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Ancient Greek Civilization

Ancient Greek Civilization

Professor Jeremy McInerney Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Course No.  323
Course No.  323
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Why do the ancient Greeks occupy such a prominent place in conceptions of Western culture and identity? What about them made generations of influential scholars and writers view Hellenic culture as the uniquely essential starting point for understanding the art and reflection that define the West? Does this view tell the whole story?

The Ancestors of Us All

Clearly, the Greeks are a source of much that we esteem in our own culture: democracy, philosophy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry, history-writing, our aesthetic sensibilities and ideals of athletic competition, and more. Blazoned above the portal of Apollo's temple at Delphi were the words, "Know thyself." For us, this injunction to self-awareness also commands knowledge of the Greeks.

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Why do the ancient Greeks occupy such a prominent place in conceptions of Western culture and identity? What about them made generations of influential scholars and writers view Hellenic culture as the uniquely essential starting point for understanding the art and reflection that define the West? Does this view tell the whole story?

The Ancestors of Us All

Clearly, the Greeks are a source of much that we esteem in our own culture: democracy, philosophy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry, history-writing, our aesthetic sensibilities and ideals of athletic competition, and more. Blazoned above the portal of Apollo's temple at Delphi were the words, "Know thyself." For us, this injunction to self-awareness also commands knowledge of the Greeks.

With Professor Jeremy McInerney as your teacher, you'll come away with fresh knowledge on one of humanity's most golden ages. A native Australian, Professor McInerney is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He has excavated Greek sites in Israel, at Corinth, and on Crete.

Our customers are very enthusiastic about Professor McInerney. "The quality of the course is so high, I hate to see it end," writes one. Another says, "Professor McInerney's lectures are among the finest I have ever heard. He is articulate, thoughtful, and engaging. I learned more from this course than from any book I have read on the subject."

Our Mediterranean Origins

Spanning roughly 1,000 years, from 1500–400 B.C.E., this course covers the Late Bronze Age to the time of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great in the late 4th century B.C.E. Professor McInerney traces the complex web of links between our present and its Mediterranean origins. With him, you explore ancient Greek civilization in the light shed by the newest and best research and criticism. The course expands understanding of history, literature, art, philosophy, religion, and more.

The lectures pay special attention to the two crucial centuries from 600–400 B.C.E.—the era of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars and of classical Athens as described in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and the philosophic dialogues of Plato.

Magnificent Minoan Crete and Mycenae

The first 12 lectures introduce you to Greek civilization from its earliest discernible beginnings up to the Persian War. In them, you learn to see ancient Greece split in two: a period of magnificent achievement that plunged to darkness, and a second flowering of that civilization that is the foundation of our own.

Minoan civilization on the island of Crete and Mycenaen civilization on the mainland were the two great Greek civilizations of the Bronze Age. They left behind magnificent ruins, art, and artifacts, but no written histories. In Lectures 1–8 you:

  • Explore these extraordinarily advanced cultures
  • Learn why their collapse around 1200 B.C.E. puzzles scholars to this day
  • Hear the full story of Heinrich Schliemann, who found Mycenae by following clues in Homer's poems
  • Review the finding made only in the 1950s that showed us that Mycenae was, in fact, Greek
  • See how a new and distinct Archaic culture—one that revered Homer's epics—arose in the Age of Heroes after the collapse of Crete and Mycenae
  • Discover how much the Greeks gained from their contacts with other ancient societies (the alphabet, among other things, came from the Semitic peoples of Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean)
  • Understand how Spartan warrior culture was forced on the Spartans because they enslaved a nearby region
  • Explore the causes and effects of Greek colonization from France to the Ukraine
  • See how a uniquely "Greek" identity was based in part on the Oracle at Delphi and the Olympic Games; non-Greeks were not admitted to either.

The first section of the course examines the origins of democracy, which grew out of authoritarian government. And you see here how much of our freedom we owe to Cleisthenes, who created the democratic government under which Athens flourished for two centuries—and how he ingeniously designed it to undermine established power and allegiance.

The Persians, the Peloponnesian War, and the Arrival of the Macedonians

The course's second 12 lectures include the compelling histories of the Persian War (490–479 B.C.E.) and the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.).

First united by their common enemy in Persia, Professor McInerney explains how much the Persian War came to define the Greeks—and us. The notion of freedom they developed in response to Persian power is one we inherit. After the Persian War, the Greeks developed their sense of identity as the antagonists of the Eastern world, a tension to which the West has been heir ever since.

