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Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Course No.  3466
Course No.  3466
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Why did pagan Rome, which had a history of tolerating other faiths, clash with early Christians? What was it like, under Roman law, to be a Jew or a Christian? What led to the great persecutions of Christians? Above all else, how did Christianity ultimately achieve dominance in the Roman Empire, eclipsing paganism in one of the most influential turning points in the history of Western civilization?

Answers to these and similar questions are important for the sheer fact that much of today's world is still governed by principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian heritage that gained primacy as a result of Christianity's triumph over the paganism of ancient Rome. Two thousand years after this earth-shattering change, many of these principles still determine how most of today's Western world—both Christian and non-Christian alike—thinks about ethics, sin, redemption, forgiveness, progress, and so much more.

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Why did pagan Rome, which had a history of tolerating other faiths, clash with early Christians? What was it like, under Roman law, to be a Jew or a Christian? What led to the great persecutions of Christians? Above all else, how did Christianity ultimately achieve dominance in the Roman Empire, eclipsing paganism in one of the most influential turning points in the history of Western civilization?

Answers to these and similar questions are important for the sheer fact that much of today's world is still governed by principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian heritage that gained primacy as a result of Christianity's triumph over the paganism of ancient Rome. Two thousand years after this earth-shattering change, many of these principles still determine how most of today's Western world—both Christian and non-Christian alike—thinks about ethics, sin, redemption, forgiveness, progress, and so much more.

Discover the true story behind this ethical and religious legacy with The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity, a historically focused discussion of the dramatic interaction between Judaism, Christianity, and paganism from the 1st to the 6th centuries. Presented by Professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University—an award-winning teacher, classical scholar, and one of the most esteemed historians on The Great Courses faculty—these 24 lectures allow you to explore in great depth the historical reasons that Christianity was able to emerge and endure and, in turn, spark a critical transition for religion, culture, and politics.

An All-Encompassing Picture of a Critical Era

While the Judeo-Christian values that have shaped society's ideas are ones we might today take for granted, their emergence from an ancient era dominated by loyalties to a vast array of gods would once have seemed the most unlikely of narratives. Even after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, it would not be until the 6th-century reign of Justinian that medieval Christianity would emerge and this new historical pathway would finally be confirmed.

Professor Harl's magnificent course enables you to grasp the full historical sweep of this monumental transition by creating an all-encompassing picture of this critically important era. While some philosophical and theological content is included to clarify important points of transition, the focus of The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is—above all else—on its most important and fascinating episodes, among which are these:

  • Emperor Nero's rescript in A.D. 64, which not only ordered the persecution of Christians in the city of Rome but also made the faith illegal throughout the empire. As the first religion ever banned in the Roman world, Christianity would be forced to develop new institutions and new ways of spreading its message.
  • The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, where Emperor Constantine won a victory described in the only two literary accounts—both written by Christian authors—as having been deliberately fought under the Christian symbol of the Chi Ro. Professor Harl offers a probing analysis of what he believes Emperor Constantine's real motives were for fighting in this battle.
  • The reign of Theodosius I (A.D. 379 to 395), under which laws were passed banning public sacrifice throughout the Roman Empire and making Christianity the only legitimate religion. This crucial reign, according to Professor Harl, signified not only the death knell of Roman paganism but the first steps in the creation of the persecuting society of medieval Europe.

New Insights into the Sources of Western Beliefs

The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity also introduces you to a wide variety of individuals whose actions helped shape the history of this turbulent time, including these:

  • Rulers like Augustus and Justinian, whose decisions would define—and redefine—the relationship between paganism, Judaism, and Christianity and how Jews and Christians would subsequently respond through words, deeds, and rituals
  • Proselytizers for the new faith, including James and Paul, and the different viewpoints they represented in the development of early Christianity
  • Religious thinkers such as Clement and Origen, who would go on to become the first theologians of the emerging Christian faith
  • Ascetics such as Saint Anthony and Barsauma, a warlike monk said to be so terrifying that he could inspire conversions in the villages of Syria and Phoenicia through the sheer fear raised by his arrival
  • Philosophical thinkers such as Galen, who was also a noted pagan critic of the new Christian faith and thus an active participant in the exchanges with Christian apologists that served to educate and hone the arguments put forth by both sides

You'll also witness Christianity's growing influence on not only the visual arts (including architecture and the redesignation of pagan temples for Christian uses) but on the world of letters, including, ironically, the preservation of the classical writings of ancient Greece so important to understanding the pagan world.

