History 401   

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 principle powerless."

~G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History


Course Description

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, as needed. 

Books to Buy
Primary Sources
Robert B. Strassler (ed.), The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (New York: Pantheon Books 2007)
Secondary Sources
These will be in PDF. format on the Blackboard site for the course