How to Get Ready for Herodotus’ Histories: GCSE OCR text
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
If you are getting started with Herodotus for your GCSE, you are in luck: a thrilling adventure is just around the corner! The new OCR set text for Classical Greek section A is Tales from Herodotus Sections II (Psammetichus), III (Crocodiles), IV (Mycerinus), XVa (Pygmies). In this blog post, I will give you some top tips and resources to jump into the fascinating world of Herodotus, magical journeys and all!
A useful way to approach a subject is to ask yourself what you would like to find out about it. Below is a list of the top 10 questions I get asked:
1. Who was Herodotus?
We do not know much for sure about Herodotus’ life. However, it is important to keep in mind some accepted key facts: he was from Halicarnassus, an Ionian city on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and his family had perhaps a Carian ethnic element. He must have been born around 480 BC (early 5th c. BC), i.e. at a time when this Greek city was under the rule of the Achaemenid (or Persian) Empire. He probably spent time in Athens, which was the Greek cultural hub at the time.
He lived in a cosmopolitan world, and it is likely that he travelled quite a bit, particularly to Southern Italy. It is however not necessarily true that he visited all the places he claims to have seen first-hand, and there is still acrimonious debate about the veracity of many of his travelling claims, especially when it comes to his journey to Egypt - which I personally think is not that implausible!
Most possibly, Herodotus spent his life working on the Histories, and the texts we have must have been written around mid 5th c., probably from c. 450 BC and until the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War twenty years later.
Watch this video to find out what Herodotus may have sounded like:
2. Why is Herodotus famous?
Herodotus is known as the father of History – and, to some, the father of lies! The Histories is a fascinating source of information about Herodotus’ world as well as peoples’ beliefs and memories at the time. He is most famous for his contribution as founder of History, Ethnography and Historiography, but much of his popularity has to do with the allure of his tales and his skills as a storyteller.
3. Why is Herodotus called the father of History?
Herodotus refers to History as a genre for the time in History at the beginning of his work:
Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.
“This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other”.
Godley’s translation 1920
Although he follows the tradition of Homer, his work stands out for its purpose: it is an ‘inquiry’, and he looks at different sources and reports the different versions that are told about events. Ultimately, he is interested in hearing different sides for each story, including the point of view of the other ethnic groups – notably the Persians; he also is constantly looking for the reason why events occur, and very keen to make sure all this is not forgotten. Finally, it is important to bear in mind the relevance of the choice of prose for his work – sometimes the means is indeed a great part of the message!
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4. How can I learn more about Herodotus’ context?
There is a great book I always recommend: Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer T. Robers.
If you are looking for some easy-to-watch videos, here is a list of some relevant ones:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-mkVSasZIM is a fun crash course on the Persian Wars
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A542ixwyBhc Is a very simple introduction
https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/classical-studies/herodotus-the-histories has great OU free resources
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b09ly6rt Justin Marozzi on Herodotus
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huf2v1eIObQ Chris Pelling on historical narrative
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHTokb35nGM Tom Holland on his own translation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7HkQ88jWLQ and a bonus by Paul Cartledge
Here is a reconstruction of the world as Herodotus may (rather anachronically) have seen it:
5. Are there any famous quotes by Herodotus?
Everywhere: from ‘people trust their ears less than their eyes’ to ‘the worst pain a man can suffer: to have insight into much and power over nothing’, Herodotus’ work is a goldmine of inspiring quotes. The best place to start is by reading some passages and choosing your own. If you would prefer to look at a list, here there's a popular selection that can help you start thinking the Herodotean way.
6. Where can I find out more about the Classical Greek GCSE exam?
The best place -after your teacher- to go for information about the requirements of this exam is the OCR website. There you will find the specification as well as past papers and other resources.
7. Is there a book to work on the OCR GCSE text that you would recommend?
Yes. I think the best guide to read the text is the OCR Anthology for Classical Greek GCSE by Judith Affleck and Clive Letchford. It has an annotated text with sample questions and references to grammar and your GCSE Greek vocab list.
8. Are we then going to read the original text?
Not really, although you are going to read a version people have now been using for over a century! The OCR text is based on the Attic dialect version of the text by G. S. Farnell (you can read about his short and eventful life here) and then edited as well by Marie Goff.
9. Which translation of Herodotus’ The Histories is best?
This is really a matter of taste. Tom Holland has a recent translation (Herodotus - The Histories, with intro and notes by Paul Cartledge, which is very accessible and a thrill to read. Oxford and Penguin have more traditional options available as well. If you are looking for something free online, Perseus has a 1920s one that is quite accessible and works great if you use the hyperlinked Greek text side by side with the English – but remember you are working on an abridged version! The Wikipedia Herodotus' page also has links to other freely available translations.
10. I am interested in the reception of Herodotus. What could I read?
Herodotus underlies much of what we can read today, from Cicero, who called him pater historiae, to Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus. As it would be impossible to trace his influence across time in this introductory blog post, I will just recommend my favourite read if you want to experience some of Herodotus’ afterlife:
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is an absolute delight of a novel, particularly if you have an interest in English literature in general and postcolonial studies in particular.
Ondaatje's book was also turned into an award-winning movie (including a whopping 9 Oscars, some BAFTAS and a Grammy) in 1996, but be aware that you need to be 15 to watch it in the UK!
I am currently working on summaries and translations for this set text. To receive them as soon as they become available, you can subscribe here: