translation…

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