The Histories of Herodotus in Greek: Introductory Paragraph, Part I

My friend Jonathan has written several new posts for his blog in which he translates the first few Greek lines of Philippians, a book of the New Testament, into English. He raises some very interesting points regarding the particular words used in these lines. So, having been inspired by Jonathan’s post, I too have decided to post my own translation of some Greek.

This past fall quarter, in an advanced Greek reading class at Santa Clara University, I read through some selections from the Histories of the ancient author Herodotus using this book from University of Oklahoma Press. He is often called “the Father of History” for his essential role in establishing the field of study that we now call history, even though his style does not exactly match our vision of historical writing. Let’s dive into the first lines to see what Herodotus is all about:

Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

Here is a transliteration into the English alphabet (made using this site), so that you can get a sense of how the original Greek sounds:

Hērodotou Halikarnēsseos historiēs apodexis hēde, hōs mēte ta genomena ex anthrōpōn tō chronō exitēla genētai, mēte erga megala te kai thōmasta, ta men Hellēsi ta de barbaroisi apodechthenta, aklea genētai, ta te alla kai di᾽ hēn aitiēn epolemēsan allēloisi.

My own translation of these lines:

This is a presentation of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which is made so that the deeds of mankind shall not become faded away through time, and so that works both great and wonderful—those having been displayed by either Greeks or foreigners—shall not be without fame; and among others things, it will include the reason why they made war upon one another.

It is true, as Jonathan says in his post, that every small bit of Greek contains something that may be of interest to us. You have probably already noticed that what I call an introductory paragraph is really just one very long sentence, which would be a bit awkward in English. In ancient Greek, however, it is common to see lengthy sentences like this one that seem to flow continuously onward. Herodotus is an author who particular enjoys stringing his sentences together in this way.

Let’s take a look at some of the interesting words that appear in this passage:

historiē

In Attic Greek, the dialect of the Athenians, historiē would be spelled historia, but Herodotus writes in the Ionian dialect, which tends to lengthen alphas into etas (α into η, or a into ē). Attic Greek is often considered the “standard” dialect of ancient Greek; that is, it is the form of Greek traditionally taught in Classics departments to first-year Greek students. It is probably because of the dominant impact of Athens on western culture that Attic Greek tends to be emphasized.

Just as American English and British English diverge in their spelling of “color/colour” or “defense/defence,” people from different areas of the Greek world spelled words in different ways. Historia and historiē are both equally correct ways of spelling the same word. To assume that Attic Greek is more correct is to presume the “superiority” of the Athenians over the speakers of other dialects, and that is certainly a dangerous presumption to make.

Historiē definitely resembles the modern English word “history,” but, as used by the ancient Greeks, historiē actually referred to an inquiry or an investigation into something. It could also refer to a record or narrative that reports the results of one’s inquiry, but it did not necessarily carry the meaning of a record of past events or the study of the past, which is what we think “history” is today.

I am not entirely sure where this modern idea of history came from, but it seems likely to me that Herodotus himself was at least partially responsible for this new concept of history. In his opening sentence, he says that the purpose of his inquiry is to ensure that the deeds (ta genomena) of mankind (anthrōpōn) do not become forgotten (exitēla) through time (tō chronō); that is, to make sure that the passage of time does not erase important events that have occurred.

He wants to ensure that “works both great and wonderful” (erga megala te kai thōmasta) created or displayed (apodechthenta) by people, no matter who they are, will have a proper amount of fame. All this seems slightly strange, compared to our modern concept of history (preserving fame is not exactly the goal of a historian today), until we get to the last part of the sentence, where Herodotus tells us that he will be explaining the reason (aitiēn) why the Persian Wars happened. This is when he starts to appear more like a modern historian; he wants to find out why something in the past occurred the way that it did.

Herodotus shares some similarities with a modern historian: both seek to record, investigate, and understand the events of the past, so that they are not forgotten. Modern historians try to see what lessons we might be able to learn from the mistakes and successes of previous generations, for, as the famous saying by the philosopher George Santayana goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In a slightly different and yet very similar way, Herodotus wishes to record the past in order to preserve the fame of previous generations.

Let’s try to wrap everything up. Herodotus had such an enormous impact that he was able to create what was essentially a new genre of writing. He was so influential that he transformed the word historia, simply meaning “inquiry,” into the name of the field of study we now call history. But at the time that he wrote, this transformation had not yet occurred, so it is probably best that we translate this word as “inquiry.”

apodexis

An apodexis is a display, exhibition, or presentation. It is connected to the verb apodeiknumi, which means “to show, to exhibit, to make known, or to make a display.” Apodeiknumi itself is made up of the verb deiknumi, “to show, point out, or make known,” and the preposition apo, “from” or “away from.”

Apodeiknumi and deiknumi both seem to mean almost the same exact thing, but apodeiknumi, as you may have noticed, has a slightly different definition. It has to do more with exhibiting something, putting something on display, or making a presentation than with simply pointing out a piece of information. Just by adding apo to deiknumi, the Greeks were able to create a verb with a different meaning.

Literally, apodeiknumi means “to show, point out, or make known, away from.” When we make a presentation or exhibit something (think of a classroom PowerPoint presentation or a museum exhibit), we are sharing information with others. Perhaps, as Herodotus does, we are providing information, specifically about something we have investigated or researched. The information flows away from the presenter, outward to others, maybe those in the audience who are listening; and so, the presenter makes information known, away from him or herself.

This is just my own speculation; there are many Greek verbs that are basically prepositions attached to other verbs, and often, it can be difficult to figure out exactly how certain definitions emerge from certain preposition-verb combinations.

apodechthenta

Apodechtenta is the passive aorist (the Greek simple past tense) participle of apodeiknumi, and so, it means “things having been displayed or presented.” It refers to the “works both great and wonderful” (erga megala te kai thōmasta) earlier in the sentence.

It’s interesting that we get apodexis and apodechtenta in the same sentence. The purpose of his inquiry, Herodotus says, is to make sure great and wonderful achievements that were displayed (apodechtenta) do not go without fame. Notably, Herodotus himself is creating a work that is being displayed; it is as if he himself is trying to maintain the fame of own display, and he succeeds, since Greek students still study his writings today.

This post went on a little bit longer than I intended. There are a few more words in this sentence that I would like to discuss, so I will be putting up another post soon. Stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “The Histories of Herodotus in Greek: Introductory Paragraph, Part I

  1. Well, I’m glad I’ve been an inspiration. I think you’re really capturing the purpose of my blog: to provide something useful for Greek students as they work through texts and try to figure out the language. I won’t try to be an expert, but as a fellow student I think I can have something to say.

    I did some snooping through BDAG to see what nuances these words took on in Koine Jewish and Christian literature.

    According to BDAG, “historia” can also refer to an account or a personal story, something closer to narrative and story than inquiry. And apodeiknumi can also have the sense of proving something true, not just showing it. BDAG reports that the LXX of Esther refers to her using this verb as a woman “attested of God.” Interesting.

    1. Yes, historia can refer to an account or a narrative. That’s sort of what I meant when I said that it was used to refer to a record or narrative reporting the results of one’s inquiry. But I suppose you mean a story or narrative independent of whether or not an inquiry is involved.

      I also agree with you that apodeiknumi is a little bit more intensive in its usage than deiknumi. It’s similar to how a serious, scholarly presentation in an academic environment is designed to prove an argument, and not just reveal basic facts.

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