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Famous Greeks

Famous Greeks

Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma

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Famous Greeks

Course No. 337
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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4.5 out of 5
102 Reviews
77% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 337
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Course Overview

One of the most instructive and intriguing ways to learn history is through biography. By pondering the lives of great individuals—people who leave deep marks on both their own times and distant posterity—you can chart broad currents of events while also studying virtue and vice, folly and wisdom, success and failure. Moreover, you can appreciate them in the real circumstances of their times.

In a companion course to Famous Romans, classics scholar and master storyteller J. Rufus Fears examines a gallery of fascinating characters who shaped the story of Greece from the Trojan War through the rise of Rome.

Inspired by Monumental Works, Taught by a Great Teacher

These lectures—inspired and informed by the monumental works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch—allow you to do exactly that, guided by a truly great teacher.

Professor Fears is Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma—a 15-time award winner for outstanding teaching and three-time University "Professor of the Year."

From the heroes of the Trojan War to Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, he ushers you into the lives, achievements, and influence of many of the figures who made Greek history:

  • Great warriors: Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, and Alexander the Great
  • Masterful statesmen: Lycurgus, Solon, and Philip of Macedonia
  • Profound thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
  • Enduring artists and writers: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, and Plutarch.

His eye for character and his shrewd judgments are informed by a fine moral awareness and a deep familiarity with the times these famous lives were lived.

Gain a New Perspective on Familiar Classics

By attending to that context, Professor Fears offers you new ways of reading familiar classics by Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato.

Plutarch, a Greek writing during the heyday of the Roman Empire, composed his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans out of a conviction that the study of such lives can make us better as individuals and as citizens.

For 19 centuries, readers—and great writers—have agreed:

  • Plutarch fed the imagination of William Shakespeare, who based Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra on the Lives.
  • The American Founders, including both the Harvard graduate John Adams and the self-taught Benjamin Franklin, regarded Plutarch as a treasure trove of wisdom and wanted to see a copy in every schoolhouse.
  • Harry Truman was an avid reader of Plutarch, and spoke of the practical insights he gained from time spent with the Lives.

In keeping with that spirit, Professor Fears draws lessons from each life studied in this course, charting with you the intellectual and artistic currents of one of the most creative civilizations in world history.

The Center of Human Existence

For the Greeks, politics was the center of human existence. "Man," Aristotle said, "is a political animal."

This truth determines the selection of the lives covered and the course’s approach to them. The leading thinkers, artists, and writers of classical Greece can be understood only in the context of the political events of their day.

The most important single lesson we learn from Greece is that a free nation can survive only if its citizens care, at the deepest level, about politics.

The lectures focus on the five major periods of Greek history:

  • The Trojan War
  • Archaic Greece of the 8th through the 6th centuries B.C.
  • The Persian Wars
  • The golden age of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.
  • The age of Alexander the Great.
To the Walls of Troy: Homer’s Age of Heroes

For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan War was as real as yesterday’s headlines are to us, with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey holding near-scriptural status.

  • Alexander the Great slept with his copies.
  • Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, and Odysseus were role models and cultural heroes.
  • The influence of Homer resonated throughout Greek history.

Professor Fears argues that no modern work on leadership can rival the depth and power of Homer as the great poet dramatically explores what it takes to guide people and nations through the crises and hardships of life.

A Stand for Freedom and against the Odds: Greeks versus Persians

The decade of the Persian Wars (490–479 B.C.) was one of the most decisive in world history. It determined that Greece would remain free and bequeath to later ages the legacy of political liberty.

Professor Fears leads you in an examination of the lives of five of the most important actors in this momentous conflict.

Your path to understanding wends through the pages of Herodotus, as King Croesus of Lydia and the Persian emperor Xerxes serve as examples of all those who would abuse their power, and whom free peoples must resist.

And you look, as well, at three of the crucial Greek leaders—Leonidas, Themistocles, Pausanias—as you follow the stirring events of this epoch-making war for liberty.

Glory and Misery: Periclean Athens and the Peloponnesian War

The 5th-century golden age of Athenian democracy is the centerpiece of the course.

Although remembered as an age of glory, the 5th century was also a time of widespread misery. For it closed with the three-decade-long cataclysm of the Peloponnesian War.

