We have all read Herodotus, or more likely translations of Herodotus, in one class or another in our school days. But go on, confess it, you’ve probably only skimmed him, perhaps wishing for a good summary instead; his famously long-winded, and sometimes mysterious, digressions were just too hard to follow. What was Herodotus doing with all of these strange stories? And why was that “English Patient” so attached to his copy of him? And for that matter why has Tom Holland, who has produced a wonderful new translation, carried Herodotus with him since the age of twelve? What explains such devotion?

There are many reasons. Herodotus’s Histories, as Holland points out in his foreword, is the first nonfiction work of the West. And appropriately, given later historical development, his is an account of the first great military conflict between East and West. This great war has often been...


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