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Great Battles of the Ancient World

Great Battles of the Ancient World

Professor Garrett G. Fagan Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
Course No.  3757
Course No.  3757
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Hollywood has gone to elaborate lengths to recreate the violence and mayhem of ancient warfare in movies such as Gladiator and Troy. But what were ancient battles really like? What weapons, tactics, armor, training, and logistics were used? And what were the crucial factors that could turn the tide of battle, giving one side victory and consigning the other to slaughter, capture, or, at best, escape to fight another day?

A professor of classics and history at The Pennsylvania State University and the teacher of our immensely popular course, The History of Ancient Rome, Dr. Garrett G. Fagan has devoted extensive study to ancient warfare. In these 24 lectures he takes you into the thick of combat in some of the most notable battles fought in the Mediterranean region from prehistoric times to the 4th century A.D.

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Hollywood has gone to elaborate lengths to recreate the violence and mayhem of ancient warfare in movies such as Gladiator and Troy. But what were ancient battles really like? What weapons, tactics, armor, training, and logistics were used? And what were the crucial factors that could turn the tide of battle, giving one side victory and consigning the other to slaughter, capture, or, at best, escape to fight another day?

A professor of classics and history at The Pennsylvania State University and the teacher of our immensely popular course, The History of Ancient Rome, Dr. Garrett G. Fagan has devoted extensive study to ancient warfare. In these 24 lectures he takes you into the thick of combat in some of the most notable battles fought in the Mediterranean region from prehistoric times to the 4th century A.D.

Great Battles—Crucibles of History

"Battles, for all their madness, are worthy of study if for no other reason than that they are the crucibles of history," says Professor Fagan, who notes that a few hours of hard fighting can determine the fates of entire empires. Among the many fateful battles you study are:

  • Marathon: This clash between Athenians and the invading Persian army in 490 B.C.E. demonstrated the fearsome effectiveness of Greek hoplite phalanxes against Persian arms. Later European history would have looked very different had the Greeks lost at Marathon.
  • Gaugamela: In 331 B.C.E., Alexander the Great crushed a vastly superior Persian force in a classic hammer-and-anvil battle, in which his cavalry (the hammer) outflanked the enemy to drive it onto the spear-wielding phalanx (the anvil). When the dust had settled, King Darius III was in flight, and Achaemenid Persia, which had dominated Asia for three centuries, was at an end.
  • Masada: The Romans showed their mastery of the difficult art of siege warfare by breaching the virtually impregnable Jewish fortress of Masada, which fell on April 16, A.D. 73. The defenders took their own lives rather than surrender, ending the last chapter of the Jewish Revolt against Rome.

Famous Generals

You also follow celebrated confrontations between commanders of ancient times, including Hannibal versus Scipio, the 3rd-century B.C.E. equivalent of Lee versus Grant during the American Civil War, or Rommel versus Montgomery during World War II. At the head of a Carthaginian army, Hannibal nearly broke the back of Roman power in Italy, inflicting the worst Roman defeat ever at the horrendous Battle of Cannae in 218 B.C.E. But he met his match in P. Cornelius Scipio, who lured him to Africa for a killing blow at the Battle of Zama. Scipio was known ever afterward as Scipio "Africanus."

Other generals you study include:

  • Alexander the Great: Arguably the greatest general ever, Alexander was heir to the tactical innovations of his father, Philip II of Macedon, who, in turn, had learned new battle techniques from Epaminondas of Thebes. Alexander's stunning victories are marked by his maximally efficient use of military tools.
  • Julius Caesar: A brilliant tactician and master chronicler of his own exploits, Caesar won battles against barbarian armies and Roman rivals alike. He was preparing to conquer the Parthian Empire when he was struck down in the Roman Forum on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E.
  • Xenophon: Elected general after the massacre of his commanding officers, this soldier of fortune led a beleaguered army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries on a daring retreat from deep within Persian territory.

What You Will Learn

This course focuses on warfare in the ancient Mediterranean world, encompassing the region from Mesopotamia to Western Europe, including Egypt and North Africa.

The first eight lectures chart the development of warfare from prehistoric times to the glory days of the great states of the ancient Near East and Egypt. After examining theories about how to define war, you survey different models for the origins of warfare in the Upper Paleolithic (c. 37,000–12,000 years ago) and Neolithic (c. 10,000–5,000 years ago), testing them against the archaeological evidence, which provides our only clues to organized violence among prehistoric peoples.

