The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper
Most people think that all of the broad outlines of the ancient world are already known to historians, but in that last fifteen or twenty years an important new understanding of the problems that beset the Roman Empire is adding considerably to the debate over why Rome fell. I first became aware of this debate about ten years ago when scholars started to note that an event referred to as the Justiniac Plague was not a relatively isolated event in Constantinople but a crippling empire wide event on a par with the Medieval Black Death. Since then, much new information has come out and in this book, Kyle Harper looks at the related issues of climate change and disease in the last few centuries of the Roman Empire.
Why was the third century so difficult?—cooling temperatures and a consequent rise in diseases like small pox which devastated both the population and the economy. Things got a little better during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine before the temperature dropped again and disease returned to ravage the land. Justinian’s attempt to reconquer the west might have been doomed to failure anyway, but it didn’t help matters to have unusual volcanic activity cool the earth and set the stage for a surge in bubonic plagues that lasted at least two centuries. It’s hard to defend your new lands when the size of your legions is now one-third what it had been with no way to recover the numbers. It’s hard to keep funding your government when the tax base has just plummeted (leading Justinian to raise taxes to impractical levels).
This is a fascinating book with perhaps a little too much detail for the casual reader. It doesn’t lessen other issues that are discussed as contributing to the fall of Rome (like poor leadership) but it certainly goes a long way to show that the earth itself played a heavy role in bringing down the west’s most successful empire.
The Triumph of Christianity by Bart D. Erhman
This book offers a great set of lectures describing how Christianity grew from a small group of illiterate day laborers to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire in just 400 years. Despite the title, this is not a parade of examples of how wonderful Christianity is—“triumph” is literal, not a qualitative judgment. Christianity did defeat its competitor religions even if most of them didn’t realize they were in competition with it.
There are a lot of highlights that really made this course stand out among the various Great Courses texts. For one thing, the author teaches students the majority of whom are evangelicals and he sprinkles his lectures with insights into how they view early Christianity. For example, they have a modern understanding of the term messiah, not the original Jewish understanding. (More on that later.) And like many religious adherents, they assume that their faith started in the same form it is in today. These points of understanding were useful starting places in shaking off the modern world to gain insight into how the ancients thought and reacted.
One of the strengths of the book is Erhman’s understanding of what it meant to be a pagan polytheist. They recognized many gods and did not seek to exclude the worship of other gods. This was a stark difference from the early Christians who actively sought to convert and get the converts to abandon all the other gods out there. This is, ultimately, why Christianity triumphed. Erhman quite clearly demonstrates how a very few number of converts each generation became millions over the early centuries. Because the pagans weren’t converting back, every conversion strengthened early Christianity and weakened the pagans.
He also explains why the Jewish people were not convinced by Christian arguments. It all comes down to the term “messiah”. The messiah was expected to be a worldly leader who would triumph over the enemies of the Jewish people and give them their independence again. Jesus was the opposite of a successful worldly leader. He had been executed by the Romans. Calling him the messiah made no sense.
But these are just a couple of examples as Erhman marches through the early centuries of the growing faith and explains convincingly how it rose to a position of dominance. The one topic I would have liked to see that he did not address was Christianity’s similarities to the mystery religions of the period, but while I expected him to discuss the issue, the lectures are so well structured that I didn’t notice he had skipped it until after I had finished the book.
In Alpha Order by Author
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome by Gregory Aldrete
This is the sort of book that puts the “great” in the “Great Courses”. Aldrete looks at more than ten movies focused on Ancient Rome and uses them to teach us little bits of trivia about the ancient republic and empire. Along the way, he also tells us many interesting facts about the making of the movies. Some (most) are blockbusters like Ben Hur, but he goes to the other extreme as well looking at Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, this is just a very fun book.
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Patrick N. Allitt
It’s hard to study the world history of the past few centuries without encountering the British Empire which was so encompassing that the British could proudly proclaim that the sun never set upon it. This Great Courses series attempts to look at the empire in its totality, which it does by bouncing around the globe in different time periods and observing how different pieces of the empire were obtained, evolved, and eventually left again. So the study is interesting, but for me, I never felt like it was adequately pulled everything together. Rarely did I feel as if I was reading about one empire. Instead, we were always looking at various pieces of it.
I also would have liked to have had a longer exploration of the comparisons of the British Empire to others around the world—Russia/Soviet, China, Aztec, Rome, Carthage, the list goes on and on. I also would have enjoyed a much more thorough look at the impacts—positive and negative—the empire had on the regions it ruled and the globe. Allitt makes a stab at this, but I would have preferred much more detail. Finally, I would have liked substantially more detail on why the empire was viewed as necessary in Britain and how they held onto it (from a domestic/political perspective) for so long.
Overall, a good course that left me wanting much more on the topic.
Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs
This book reminds me of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. At its core, Childs is sharing a very personal experience of nature in North America. On this level alone, it is a beautiful experience taking the reader from the isolation of the glaciers in the far north to a different kind of isolation in the hot and humid swamps of Florida. But Childs gives us much more than this for he also offers a continuous imagining of how our distant ancestors must have first experienced this continent. He leads the reader into the psyche of those first crossing the land bridge and helps us to understand why they might have come and why they pushed on through such inhospitable terrain. Along the way, he helps us to envision the megafauna they encountered, the climate challenges they had to overcome, and the very personal losses they suffered along the way. They were human, after all, with dreams and hopes and fears, family, friends and rivals.
Interspersed seamlessly throughout the narrative is the modern archeology that helps us to understand these ancient peoples. He doesn’t shy away from the controversies, but he also doesn’t get bogged down in them. In many ways, the controversies help him paint his picture of a lost world, making it feel even more real.
If you have any interest in the ice age and what it took to survive it, or on the peoples who pushed past the glaciers to make a livelihood for themselves and their families, or on the creatures they encountered, the tools they used, or the patterns of their lives, this is a great book. But if you happen to be an author who is considering writing about this period, I would go so far as to say this is a must read.
The Buried Book by David Damrosch
This book can easily be broken into three parts and a rather rambling epilogue. The first part details the lives and careers of two British Museum archaeologists—George Smith and Hormuzd Rassam. The second takes a look at the court life in ancient Babylon in roughly 2500 BCE. The third is a short summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And the fourth is a brief account of the epic’s influence in modern times. The result is not a book on the rediscovery of the first great epic poem, but a rather jumbled set of accounts on the above topics. To give Damrosch credit, he starts very well, but the whole account quickly loses steam as the book seems to veer off topic repeatedly. The little side routes are interesting, but they distract from the overall sense of unity that I expected the book to achieve. At many times I kept asking myself when the Epic of Gilgamesh was going to reappear in Damrosch’s account.
Living History by Robert Garland
Garland attempts to give the reader a glimpse into what life was like in the past by focusing on individuals and telling their stories. The result is mostly a collection of short biographies of important people from ancient and medieval times. The bios are interesting, but there didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the subject matter and I really don’t think that “living history” is an accurate description of the course. If you are interested in roughly 24 short biographies of important figures from the past, you’ll enjoy this book.
Writing the Bible by Martien Halvorson-Taylor
This is what a Great Courses book is supposed to be. Rather than get bogged down in faith stories as so many historical books looking at the bible do, Halvorson-Taylor jumps right into the problems of discerning where and how the books of the Old Testament were written and compiled and in doing so teaches us a lot about the history of the regions.
People tend to think that the great religions of the world began in their present forms rather than evolved over time. The thing I liked most about Writing the Bible was how Halvorson-Taylor shows again and again how the interests of the people writing about periods that happened centuries earlier put their own worldview on to the historical actors. A really interesting example was King Solomon, who is presented in the Old Testament as having abandoned his monotheism and worshipped other gods. However, those accounts were written centuries after his death. It is much more likely, based on an analysis of the texts and when they were written, that Solomon ruled at a time when the Jews were not yet staunchly monotheistic—something that later authors either didn’t know or couldn’t accept.
Another fascinating insight conveyed by Halvorson-Taylor was how the written word did not originally appear to be given the same trustworthiness as the spoken word, but that over time with the literate gaining in influence, the written word became viewed as much more dependable.
All in all, this is a wonderful book. I hope she does a sequel on the New Testament.
The History and Archaeology of the Bible by Jean-Pierre Isbouts
I was very excited to start this book. A lot of the histories I have been reading lately have had moments in which they shed light on biblical events and I really looked forward to having someone take me through the bible, adding historical context to major stories, but while Isbouts did do that, it never felt like it was his primary purpose as I listened to this audiobook.
Isbouts really just tells the biblical story. For the first six lectures (25% of the course) he does little more than make reference to other ancient stories with similar themes as he walks the listener through Genesis and Exodus. I would recommend simply skipping these first six lectures.
After that, matters improved somewhat, especially when Isbouts gets into discussion of the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms, their origins, and to what extent they were truly united under Saul, David, and Solomon. I also found his section on Pontius Pilate and King Herod and the extent of their various authorities quite fascinating. But overall, I felt like the lectures were heavy on the story and light on the historical context.
Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age by Jason McInerney
There are a lot more books on Alexander the Great than on the age he began, so this Great Courses book was a welcome opportunity to take a look at how Alexander’s conquests influenced so much of the world. It includes a couple of chapters on Alexander, a few on the major successor states, and then starts to go much deeper, looking at topics like literature, philosophy, the idea of kingship, and the impact that the Hellenized world had on the development of Rome and the west. My favorite two chapters dealt with the Maccabean Revolt in Judea. Overall, this is a fascinating look at the world between the conquests of Alexander and Rome.
The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F.X. Noble
I’ve been teaching Western Civilization for nearly twenty years now and I always enjoy listening to another expert talk about the development of the west. Noble gives a highly coherent account of why western culture is important and of the many factors that contributed to developing it. He doesn’t just spend his time discussing the major players—Greeks and Romans and the developing states of England and France. He takes the time to explore the important contributions of many of the smaller groups of ancient peoples like the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, and other European peoples such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Iberian kingdoms, the Islamic states, the Byzantines, the various Italian city-states and kingdoms. This gives a broad view of the developing political, economic, and intellectual developments that led to the creation of the western civilization we now know. This is a very good introduction to an important topic.
Our Oldest Companions Pat Shipman
I’ve never been a big dog person, but since my niece got a puppy who stays with my family during the day so my mother-in-law can watch her, I have started to warm to our four-legged friends. This book examines what we know and can speculate about how humans and dogs began a friendship that has lasted tens of thousands of years. In doing so, it also looks quite a bit at our earliest forebearers.
There was a ton of information here that came as a surprise to me. For example, apparently many Neanderthal had blue eyes and freckles. (Not sure why that hasn’t come up in my previous readings.) By far the best part of the book for me was the many chapters spent on Australia, which has a very unique settlement pattern that notably didn’t include dogs in the beginning.
Overall, this is a great book to introduce you to the origins of humans interacting with dogs.
The Aeneid of Virgil by Elizabeth Vandiver
Elizabeth Vandiver has fast become one of my favorite Great Courses lecturers. She has a gift for walking the reader through very complex subjects and bringing out the richness of great works of literature. This time she looks at Virgil’s Aeneid, one of the most important epic poems in the western canon. She not only shows the brilliance of the poem and its tributes to the great epics of Homer, she helps the reader understand just why it was so important to Romans and to the societies that follow them. She makes me want to reread the epic thirty plus years after I first enjoyed it.
Greek Tragedy by Elizabeth Vandiver
There are two major benefits to this Great Courses text. The first is the obvious one, Elizabeth Vandiver walks the reader through the great tragedies of Ancient Athens not only outlining the plots of these plays but helping to visualize what is happening and showing how they evolve and compare to the other Greek tragedies. The second major benefit is what she teaches us about the ancient Athenians and their culture through these plays and in helping to put the events in the plays in their historical context. It’s a wonderful book.
The Iliad of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver
If you’re like me, you’ve read The Iliad once or thrice over the decades and of course seen references to it a few million additional times. It is without doubt one of the great works of world literature and Elizabeth Vandiver will show you why, taking her listeners though the story, helping us to understand the actions of the protagonists on both sides of the war in the context of their day. For example, it is not just that Achilles had his feeling hurt when Agamemnon publicly took his slave girl away—Agamemnon was attacking his very legitimacy as a warrior in Greek society. Similarly, Vandiver helps us understand Greek values of the time and how so many of the emotions and motivations portrayed in this epic poem still speak strongly to modern audiences 2700 years after this story was first written down. Along the way, she will also help you understand the profound impact the book had upon first Greek and then later societies. (The comparison to the bible while not perfect is helpful.) Perhaps most importantly, she’s made me want to go back and reread one of the great works of literature.
The Odyssey of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver
I’ve read The Odyssey more frequently than I have The Iliad. It’s always been primarily an adventure story for me and in addition to the text, I’ve enjoyed reading about the places that might have inspired the fabulous lands discovered in this poem. What Vandiver does in this Great Courses book is give you the substance behind the epic that makes it clear why this book has resonated with audiences for millennia and why the ancient Greeks turned to it again and again as a guide to proper behavior. For this is a book that explores in remarkable depth the meaning of what modern audiences would call proper hospitality. It also, and I’m shocked I never picked up on this on my own, depicts what happens to a land when all the fathers go away to war and never come back again. This is a wonderful exploration of one of the all-time great works of literature and is worth listening to again and again.