After the defeat of the Persians, Athens rose to hegemony over the Greek world. You see how the Athenians' trade and power were developed and imposed on the Mediterranean. And you learn some surprising facts about this Golden Age:

  • Greek tragedy began as a religious ritual to purge the audience of "uncivilized" emotions.
  • Greek art was often an intensely and explicitly competitive enterprise.
  • Athenian culture depended heavily on slavery. Professor McInerney addresses the charge that Athens only prospered because it had slaves under its heel.

Two lectures are devoted to the clash between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates served as a soldier in that struggle.

After Athens was defeated, its philosophers rose to their full achievement in the work and lives of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, reinforcing the old axiom that defeat is the greatest muse for political philosophy. Professor McInerney delivers a provocative interpretation of the trial of Socrates.

In its postwar "decline," Athens defined the contours of philosophy and science for more than 1,000 years and produced great drama, art, and literature.

Toward the end of the 4th century B.C.E., Macedonian kings dominated Greece. Philip and his son, Alexander (who was tutored by Aristotle), created a Pan-Hellenic culture again to unite the Greeks against their common enemy—Persia.

In short decades, Greek power would extend from Egypt to the Hindu Kush.

Differences and Affinities

Just as the divide between East and West still exists, so does one separating our world from that of the ancients. We must remember that the Hellenic world had many values, beliefs, and mores at odds with our own. In ancient Greece:

  • Slavery was common
  • Women suffered complete exclusion from public life
  • Homosexuality was an accepted aristocratic practice in Athens, Sparta, and other city-states.

