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Ancient Greek Civilization

Ancient Greek Civilization

Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania

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Ancient Greek Civilization

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

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
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 1998
  • 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
    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
    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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Your professor

Jeremy McInerney

About Your Professor

Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
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....
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Also By This Professor


Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 76 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good Introduction to Greek History I watched this course with some trepidation as I had already listened to McInerney's course Age of Pericles (see the link below). Would there be too much repetition? Would I learn anything? I was very pleasantly surprised that the two courses had very little overlap. With that out of the way, McInerney's speaking style isn't particularly enthusiastic, but was animated enough to keep my attention. I felt that he provided excellent context for each of the lectures. Most importantly, despite having watched a number of other courses which covered Greek history, this course still offered plenty of learning opportunities. As other reviewers have noted, this is a very old course. At times, they even show members of the studio audience! As would be expected, the various graphics, maps, etc., are quite primitive by today's standards. Fortunately, they were definitely good enough to get the points across. October 6, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by offers synthesis, evaluation, analysis and insight McInerney is an engaging speaker very much in command of his material. He wastes no words in his presentations. What I most enjoy about McInerney’s courses, including this one, is that he goes very much beyond simple narrative, and offers his listeners synthesis, evaluation, analysis and insight. You will come away knowing why “X” was important, rather than simply that “X” happened for “Y” reasons. August 12, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course This is an overview of Greek civilization from the earliest times until the Macedonians conquered the Greeks. Jeremy McInerny is a first-rate instructor. He focuses on Greek civilization, which is probably the most important thing about the ancient Greeks. He seems to have a thorough knowledge of Greek civilization, and his presentations are easy to understand. He explains new and interesting theories about the Greeks. The most interesting theory from my point of view concerns the origins of the Dorians, which you will learn if you take this class. July 18, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Overview of Ancient Greece Video Review: Dr. McInerney takes the student on a journey from the Minoans of Crete through the Athenian age up to the beginning of Alexander the Great's empire. My previous experience with this period has been piecemeal; reading Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, learning some philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, learning some things about the mythology and the gods of Mount Olympus, and learning tidbits about the Peloponnesian and Persian Wars. Dr. McInerney not only ties all of these together, but adds the dimensions of the culture, art, politics, social life, sexuality and gender, and science of the various peoples and phases of the Aegean and Northeastern Mediterranean region from 1900-323 B.C.E. For the casual student of Ancient Greece like myself, this introductory level course really pulls these fragments of prior learning together into a context. Dr. McInerney mixes information gained from literature and poetry, documents of history (notably from Herodotus and Thucydides), and archaeology to give a comprehensive view of the time period. In addition this course gives a clear chronology of events and people, while introducing some sagacious observations. Among these are the evolution of the concept of a city-state from the organizational origins of a household, to a village (or group of households), to the city-state; the peaceful (at times) coexistence of the Greeks while co-located with other peoples in Asia Minor and coastal Levant for purposes of commerce, the adoption of the spoken sounds of the Phoenicians into the Greek Alphabet (origins of "phonetic" spelling?) and who the Phoenicians were anyway, the dilemma of a "free" society based on democratic ideals that allowed and fully rationalized slavery more than 2000 years before Thomas Jefferson, the intertwining of theater and religion, and the juxtaposing of masculinity and homosexuality in a male dominated society. Of course Dr. McInerney highlights the contrasts between the nature of the various Greek city-states as well as the countless wars among them, and with their non-Greek neighbors. Though Dr. McInerney speaks from behind a podium using written notes, he speaks in a clear voice with inflection and body language while looking at the audience (some of which is in the room with him). He speaks with enthusiasm and uses occasional humor while making clear what is fact and what is his own speculation about events and interpretations of writings and/or archaeological artifacts. The course was produced in 1998, so the set and graphics reflect that vintage. Nevertheless the all important maps are clear and help guide one through the location of important places, trade and battle routes, etc. For this reason alone, I recommend the video version of the course, though I am sure the Dr. McInerney's clear and emphatic voice would result in good audio version as well. The accompanying course guide is adequate. The lecture summaries are somewhat spartan (pun intended) but contain the key points. The maps and timeline are excellent and the biographical notes and bibliography are helpful. For those people looking for an introductory course on Ancient Greek Civilization or those looking to provide a context for the philosophers, political figures, literature, and/or mythology that they may already be familiar with, I heartily recommend this course. June 3, 2015
  • 2015-11-29 T10:48:21.162-06:00
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