That war—its causes, its course, and its consequences—forms the prism through which Professor Fears reads the lives who populate this part of the course.

  • Why did Pericles lead Athens into war with Sparta and her allies?
  • What lessons about morality, power, and leadership can we draw from Thucydides’s great account of it?
  • Can the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides be read as comments on the war and the attitudes that lay behind it?

In addressing these and other questions, Professor Fears introduces you to new ways to read such familiar classics as the Oedipus plays of Sophocles.

From Socrates to Alexander the Great and Beyond

The trial of Socrates was the test case of the ideals of the Athenian democracy. Professor Fears discusses that trial in the context of its impact on the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath of recrimination among the Athenians.

The death of Socrates at the hands of that Athenian democracy convinced his influential followers, Xenophon and Plato, that the best form of government would be the rule of one outstanding individual.

Thus you will be introduced to the figures of Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great.

These monarchs, conquerors, and statesmen would expand and transform the Greek world and outline a vision of transnational brotherhood that remains an ideal today.

But Alexander died young, and the Romans and their empire would be his true heirs.

Thus your study of the lives of famous Greeks concludes with two remarkable figures who challenge Rome for world domination: Pyrrhus, the Greek-speaking king of Epirus, and Cleopatra, the last ruler of Egypt in the line of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy.

Both failed, but in instructive ways that make them worthy of inclusion in a course on Famous Greeks.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Theseus
    Theseus, legendary founder of Athens, traveled to the far corners of the Greek world doing great deeds, and at home he created the prototypes of Athens's key institutions. Athenians' beliefs about Theseus, like Americans about George Washington, set a standard for judging leaders. x
  • 2
    Achilles and Agamemnon
    No book on leadership could offer a better example than the conflict before the walls of Troy between Achilles and Agamemnon (c. 1250 B.C.). As Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon is in over his head. Excelling in the virtues he lacks is Achilles, "best of the Achaeans." Homer's genius will transform their power struggle into a timeless lesson in the moral dimension of politics. x
  • 3
    Hector
    It is part of the genius of Homer to make the Trojan prince Hector, the Greeks' chief foe, into the noblest hero of The Iliad. Patriot, soldier, devoted husband and father, Hector embodies the virtues most admired by the Greeks and their tragic vision of life. x
  • 4
    Odysseus
    Unlike the doomed Hector, Agamemnon, and Achilles, the wily Odysseus is the consummate survivor. For 10 years after the fall of Troy, angry gods make him wander the Mediterranean. In the end, his prudence and courage restore him to his home. Homer makes Odysseus's story into a metaphor for the human experience, wand gives us a look at the late Bronze Age. x
  • 5
    Lycurgus
    The legendary Spartan Lycurgus (c. 776 B.C.) represents a characteristic early Greek figure: the lawgiver who saves his country from civil war and establishes its characteristic political, social, and religious institutions. No such institutions in antiquity were as famous or significant as those of Sparta. x
  • 6
    Solon
    Athenian democracy owes much to Solon (638–559 B.C.), a truly wise man who used his mind to serve his country. Many figures of archaic Greek history are hardly more than names to us, but this is not true of Solon. His poetry survives and offers us unique insights into the values and motives of this statesman whom our own Founders so admired. x
  • 7
    Croesus
    Why do great nations rise and fall? So asks the first true historian, Herodotus. A profound moral teacher concerned with the pitfalls of hybris (arrogance) and moral blindness, he begins his work on the Greek-Persian wars with the story of a monarch who belonged to neither people. How does the tale of King Croesus of Lydia (r. c. 560–546 B.C.) lead us to reflect on enduring issues of public morality and personal virtue? x
  • 8
    Xerxes
    Both Plutarch and Herodotus would agree that Persia's King Xerxes (519–465 B.C.) belongs in any course on famous Greeks. Xerxes is central to Herodotus's Histories: He was responsible for the fall of his country. By studying the folly of Xerxes, Herodotus hopes the Greeks can avoid the same errors. x
  • 9
    Leonidas
    It is a hot August morning in 480 B.C. Xerxes is closing in on Greece with 500,000 men. Facing him is Leonidas, king of the Spartans, with a small force of 7,000 built around a band of 300 Spartans. The stand they are preparing to make at the narrow pass called Thermopylae will become one of the most stirring in the annals of war. It will change world history and secure the place of Leonidas among the famous Greeks. x
  • 10
    Themistocles
    The aftermath of Thermopylae was as critical for Athens—and for freedom in the ancient world—as May and June 1940 were for Britain and the cause of freedom in the modern world. In that dark hour, the British found a leader to rally them for the great test. In the same way, the Athenian democracy would find in Themistocles (527–460 B.C.) a man equal to the moment. x