A Masterful Historian, an Exceptional Teacher

Professor Harl is the ideal choice for crafting such an all-encompassing picture of this critically important era. In addition to garnering honors for his skills as a lecturer—which include two-time recognition as the recipient of Tulane University's Sheldon Hackney Award for Excellence in Teaching, voted on by both students and faculty—he regularly leads students to Turkey on educational excursions or as assistants on excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites.

His own photographs of temples and other architectural features, cult statues, coins, and other telling artifacts bring the history and the events in this course to vivid life. Combined with a rich array of other visual aids, including maps, illustrations, and animations, these features help make The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity a vibrant trek through the past—one that will lead you to a deeper understanding of the bedrock beliefs of Western culture.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Religious Conflict in the Roman World
    The Christianization of the Roman world is one of the most important turning points in Western civilization. This lecture introduces you to the issues you will consider and the scholars whose seminal theories serve as the gateways to the course's different lines of exploration. x
  • 2
    Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire
    How were pagan gods worshiped in ancient Rome? Using evidence both literary and archaeological, grasp the diverse assortment of religious practices in an empire that ranged from Britain to Egypt and comprised a fifth of the world's population. x
  • 3
    The Roman Imperial Cult
    Learn how Rome's first emperor, Augustus, established an institution to venerate an emperor's spirit, or genius, which would then reside as a god on Mount Olympus. See how emperors took pains to deify their predecessors so as to position themselves next among that honored line. x
  • 4
    The Mystery Cults
    Mystery cults were believed to be the worship to a particular god and involved the choice to join and undergo an initiation rite. You examine specific cults and the controversial question of whether they did, in fact, form a bridge between paganism and Christianity, as some scholars maintain. x
  • 5
    Platonism and Stoicism
    Understand the powerful influence of philosophy—particular Platonism and Stoicism—on the morality and conduct of Rome's ruling classes. It was an influence rarely matched in the Western tradition, with even Christian theologians employing the doctrines of these two philosophical schools in defining their own faith. x
  • 6
    Jews in the Roman Empire
    What role did Judaism play in the Roman Empire? Learn how Rome's experience with this stalwart monotheistic faith—the first it had encountered—differed from the challenge of the Christian faith that would emerge from it. x
  • 7
    Christian Challenge—First Conversions
    Experience the first years of efforts to convert people to Christianity. Begin with the early leadership by James of those who were often called Jewish Christians and continue with the career of Paul, from his own conversion after a vision to his work propagating the message of Jesus. x
  • 8
    Pagan Response—First Persecutions
    Learn about early responses to Christianity, from the violent persecutions in Rome under Nero to the legalistic and easily avoided persecutions under later emperors. Grasp, too, the consequences of Roman ignorance of Christianity and the eventual momentum that ignorance would eventually give the new faith. x
  • 9
    Christian Bishops and Apostolic Churches
    Nero's outlawing of a specific religion—unprecedented in Roman history—forced Christians to discover new ways to proselytize. Discover how the ideas of apostolic succession and a recognized canon shaped the voice with which Christianity could speak to the world. x
  • 10
    Pagan Critics and Christian Apologists
    Explore how both Christianity's pagan critics and its apologists reveals not only an evolution in pagan understanding of the new faith but a corresponding increase in the sophistication of the writings set forth by those defending it. x
  • 11
    First Christian Theologians
    Examine the work of Saint Clement, who established Christianity's claim to equality with the pagans as heirs to classical intellectual culture, and of Origen, whose ability to argue in Platonic terms and contributions to defining the canon make him one of the most important thinkers in Christian history. x
