Welcome to my second post about the introductory sentence of Herodotus’ Histories! Please take a look at my first post before reading on.
Here, again, is the original Greek, for your reference:
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 (made using this site):
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.
Let’s take a bit of a closer look at some of the words in this sentence:
This word is always a little bit tricky to translate. It resembles the modern English word “barbarian,” which is used to refer to one who is wild, uncivilized, and uncultured. At times, the ancient Greeks used the word barbaros in the same way, but most of the time, barbaros was simply used to refer to one who was not a Greek: someone who was not part of Greek culture and did not speak the Greek language.
To make matters more confusing, these two meanings sometimes overlapped: some Greeks definitely did consider non-Greeks to be uncivilized or uncultured, and if that were the case with Herodotus, we might translate this word as “barbarians,” in order to convey the modern English sense of those who are uncivilized.
However, this is most certainly not the case here. Herodotus was one of the most open-minded of the ancient Greek authors, especially regarding other cultures. He shows an extraordinary level of interest in learning about the customs of non-Greeks, and he devotes entire sections of his Histories to recording the cultural practices of foreigners, such as the Scythians or the Egyptians. In fact, he suggests in his opening sentence that both Greeks and barbaroi are capable of displaying great things. In this context, there is no judgment as to the inferiority of barbaroi, so it makes more sense to translate this word as “foreigners.”
This is a word that is best translated as “without fame.” It is essentially an adjectival form of the word kleos, which refers to a specific type of fame that is talked about or written about, so that many people ultimately hear about one’s glorious achievements.
Achilles hopes to earn everlasting kleos by going to fight at Troy, and he succeeds, for his actions are recorded in the Iliad. We still read his story today, and so, his kleos remains, thousands of years after the original composition of the Iliad. Interestingly, the Iliad questions whether kleos is something that one should strive for or not: how important is it for Achilles to reach this traditional ideal of Greek heroism? Is his own life a worthy price to pay to attain kleos? Regardless of the answer to these questions (there is never an easy answer, and the Greeks seemed to understand that), kleos was a concept of incredible significance for the ancient Greeks.
Herodotus is acutely aware that, by writing about the great deeds and achievements of the Persian Wars, he will be recording for posterity the kleos of those who performed these actions. This is one of the major goals of the Histories: to ensure that such great actions are never forgotten. Everything that he writes about will be remembered and will retain their kleos, as long as people still read and study the Histories. It is because of Herodotus that we still remember many of the details of the Persian Wars, especially the famous last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
As I said in my earlier post, Herodotus manages to earn some kleos for himself, by creating and displaying his own great achievement: the Histories. Because I am writing about him here on this blog, Herodotus by way of his kleos will continue to live on.