  • 11
    Pausanias
    Thucydides sees Sparta's King Pausanias (510–476 B.C.) as equal to Themistocles in intrepidity. By leading his allied force to an epic victory over a vastly larger Persian army at Plataea (479 B.C.), Pausanias ends the threat of Persian invasion and proves himself one of history's great captains. How do the Greeks manage to achieve this unlikely triumph? x
  • 12
    Pericles
    Along with Lincoln and Churchill, Pericles (490–429 B.C.) is one of history's three greatest democratic statesmen. Why does he decide to lead his country into the great war with Sparta? This lecture and the three that follow paint a portrait of Pericles and his age that is quite different from the one found in most histories. x
  • 13
    Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia
    Pericles is an intellectual as well as a political leader. His Athens is a place of unprecedented creativity, resulting in works of art, philosophy, and literature that are still admired, debated, and studied today. The names of Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia (5th century B.C.) represent the leading intellectual, artistic, and cultural currents of this golden age. x
  • 14
    Sophocles
    Tragedy is the definitive cultural statement of the Athenian democracy. Aristotle calls Sophocles (495–406 B.C.) the supreme tragedian. Active in politics and as a general, Sophocles leaves us three plays, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus, that can be read as parables about Pericles's rule, the mysteries of wisdom and suffering, and the moral dimensions of politics. x
  • 15
    Thucydides
    Pursuing history as a field of study begins in 5th-century B.C. Athens with the idea that learning from the past is the best way to guide present decisions. Herodotus comes first, but Thucydides (471–400 B.C.) is the greater historian. His powerful and pathbreaking History of the Peloponnesian War is "the eternal manual of statesmen," as timely and vivid today as when it was written. x
  • 16
    Alcibiades
    Brilliant, willful, dynamic, and fatally seductive, Alcibiades (450–404 B.C.), the nephew of Pericles, is one of the most fascinating and disturbing characters in all of Greek history. Gifted like his uncle but without his integrity, he is a product of Athenian democracy whose career highlights some of its worst failings and excesses. x
  • 17
    Nicias
    A dogged foe of Alcibiades, the conservative aristocrat Nicias (465–414 B.C.) becomes one of three commanders of the Sicilian expedition, along with his hated rival. Ultimately, supreme command devolves on Nicias. Despite his reputation for virtue, he is lazy, inept, and fears responsibility. But he is worth studying; examples of bad leadership are often the most instructive. x
  • 18
    Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War
    Even after the disaster in Sicily, the Athenians refuse to give up, resorting to bold military and political strategies. They even bring back Alcibiades, who had worn out his welcome in Sparta, and whose military genius and political skill restores Athens to a commanding position. But Sparta, too, has a formidable leader in Lysander. x
  • 19
    Lysander and Socrates
    The exile of Alcibiades by the Athenians gives Lysander his chance to prove himself. He brings victory to Sparta, but smaller men pull him down. The destruction of the great by the mediocre is also the story behind the trial of Socrates. His closeness to Alcibiades is the real reason that his fellow Athenians hate him. x
  • 20
    The Trial of Socrates
    In his funeral oration, Pericles celebrates the Athenian democracy for its tolerance. The Athenians treasure freedom of speech as essential to true democracy. Yet this same Athenian democracy puts to death its greatest thinker and teacher, Socrates. Why? x
  • 21
    Xenophon, Plato and Philip
    After Socrates' death, his pupils Xenophon and Plato come to believe that Athens has a perverse form of government. But a polis such as Athens is no longer the center of action, for to the north a new power is rising that will change the world. Macedonia and its superbly capable and ambitious king, Philip II, are the cutting edge of history. x
  • 22
    Alexander the Great
    Plutarch makes Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) and Julius Caesar the centerpieces of his Lives. Alexander's generalship and political vision transform the world. Not only one of the greatest military leaders in history, he outlines a vision of brotherhood that remains an inspiring ideal today. x
  • 23
    Pyrrhus
    The Romans are Alexander's true heirs. The life of King Pyrrhus of Epirus (318–272 B.C.) shows why Rome rather than Greece wins world mastery. His proverbially costly "victories" over the Romans offer an object lesson in how even a gifted leader may fail if he does not "pick his battles" well. x
  • 24
    Cleopatra
    The last and most serious challenge of Greece to Rome comes from Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.). Charming in turn with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, she nearly defeats Octavian. This lecture goes behind Roman propaganda to reveal her as one of the supreme figures of ancient history, a stateswoman whose vision of a Hellenic eastern empire foreshadows Byzantium. x

