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Herodotus: The Father of History

Herodotus: The Father of History

Course No.  2353
Course No.  2353
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.

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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:

  • 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.
An Invitation to Join a Remarkable Journey

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.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Herodotus and History
    This scene-setting talk ushers you into the course by identifying key issues of definition and terminology; explaining what is known about the life of Herodotus; providing background on the ancient Greek world; and summarizing the momentous events, particularly the Persian Wars, that spur Herodotus to write. x
  • 2
    "Inquiry" and the Birth of History
    Herodotus is not the first Greek to write about the past. What, then, makes him original? How does he explain—in the very first sentence of his work and one that richly rewards close reading—the "what, why, and how" of his monumental effort? x
  • 3
    Myth, Legend, and Oral Tradition
    How does Herodotus deal with the vast and complicated body of traditional narratives that informed the Greek world? How do his subject matter and his angle on it both resemble and differ from older accounts of the ways and causes of things? x
  • 4
    Homeric Epic and the East-West Conflict
    For all ancient Greeks, Homer was a pervasive influence. How does Herodotus model his work on the Iliad and the Odyssey? How and why does he depart from the Homeric and give us the uniquely Herodotean? x
  • 5
    The Ionian Enlightenment
    In 6th century B.C., in coastal cities of Greek-speaking Ionia (today's western Turkey), flourishes radically new thinkers known as Pre-Socratics or Ionian scientists. They blaze a trail Herodotus follows. x
  • 6
    Athens in the Archaic Age
    Because Athens is integral to the story of the Persian Wars, your study of Herodotus must include a survey of the political and cultural developments that pave the way for the rise of Athenian democracy in the 5th century. x
  • 7
    Politics and Culture in Fifth-Century Athens
    This lecture completes your historical background. You examine the political and intellectual climate of Athens after the Persian Wars, an age of rising empire, disturbing new institutions and ideas, and new modes of interpretation such as tragedy. x
  • 8
    Scope, Design, and Organization of the Histories
    In this lecture, you ask about the interpretive task that Herodotus sets for himself and about how it guides the larger design of his work—if indeed there is such a design. (Some scholars think not. Learn why.) x
  • 9
    The Beginnings of the Conflict
    The war between the Greeks and Persians belongs to a larger struggle of Europe versus Asia. How did it all start? To answer that question Herodotus must tell the story of Croesus, the almost unimaginably wealthy king of the land of Lydia in Asia Minor. x
  • 10
    Croesus, Solon, and Human Happiness
    In a passage that breathes the spirit of the Athenian tragic stage, Herodotus tells us the story of Croesus, his ancestor Gyges, his meeting with the wise Athenian Solon, and his final reversal of fortune. x
  • 11
    Cyrus and the Foundation of the Persian Empire
    Weaving fact and legend inextricably, Herodotus turns from Croesus to Persia's emperor or "great king" Cyrus. The conqueror of the Medes, the Lydians, and the Babylonians, he is the first great captain of Western recorded history. x
  • 12
    Herodotus' Account of Egypt
    Why does Egypt occupy the longest digression in the book? How does Herodotus' report compare to the findings of modern Egyptology? How does he reconcile his view of Egypt as a source for Greek culture with his view of it as a land of topsy-turvy, where Greek ways are oddly reversed? x
  • 13
    The Ascension of Darius
    Continuing to probe into the causes of great events, Herodotus recounts the origins of the mighty Persian Empire. Thanks to surviving Persian records, this key section in the work can be checked against other sources. x
  • 14
    Darius and the Scythians
    What accounts for Herodotus' interest in the Scythians? They get the most extensive treatment of any non-Greeks except the Egyptians. How does his discussion of the Scythians' origins, customs, and history compare to the findings of modern scholarship? x
  • 15
    Sparta and the Spartan Way of Life
    Athens's greatest rival in Greece—and greatest ally against Persia—is the warrior state of Sparta. Who are the Spartans? What causes their extraordinary social system, perhaps one of the most unusual in human experience? x
  • 16
    The Ionian Revolt and the Battle of Marathon
    The "men of Marathon"—improbable victors over a vastly larger Persian force and the saviors of Greece—are Athens's "greatest generation." Herodotus tells us why in lines that have stirred readers and puzzled scholars for centuries. x
  • 17
    Xerxes and the Threat to Greece
    Ten years after the defeat of the expedition his father had sent to Marathon, the new Persian emperor Xerxes assembles one of the largest armies and fleets ever seen to crush the Greeks by land and sea. How will the Greeks meet this awful threat? x
  • 18
    The Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium
    Herodotus' account of the last stand that the Spartan king Leonidas and his vastly outnumbered band make in the pass called Thermopylae stands to this day as one of the most moving battle narratives ever written. Here is history that rivals anything in Homer. x
  • 19
    The Victory of Greece
    The crucial naval battle of Salamis, and the intricate military and diplomatic moves leading up to it, are among the highlights of the Histories' last part. The story that Herodotus tells in this section is fascinating as usual, and is also one that can be compared to other sources. x
  • 20
    Persons, Personalities, and Peoples
    Do individuals make history? Herodotus thinks so, and he peoples his pages with unforgettable portraits. His inquisitive eye takes in whole peoples, too, and looks for custom (nomos) as a key to understanding both the Greeks and their neighbors. x
  • 21
    The Gods, Fate, and the Supernatural
    Even as he casts his narrative in terms of human responsibility for events, Herodotus takes matters of the divine seriously. If you want to understand him, you must consider the importance of divine beings and divine agency in his work. x
  • 22
    History or Literature-Or Both?
    This lecture brings together several points made in earlier lectures about the nature of history and the historian's role. Are there aspects of the Histories that reveal a literary plan? Does the work end as Herodotus wants it to? x
  • 23
    Herodotus, the Peloponnesian War, and Thucydides
    For whom, and amid what circumstances, is Herodotus writing? Does he take sides in the conflict between Athens and Sparta? How does knowing his work shed light on the very different project that his younger contemporary Thucydides undertakes in writing on the Peloponnesian War? x
  • 24
    Aftermath and Influence
    Is it fair to call Herodotus, as Plutarch did, the "father of lies" rather than the "father of history"? How can you evaluate the differing perspectives on Herodotus that have been around ever since he wrote and arrive at an informed assessment of his influence and significance as a student of human affairs? x

