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Foundations of Western Civilization

Foundations of Western Civilization

Professor Thomas F. X. Noble Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Course No.  370
Course No.  370
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

You can discover the essential nature, evolution, and perceptions of Western civilization from its humble beginnings in the great river valleys of Iraq and Egypt to the dawn of the modern world. With these 48 lectures on the people, places, ideas, and events that make up The Foundations of Western Civilization, award-winning scholar and teacher Thomas F. X. Noble of the University of Notre Dame invites you to explore the vast and rich territory of Western civilization.

Grasp History over Thousands of Years

From the late stages of the Agricultural Revolution to the doorstep of the Scientific Revolution, your learning in this course will cover roughly 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600, when the "foundations" of the modern West come into view.

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You can discover the essential nature, evolution, and perceptions of Western civilization from its humble beginnings in the great river valleys of Iraq and Egypt to the dawn of the modern world. With these 48 lectures on the people, places, ideas, and events that make up The Foundations of Western Civilization, award-winning scholar and teacher Thomas F. X. Noble of the University of Notre Dame invites you to explore the vast and rich territory of Western civilization.

Grasp History over Thousands of Years

From the late stages of the Agricultural Revolution to the doorstep of the Scientific Revolution, your learning in this course will cover roughly 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600, when the "foundations" of the modern West come into view.

Professor Noble's goal is to offer a history of what has been fundamental across millennia in the West, that most unusual of world civilizations.

"Throughout the course, we will pause to reflect on where Western civilization finds its primary locus at any given moment," he says. "But Western civilization is much more than human and political geography.

"We will explore the myriad forms of political and institutional structures by means of which Western peoples have organized themselves and their societies. These include monarchies of several distinct types, as well as participatory republics.

"Looking at institutions will draw us to inquire about the Western tradition of political discourse. Who should participate in any given society? Why? How have societies resolved the tension between individual self-interest and the common good?"

Your learning will follow a timeline and order to cover vast amounts of territory and thousands of years:

  • Begin in the ancient Near East and move to Greece, then to Rome
  • Explore the shape and impact of large ancient empires, including those of Persia, Alexander the Great, and Rome
  • Consider Western Europe to watch Europe gradually expand physically and culturally
  • Examine the globalization of Western civilization with the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration and discovery.
Discover a Treasure of Rich Historical Detail

This course rewards the desire for useful generalization and theory. But it also highlights the telling detail on which history can turn. Professor Noble's guidance allows you to comprehend the ongoing presence of the Roman Empire, the ceaseless influence of a 20-year golden age in Athens, the living struggle between Abraham's three great religions, and much more.

Professor Noble seeks to delight the mind with the "Aha!" experience: "That's why we do that!" "That's where that word came from!" "That's why those people won!" (In the last revelation, metals and horses figure more prominently than social virtues.)

And the course is a lavish treasure of rich detail. For example:

  • The Greek Dark Ages (c. 1100 to 700 B.C.) went "dark," at least in part, because the Greeks forgot how to write—the only people in human history known to have lost literacy after having once attained it.
  • The architects of the Parthenon, to achieve the optical illusion of perfect straightness, subtly angled the building's columns so that, if extended, they would meet a mile and a quarter above the temple's roof—over its exact center.
  • Although fewer than 200 books (including classical texts) survive from before the year 800, the 9th century—meaning the literate monastic establishment fostered by Charlemagne—has left us more than 6,000.
  • The city of Florence, at the height of the Renaissance, had no university, but this was compensated somewhat by Lorenzo de'Medici, who was spending 50 percent of the city's annual budget on books for his Medicean Academy's library.
  • Christopher Columbus, in what was perhaps a bit of "spin" from a practiced self-promoter, based his plan for reaching the East Indies by sailing west partly on suppositions about the Earth's size that had been known to be false since Hellenistic times.
A Learning Experience Built around Powerful Organizing Themes

This broad and panoramic series will help you pull an enormous sweep of history together into one coherent—though by no means closed—framework.

Professor Noble walks you through history as it develops, taking into account: ecology, geography, and climate; government and economics; religion; work and leisure; philosophy; literature; art and architecture; and even virtues, values, and aesthetics.

