Herodotus: The Father of History

Course No. 2353
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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Course No. 2353
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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  • 184-page printed course guidebook
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  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Elizabeth Vandiver

About Your Professor

Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is 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...
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Herodotus: The Father of History is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 84.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Highly professional Vandiver is a sort of all-purpose pro---so that her fluency and knowledge seem to become a standard. This particular course is not her most scintillating, but it's all there. The material seems a bit pedestrian, and perhaps sometimes it's more about Greece than Herodotus, but that may also be inherent in the topic. How would you "teach" Herodotus without really reading Herodotus? that seems to be the pedagogical problem here. But again, good value for the cost. PFN
Date published: 2019-08-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Herodotus: The Father of History As a former adjunct history professor I wanted to learn more about the foundation of the field of history. As a U.S. political historian I have to admit my historiography is about fifty years old and only vague on Herodotus, although I had referenced his work in many courses. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver is engaging and very knowledgeable about her subject and her course guidebook is a helpful companion to the course. However, at times I found her speeding through parts of her lecture and would up pausing the program to double check concepts in the coursebook. Although this course has been around for over a decade, it is still fresh and timely for anyone wanting to learn the foundation of the beginning of historical narrative and the distinction between mythology and historical writing. The role of oral history and the two generation look-back of oral tradition is very informative, even in this day and age. I was able to relate stories about WW1 in a class a few years ago that I had been told by a Scotsmen I worked with part-time in the late 1960's who was drafted into the British army and served in France during WW1 - now over a century ago. Professor Vandiver brought to mind the importance of understanding how important such knowledge is transmitted, and how Herodotus got some of it right, and some of it wrong. I would recommend this course for anyone interested in learning why we still refer to Herodotus as the Father of History.
Date published: 2019-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Done I wasn't sure about a course about a book, but was glad I tried it. The professor offers valuable background as to the history and culture of the period, as well as pointing out areas where Herodatus has been shown to be either correct or incorrect. All in all a very worthwhile course. I have one gripe about Great Courses as a general matter and this course is a good example. It has nothing to do with the content. The audio on the lectures is set very low. I watch it while working out and must turn the volume all the way up to hear it but the audio on the introductory music is ear splitting. You need to keep the volume control handy while watching.
Date published: 2018-11-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quite enjoyable. Am enjoying watching this course. The presenter is professional and knowledgeable, with a clear and pleasant manner. By focusing on the broad narrative thread of Herodotus' work, the course illuminates the coherent structure of his writings that is sometimes difficult to discern beneath his rambling, digressive style. The course presentation is occasionally a bit dry. I appreciate that the subject matter does not lend itself to dramatic demonstrations such as one might find in a lecture on chemistry or physics. Still, when considering, say, something like the edition of the histories published as "The Landmark Herodotus", which has almost a surfeit of maps and pictures, it should be possible to enliven the videos with a few more explanatory, or at least engaging, visuals.
Date published: 2018-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Historical Inquiry Although I had read Herotodus' "Histories" before I took this course, I came away from each lecture both entranced with the level of Professor Vandiver's knowledge and teaching skill and more fully informed about the subject matter. I especially valued her spending some time on how Herodotus' predecessors and contemporaries had treated myths, factual events, and data about particular cultures before his writing. It both helped explain many characteristics of his approach as well as illustrating his unquestionable contributions to what we now consider "historical" writing. The word we use for history in Greek means "inquiry," and is both a very apt word for what is the essence of the best historical writing as well as the word that came to define the genre created by Herotodus. I also better understand now how to assess the several parts of Herodotus' work that, in reading, I found highly questionable or simply astounding. As remarkable a person as he was, he had not yet fully emerged from the myth/legend context that heretofore had both governed and permeated Greek storytelling and playwriting. Thus, he takes for granted that "the gods" exist and that the stories of the ancient Heroes were true. What we consider "facts" and "hard data" were also a tad more slippery when he wrote, as his Histories includes incidents that reflect personal observation as well as material that he recounts as he heard it from others. It is from some of these latter that we hear intriguing -- if not ridiculously unlikely -- accounts of distant peoples and fantastic lands. On the other hand, as Professor Vandiver points out several times, Herodotus' work also contains a great deal of valuable, factual information, the truth of many of which has become clear only in recent times with continued archaeological discoveries. This course would be particularly appropriate for people who either love this period of history, or who wish to know more about Herotodus, or who want to better understand how difficult it is to piece together "what really happened" even when one is carefully sifting through information presented by first or second hand sources. Highest praise to Professor Vandiver for keeping me intrigued until the end of each lecture! What a wonderful teacher!