Lecture Titles

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Elizabeth Vandiver
Ph.D. Elizabeth Vandiver
Whitman College

Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Associate Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.

Prior to taking her position at Maryland, she held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of Georgia, the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Utah State University.

In 1998, The American Philological Association recognized her achievements as a lecturer with its Excellence in Teaching Award, the most prestigious teaching prize given to American classicists. Her other awards include the Northwestern University Department of Classics Excellence in Teaching Award and two University of Georgia Outstanding Honors Professor Awards.

Professor Vandiver is the author of Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War and Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History. She has also written numerous articles and has delivered many papers at national and international conferences.

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 52 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Vandiver does it again! I have listened to many courses given by Professor Vandiver and enjoyed them all. She does not disappoint me with this one. Although she spends a lot of time on background material before she ever gets to discussing Herodotus, this time is not wasted. It is important to understanding why Herodotus is the "father." There were no other like him before. The shift from oral history and story and myth telling is made clear. While Herodotus does make up some speeches of protagonists (who was there to record them?), these were most likely what the person would have said. A good point was made about the length of time between the event and the writing of the event. As in if we were writing about WWII now we could still interview people who were there. However, if we were writing about WWI we have no survivors but may have grandchildren of survivors who can recount what Grandpa told them. This course fits in well with other TTC courses about the Peloponnesian War. November 4, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by good, but repetitive Vandiver is a fine speaker. She is articulate and bubbles over with information. While ever enthusiastic about her subject, she remains appropriately cautious, making sure we don't let go of the important question: how do we know what we know? Each lecture begins with a thorough review of what will be covered during the upcoming 30 min. I came to these lectures after watching (Lee's) Persian Empire -- I felt a need to zoom in on Herodotus for a closer look and this class satisfies that need. I purchased the video version, but there are very few graphics, mostly pronunciation guides flashed on the screen (helpful), a few simple maps and sketches of historic figures. Hence, if repeating the purchase I'd likely go for audio to make things easier (and get the study guide for vocab, ancient greek excerpts and dates). I also do wish she used less repetition in each lecture (saying things 3x not uncommon). Undergrads today may require it, but most viewers here probably don't. June 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Best Course So Far I've watched about a dozen courses so far -- pretty much all history -- and this is easily the best. Vandiver is a superb lecturer, in complete command of her subject, and it's a remarkably interesting subject. I only wish the course was longer. May 13, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The dawn of western social thought Audio download. "History" can mean several things. 1# The course of important events as experienced and remembered by a society. 2# A written account of these events now past, presented in an orderly fashion. 3) The underlying principles that give coherence to the written account. What propels historical events forward: Supernatural beings? Great individuals? Impersonal socio-economic trends? Geography? Customs? Blind ambition? Pre-ordained destinies? Human nature? etc., etc. 4) Why written accounts are necessary: legitimize those in power, celebrate a community, define greatness, preserve heroes from oblivion, predict likely future conflicts, instruct the young, etc., etc. ______________________ Dr Vandiver's HERODOTUS: THE FATHER OF HISTORY is a detailed overview of the Greco-Persian Wars #499-449 BCE# as explained in a long text attributed to Herodotus. The ancient text is covered on all 4 levels: 1) The course of events as presently understood from a variety of sources, some of which Herodotus had no access to. 2) The nature of his treatise, a chapter-by-chapter overview. 3) A summary of his views on the historical forces that fomented and shaped the wars between Persia and the loosely-united Greek city states. 4) The literary nature of Herodotus' text. Its debt to Homer and the growing importance of historical explanations in political debate. ________________ Vandiver's course is a great introduction to what was then a new way of thinking about political and military events with less reliance on supernatural explanation. Herodotus' successor Thucydides pushed this tendency much further along. This way of thinking may seem obvious to us, but if you compare this course to another TTC title, THE WORLD OF BIBLICAL ISRAEL, it is clear that the Hebrew scribes responsible for editing much of the Old Testament spent 50 years in Babylonia #597 - 538 BCE# and yet showed very little interest in exploring how their conquerors organized themselves and became so powerful. Herodotus was a giant leap forward in making history more down to earth. ____________________ As usual with Vandiver, PRESENTATION was clear and extremely comprehensive. So is the course guidebook. Since the Greco-Persian Wars are already well-presented in other TTC courses such as CLASSICAL ARCHAEOLOGY OF ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME, this course targets listeners particularly interested in the intellectual history of ancient Greece. By the standards of modern historiography, Herodotus meanders with plenty of tall tales. His book is midway between oral tradition and what we would call history today. If the actual events of Greek history are your thing, HERODOTUS will try your patience. But if the step-by-step evolution of Greek thought appeals to you, Vandiver's course is perfect. It fits in very well with her other courses on Homer and the Greek tragedians. Recommended for the strongly motivated. May 4, 2014
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