Then you move into the historical era, starting with the first battles for which we have written accounts. These took place between the city-states of early Sumer (c. 3000–2350 B.C.E.), when armies of infantry that used rudimentary chariots clashed over honor, irrigation rights, and boundaries. Next you travel to Egypt and survey the changing nature of warfare in the Old to New Kingdoms (c. 2700–1070 B.C.E.), including the first fully recorded battle in history: the Battle of Megiddo between Pharaoh Thutmose III and a coalition of Syrian lords, fought outside the walls of a town in Palestine. You examine the fearsome Assyrian war machine as it developed c. 900–612 B.C.E., and the sophisticated army that allowed the Assyrians to forge the largest empire yet seen in the region. You also address disputed matters of the Trojan War and Homeric warfare.

In the next eight lectures you cover warfare among the Greeks and their distinctive form of combat using hoplites, a type of armored infantry that fought in close formation called the phalanx. You study the Persian invasions of Greece (490–479 B.C.E.), examining the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea that decided this titanic clash. The disastrous Athenian expedition against Sicily (415–413 B.C.E.) during the Peloponnesian War is next, followed by the military revolution in the 4th century B.C.E., which saw the creation of a new and formidable fighting unit spearheaded by the cavalry and a reformed phalanx. This integrated and flexible army reached its pinnacle of efficiency under Alexander the Great, and you survey the battles at the Granicus River, Issus, and Gaugamela that made Alexander king of Persia.

In the third part of the course you study the legions of Rome, which evolved brutally effective tactics that gave them dominion over the entire Mediterranean basin. It is unclear how Roman legionary armies actually fought, and you explore various theories before following the legions into combat in their colossal struggles with Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218–202 B.C.E.). Then you compare the Roman legion and Macedonian phalanx—the two most efficient killing machines of the day—in duels fought in Italy in the 3rd century B.C.E. and in the Balkans and Asia Minor in the 2nd century. Next you consider Roman skill in siege warfare as exemplified by Julius Caesar's siege of Alesia (52 B.C.E.) and the siege of Masada in Judea in A.D. 72–73. The final two battles covered are Roman defeats and introduce the German tribal warrior. These are the battles of the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9, considered one of the most important battles in European history, and Adrianople in A.D. 378, which heralded the decline of Roman imperial power.

In the final lecture, Professor Fagan considers the recent proposal by scholar Victor Davis Hanson that there is a distinctively "Western way of war" traceable from the Greeks to the modern age. This intriguing view represents hoplite warfare as a unique development of Greek conditions that casts its shadow down to the present. Despite the theory's attractive simplicity, it has problems that Dr. Fagan details in a fascinating glimpse of scholarly debate in action.

Clash of Theories

The battles you study were fought so long ago, and accounts of them are so incomplete, that what happened involves considerable controversy. Professor Fagan presents contending theories and often his own hypotheses about how events unfolded during these bloody encounters. For example:

  • The standard view of battle mechanics adopted by opposing armies of Greek hoplites is that they advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in close-ordered formation and crashed into each other head-on. Then they sought, quite literally, to shove their opponents off the field, all the while stabbing with their spears. The minority view is that hoplite battle was more open, with hoplites standing up to six feet apart and fighting individually rather than as a mass. Dr. Fagan demonstrates how this minority view "is a lot more plausible and is supported by the ancient evidence better than the strange business of ritualized shoving."
  • Similarly, it is far from clear how Roman legionaries fought their battles. The principal ancient source, the historian Livy, is so confused on the point that it is obvious he never witnessed a legion in action. After considering various schools of thought, Professor Fagan draws on clues from different battle narratives to conclude that flexibility lay at the heart of the Roman system, so that no one "battle deployment" fit all.
  • On the issue of whether the Greek hoplites at Marathon charged the Persians across the one-mile gap separating the armies, as described by the ancient historian Herodotus, Professor Fagan notes that experiments carried out at The Pennsylvania State University with physical education majors suggest that Herodotus was wrong. Wearing weighted jackets and carrying mock nine-pound shields, only one of the Penn State athletes could run the mile-long course, and he was utterly exhausted—certainly not in a position to fight 24,000 Persians!

War's Grim Reality

Dr. Fagan ends by reminding us of the grim reality of war: Throughout history many millions have died on battlefields. "We owe it to them," he concludes, "and to the thousands who continue to perish in our planet's wars, to understand as fully as possible what it was that killed them. If this course has advanced its audience's comprehension of war even a little, then it has amply fulfilled its purpose."

