Rated 5 out of 5 by MisterDarcy Scholarship Beyond Compare!
The preferred nickname for the Roman emperor Caracalla was “The Beast.” The dark side of these powerful rulers has fuelled the popular imagination about the Roman emperors for centuries. And the gossip begins with the earliest Roman historians. In this course, the complexities of the emperors are sorted out in a search for the truth about the colorful rulers of the Roman Empire.
Professor Garrett G. Fagan covers the panorama of the life stories of the emperors from Augustus to Constantine. The scholarship is impeccable, as the lecturer provides careful analysis based on primary sources. The ancient Romans had a notion of biography much different from our modern approach. To writers like Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Tacitus, and Plutarch, a human life was a fixed entity from birth. As a result, the Roman biographers did not explore ambiguity in human character, leaving to posterity many unresolved issues about the Roman emperors.
In these thirty-six lectures, we are treated to a masterful synthesis of the source materials, allowing us to weigh the evidence of the original accounts and make up our own minds about the complex questions surrounding the Roman lives. For example, was the first Roman emperor, Augustus, seeking to preserve the cherished values of the Roman Republic, or was he an outright dictator, as implied by Tacitus? Was Caligula as demented as he is often portrayed, or was he merely callous and arrogant? If Nero was actually responsible for the disastrous fire that destroyed Rome in 64 CE, as indicated by multiple Roman chroniclers, then why was he celebrated by the masses long after his death? These questions are approached with a cautious scholarly method that serves as a model for students, teachers, and anyone with a passionate interest in the subject of the Roman emperors.
A fascinating topic that was traced through the lectures was the role played by powerful women during the Roman Empire. While the Romans sought to portray the ideal matron in the myth of the virtuous Lucretia, the realities of the imperial period dictated that women assume a more active role in the lives of their husbands and their sons. On the surface, the public personae of the first Roman empress, Livia Druisilla, was modeled on Lucretia. But Suetonius recounts how the young emperor Caligula referred to Livia as a cunning “Ulysses in a dress.” According to multiple sources, Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was such a controlling figure in his life that the young emperor ordered her death. Two remarkable women, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, worked behind the scenes to depose one Roman emperor and replace him with their young protégé, Bassianus. The two women managed to place a teenager on the imperial throne. Thus, under the name of Emperor Elagabalus, a fourteen-year-old-boy assumed the time-honored role of "Pater Patriae" (father of the country)! Four years later, Elagabalus was assassinated before he survived his teens. In nearly every imperial reign, dynamic women made significant contributions to the affairs of state.
This is a perfect companion course to Professor Fagan’s series on the “History of Ancient Rome,” which includes focused analysis of the Roman Republic. At the same time, both courses are “stand-alone” lecture series, which do not repeat verbatim the content of the other course. I appreciated experiencing the “Emperors of Rome” course in the video format, due to the maps, onscreen text, and the detailed genealogy of the Roman families. In a stroke of technical genius, the Great Courses staff displayed a color-coded version of the genealogy of the Roman emperors, identifying how so many of the rulers descended from a select number of the famous patrician families (the Julii, Claudii, and Flavian, among others). The chart made it easy to follow an extremely complicated family tree. The clearly presented family development of the emperors supported the professor’s contention that prosopography (the tracing of family connections politically) is a useful tool in understanding the succession of Roman rulers.
The course is filled with unforgettable anecdotes about the Roman emperors. On the streets of Rome, a passerby once called out a request to the emperor Hadrian, who brusquely replied, “I don’t have time.” The woman fired back, “Then, stop being emperor!” Hadrian chose to retrace his steps and listen to the request. In recounting stories like this one, Professor Fagan is always cautious in drawing conclusions. One of the lessons of this course is the importance of close work with original sources and, above all, critical thinking skills about the totality of the evidence. That Hadrian actually listened to the woman tells us that he really did take his job seriously. Not all of the Roman emperors would have reacted this way. In this instance, the intrepid bystander was lucky!
The imperial system established by Augustus endured for centuries. A study of this topic helps to explain how the superb Roman bureaucracy was able to manage vast territories on three continents and in thirty-two modern nation states. It also tells us why, due in part to the lapses in character of individual emperors, the Roman system eventually collapsed. From this course, one truth emerges clearly: the job of a Roman emperor was not one for the faint of heart.
COURSE GRADE: A
February 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by TheWaywardAugustine This is actually rather excellent.
First I must address some of the concerns that I have read in many of the reviews of this course. Many people have complained consistently over the presentation of Dr. Fagan, and I feel that I must lodge a disagreement with those complaints. True, in comparison with his History of Ancient Rome course there are a few more pauses than were previously present. However, on a whole, this was not any significant problem. Those who commented on consistent stammering are at best exaggerating and at worst allowing their own internal prejudices to color their reception of the material. In fact, after listening to the first part of this course from my local library I was interested in purchasing it. When I saw it on sale, the decision was an easy one to make.
