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Herodotus: The Father of History

Witness the “works and wonders” of the ancient world through the eyes of its first great historian in this interesting course that examines the work of Herodotus—an ancient Greek author who wrote extensively about the Greco-Persian Wars.
Herodotus: The Father of History is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 97.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from A blast, but why so few excerpts from the writing? 4.5 stars, really. Super informative, tons of context — it’s a good refresher course on basic Greek and Persian history — and a likable, bright and energized lecturer, who has a lot to say. But one odd choice: the series includes very, very few excerpts from Herodotus’ writing. Odd call and hard to explain. If the course is ever re-recorded, here’s hoping they decide to include at least a paragraph or so of excerpt in most of the lectures. I wish I’d gotten more of the flavor of his writing. Highly recommended nonetheless, and I’ll be listening to more of Prof. Vandiver’s courses.
Date published: 2024-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential material Given that Herodotus' writing serves as the source of much of our understanding of Greek history (and the foundation for many Great Courses' courses), it is essential to gain an understanding of Herodotus and the modern scholarship that has examined his work and legacy. This course delivers. Also, I now am in a position to critically examine what other Great Courses' courses on ancient Greece state. Indeed, I am simultaneously watching one and have caught out the professor in error, at least according to Prof Van Diver. I will call this out when I write my review of that course!
Date published: 2024-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Vandiver is an amazing lecturer. Wow, what a great lecturer. Prof. Vandiver's explanation of The Histories by Herodotus is authoritative, insightful, and entertaining.
Date published: 2022-11-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from In depth exploration In depth description of his life and times. Interesting for its comparison to Thucydides , and consideration of the varying views of modern historians on his veracity.
Date published: 2022-11-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Really good stuff. I really like Elizabeth. She is clear and concise. The information was clear, interesting and overall was quite good. Have her other courses and have enjoyed them all. Combined they tell quite a story. She deserves kleos. Robert
Date published: 2022-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Introduction to Western Historical Tradition As a boy, I was privileged to visit Persepolis and Athens and hear many accounts of the Greek/Persian wars from my father -- a civil engineer with an enthusiastic interest in classical history. That background led me to finally read Herodotus' Histories at the start of my retirement many years later. The book was something of a slog, and I had always thought it would be hugely beneficial to one day take a course that covered the wars with a teacher that had done the hard work of doing a close reading of Herodotus and could provide detailed context for the text. Dr. Vandiver's course here from The Learning Channel fills that bill wonderfully. If you have an interest classical history and decide to take up reading The Histories on your own, I couldn't recommend more listening to these lectures: they will increase your appreciation of the many facets of the text at least tenfold -- and help deepen your appreciation of the beginnings of our Western historical tradition.
Date published: 2022-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The big picture of a wordy but very important book Dr. Vandiver reduced a thousand-page history book into a few, very digestible highlights without reducing history itself.
Date published: 2022-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The First Enlightenment This is my second time through Vandiver's 2002 course on Herodotus. The first helped bring out the complex details of early battles that are not covered in many courses. The revisit was spent trying to figure out how to decipher the Herodotus’ literary scope and so will skip of the many interesting battle descriptions. Vandiver’s diction, organization, and command of the “classroom” are marvelous. Herodotus was the first to not only DESCRIBE events, but to attempt to find the reasons for their occurrence. Vandiver spends lecture 2 (L2) with a detailed analysis of Herodotus’ “Histories” critical first sentence that she will refer back to through the course. "To inquire...into things that have come about from human beings" particularly “great and astonishing works or deeds"…to find explanations for the causes of events”. Additionally, L9 shows that Herodotus casts history as personal encounters rather than political or economic events. This differentiates Herodotus’ approach from that of his student Thucydides (who uses techniques closer to today’s). As L24 suggests, Herodotus wanted to memorialize great deeds, while Thucydides was more into annotating recent events”. Fascinating aspects of ancient life are found in L5 where the 6th century BCE “Ioanian Enlightenment" vastly predates the 18th century European Enlightenment. Ioanian Pre-Socratics were more scientific than philosophic, Anaximander wrote of a “kind of evolutionary theory", and the term cosmos (meaning “arranged") was proposed because the physical universe was no longer seen as random! Of course, there are some ideas we’d see as “crazy". For example, Herodotus thought that the Nile’s flood occurs when “the sun is driven out of its course” by Libyan floods (L8). But Herodotus also correctly felt that the Nile Delta was originally a gulf by his observations of seashells and salt in the hills. One thing troubling to some reviewers is Herodotus’ "three generation reach back” of oral history. But face it, these people were not bombarded with extraneous information like we are today. Their elders demanded childhood memorization of items considered critical to the flow of generations (L9). Herodotus wrote when literacy was just gaining traction. L20 reminds us that modern historians try to add human-interest anecdotes to flesh out facts but that “In oral culture, the anecdotes are the facts.” L10 is an interesting description of the life Croesus’: from a morality play involving King Candaules’ wife, to Solon’s insight that a life cannot be judged as “happy" until it is over, to his observation Eastern opulence that doesn't necessarily trump (relative Greek) poverty in creating a “fortunate” city or person. L21 is particularly worth listening to (and might better have been part of the Course Introduction), as it shows that Herodotus' concept of the etymology of the term "god" is to “place, put or ordain". The gods, therefore set things in order and so “fate", not free will (a concept the ancients did not have) constrains human plans. FINAL COMMENT: Despite things that seem “fantastic” to us, it is useful that L14 describes archaeological confirmation of many of his "impossible" accounts.
Date published: 2022-04-13
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View the ancient world through the eyes of its first historian. This course addresses the most remarkable achievement of Herodotus—his narrative account of the great Persian Wars and their causes. It considers the ways his work retains a mythical world-view and discusses his influence on later Greek historians.


Elizabeth Vandiver

I think many of the stories that we tell ourselves as a society–the stories that encode our hopes, aspirations, and fears–preserve the traces of classical culture and myth and are part of our classical legacy.


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 MA and PhD 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. In 2013 she received Whitman College's G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship. 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.

By This Professor

Classical Mythology
Herodotus and History

01: 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.

32 min

02: "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?

29 min
Myth, Legend, and Oral Tradition

03: 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?

30 min
Homeric Epic and the East-West Conflict

04: Homeric Epic and the East-West Conflict

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?

30 min
The Ionian Enlightenment

05: 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.

30 min
Athens in the Archaic Age

06: 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.

31 min
Politics and Culture in Fifth-Century Athens

07: 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.

31 min
Scope, Design, and Organization of the

08: Scope, Design, and Organization of the "Histories"

In this episode, investigate 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).

30 min
The Beginnings of the Conflict

09: 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.

29 min
Croesus, Solon, and Human Happiness

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.

30 min
Cyrus and the Foundation of the Persian Empire

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.

30 min
Herodotus' Account of Egypt

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?

32 min
The Ascension of Darius

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.

31 min
Darius and the Scythians

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?

31 min
Sparta and the Spartan Way of Life

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?

30 min
The Ionian Revolt and the Battle of Marathon

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.

31 min
Xerxes and the Threat to Greece

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?

31 min
The Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium

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.

29 min
The Victory of Greece

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.

31 min
Persons, Personalities, and Peoples

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.

29 min
The Gods, Fate, and the Supernatural

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.

31 min
History or Literature—Or Both?

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?

30 min
Herodotus, the Peloponnesian War, and Thucydides

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?

31 min
Aftermath and Influence

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?

30 min