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Why Study Battles? What Is War?
    Professor Garrett G. Fagan addresses the importance of studying battles and surveys the changing scholarly approach to the subject since the 19th century. He concludes by looking at different definitions of warfare, particularly the "operational" and "social-constructivist" models. x
  • 2
    The Problem of Warfare’s Origins
    Three types of evidence shed light on origins of warfare: human remains bearing evidence of trauma, artifacts that function primarily as weapons, and monuments such as fortifications or depictions of warriors painted on cave walls. Their interpretations are far from straightforward. x
  • 3
    Sumer, Akkad, and Early Mesopotamian Warfare
    You enter the historical era when written records first become available. Such evidence allows us to reconstruct the conventions and conditions of warfare among the first cities in Sumer in c. 3000 B.C. and to explore the nature of Sumerian armies, weapons, and battle tactics. x
  • 4
    Egyptian Warfare from the Old to New Kingdoms
    Evidence of warfare in Old Kingdom Egypt is ambiguous, but it is much more plentiful in later periods, when the pharaoh's role was increasingly that of a war leader. Egyptian warfare was transformed by the introduction of the chariot. x
  • 5
    The Battles of Megiddo and Kadesh
    With New Kingdom Egypt you get the first fully recorded battle in history: the Battle of Megiddo. You also cover the later Battle of Kadesh, which is attested in both Egyptian and Hittite accounts. x
  • 6
    The Trojan War and Homeric Warfare
    The reality of the Trojan War has been debated since ancient times. In this lecture you survey the archaeological evidence for Troy and for warfare among the mainland Greeks, called Mycenaeans. x
  • 7
    The Assyrian War Machine
    The Assyrian military model of multiethnic, highly mobile armies relying on missile weaponry and chariots was to characterize major Near Eastern powers for centuries. You study the nature of the Assyrian army, the unique features of the empire it created, and the place of warfare in Assyrian imperial ideology. x
  • 8
    The Sieges of Lachish and Jerusalem
    You examine the art of ancient siege warfare by considering the two great sieges at Lachish and Jerusalem during the third campaign of Sennacherib (701 B.C.). The sources for these events include Assyrian written and iconographic records, accounts in the Bible, and archaeology. x
  • 9
    A Peculiar Institution? Hoplite Warfare
    The Greek hoplite was a heavily armed and armored infantryman who fought in a formation called the phalanx, dominating battlefields of the ancient world for almost four centuries (c. 700–338 B.C.). x
  • 10
    The Battle of Marathon
    The Battle of Marathon saw the forces of the Persian superpower defeated in the first major confrontation between Greeks and Persians on the Hellenic mainland. The battle itself was strategically indecisive and set the stage for the serious clash of Greek and Persian armies a decade later. x
  • 11
    The Battle of Thermopylae
    In the second Persian invasion of Greece, 300 Spartans with allied troops were charged with stopping an enormous Persian force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, while Greek armies mustered in the rear. Astonishingly, the fight lasted three days before the defenders were betrayed and then massacred. x
  • 12
    Naval Warfare and the Battle of Salamis
    You survey the naval developments that led to the trireme in the late 6th century B.C. and then focus on the Battle of Salamis, which saw the Persian fleet defeated by Athens. The lecture ends with the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.). x
  • 13
    The Athenian Expedition to Sicily
    The Athenian assault on the heavily forytified city of Syracuse in Sicily represents one of the greatest military follies in history. The ensuing disaster was a turning point in the wider Peloponnesian War with Sparta (431–404 B.C.). x
  • 14
    The March of the Ten Thousand
    You follow the exploits of the "Ten Thousand," a contingent of Greek mercenaries caught deep in hostile Persian territory around 400 B.C. Their fighting retreat, conducted over 1,500 miles, demonstrated the superiority of Greek hoplites and later inspired Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia. x
  • 15
    Macedonian Military Innovations
    Warfare among Greek city-states in the 4th century B.C. led to a new style of hoplite combat using a refined version of phalanx. Adopted by King Philip II of Macedon, these tactics helped create a fearsome military machine that was to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and Asia for more than two centuries. x
  • 16
    Alexander’s Conquest of Persia
    Using the Macedonian phalanx, Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire in 334 B.C., winning major battles against overwhelming odds at Granicus (334 B.C.), Issus (333 B.C.), and Gaugamela (331 B.C.), making him ruler over all of Persia. x
  • 17
    The Legions of Rome
    Abandoning the Greek-style phalanx, the Romans created an army that would conquer the known world within two centuries. The essential elements of Roman legionary equipment and tactical formations are examined. x
  • 18
    The Battles of Cannae and Zama
    An examination of Roman battles begins with the worst defeat in Roman history, the disaster at Cannae, inflicted by Carthaginian military genius Hannibal. The routed Romans waited 14 years for their revenge against Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. x
  • 19
    Legion versus Phalanx—Six Pitched Battles
    The two greatest tactical systems of the ancient Mediterranean were the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman legion. They met in battle at several engagements, allowing us to weigh their relative advantages. You consider the results of six battles. x
  • 20
    The Sieges of Alesia and Masada
    You look at developments in siege warfare during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, examining in detail two great Roman sieges: Alesia (52 B.C.) and Masada (A.D. 72–73). Both required enormous networks of camps, towers, moats, and palisades to seal off the besieged. x
  • 21
    Caesar’s World War
    Between 49 and 45 B.C., Caesar fought a civil war across the empire against his Roman rivals. You examine the battles of Pharsalus, Zela, Thapsus, and Munda, paying particular attention to what allowed Caesar to win in each case, especially since he was often outnumbered. x
  • 22
    The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
    In A.D. 9, three Roman legions were ambushed and massacred in the Teutoburg Forest by Germans under Arminius, a former auxiliary in the Roman ranks. You explore accounts of the battle and the remarkable archaeological discoveries that have shed new light on German tactics. x
  • 23
    Catastrophe at Adrianople
    The Roman defeat at Adrianople in A.D. 378 was only the second time in Roman history that an emperor was killed in action against a foreign foe. Assessing the battle, you survey the Goths and the threat they posed in the 4th century, and you examine the military organization and equipment of the Later Roman Empire. x
  • 24
    Reflections on Warfare in the Ancient World
    You address two final questions: (1) Why did warfare play a central role in the societies of the ancient Mediterranean? (2) Was the so-called "Western way of war" invented in Archaic Greece and has it been continuously practiced up to the present? x

