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Invention of the Barbarian – Aeschylus and Herodotus

5. Herodotus and the Persian Wars

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about Herodotus’ presentation of the Persian Wars in his Histories, focus in particular on: (i) the sense in which Herodotus is inventing the genre of history; (ii) the influence of Greek tragedy on how Herodotus presents some of his key characters, especially the figure of Xerxes; (iii) the extent to which the Persian king represented for Herodotus the archetypical ‘tyrant’, who will inevitably overstretch themselves and for whom everything will inevitably go wrong; (iv) the importance of the Constitutional Debate (3.80-82) in thinking about Persian kingship and the Persian Wars; and (v) the extent to which Herodotus’ view of the inevitable cyclicality of history undermines the personal reasonability (and therefore the tragedy) of characters such as Xerxes.


In this course, Professor Lynette Mitchell (University of Exeter) explores the presentation of Persians and other non-Greeks (‘barbarians’) in Aeschylus’ Persians and Herodotus’ Histories. In the first module, we offer a brief history of the concept of ‘barbarian’ in Greek thought, focusing in particular on the idea of ‘barbarianism’ in early lyric poetry and the division of the world into a Greek Europe and barbarian Asia in the work of Hecataeus (c. 550-576 BC). In the second and third modules, we think about the presentation of ‘the barbarian’ in Aeschylus’ Persians, before turning in the fourth and fifth modules to consider how Herodotus develops the idea of the barbarian in his Histories. Finally, in the sixth module, we think about the extent to which Herodotus is a reliable source for Persian history and, indeed, whether we should think of Herodotus’ Histories as a ‘history’ at all.

Throughout this course, we use Edith Hall’s translation of Aeschylus’ Persians (Aris and Philips Classical Texts, 1996) and Robin Waterfield’s translation of Herodotus’ Histories (Oxford World Classics, 2008) unless otherwise stated.


Lynette Mitchell is Professor in Greek History and Politics at the University of Exeter. She is primary a Greek historian specialising in Greek political history from the archaic period (8th century BC) to the death of Alexander, although she is also interested in later periods (especially the Hellenistic) and in other areas of Classics and Ancient History, including Greek language and historiography. Some of her recent publications include (as co-editor with C. Melville) Every Inch a King: Comparative Studies on Kings and Kingship in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (2013) and The Heroic Rulers of Archaic and Classical Greece (2013).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Mitchell, L. (2021, February 10). Invention of the Barbarian – Aeschylus and Herodotus - Herodotus and the Persian Wars [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Mitchell, L. "Invention of the Barbarian – Aeschylus and Herodotus – Herodotus and the Persian Wars." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 10 Feb 2021,