You will find everything from a thumbnail sketch of the Assyrians (cruel practitioners of state terror) to a detailed analysis of how the Roman constitution worked. For example, the word veto, which means "I forbid," was literally shouted into the Senate chamber by Roman tribunes listening from just outside the door.

In addition to such detailed, anecdotal information, another way you will gain a more vivid sense of the past from these lectures is from the number of memorable sketches of individuals and great works of Western culture. You will:

  • Ponder the view of life in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Review the impressive amount of historical information preserved in the Iliad
  • Listen to selections from the great poets of ancient Rome, including not only Virgil and Ovid but Sallust, Juvenal, and Martial
  • Encounter amazing figures such as Charlemagne's lieutenant Theodulf, who was not only a bishop but an imperial diplomat and administrator, a theologian and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, a poet, and an architect who designed an exquisite chapel at Germigny.
The Importance of Material Factors

Professor Noble is careful never to neglect the environmental and technological factors that also shape history.

You will examine how a sustained period of favorable weather around the 10th and 11th centuries allowed western Europe to become more populous, found and rebuild cities, increase trade, and go from being a target of outside invasions by Vikings, Huns, Mongols, and Arabs to launching incursions of its own: The Crusades, which began in 1095.

And delving even deeper into the story, you will learn how a seemingly humble item, the horse collar, contributed so powerfully to this trend. If it were not for the invention of the horse collar, there may have been no Crusades at all.

Illuminating Questions about Familiar Categories

Professor Noble suggests that many conventional historical categories and concepts can obscure as much as they reveal. By setting aside these ideas, you can open your mind to a broader and perhaps more accurate picture of history.

Did the Roman Empire really "fall"? What did people at the time experience? What exactly was being reborn in the Renaissance? Is it historically accurate to speak of the "Protestant Reformation"? Why do we think of the Middle Ages as just that—i.e., a time somehow sandwiched between two other (and presumably superior) times? Did the brilliant intellectuals and writers who clustered around the court of Charlemagne see it that way?

No other civilization has achieved the global reach of the West. By surveying Mesopotamia to modernity and everything in between, you will pursue answers to the questions of what "the West" most essentially is or has been thought to be, and what distinguishes it from other world civilizations—not necessarily better in all ways but surely unique.