Lecture Titles

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Garrett G. Fagan
Ph.D. Garrett G. Fagan
The Pennsylvania State University
Dr. Garrett G. Fagan is Professor of Ancient History at The Pennsylvania State University, where he has taught since 1996. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and educated at Trinity College. He earned his Ph.D. from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, and has held teaching positions at McMaster University, York University (Canada), and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Davidson College. In all of these institutions, students have given very high ratings to his courses on the classical world. He has also given many public lectures to audiences of all ages. Professor Fagan has an extensive research record in Roman history and has held a prestigious Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany. He has published numerous articles in international journals, and his first monograph, Bathing in Public in the Roman World, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1999. He has also edited a volume from Routledge on the phenomenon of pseudoarchaeology (2005). His current research project is on spectatorship at the Roman arena, and he is also working on a book on ancient warfare.
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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 71 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Solid Knowledge Presented Intelligently and with a I would like to see Professor Fagan put out more lectures!!! September 9, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent and worthwhile course This is a course best watched in DVD vs audio as there are numerous images and maps that help to illustrate points made. I disagree with those who have given this negative reviews based on the audio version. True, Professor Fagan with his Irish accent and laid back manner of presentation does not have the enthusiasm of other Great Course presenters but his subject is one that is more academic than others and his quiet style I found engaging. As for lack of details on various battles there are plenty of other Great Courses going into more detail such as Alexander the Great courses. But again, this in part is matter of DVD vs audio alone version. His maps of various battles where there is information available to know disposition of opposing forces are quite good. But of course in audio you do not see these. As for comment he seems to be reading from a book he is writing anyone viewing the DVD would know this is not the case. He just has a very quiet style which personally I found I ended up liking. Some may not of course and I respect their view but just disagree. I liked the fact that he presents the various competing academic views and does not seize on one theory either as to sources or details but does give his opinion as to what he thinks is the best interpretation. Many of these ancient wars are not well documented and depend on inscriptions and interpretation. He does excellent job of giving various points of view. Obviously in 24 lectures covering some 7000 years plus of ancient war this can be little but an overview. But as an overview I found it very engaging and one I can easily recommend. This is my 51st review and I have a number of courses covering some of this same ground. But in different ways. Each course I find adds knowledge and insights missing in others. Because of its focus on ancient warfare this course with its overlaps adds information not found elsewhere. I could perhaps have marked this down slightly to 4 stars in presentation and value but decided to give it 5 stars as I think that certain negative reviews may discourage viewing this course and that would be a shame for those who will find its value. March 2, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Primarily for amateur military historians? Some reviewers have noted that this course is much better on DVD and is enriched by the illustrations and photographs. Perhaps, but if I could barely force myself to finish while killing time in a car, I doubt seriously I could have managed the feat while on a couch that offered the option of sleep. Having just finished courses on the Greek and Persion Wars and Alexander the Great, I began this course eager dive into details of some of those battles. Unfortunately, the treatment of both Marathon and Thermopylae were as dry as the dust the warriors fought in and I learned nothing new about Alexander. Virtually all of the inherent interest of these important events was smothered by the dithering discussion of problems of archeological proof and competing academic theories. The criticisms of presentation style have been voiced in other reviews, and I will not repeat them except to add that Prof. Fagan seems to be reading from a series of draft chapters of a book from which he simply omitted the footnotes. The result is a style that is excessively formal, pedagogical and even somewhat pedantic. Ultimately, it is tiresome. From the beginning, the course seems to struggle find