Resilience and Ancient Greece

Less than two weeks ago, I participated in the Council for Independent Colleges’ seminar on Ancient Greece held at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. I spent six full days reading, analyzing, writing about, and discussing Herodotus’ Histories as a means of deepening my knowledge of Greek history and myth and determining the ways in which I might be able to incorporate in my courses ancient texts that lead directly into the fundamental question that will guide my new Synthesis course: what makes us resilient?

During the seminar, I read an article by Matthew Christ entitled “Herodotean Kings and Historical Inquiry.” In it, Christ explores some of Herodotus’ motives in his accounts of the deeds (and misdeeds) of various kings and concludes that Herodotus shares with the kings he writes about a thirst for knowledge (167). Christ’s observations of the various kings’ quest for understanding as a mirror of Herodotus’ quest for knowledge (171) incited my closer examination of Book 7 of The Histories, which is a special case within the text.
Book 7 deals with Greek’s then-recent events (one would call them today “contemporary history”). The Persian Wars were a milestone in ancient Greek history, an event that divided time between “before” and “after.” Herodotus’ descriptions of events in Book 7 were well-known to his contemporaries; indeed, many eye-witnesses were still around. The blurring of the lines between Herodotus’ stories and those his contemporaries knew piqued my interest in organizing my students’ readings based on varying manifestations of storytelling and the preservation of such stories and the lessons they afford those who hear them.

Herodotus, the putative “father of history,” makes it clear in Book 7 that one of history’s roles is to teach the reader not only what happened but also what is right and what is wrong. Since Herodotus’ time, historians, while changing methods and focus, have remained constant in the belief that history has something to teach us. One cannot help but wonder if this is indeed the case and, more importantly, whether there is a common lesson about resilience one can take away from history or whether there are different lessons depending on the audiences and the various times one is exposed to such accounts of past events.

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