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    “Western,” “Civilization,” and “Foundations”
    These three seemingly simple words demand reflection. Where is the West? Who is Western? If civilization means cities, where do those come from? And when we look at history, how do we tell what is truly foundational from what may be merely famous? What is the difference between celebrity and distinction? x
  • 2
    History Begins at Sumer
    Borrowing our title from a famous book by S. N. Kramer, we look at why this small slice of what is now southern Iraq became—along with Egypt—one of the two foundations of Western civilization. x
  • 3
    Egypt—The Gift of the Nile
    As Sumer was the gift of the Tigris and Euphrates, so Egypt—a ribbon of fertile floodplain 750 miles long but not much more than 15 miles wide—has been called "the gift of the Nile." But the differences between Egypt and Mesopotamia tell us as much as the similarities. x
  • 4
    The Hebrews—Small States and Big Ideas
    Israel, built by the descendants of Abraham, was one of the small states that arose after the Egyptian Empire fell (c. 700 B.C.). Unified and independent only from 1200–900 B.C., it bequeathed to the West crucial religious ideas. x
  • 5
    A Succession of Empires
    The peoples holding sway over the ancient Near East included the cruel Assyrians, the Medes, the Neo-Babylonians who overthrew the Assyrians around 600 B.C., and the Persians, who along with the Medes would build the largest empire the world had seen to that time. x
  • 6
    Wide-Ruling Agamemnon
    Why is it important for you to grasp the archaeological record of the period from 1500–1200 B.C. in order to understand The Iliad and The Odyssey—two poems composed 500 years later? x
  • 7
    Dark Age and Archaic Greece
    What unique circumstance—unknown before or since in human history—made the Greek Dark Ages so "dark"? And how do we "do" the history of a time and place that is so obscured from our view? Surprisingly, we know a good deal. x
  • 8
    The Greek Polis—Sparta
    Spartan society was harsh and peculiar, yet many observers at the time and since have found "the Spartan way" strangely compelling. After all, they won the war against Athens, and their victory moved Plato to re-imagine Athenian society in The Republic. What were the main features of this system, and why did the Spartans embrace it? x
  • 9
    The Greek Polis—Athens
    Lurching from crisis to crisis, the Athenians accidentally created one of the world's most freewheeling democracies—at least for adult male citizens—even as they were building an empire. How did the whole thing work, and what finally brought it down? x
  • 10
    Civic Culture—Architecture and Drama
    Can you list the key public buildings of an ancient Greek city? How did they combine beautiful and functional forms with deep ideological meanings? What made drama (including comedy) the public art par excellence? x
  • 11
    The Birth of History
    What does it mean to say that the Greeks, while certainly not the first people to reflect on the past, nonetheless "invented" history? How did Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, each in his own unforgettable way, contribute to this basic turning of the Western mind? x
  • 12
    From Greek Religion to Socratic Philosophy
    How did the Greeks begin moving from religious to more philosophical views of the world, and why did these views first arise in a particular part of the Greek world called Ionia? Who were the Sophists, what did they teach, and why did Socrates oppose them? x
  • 13
    Plato and Aristotle
    The goal of this lecture is to explain why Raphael's famous painting, The School of Athens, has Plato pointing up and Aristotle pointing down, and why both are defending and extending the work of Socrates. x
  • 14
    The Failure of the Polis and the Rise of Alexander
    Why couldn't thinkers as brilliant as Plato and Aristotle conceive of a non-imaginary alternative to the polis, and why does the career of one of Aristotle's students mean that in the end, such a shortcoming may not have mattered anyway? x
  • 15
    The Hellenistic World
    The world after Alexander was cosmopolitan, prosperous, and dominated by Greeks and Macedonians all over the Mediterranean and far out into the old Persian Empire. Literature, science, and new philosophies flourished. x
  • 16
    The Rise of Rome
    This lecture is about the foundations on which Roman history rests, including the geography of Italy and the two centuries or so of monarchical rule—ending, tradition says, in 509 B.C.—that the republic overthrew. x
  • 17
    The Roman Republic—Government and Politics
    What does it mean to speak of the "constitution" of the Roman republic? What are the essential offices, procedures, and ideals involved, and how did the whole thing really work? x
  • 18
    Roman Imperialism
    By the time the republic found that it didn't merely possess but was an empire, Roman rule extended from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia, and from the North Sea to the Sahara Desert. How and why did this happen? x
  • 19
    The Culture of the Roman Republic
    The Romans "did" more than war and politics. They created a distinctive culture that flowered in magnificent lyric and epic poetry, assimilated profound Greek influences, and gave us Cicero as Rome's greatest booster and toughest critic. x
  • 20
    Rome—From Republic to Empire
    The 200 often-turbulent years between the murdered reformers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and the rise of Octavian saw the old Roman system drown amid overwhelming temptations and tensions brought on by Rome's very conquests. x
  • 21
    The Pax Romana
    When Octavian became Augustus princeps—"First Citizen"—in 31 B.C., he was inaugurating a 200-year period of security, prosperity, and wise rule that Tacitus would nonetheless wryly label "a desert [that we] called peace." Was Tacitus right? x
  • 22
    Rome's Golden and Silver Ages
    To understand how culturally creative and important the principate was, you need only reflect that what today strikes the popular imagination as quintessentially "Roman" is a product of this period (republican Rome was a city of wood). x
  • 23
    Jesus and the New Testament
    No well-informed observer in the time of Augustus and his successors would have predicted that a world-changing movement would arise in a small, poor, and insignificant region of Palestine. But that is what happened. x
  • 24
    The Emergence of a Christian Church
    The word "church" (ekklesia) occurs only twice in only one of the Gospels (Matthew). Yet Paul, whose letters predate the Gospels, uses the word routinely. This intriguing fact is your gateway to the fascinating history of early Christianity. x