focus as to what it is really about. The initial discussions of the definition of warfare and anthropological theories of warfare in chimpanzees are really irrelevant--the course is nominally about Great Battles of the Ancient World, not the history of warfare. Even the selection of battles for discussion, however, seems to follow no rhyme or reason other than being in chronological order. Indeed, the social commentary on war at the end seems a desperate attempt to pull together common threads through the 24 lectures. Unfortunately, any such threads were unraveled and frayed long before the end. Combining tedious definitions of warfare and other terms, defensive disclaimers as to scope of coverage and the veracity of information upon which conclusions are based, and the distraction of personal academic bickering between Prof. Fagan and other scholars, this course leaves one with little enrichment and a vague wish that the time had been spent in other ways. Not that the course is terrible--it isn't. It's just that after completing more than 30 Teaching Company courses, I am confident there are still many left that are much better. February 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Totally Absorbing VIDEO DOWNLOAD I really enjoyed this course, feeling that the 24 lectures zipped by leaving me wanting more. Folks more knowledgeable than I about military history might point to deficiencies and weak points in Professor Fagan’s presentation, but I came away with a much better understanding of warfare in the ancient Mediterranean world. Having read a fair amount about ancient Greece and Rome, I was familiar with some major battles mentioned (e.g., Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Alexander’s battles, Cannae, and Caesar’s triumphs), but only in a rather basic way. I knew that these and other battles were very important to the history of the period. What Professor Fagan did for me was to tremendously widen and deepen this basic knowledge and understanding. He goes well beyond the usual Greek and Roman battles to explore in considerable detail the origins of warfare, early Mesopotamian as well as Egyptian and Assyrian, for example, and provides a very interesting and thought-provoking assessment about what certainly appears to be the “ancient world’s love affair with war” (audio of lecture 24). Professor Fagan is a great lecturer. I was already familiar with his style, having taken his course on the ‘History of Ancient Rome’ in the audio format. For this course, I decided that I needed the video version to benefit from the maps and other illustrations of such matters as military formations, infantry and cavalry movements, and military equipment, weapons, outfits, and gear. I am very glad I did so. Audio would be alright as Professor Fagan is good at ‘word pictures’, but this course is best and more fully appreciated in the video version. I will not go into great detail about the contents of the course except to mention a few matters that I especially appreciated and found personally interesting. Throughout the course Professor Fagan makes sure that he not only properly describes the battles, but also points to the relevant ancient sources upon which our knowledge rests, assessing their accuracy and completeness. It is obvious, as he notes, that such sources must be read with “caution”. Caution also applies to more recent scholarship, as Professor Fagan shows how scholars often differ on specific battles and on the nature and significance of ancient warfare. In all, Professor Fagan weighs in by giving his position and supporting detail on the matters in question. Of special note in this regard is his very interesting and detailed critique in lecture 24 of Victor Davis Hanson’s highly acclaimed ‘Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power’ (2001) and ‘The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece’ (1989), both of which I admire, demonstrating quite convincingly, however, the ways in which Hanson is wrong on many crucial points. Though the entire course was enlightening for me, I was especially impressed by Professor Fagan’s treatment of what he describes as the Macedonian and Roman “killing machines”. He is particularly good at describing what the battles must have been like, down to some often horrifying details. He also opened up for me a useful window into Rome’s contests with the barbarians, most notably in the gripping lectures on Caesar’s siege of Alesia in central France which led to the surrender of Vercingetorix and the Roman loss of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest to the Germanic forces of Arminius. In both, Professor Fagan, as in most of the previous lectures, draws on archaeological evidence. Regarding the Teutoburg Forest, he also brings into play photos of the landscape as it is today to effectively demonstrate the desperate situation of the Romans. Well, I could go on with more about what I like about this course, but I will just end the review here with a: Highly recommended! December 10, 2013
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