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Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

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Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Course No. 3466
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3466
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  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 400 illustrations, maps, diagrams, and video clips. There are Professor Harl's own photographs of pagan temples, cult statues, and ancient coins. There are detailed maps of where in the ancient world specific beliefs were practiced. There are video clips of ancient Roman historical sites. And there are historical images and illustrations of early Christian theologians like Saint Clement, proselytizers like Paul, and rulers like Justinian and Constantine. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

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
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2011
  • 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

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Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
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...
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