  • 25
    Late Antiquity—Crisis and Response
    For 100 years after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, the Romans put up almost no great public structures—a sign of severe trouble. What lay behind this crisis, and how did Diocletian (who became emperor in 284) and his successor Constantine successfully respond? x
  • 26
    Barbarians and Emperors
    Although the notion that Rome somehow "fell" remains pervasive, scholars of late antiquity (c. 300 to 700) have no use for the idea. More intriguing still, there weren't any barbarian invasions as usually understood. x
  • 27
    The Emergence of the Catholic Church
    Once Rome stopped persecuting its adherents, the new Christian faith spread through the Roman world in the form of a large, hierarchical organization. Still, achieving a "catholic" (i.e., universal) definition of key beliefs proved difficult. x
  • 28
    Christian Culture in Late Antiquity
    How and why did it matter that Christianity triumphed in the Roman world? Church Fathers, the lives of monks and nuns, and the interaction of Christian faith with a host of day-to-day issues hold the answer. x
  • 29
    Muhammad and Islam
    As with ancient Israel or 1st-century Palestine, no one could have predicted that 7th-century Arabia would become the cradle of a world-changing new religion. Yet new as it was in many ways, Islam had important ties to Greece and Rome as well as the scriptural traditions of the West. x
  • 30
    The Birth of Byzantium
    When he rebuilt an old Greek town in about 330 and named it after himself, what did the Emperor Constantine think he was doing? (Hint: It wasn't "founding something called 'Byzantium.'") What was the result, over the centuries, of Constantine's vision? x
  • 31
    Barbarian Kingdoms in the West
    Within and without the old Roman frontiers, the world of the West became a world of small Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic kingdoms. What were they like, and how does understanding them prepare you to grasp the history of the West properly? x
  • 32
    The World of Charlemagne
    How could Charlemagne have achieved so much? He ruled more of Europe than anyone else between the times of the Romans and Napoleon. Yet his Carolingian empire survived him by barely more than a generation. x
  • 33
    The Carolingian Renaissance
    Since 1839, scholars have been associating the Carolingians with a "renaissance." Why? What is Carolingian culture's distinctive contribution to the West, and how does it set them apart from their Muslim and Byzantine contemporaries? x
  • 34
    The Expansion of Europe
    Despite being battered by centuries of Muslim, Magyar, and Viking attacks and invasions, Europe was able by 1095 to begin striking east and south in a series of Crusades that would span two centuries. It was one of history's great reversals. How did it happen? x
  • 35
    The Chivalrous Society
    The three-part medieval scheme of fighting men, praying men, and working men is worth pondering, but so are all those whom it omits. x
  • 36
    Medieval Political Traditions, I
    What are the two words that best sum up the national achievements of England and France during the Middle Ages? Why do medieval historians now avoid the term "feudalism"? x
  • 37
    Medieval Political Traditions, II
    European history as commonly taught centers tightly on England and France as the key nations of Europe at this time. This lecture will explain why you ought to challenge that view. x
  • 38
    Scholastic Culture
    The great Scholastics—Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas—were brilliant, often eccentric thinkers who came out of the Latin-speaking clerical and academic world that gave the West one of its greatest intellectual and institutional patrimonies: the university. x
  • 39
    Vernacular Culture
    The years from 900 onward saw an explosion of vernacular (i.e. non-Latin) writings. Why did people begin creating formal written works in their native tongues? Does knowing this literature bring us closer to the people of medieval Europe? x
  • 40
    The Crisis of Renaissance Europe
    To understand the Renaissance, you must know the political, religious, and social context in which it took place. The age was one that Dickens might have called "the worst of times." The Renaissance was a response to grave challenges. x
  • 41
    The Renaissance Problem
    So, what's the problem? Actually, there are four—or at least one problem with four sides. Here are two clues: How did a movement that began in Italy wind up with a French name? And how can a "re-birth" be something new? x
  • 42
    Renaissance Portraits
    How to capture a sense of the Renaissance? With cultural biographies of Boccaccio, Petrarch, Lorenzo de' Medici, Pope Pius II, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. x
  • 43
    The Northern Renaissance
    What happened when the Renaissance and its "new learning" crossed the Alps? Humanists could be found on both sides of the mountains, but they turned to different sources north and south, with fateful results. x
  • 44
    The Protestant Reformation—Martin Luther
    "The" Reformation (if indeed there was only one) is not as obvious a historical phenomenon as you might think. To penetrate its meaning, you will find it helpful to begin with the first of its magisterial figures, Martin Luther. x
  • 45
    The Protestant Reformation—John Calvin
    Why is seeing the Reformation as "Protestants versus Catholics" such a serious mistake, and what view makes better sense? To answer those questions, you will consider other major Protestant figures besides Luther, especially John Calvin. x
  • 46
    Catholic Reforms and "Confessionalization"
    Beginning around 1550, the Catholic Church undertook a reformation of its own, founding new institutions and launching new religious orders. At the same time, "confessional" lines were hardening on the religious map of a permanently divided Europe. x
  • 47
    Exploration and Empire
    In purely material terms (population, natural resources, etc.) the peninsular appendage of Asia that is Europe should not have been the one among all world civilizations to span the globe. But starting in the latter decades of the 15th century, that is what happened. x
  • 48
    What Challenges Remain?
    You leave the West in 1600, on the cusp of the Age of Empire, the Scientific Revolution, and the Baroque Period. It's a long way from those mud-walled villages in Mesopotamia to the threshold of its modern era, but certain patterns, problems, and possibilities endure to make the West what it is. x

