Witness the "works and wonders" of the ancient world through the eyes of its first great historian. Herodotus became the first person we know of to see the past in new and fresh ways—not as a distant recess shrouded in legend and rumor, but as something that lies close at hand; as something that immediately affects the here and now; and as a subject whose great personalities and patterns of events can be studied in order to make the reasons behind them as clear as possible.
Given the number and the superb quality of the courses on classical literature that Professor Elizabeth Vandiver has contributed to The Great Courses, we knew that we had to bring her into our studio to lecture on Herodotus.
His monumental work, the Histories, was the subject of her doctoral dissertation and first book. And it remains one of her great loves among Greek and Roman writings. An Exceptional Teacher
If you've enjoyed any of Professor Vandiver's previous courses on the epics of Homer and Virgil, Greek tragedy, or classical mythology, you will surely want to add this one to your library of recorded learning.
If you are new to Professor Vandiver or The Teaching Company, however, this course is still a great investment in learning.
She presents the material to you as a self-contained unit that is readily accessible and requires no special background knowledge.
Herodotus (c. 484–420 B.C.E.) was a Greek who was born in what is now the modern Turkish resort town of Bodrum (called Halicarnassus, in his day) and who died, so tradition says, in the south of Italy. A Tireless Mind
In between, his tirelessly inquiring mind took him from one corner of the known world to another. And he reported on or visited all of its continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) to write about the vast array of subjects that captured his interest, including:
- the "great works" (erga megala) of the ancient land of Egypt
- the remarkable kings who built the vast and mighty Persian Empire
- the strange customs and unlikely origins of the Scythians, a warlike, mounted people who lived beyond the Danube and whose repulse of Darius and the Persians in 513 B.C.E. made them the first Europeans to throw back an eastern invasion.
These lectures introduce you to the book—Herodotus's only known work—that came out of these "inquiries." (The title Histories, by the way, is a now-common mistranslation of the original title, as Professor Vandiver explains.)
You learn what makes Herodotus one of those rare, landmark figures in the story of thought as Professor Vandiver traces the influences Herodotus assimilated and the new methods he used in crafting this monumental work. A New Way of Seeing the Past
Herodotus became the first person we know of to see the past in new and fresh ways:
- not as a distant recess shrouded in legend and rumor, but as something that lies close at hand
- as something that immediately affects the here and now
- as a subject whose great personalities and patterns of events can be studied in order to make the reasons behind them as clear as possible.
What You Will Learn
In Professor Vandiver's characteristically comprehensive and systematic treatment, you learn:
Essential background and context ... including what we know about the life of Herodotus, the key influences on him, his intended audience and possible reasons for writing the book, and the general task that he set himself (as explained in his all-important first sentence).
The scope, design, and organization of The Histories itself ... including both the tantalizing digressions on Egypt and Scythia, and the dramatic Persian War narrative (490–479 B.C.E.) that lies at the heart of the story Herodotus tells.
The key interpretive issues that scholars have long debated include:
- Herodotus's focus on individuals as the makers of history
- his use of and departures from Homeric models
- his handling of materials from myth and legend
- his attitude toward facts and verification
- his relationship to the new scientific, political, and artistic currents of his day, including Sophism, Periclean democracy, tragic drama, and the Peloponnesian War.
The light shed on The Histories by modern research ... including rock carvings left by the Persians, and even the recently discovered traces of one of the military canals that the Emperor Xerxes dug to facilitate the movement of his massive invading forces into Greece.
The continuing influence and significance of Herodotus from his own time to ours ... including the renewed appreciation that scholars developed for him in the 20th century and the lasting place he enjoys in the Western imagination.
Stirring Episodes, Unforgettable Characters
Of course, there is much more to Herodotus than grand themes and scholarly debates, interesting as all those are.
His pages overflow with vividly described events and human beings whose deeds, whether good or ill, deserve to be remembered and reflected upon by generations to come.
A partial list includes:
An Invitation to Join a Remarkable Journey
- the intrepid Persian ruler Cyrus (the first great Persian conqueror), his mad and doomed son Cambyses, and the brilliant Darius, who won the struggle to succeed Cambyses and proved to be the administrative genius the empire needed in order to grow and consolidate into the most powerful state the world had ever seen
- the Lydian king Croesus, the world's richest man, and his encounter with the Athenian lawgiver Solon, one of the world's wisest; in the skilled hands of Herodotus, the description of this meeting reveals much about the differences between East and West and the very nature of human knowledge and happiness
- the astute Athenian general Miltiades, whose bold and innovative plan enabled his army of 10,000 citizen-soldiers to win their improbable victory over the much larger Persian host of Darius at Marathon in 490 B.C.E.
- the cruel and arrogant Emperor Xerxes, who had the waters of the Hellespont Strait lashed for daring to destroy one of his pontoon bridges during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C.E.
- the wily Athenian admiral and statesman Themistocles, without whose stratagems the epoch-making naval victory at Salamis—and with it the golden age of Greece—would have been impossible
- the redoubtable Spartan king Leonidas, whose last stand at the head of his outnumbered band in the narrow defile of Thermopylae is given undying fame by the literary brilliance of Herodotus.
This should give you some idea of what it is like to follow Herodotus on his journey through what he calls the erga megala te kai thômasta ("great and astonishing works or deeds") of the ancient world.
Always he seeks the aitiê (cause or reason) of the essential human things.
Courage and cruelty. Wisdom and folly. Love and hate. Greed and generosity. Nobility and baseness. None of these escapes Herodotus's probing mind or urge to bear witness.
With his work set before you with skill, subtlety, and an eye for telling detail, he can become a companion for life, stimulating reflection with every page.