Bruce Upbin 01.29.07
It took a feisty amateur to wrest the classics from the grip of professional historians.
Robert B. Strassler calls himself a “scholar without credentials.” He doesn’t read Greek or Latin, nor does he have a tenured job at a university. He retired 20 years ago after a prosperous couple of decades running an oil drilling equipment business. Yet this amateur scholar may turn out to be one of the bestselling classicists of all time.
Ten years ago Strassler, 69, published The Landmark Thucydides (Free Press), a 713-page edition of the Greek historian’s account of the Peloponnesian War. Strassler worked on it for seven years–without a publisher’s advance. His goal: to unlock antiquity’s most intricate, difficult narrative for a modern audience. He succeeded brilliantly: 114 detailed maps in line with the text, hundreds of margin notes, a header on every page showing time and place, and 11 appendixes that illuminate military, economic and political concepts of the time.
The book was a smash (as classics go), selling 30,000 copies in hardcover and 40,000 in paperback, even though that edition cost twice that of the mass-market Penguin paperback. “I would never use the Penguin again,” says Joshua D. Sosin, associate professor of classical studies at Duke University.
Now Strassler is expanding his project across the bookshelf. There are four more Landmark editions in the works: A new translation of Herodotus by adjunct professor Andrea Purvis of Duke University, with 21 appendixes and 123 maps, will appear in late 2007, to be followed by reader-friendly volumes of Xenophon’s Hellenica, Arrian and Polybius. “The work he’s doing is monumental,” says Edward Kastenmeier, Strassler’s editor at his current publisher, Pantheon. “Bob put it together on his own.”
Strassler’s father made a bundle in the wake of the Depression, running syndicates that bought and fixed up liquidated companies. Strassler was introduced to the classics at Fieldston, a prep school in New York’s Bronx, and again as a history major at Harvard. In his junior year there he pestered the deans into assigning him a former Oxford don to tutor him three hours a week in the history of ancient Greece. Says Strassler, “It was the best thing Harvard ever did for me.”
Later, after graduating from Harvard Business School in the top 5% of his class in 1961, he went into the family business. His father told him to revive or dump a Tulsa, Oklahoma company that made equipment for oil rigs. Strassler handled the business well through an oil boom, but when a bust came, in 1983, he was worn out. His bond portfolio seemed like a better place for his and his family’s money–no employees or regulations to worry about. So he joined the board of Simon’s Rock College, a liberal arts school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. At the request of the provost he taught a class in ancient Greek literature in translation, sympathizing with students who found Thucydides impenetrable: The Modern Library edition has one map of the entire Hellenic world, with 180 labels on it. Students must constantly flip back and forth to figure out where they are. The Penguin edition has an index Strassler deems “useless.”
In 1989 he drew up a proposal for a much more inviting version and cast around for a professor to do the work. Some said they were busy; others couldn’t understand why Strassler would bother making Thucydides accessible to the lay reader. That got Strassler steamed. “These people would rather write about how the letter sigma changed over 200 years. That’s what you get points for,” he says. “Then they cry in their beer that no one reads the classics anymore.”
So he put together his own sample edition, with roughed-out maps, margin notes, an index and a list of appendixes, and sent it out again. Yale historian Donald Kagan, an expert on the Peloponnesian War, was enthusiastic and introduced Strassler to his book agent, Glen Hartley. The proposal went out to a dozen publishers. Only one, Simon & Schuster’s Free Press, agreed to take it on–but without an advance. Strassler had to finance the entire project himself.
In 1997, before the glow faded from the raves over Thucydides, Strassler started work on the new translation of Herodotus. He scored a big advance from Pantheon, using that money to fund a classics factory, of which he is chief executive officer. He expects his future costs to run higher than what he paid for Thucydides: $30,000 for the designer, $20,000 for the cartographer, and $500 per appendix to professors.
In light of his success, he is surprised not to have engendered competition. “I thought I would be copied,” he says, “but no one picked up on it.” That strikes him odd, since the classics remain the underpinning of Western philosophy: “We are the heirs of the Greeks and the prisoners of their thought.”