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 2 out of 5 by drfrankiii Seriously lacking
I had looked forward to experiencing this course, but I have to say that it is a complete disappointment. In fact, I have given up on it after five lectures, each of which became increasingly difficult to sit through. Here are my major issues with this course:
(1) It doesn’t start at ground zero. For some of the reviewers, that’s’ all right. It seems that those who awarded high marks to these lectures came to the enterprise with at least some general knowledge of the subject, at least according to their reviews. But lacking even a nodding acquaintance with the subject renders the lectures almost incomprehensible. In fact, one of the reviewers indicated that this might be a good course IF one has the background already. I agree. Let me illustrate: if one is teaching a course on World War II, he/she can be 99.9% certain that it is not necessary to define a “tank;” but certain terms need defining at the outset. Examples might be “strategy” and “tactics” as those terms are used by military planners.
(2) The issue noted above is exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Fagan fails to give any clues as to where he is headed in the lecture or why. He just begins talking. The listener must have these clues, in the form of rhetorical questions, or clear statements like “here is what we will cover next.” It is also helpful if the lecturer indicates why he is relaying certain information. Something like, “At this point we need to interrupt the main story in order to look at another situation that bears on the main action.”
(3) I found Dr. Fagan’s delivery totally lacking. His Irish brogue, as much as I like it generally, obliterates some of what he has to say. He also moves at a blistering pace; it is a steady stream with almost no pauses, no ebb and flow of tempo, and all at the same volume level. And though it may be ungracious to comment on it, his speech impediment, though certainly not his fault, is distracting in the extreme.
I very much regret that I have found this offering to be unacceptable, and I will return it.
September 15, 2015
Rated 1 out of 5 by Kaiser1 Interesting Title
The information of this course was informative, however the delivery was poor. The professor spoke too fast, choppy & stuttered. His English dialect, for example, pronounced words like "third as terd". His voice seemed cold & factual instead of warm & interesting. It seemed as though he was notified at the last minute and had to give a hurried presentation just to get through it & be done with his obligation. Brilliant people are not always the best teachers.
June 17, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by 78sman History Taught the Way That it Should be Taught
Garrett Fagan is one of my favorite instructors. He explains that information is often limited for various time periods in Roman history, and he discusses the various sources of information. These can include (1) ancient writings, (2) archeological findings, (3) inscriptions, and (4) information on Roman coins, which Roman emperors used to project messages to people who would use the coins. Before he begins each section, Fagan indicates what the main sources of information are for that time period, and how reliable they are. He is also cognizant of the biases that various ancient sources have.
Fagan often discusses the important competing explanations, and he does not try to force his opinions on the audience. He mentions the strengths and weaknesses of the different interpretations.
Fagan shows how the Roman bureaucracy continued to run the empire whether the current emperor was an effective one. He also shows that the concept of "good and bad emperors" is simplistic. Many emperors were effective at some things and ineffective at other things. He also discusses various reasons why the western empire collapsed in the 5th century while the eastern empire lasted until the 15th century.
This course is what one should expect from a good college class.
June 3, 2015