As Professor McInerney shows, such differences do not imply that the culture of ancient Greece holds no meaning for us. Rather, it should spur us to deepen our engagement with the Greeks, for their differences can teach us as much as our affinities with them.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Greece and the Western World
    Why do we feel such a strong affinity with the ancient Greeks? When and how did the West begin to venerate the Golden Age of Athens under Pericles? x
  • 2
    Minoan Crete
    Bronze Age Crete has been dubbed a "palatial society" whose magnificent buildings housed a complex, hierarchical world. But this world remains shrouded in mystery. x
  • 3
    Schliemann and Mycenae
    Inspired by Homer's poems, Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the elite warrior culture of Mycenae, "rich in gold." The relationship of this culture to that of Bronze Age Crete has long been a subject of intense scholarly debate. x
  • 4
    The Long Twilight
    Civilization in Bronze Age Crete and Mycenae declined rapidly after 1200 B.C.E. Archaeologists have long argued about the cause: Was it natural disaster, military invasion, internal strife, or some combination of these? x
  • 5
    The Age of Heroes
    During the ancient "Dark Ages," the predominant unit of Hellenic society was a tribal or clan-based group known as the oikos (household). Poets such as Homer created an imaginative world that provided society a heroic, aristocratic ethos. x
  • 6
    From Sicily to Syria—The Growth of Trade and Colonization
    Greek colonies were established as near as the Mediterranean and as far away as Ukraine. While the causes of Hellenic colonization are complex, its results were important. Trade filled Greek coffers. Intellectual imports, such as written language and artistic motifs, arrived as well. x
  • 7
    Delphi and Olympia
    The preclassical institutions of the Olympic Games and the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi were crucial elements in fixing Greek identity. x
  • 8
    The Spartans
    Conflict, tension, and civil unrest were endemic in most Greek city-states from the 8th century B.C.E. onward. Sparta, however, formed a notable exception. How did it avoid civic violence? x
  • 9
    Revolution
    Solon, the "father of the Athenian constitution," was elected to forestall factional strife. He attempted to formalize rights and privileges based on wealth rather than birth, and did away with debt-bondage. He laid the groundwork for the rule of law in Athens. x
  • 10
    Tyranny
    Contrary to our modern definition of tyranny, the Greek word originally meant the seizing of power by an ambitious man. The tyranny of Peisistratus and his sons kept the peace in Athens and nurtured its prosperity for more than 50 years. x
  • 11
    The Origins of Democracy
    Cleisthenes recognized that the common Athenian was a more potent political force than any aristocrat, and used this knowledge to take control of an Athens newly freed from the Peisistratid tyranny. Under his rule, the Athenians established the elements of democratic governance. x
  • 12
    Beyond Greece—The Persian Empire
    The epic confrontation between Greece and Persia changed Greek history forever. In this lecture, the Persian Empire is examined and, as far as possible, without the bias of Greek sources. The portrait that emerges is of a complex and sophisticated society. x
  • 13
    The Persian Wars
    The Persian Wars, 490–479 B.C.E, were probably of more consequence to the Greeks than to the Persians. From these confrontations the Greeks articulated their idea of eleutheria (freedom), which is still embedded in Western culture. What was freedom as the Greeks conceived it? x
  • 14
    The Athenian Empire
    An alliance of Aegean city-states, the Delian League was formed in the aftermath of the Persian Wars while Athens enjoyed great prestige. The Golden Age of Pericles was the age of imperial Athens, during which time the Parthenon, Propylaia, and Erectheion were completed. x
  • 15
    The Art of Democracy
    Athenian democracy was a remarkable achievement. Although participation was restricted to adult male citizens, the assembly, council, courts, and magistracies guaranteed a broad basis for sharing power. x
  • 16
    Sacrifice and Greek Religion
    Greek spiritual life rested on a fluid cosmology in which faith was personal while religion was a public affair that revolved around a communal sacrifice. These sacrifices were organized as festivals, leading us to ask: Which ranked first in importance, performance or belief? x
  • 17
    Theater and the Competition of Art
    Familiar as Greek plays seem to us, their roots lie in the more foreign realm of ancient religious festivals. The power of drama was seen as connecting the community with the divine. Therefore, the straightforward structure of most Greek dramas should not blind us to their powerful emotional role and content. x
  • 18
    Sex and Gender
    Ancient Greek attitudes toward sex and gender differed markedly from our own. Activity and forcefulness characterized the masculine ideal. Women, on the other hand, were thought to need the protection of their family and society. x
  • 19
    The Peloponnesian War, Part I
    The Peloponnesian War, 431–404 B.C.E., was a contest between Athens and Sparta, the two most powerful states in Greece. Thucydides, an Athenian general, wrote his observations and attempted to analyze scientifically the causes of the war. His account remains important not only because it is remarkably detailed, but because Thucydides saw the gap between societal ideals and the realities of power. x
  • 20
    The Peloponnesian War, Part II
    Thucydides wanted to teach his audience fundamental truths about history rather than entertain people with war stories. To him, human events followed a pattern. He writes with great restraint but stunning depth and power. x
  • 21
    Socrates on Trial
    The philosophic traditions of Ionian inquiry and sophistic pedagogy met in the career of Socrates, who concentrated almost exclusively on moral philosophy. Plato immortalized his trial and execution in the "Apology," "Crito," and "Phaedo." Was Socrates a martyr, as Plato and many others have held, or is there another explanation for his fate? x
  • 22
    Slavery and Freedom
    Slaves were ubiquitous in classical Greece; even the poorest citizens owned slaves because the amount of time needed for participation in democratic government meant that the eleutheros, the free man, needed to have others do his domestic tasks. How did the Greeks reconcile the ideal of democracy with the practice of slavery? x
  • 23
    Athens in Decline?
    The history of Greece during the 4th century B.C.E. is divided between the early decades when important developments were made in many areas, and the later decades, during which Greece came under the domination of the Macedonian kings. Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum changed philosophy forever, and writers such as Xenophon and Menander produced enduring prose and drama. x
  • 24
    Philip, Alexander, and Greece in Transition
    Once Philip II had conquered Greece, he used the dream of a Panhellenic crusade to unite the Greeks and conquer the Persian Empire. Philip's son, Alexander the Great, went a long way toward realizing this dream when he led Greco-Macedonian armies in the conquest of Persia and extended the Greek "empire of influence" across Asia as far as the northern marches of the Indian subcontinent. x