  • 12
    Imperial Crisis and Spiritual Crisis
    The stability and peace of the Roman Empire was shattered with the assassination of Severus Alexander, and the ensuing political and military crisis transformed the Roman world. Many have maintained that this crisis paved the way for large-scale Christian conversion, but there are tantalizing arguments to the contrary. x
  • 13
    The Great Persecutions
    Analyze two great periods of empire-wide persecution distinct from the largely localized ones examined earlier. Learn how Christian martyrdom was perceived very differently by the pagan and Christian communities, and that its ability to bring about conversions may have been minimal. x
  • 14
    The Spirit of Late Paganism
    Explore how the spiritual life of paganism fared during the political and military crises examined in the preceding lectures. See how these had an impact on not only pagan worship but also the intellectual work of pagan philosophers like Plotinus and the emergence of an independent religion known as Manichaeism. x
  • 15
    Imperial Recovery under the Tetrarchs
    The 20-year period known as the Tetrarchy—during which the emperor Diocletian shared imperial power with three colleagues--was critical to the Roman Empire, ending civil war and invasion, restoring order and prosperity, and giving Rome something it had never had: a principle of succession. x
  • 16
    The Conversion of Constantine
    Analyze one of the most decisive turning points in Roman history and of Western civilization. Interpret the legendary story as it has come down to us in light of recent scholarship and what we now understand about Constantine's world and the forces that would have motivated him. x
  • 17
    Constantine and the Bishops
    See how the same principle that had always steered Rome's efficient use of power—absorbing institutions rather than simply crushing them—was used to create a new hierarchy within the Roman imperial system from the existing network of apostolic churches. x
  • 18
    Christianizing the Roman World
    How and why did Constantine set about making the Christian faith central to Roman life? See how his vision unfolded in multiple areas, including the reshaping of the urban landscape to claim public and religious space, economic changes, and the use of pilgrimages and Christian missionary activity. x
  • 19
    The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters
    Explore how Christians managed to alter the cultural heritage of their pagan past—including architecture and the visual and literary arts—in ways that made this heritage distinctly Christian while still preserving as much of it as possible. x
  • 20
    The Emperor Julian and the Pagan Reaction
    Experience what happened when a Christianizing Roman world was told by their new emperor that decades of change would be undone and that Rome's religious and cultural history would again be reversed, this time turning back to paganism and a restoration of the old gods. x
  • 21
    Struggle over Faith and Culture
    Grasp how the death of Julian the Apostate—and the end of his short-lived program to restore paganism's dominant role—forced the empire to grapple with two all-encompassing questions: Could the Constantinian revolution in fact be reversed? What religion would take charge in the Roman world? x
  • 22
    New Christian Warriors—Ascetics and Monks
    Take in the different perceptions of asceticism by pagans and Christians and how Christian ascetics and monks, in particular, proselytized and won conversions to Christianity with a power and influence that even the Roman Empire could not have matched. x
  • 23
    Turning Point—Theodosius I
    Witness the crucial turning point in the spread of Christianity in the Roman world. Three new laws opened the floodgates for the destruction of pagan sanctuaries, a ban on public sacrifices, and the declaration of Nicene Christianity as the only legitimate faith and a requirement for citizenship. x
  • 24
    Justinian and the Demise of Paganism
    Learn how Justinian, even in a Roman world still predominantly pagan, implemented a "persecuting society" that would ensure, by the time of his death, a Western world where being civilized was defined as being Christian, as were its notions of the divine and the ethical. x

