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Three Short Notes in the Style of AK (Herod)

Jerusalem seen from Mount of Olives, the way Pompey first saw it in 63 BC. Taken from The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia, a travelogue of 19th-century Palestine and the magnum opus of Scottish painter David Roberts. It contains 250 lithographs by Louis Haghe of Roberts's watercolor sketches.

It was first published by subscription between 1842 and 1849. It was the nineteenth century's most expensive, most successful, and most durable publication.

From your translator


1. When I set out to translate the two Krawczuk books about the love of Emperor Titus and Queen Berenice (Titus and Berenice, 2023, Rome and Jerusalem, upcoming), I was unsure whether to translate the first volume of the trilogy as well—the book you are holding in your hand now. While the story of the First Jewish War is relatively little known, Herod the Great has had perhaps two score biographies in English. Why publish another?

But rereading Herod, King of the Jews with that question in mind, I realized that Krawczuk brings something unique to the well-known biography. First of all, he brings his highly readable style, of course, which is a joy in itself and which I hope I manage to convey here well enough to motivate you to learn Polish and read him in the original.

Secondly, better than any author I have read, he couches the history of Herod within the parallel history of Rome, laying bare for the modern reader how the two histories intertwine, the limits within which Herod had to work, and the surprising significance of little Palestine in the larger Roman imperial politics.

But, above all, Krawczuk allows the reader to sense something that a British or an American reader may not readily intuit: how small nations see their own fate and survival in the shadow of great empires. The fact that the good professor wrote this book under Russian occupation, at an ancient institution of learning of a recalcitrant client nation of the Russian Empire, gives his observations vital relevance: in many ways, Poles are Eastern Europe's Jews.

2. While working on the text, I became aware of another dimension of the story. When editing, I read my text aloud to my Japanese friends—who are cultured and cosmopolitan but not necessarily very familiar with minor aspects of the history of the Roman Empire. But as I read my text to them, they suddenly burst out with a surprise of recognition. When, in one of the early chapters, the name of Judah Maccabee came up, they exclaimed: “Do you mean the guy from the Handel oratorio?” “Well, yes,” I said. “The very same.” Soon enough, we came across Mithridates of Pontus. “Mitridate Re di Ponto! Mozart!” my audience exclaimed. Just two lines lower came: “Vivaldi’s Farnace!” This went on for some time until my friends finally reconciled themselves to the fact that they were reading a story somehow fundamental to the consciousness of Western Civilization. By the time Aeneus made an appearance in the chapter on Herod saving Troy, my friends said nothing. One got up and put on the Purcell.

3. The back cover of this book features a reproduction of a fragment of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Massacre of the Innocents. The Bruegel family firm produced many versions of this painting (possibly as many as 14), but only this one, owned by the British Royal Collection, is thought to be by Pieter Senior himself. One of its previous owners, Rudolph II, the Magician Emperor and a connoisseur of panting, had it overpainted to hide the images of dead and dying children. Contemporary reality delivered enough of that.

Tom Pinch

Ardennes National Park


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