Date published: 2018-06-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Course well taught but teacher very annoying This course is very well planned and explained. Everything is quite clear and fairly easy to follow. However the teacher has a quite annoying way to talk. A sort of wannabe sophisticated way. In any case, it is very educating.
Date published: 2018-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Herodotus and his Magnum Opus Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver has once again won my admiration for her insightful and engaging lectures. This is the fourth of her Great Courses from The Teaching Company that I have studied, and I’ve prized them all. The many strengths of the present course on Herodotus included: 1) The professor was thoroughly organized. She always seemed to know exactly where she was at in her overall plan for the course, frequently mentioning after some intriguing idea that she would have more to reveal about that same point, say, three lectures further along. The fact that she also introduced individual lectures with quick synopses of what was about to be covered was very helpful. 2) Dr. Vandiver spoke engagingly throughout, with wit, charm, an impressive vocabulary, and a facility for formulating clever analogies. 3) Vandiver’s enthusiasm for her subject was contagious; though I began her course with already a modicum of interest in and awareness of Herodotus from a university presentation fifty years ago, I didn’t realize how enjoyable this “refresher” was going to be. When a teacher can make a student enjoy and value what she or he enjoys and values, that is a mark of a fine teacher. 4) Whenever Vandiver mentioned an interpretation of the ancient writings about which scholars disagree, she presented competing opinions forthrightly before going on to explain her own take on the matter with conviction and good supportive reasoning. For me, her ability personally to translate from the original Greek contributed a persuasive “face validity” to her opinions. 5) Beyond informing me about Herodotus and his work, her course also helped me to understand techniques by which classicists do their research and are able even to propound theories when clues are from trails “long gone cold” and historical source material that may be fragmentary. 6) While the course I took on Herodotus decades ago presented a considerable total of the "content" of the writings of Herodotus, the present course provided very welcome "context," helping me to understand what may have informed the thought processes of Herodotus and how his predecessors, contemporary writers, and even lore and oral tradition surely affected his writing. 7) The probable viewpoint of Herodotus about such things as what he would have considered right and just was contrasted to prevailing views of today in a way that was truly thought-provoking. 8) While she respected Herodotus for his innovative accomplishments, Dr. Vandiver was discerning enough, as well, to identify where Herodotus showed biases in his writing. 9) Possible “resonances” pointed out between the works of Herodotus and Sophocles, Herodotus and Aristophanes, Herodotus and Thucydides, etc., amounted to fascinating “bonuses” in the course. 10) Lecture 24 provided a dramatic and delightful conclusion to the course: reviewing how analysts of different centuries have judged the work of Herodotus, sometimes scoffing, sometimes praising; and explaining further how modern archaeological discoveries have provided surprising corroboration for some of the most extraordinary things Herodotus had reported. In order to be a thorough and honest reviewer of “Herodotus: The Father of History,” I will cite three relative weaknesses. Only the first of these was fairly major, in my opinion, and that was that most of the maps shown as visual accompaniments to the lectures were odd and somewhat hard on the eye, tending to resemble overhead views of crumpled, brown paper, sometimes with city-name labels lacking dots or other symbols to mark just where those cities were situated. Topographical features, including how coastlines ran and where islands were distinctly separate, were not at all obvious, even on a large television screen. The other two weaknesses were minor. One was that Dr. Vandiver’s speech was a little too rapid, noticeably more rapid than in her other courses that I have studied. I do treasure the fact that her presentations are packed with information, but in this present course, I had to “rewind” and re-listen fairly frequently in order to “unpack” the information. I wondered if she might have preferred to have had thirty lectures, say, to cover her material, rather than twenty-four. The other minor weakness was that a very few explanations weren’t quite up to this professor’s usual standard for clarity. I will mention just one example: her discussion in Lecture Eight of a report related by Herodotus (which he apparently considered incredible) about circumnavigation by Phoenician sailors of Africa (then called Libya). At one point she described the sailors’ view of the sun on their right when they were sailing north, though I’m sure that must have been when they were sailing west, and key information was not provided about whether the sailors were circumnavigating clockwise or counterclockwise. The few flaws cited do not change my assessment that this is an excellent course! All in all, I highly recommend it and am grateful to The Teaching Company and to Dr. Vandiver for all I gained from it. As a person who was first trained in lab sciences, I am impressed by how much this erudite instructor has taught me to care, in each of her courses, about fine points of interpretation and analysis that classicists study. Like Herodotus’ account "The Histories" itself, Dr. Vandiver’s course is also a tremendous achievement.
Date published: 2018-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great companion to the book First of all, if you like history and mythology, I really recommend the book. Try a couple of pages. If you don't like the style, buy a different translation. Greeks in the time of Herodotus orated with flowery language; if you don't want that, find a matter of fact translation, and enjoy the amazing stories. You have to deal with names like Anthrax son of Accordion, but you get used to it. Some parts of the book are little tales with zinger endings, like Aesop's fables or Isaac Azimov's short stories. Some parts are travelogue. The final parts are an epic war between two great civilizations. Herodotus apparently gets some parts wrong and makes up the dialogue, but he can really tell a story. Second of all, I recommend the course. If you don't read the book, it will give you some of the stories. If you do read the book, it will give you background and deeper understanding, and help you sort history from fantasy.
Date published: 2018-02-02
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