Lecture Titles

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Kenneth W. Harl
Ph.D. Kenneth W. Harl
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has earned Tulane's annual Student Body Award for Excellence in Teaching nine times and is the recipient of Baylor University's nationwide Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. In 2007, he was the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor in History at Wofford College. An expert on classical Anatolia, he has taken students with him into the field on excursions and to assist in excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey. Professor Harl has also published a wide variety of articles and books, including his current work on coins unearthed in an excavation of Gordion, Turkey, and a new book on Rome and her Iranian foes. A fellow and trustee of the American Numismatic Society, Professor Harl is well known for his studies of ancient coinage. He is the author of Civic Coins and Civic Politics in the Roman East, A.D. 180-275 and Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700.
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Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 41 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Divine doings, top-down and bottoms-up DVD review. Christianity rose from nothing to become within 400 years the official religion of the Roman Empire, the military power responsible for crucifying its founder. This is an astounding development that begs for explanation. Believers, of course, see God's hand in this. But can historical scholarship shed more down-to-earth light on the whole process? Theories abound. The most extreme fall into two camps: • BOTTOMS UP: Thanks to Christian proselytizing and the death of martyrs under Roman persecution, the Jesus movement attracted new followers among the downtrodden. Eventually, their numbers grew so large that Emperor Constantine (272-337 BCE) could no longer ignore them. • TOP DOWN: Constantine cynically "tried out" a Christian symbol (one of many) to rally his superstitious troops before a crucial battle at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. His victory encouraged him to promote the new faith as a tool to stabilize his crumbling, polyglot empire. I am exaggerating a bit to make a point, but notice that neither of these perspectives nullify the other. Constantine would not have used a Christian symbol had it not already been familiar among his troops. What else can be said? Dr. Harl's THE FALL OF THE PAGANS AND THE ORIGINS OF MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY is an attempt to weigh both alternatives and fill out some details from a historian's point of view. He is only concerned with the "big" contest between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity — the contest that changed the course of Western civilization — not the spread of Christianity among other pagans such as the Celts or the Norse. More specifically his focus is the Eastern Mediterranean — Palestine, Turkey, Greece and the Balkan regions — where St. Paul was most active in the early days of the Jesus movement. This might seem restricted compared to the Roman Empire as a whole, but that is where the earliest manifestations of Christian thought in written form appeared, and where Harl's expertise lies. Long story short, Dr Harl explores both the top-down and bottoms-up options and comes up with some of each, with more weight given to the first. After the first wave of persecution under Nero, proselytizing in public was not an option. Christianity spread slowly through family networks among tradesmen, some of whom were wealthy enough to use their homes for communal meals. Thus their numbers amounted to approximately 10% of the empire's population by Constantine's time, hardly enough to "force" his interest. More important than percentages, however, was the community's hierarchical organization, its scriptural basis and the growing sophistication of its apologetic literature. This was no rabble. Constantine respected that. But at the end of the day, Constantine was a military man and his interest in religion was very down-to-earth. Could it bring victory? Even at the town or parish level, bishops were expected to be exorcists, miracle workers and community organizers, all tangible things. I'm only giving you a glimpse, as Harl explores in great detail how paganism and then Christianity "worked" at the local and imperial levels. Paganism and its many festivals communicated common values and promoted the exchange of services across social groups that were very hierarchically-minded. It was never "idol worship". No religion ever is. When Christianity took over, therefore, it had to satisfy the same needs. __________________ Presentation was very good with plenty of maps, geographical pictures and even CGI images to explain architectural developments. On its own, this is an excellent course best seen in video form. TTC has produced many other course covering early Christianity. How does this one compare? Dr Ehrman's historical Jesus series is primarily concerned with the ultimate victory of an orthodoxy under the Bishop of Rome, over a multitude of "Christianities" that flourished briefly after Jesus' death. How close can we get to what Jesus probably said? Dr Johnson's many courses, including his most recent HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, is less concerned with "Jesus" and more with "Christ", the collective image of God that survived among tiny bands of Greek-speaking followers left behind after Paul's death. We cannot go behind Paul's letters and the Synoptic Gospels to discover anything "real" because no third-party, non-Christian records exist that describe Jesus in any detail. Ehrman and Johnson are primarily interested in Christianity as a religious phenomena — its inner dynamics and doctrinal conundrums. This is not Harl's focus. He is more concerned with the Roman Empire as an evolving social entity, crumbling away by the 300s. How did the Christian religion, however defined, orthodox or not, affect this entity? Strongly recommended for ancient history enthusiasts. April 14, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Brilliant