I am very happy with my purchase, and have listened to the entire course over the course of a single week. It has a very strong narrative to its work which makes it come across almost like the telling of a story, and I have very little doubt about the professor's ability to understand and present this material. In fact, I found it rather excellent. Perhaps the most endearing part of this course would be that it instilled a desire to learn more just as his previous course on Ancient Rome had. To anyone interested in Rome and the various personalities that have added their distinct flavor to its societal and cultural history, this has my unfailing endorsement.
However, there are perhaps two complaints that I may lodge with the Emperors of Rome. It is important to note that these complaints do not in any way detract from my positive feeling for the course. Rather, it makes me lament missed opportunities. Both here and in his previous course, Dr. Fagan stops at Constantine. He makes his opinion for this very plain in both courses, as he is more than willing to leave what comes after to a Byzantine course. However, in my own limited view, this is rather shortsighted. Constantine was not even the last Emperor to exert control over the entirety of the Roman Empire (Theodosius), and the actual Byzantine characterization of the Eastern Roman Empire is more often posited with Heraclius after the adventures of Justinian. While the Emperors of Rome had made the decent into military autocracy, it would take several more centuries for Medieval Europe to fully come into being. Perhaps Dr. Fagan would have been outside of the scope of his expertise, or perhaps he felt as though he had to maintain his course within 36 lectures. Regardless, I felt as though this course could have been substantively improved if it had progressed to the fall of Western Rome itself, if not to Heraclius's fundamental restructuring of the Roman State (indeed, what made it Byzantine in the eyes of later scholars).
Further, Dr. Fagan devoted five lectures about the nature of the Roman Emperor in more general terms. The professor felt the need to address concerns from scholarly rivals which dismiss the very notion of narrative imperial history as being valid. I vehemently oppose such nonsensical predeterministic modes. They reek of dogma and tend to reject and deemphasize the importance of the men and women who defined their age. While they may give grudging acceptance to the importance of a Constantine or an Augustus, they will make claims that such were inevitabilities.Yet, given how these dynasties were so prone to collapse, so prone to destruction, so prone to susceptibilities, based on the very character of their Emperor such a claim comes across as ludicrous. Surely if Nero had been a different person and attempted to emulate Augustus Caesar and rebuild the Julio-Claudians, the veneer which shrouded military involvement behind the Emperor's power would have remained intact for a while longer. The longer this may have lasted, the more fundamental the changes would have been to the course and outcome of Roman history. Also, we had the restoration of the Empire during the third century crisis. Such may never have happened should Rome had lacked Aurelian. But this is a rather lengthy digression.
There was nothing particularly wrong with these five lectures. However, in many ways much of these were partially explained in previous lectures. The soldiers were already unmasked, the place of Emperor's behind public works explicitly mentioned, and several other examples. There was plenty of new content within these lectures, but part of me felt as though these points could easily have been enumerated plainly within the narrative. What needed to be said beyond this could have been stated at the end of the course alongside the reflections. By dispersing this content more liberally throughout the narrative, two or three lectures could have been freed up to perhaps give requiem to the Fall of Rome or a more in depth look at the third century crisis, where we got the beginning, a few highlights, and its resolution within two lectures while also focusing in on the Tetrarchy of Diocletian.
Combined, this appears to be a missed opportunity. Though I am hopeful after reading about the Late Antiquity Crisis and Transformation course, I feel as though more narrative should have been imbued into this course so as give the student a taste of what the next course would have been like.
However, I must once again stress that I did thoroughly enjoy this course. It comes with a high recommendation from me. To any new student to Rome, to any old student to History, and to those who enjoy the manifestation of the human epic, the only regret you will have from purchasing this course will be that it ends too soon.
August 10, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Challenger Solid Course
This is the second course I have taken given by Professor Fagan on Ancient Rome, the first being "History of Ancient Rome". In the first course, the main focus was on the Roman republic, with some depth on the reign of Augustus. From there on the narrative really tapered off and the rest of the narrative history was very sketchy. This course is a direct extension of the first. It starts from the reign of Augustus and then basically follows the biography of each emperor until the death of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE – really the end of the classical Roman era and the beginning of the medieval era or late antiquity.
As Professor Fagan states, in modern historical approach, the school of thought which tries to analyze history from biographies of great players is often frowned upon. In this course, however, this is exactly what professor Fagan does. Here, unlike the first course which he gave, he follows quite a strict chronological narrative and therefore it is a bit easier to follow - at least my mind tended to wander less during my commute while listening.
Professor Fagan presents the material with profound insights, and is quite thorough about quoting important scholarly references. His Irish wit adds some much needed lightness into this academic course.
May 16, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by HistoryFreak Tried several times
I LOVE all things Roman and Greek when it comes to History, including the Emperors. However, I cannot tell you one thing I learned because the Professor stammered through the entire course!
I would just start to settle into the lecture, and then 3-4 times per paragraph, he would start stammering. The longer he spoke, the worse it got.
This would be an awesome "Great Course" if they would find another Professor to teach it! I'm very surprised that they continue to sell the course when it is such poor audio quality. Please Great Courses, get one of the other multiple excellent teachers to record this!!
March 24, 2014