Herodotus and the Persian Wars
"In winter, on your soft couch by the fire, full of food, drinking sweet
wine and cracking nuts, say this to the chance traveller at your door: 'What
is your name, my good friend? Where do you live?
How many years can you number? How old were you when the Persians came?'"
"The Persian Wars live immortal not in the historical records of
Nations only, but also of Science and of Art--of the Noble and the Moral
generally. For these are World Historical Victories: they were the
salvation of culture and spiritual vigor and they rendered the Asiatic
~G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History
Herodotus has been called the father of history,
the first anthropologist, the first ethnographer...and the father of lies. His
History is our principal source for the fifth-century
B.C.E. Persian invasions of
Greece. This was a dramatic moment in the history of the ancient
Greeks, and especially for its two leading states, Athens and Sparta, as the
unlikely Greek repulse of the Persians gave new self-confidence to the
Greeks and led to a cultural flourishing, typically called the Classical
Age, especially in democratic Athens. But beyond ancient Greek
history, the Persian invasions have symbolized the triumph of a way of life
in the western intellectual tradition. Earlier European and American
thinkers saw the Greek victory against the Persians as a victory of culture
over barbarism; as the salvation of western freedom and rationalism over
"oriental despotism" (as, for example, in the epigraph of Hegel's above).
So the topic of the Persian Wars is culturally loaded, and there have been
strong voices of protest about this long-standing construction of the Greek
cultural legacy, famously in Edward Said's Orientalism and Martin
Bernal's Black Athena. And of course there have been
reactions, like the popular comic book and then film, Frank Miller's 300.
Our topic, then, is very much at the heart of the culture wars in
contemporary American society, leading to questions about the value of the
ancient Greek historical experience for us today, the proper place of the
ancient Greeks in today's educational curricula, and whether we can say, or
should say, that there is anything special and exceptional about the ancient
Greeks in relation to other ancient societies in today's multiethnic,
multicultural, and diverse American culture.
This is a research and writing course, conducted as a seminar.
This means that students have much greater responsibility for the course's
ultimate success than what they may have become accustomed to in lower-level
History courses. All students must do the readings for each week's
meeting in order for the discussions to be fruitful. Teams of students
will be assigned the primary responsibility for particular readings; they
will lead the discussion on their readings. But since many students
may not have studied ancient Greek history (in History 352) before this
course, we have to play "catch-up" and devote some of our class time to
lecture format in order to fill in the gaps.
Students must early on begin thinking about the topic for
their research paper (the main criterion for the final grade), in
consultation with the instructor. The class will meet for 10 to 12
weeks; thereafter students will work independently on their research papers,
scheduling conferences with the instructor to go over drafts and readings,