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Jeremy McInerney
Ph.D. Jeremy McInerney
University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Jeremy McInerney is Davidson Kennedy Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. McInerney earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the Wheeler Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and has excavated in Israel, at Corinth, and on Crete. He serves on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. Professor McInerney's research interests include topography, epigraphy and historiography. He is the author of The Folds of Parnassos: Land and Ethnicity in Ancient Pholis, and has published articles in a variety of academic journals including Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, the American Journal of Archaeology, Hesperia, and California Studies in Classical Antiquity. In 1997, he was an invited participant at a colloquium on ethnicity in the ancient world, hosted by the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 70 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent course!! October 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Thorough and well organized. A Joy! This course provides a well rounded introduction of ancient Greek civilization - from the bronze age Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations to the beginning of Alexander the great's Hellenistic empire. The one Issue I had with the course was that it almost exclusively focuses on Athenian history, and not on Greek history as the title implies. There are a few lectures on the bronze age and the so-called "Greek Dark Ages", and one lecture on Sparta but the big bulk is focused on Athens. So we really only understand the Greek society in Athens and don't really get a more general perspective in this respect. Furthermore, the reason for choosing to talk about almost exclusively about Athens is not given - is it because the sources are considered good enough only in Athens? We are left in the dark... Having said this, the different aspects described in the lectures about Athens were extremely interesting and well put together, and the course did not feel "rushed" although it is only 24 lectures long. Many different aspects are described, such as gender roles, homosexuality, tragedy and comedy, governance to name only a few. One thing that Professor McInerney REALLY does well, is to cement the message of each lecture with an inspiring summary at the end note of each lecture. The course easily owns up to being a good introduction course to Ancient Greek Civilization. January 6, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding Scholarship, Stylish Production Values Among the many excellent lecture series on ancient Greece offered by The Great Courses, this one is an exceptional foundation course on the historical legacy of Greece. As taught by Professor Jeremy McInerney, the course is both economical and all-inclusive as an introduction to the cultural landmarks of Greece. At the same time, the lectures are much more than a survey of names, battles, and dates. Professor McInerney presents a detailed interpretation of the total experience of ancient Greece. The lectures on the political organization of Sparta and Athens were especially informative. But the course also covered military, artistic, social, and economic history. Throughout the course, the content addressed important topics and themes with many colorful anecdotes sprinkled into the lectures. The professor’s scholarship is superb with close work to source documents and archaeological evidence to support the main points. There are excellent introductions to Greek art and architecture, theater, philosophy, and the epic sweep of Greek history from its origins to the death of Alexander the Great. The professor does not shy away from such delicate and controversial issues as religion, gender, sexuality, and slavery in the ancient Greek world. Once again, the lecturer's analysis derives from close work with source materials. DVD viewers of this course will be pleasantly surprised by the dynamic production values. This was a refreshing stylistic departure from the approach to filming other studio lectures by The Great Courses. There were stylish directorial techniques enhancing this series with oblique camera angles and a creative configuration of the studio space. The backdrop was a large mural of the Athenian Acropolis and a sumptuous display of Greek art. Above all, the soft lighting helped to create a cheerful atmosphere, due to the warm color aesthetics within the room. In any recorded studio experience produced with limited technology, the goal of the camera work should be to place the lecturer in focus. That goal was accomplished with great success in this course. The creative camera choices really brought us into the live experience of the classroom. With the viewer in close proximity to the lecturer at multiple angles, the presentation was enhanced with visual variety, including the occasional use of the zoom lens, as opposed to a permanently fixed and static “one-shot” or "two-shot" camera perspective. Above all, the uses of the fade and the dissolve supported the lecturer with smooth transitions, avoiding the awkward and amateurish jump cuts of the more recent Great Courses. The result was a production style that highlighted the poise of this speaker and the brilliance of his presentations. Based on these outstanding lectures, it is easy to become engaged in the cultural life of ancient Greece. The professor’s lecturing style was lively, and the ideas were provocative throughout this enlightening and well-produced series. COURSE GRADE: A December 22, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Starter Course AUDIO This is an excellent multi-faceted introduction to ancient Greece. Professor McInerney has a great presentation style: he is well-organized and he lectures in a clear manner, with an eye to the key events, people, and developments. For me, the most important aspect of this course is that it is so wide-ranging. Despite being only 24 lectures, it includes historical/political, cultural, social, economic, religious, and military aspects of the period, and does not seem rushed or unbalanced or lose me in a cascade of detail. I especially enjoyed Professor McInerney’s masterful treatments of sacrifice and Greek religion, gender, the Persian Wars, and, most especially, the two lectures devoted to the fateful Peloponnesian War. This TC course dates from 1998. I bought it on tape in 2001, and still find it worth returning to from time to time. It is a great background whether I am reading ancient Greek literature or digging deeper into Greek history. I continue to find Professor McInerney’s observations and evaluations useful and the course a much-needed framework within which to explore the world of ancient Greece. This is the course that inspired me to learn more, and I now have several other TC courses on ancient Greece, notably Professor McInerney’s equally stellar ‘The Age of Pericles’ and ‘Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age’. October 3, 2013
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