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Your professor

J. Rufus Fears

About Your Professor

J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and...
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Reviews

Famous Greeks is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 102.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Lectures by a Great Professor I've taken numerous Great Courses particularly in the area of history. I find the lecturers generally excellent, but I found Rufus Fears to be among the best of all. This series of lectures is wonderfully delivered in an almost story telling manner. His grasp of the subject is unquestionable and his style was completely engaging. I listened to his detailed history of the Greeks and very much enjoyed his discussions of the context within which each lived. I'd highly recommend this course as the Professor is so engaging and he really lights up the subjects of each of his lectures.
Date published: 2017-05-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dramatic presentation Professor Fears does a great job bringing characters to life. The lectures provide an enjoyable and edifying alternative to tackling Plutarch's Lives, on which the presentation is largely based. If you purchase the audio version, be sure to review the maps included in the Course Guidebook before listening (especially if you're playing the recording while driving) if you're not already familiar with the historical geography of the eastern Mediterranean.
Date published: 2017-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Only Way To Learn Professor Fears is not only an historian, he is a story teller par excellence. History and Literature can appear dry but not in the hands of a great story teller, dry facts and information come to life. I also own Books That Have Made History by Professor Fears, and his story telling makes all the difference in both courses.
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging Course! I had this given to me, unsolicited, as a gift and was a bit wary that I wouldn't like it. I'm not much of a reader of ancient history. Although I've been interested in the history of Greek and Roman civilizations, it just wasn't something that caught my interest. This series really corrected this for me. The content was interesting, but it was the delivery by Prof. Fears that really hooked me. He is an incredibly knowledgeable scholar, but I really enjoyed his style of speaking. The guy gets into it, telling the stories almost as the ancient bards and chroniclers must have told them to the people of the time. I can highly recommend this series.
Date published: 2017-01-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Famous Greeks The lecturer is not up to the quality that we are used to hearing in the Great Courses series. Yes, he has a command of the subject, but his manner is not engaging. This is the first and only disc that I have seriously thought of sending back. Perhaps the saving grace of the course is the last two lectures that give a good account of the Greek and Persian wars.
Date published: 2017-01-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good subject matter and well presented. prof Fears
Date published: 2016-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! What a course! J. Rufus Fears (May he rest in peace) was a fantastic story teller! He truly brings the ancient Greeks to life! The Teaching Company is doing a great service to all of us by keeping examples of this great instructors talents alive! I wish to buy all of the courses J. Rufus Fears has with The Great Courses.
Date published: 2016-09-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good storyteller, but some annoying bits The professor has a good style of telling the story in a way that doesn't sound historical (the beginning in fact, is not). However, he often trails off at the end of words, leaving the listener (I am rating the audio course only) unable to pick up certain words. More annoying, he constantly mispronounces "cavalry" as "calvary", a word with an entirely different meaning. It's grating to hear that. He also states that what is modern day Turkey was called by the Greeks, Asia Minor. In fact, it was called Asia Minor by the Romans. The Greeks referred to Turkey as Anatolia. I'm not a scholar of history, and even I can point out these mistakes. I'm sure there are others more blatant to one more aware of the content than I.
Date published: 2016-06-16
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