Scholarship! Prof. Harl is one of the most erudite scholars employed by the The Teaching Compnay. This is my second DVD course with Prof. Harl and one of the most interesting that TLC has produced. If you are interested in a genuine study of the early Christian church that is supported by honest and even-handed scholarship, then this is course that you will want to obtain. Prof. Harl possesses a deep and systematic knowledge of the Roman Empire (one of his other courses - 'Rome and the Barbarians' - might be considered a supplement to this course) as well as other factors of history, geography, culture, languages, and religious practices of the Mediterranean world. He lectures easily and keeps your attention throughout each 30 minute lecture. The added slides, diagrams, photos, coins, maps, and other visual aids are a great addition to the lecture. Prof. Harl is not a theologian like Prof. Timothy Luke Johnson or Bart Ehrman, but a professional historian. Therefore, his approach to early Church history and the development of Church canon and structure is quite different than that of either Johnson or Ehrman. I think for a fair assessment of the development of the early Christinian church, it is important to use all valididated sources, and this especially includes archaeological materials which include writings, coins, excavations, other documents that can provide detailed information of that time and place. This course could easily be considered a transistional course between history and religion. The course clearly supplements and offers significant and scholastic historical details to both Ehrman's courses 'The New Testiment' and 'From Jesus to Constantine' and Prof.Johnson's courses 'Jesus and the Gospels' and 'The Apostle Paul.' Highly recommended! November 24, 2012
Rated 4 out of 5 by A must on the gains of early Christianity I generally adore any course that Kenneth Harl teaches -- he packs his courses full of information, as well as wonderfully enlightening asides, and I am riveted. The information in this course was, as always, wonderfully presented and fascinating, but it felt as if at times Professor Harl was stretching to create a coherent whole. The course felt a little disjointed (and I emphasize "a little"). As is often the case with his courses, it is almost necessary to listen to each lecture twice to ensure that your mind captures all the tidbits of information Professor Harl throws out. Worthwhile, despite some editing issues. August 5, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Early Marketing of the Christian religion LECTURER: Professor Harl is an exceptional lecturer, and the classic Greek and Roman eras are his specialty. His insights into the period are profound, amusing, and occasionally seasoned with a bit of wit. CONTENT: In all of the previous titles I have heard given by Professor Harl, most of the material was directed at the historical political narrative of the periods discussed. This course is different in the sense that its central narrative is the story of early Christianity, and primarily, how it came to be that the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The obvious momentous event in this story is the conversion of Emperor Constantine from the dominant pagan-polytheistic Greco – Roman religion to this rather obscure and strange monotheistic one. Although this is one central event that did change history in a profound way, the factors that led up to it had their roots in events several centuries before. SAINT PAUL: Professor Harl Dives deeply into Christianity's early beginnings: Saint Paul was the first Christian to go parading around the Mediterranean (he did it three times), in an attempt to get people to convert to Christianity. He was actually quite successful. One of the main reasons for his success was that in his conversion offer, the converted did not have to become Jewish first and then move on to Christianity as some special strand of Judaism. Instead, they could convert directly to Christianity and not have to obey all of the strict dietary rules specified for Jews; much more appealing… Eventually he got the Romans upset enough to execute him in 66 AD in Rome. EARLY PERSECUTIONS: The Romans really had a hard time figuring out those Christians. The pagan religion was very accepting of other gods – a sort of "live and let live" policy, but the Christians were very adamant that there is only one god. In fact they were so adamant that they refused to pay tribute to the pagan gods along with their communities – from the Pagan's perspective this put the whole community at risk. Finally, the Romans lost their patence with this new religion and it was outlawed for the first time by Nero in 64 AD. In the persecutions that followed, many Christians were sent for execution to the entertainment of the mobs. Most pagans were bewildered at how any serious person would let his family go to the ring instead of simply sacrificing to the pagan gods. According to Professor Harl, the Christian martyrdom probably did little to encourage Pagan conversion. THE APOLOGETISTS AND EARLY THEOLOGIANS: In the early days of Christianity, it was not taken seriously by Pagan philosophers. As time progressed, however, the Christians became more and more adept at explaining their faith, and adopting a set doctrine. THE CONVERSION: The big change occurred when Emperor Constantine decided to convert his religion to Christianity in 312 AD after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and perhaps more importantly the Edict of Milan which he issued in 313 AD which made practicing Christianity legal. Almost all of the Roman Empire was to follow suit eventually (although it did take a couple of centuries). One profound point from the course that stood out to me, was that the Barbarian tribes in the West also converted to a large extent, and it was die to this fact that when the Western Empire fell, it was more still between people of the same religion and the event was thus much less dramatic and Violent than one could have expected. Overall a very fine course dealing with one very central aspect of the classical Roman history. April 7, 2014
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