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Thomas F. X. Noble
Ph.D. Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame

Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his B.A. in History from Ohio University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History from Michigan State University. Professor Noble has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and research grants from the American Philosophical Society. In 2008 he received the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Teaching from Notre Dame. In 1999 he was awarded the Alumni Distinguished Professor Award and a David Harrison III Award for outstanding undergraduate advising, both from the University of Virginia. Professor Noble is the author, coauthor, or editor of 10 books and has published more than 40 articles, chapters, and essays. His coauthored textbook, Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment, is in its 5th edition. His research has concentrated on late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, focusing on the history of the city of Rome, the history of the papacy, and the age of Charlemagne.

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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 100 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by An excellent overview of an enormous timespan Like other reviewers I was at first sceptical about a course of 48 lectures covering such a time period but will confess to having been very pleasantly surprised. The level of detail covered in most of the lectures has been more than sufficient to point me in many directions for further reading - for me a sign that the subject matter has been put across in an interesting way. Professor Noble's vast knowledge of his subject is clearly evident and he puts all his points across in a most engaging way. However like another reviewer I found that I missed words when the Professor dropped his voice at the end of sentences and had to spend time 'rewinding' to try and pick them up - in some cases I still couldn't get them and had to refer to the course guidebook to help me out. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed the Professor's presentations and would highly recommend this course. September 24, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by An excellent walk through Western Civilization It's funny how things change your life. I was looking through my mail and I noticed a catalog called "The Great Courses". Normally I would have thrown it out but something made me look inside. To my surprise it was filled with content that I actually cared about. Leafing though the catalog I came upon this course and I had to buy it. I am a 7th grade World History teacher and I wanted to expand my knowledge so that I can bring it into the classroom. This course did not disappoint. The professor was great. It was a mixture of refresher and revelation for me. I learned so much new material I had to listen to certain lectures twice to get all the notes I wanted (I'm not complaining, I had a great time). I would recommend this course to any of my colleagues or other teachers in this field. August 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Foundations of Western Civilization After 50 years from my freshman class in " Contemporary Civilizations" this course was greatly appreciated. I now have a better understanding of how our ideas and nation have progressed from antiquity to today, and there affect on history and literature. I am know following it up with "The Wisdom of History", and how they progressed from concepts discussed in this course. July 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Engaging I was leery of a course that covers thousands of years of history in 48 lectures. I was afraid that the presenter would move so quickly that the listener would only get an outline of bullet points. Admittedly a few of the lectures were like that, but overall Mr. Noble focuses on what is essential about a period, and talks about that. Moreover, several of the lectures, such as the one on the “fall” of the Roman Empire, were outstanding. Mr. Noble never wastes any words, and his style is always engaging. January 23, 2014
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