This experience is optimized for Internet Explorer version 9 and above.

Please upgrade your browser

Send the Gift of Lifelong Learning!

Great Battles of the Ancient World

Great Battles of the Ancient World

Professor Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University

Gifting Information


To send your gift, please complete the form below. An email will be sent immediately to notify the recipient of your gift and provide them with instructions to redeem it.

  • 500 characters remaining.

Frequently Asked Questions

With an eGift, you can instantly send a Great Course to a friend or loved one via email. It's simple:
1. Find the course you would like to eGift.
2. Under "Choose a Format", click on Video Download or Audio Download.
3. Click 'Send e-Gift'
4. Fill out the details on the next page. You will need to the email address of your friend or family member.
5. Proceed with the checkout process as usual.
Q: Why do I need to specify the email of the recipient?
A: We will send that person an email to notify them of your gift. If they are already a customer, they will be able to add the gift to their My Digital Library and mobile apps. If they are not yet a customer, we will help them set up a new account so they can enjoy their course in their My Digital Library or via our free mobile apps.
Q: How will my friend or family member know they have a gift?
A: They will receive an email from The Great Courses notifying them of your eGift. The email will direct them to If they are already a customer, they will be able to add the gift to their My Digital Library and mobile apps. If they are not yet a customer, we will help them set up a new account so they can enjoy their course in their My Digital Library or via our free mobile apps.
Q: What if my friend or family member does not receive the email?
A: If the email notification is missing, first check your Spam folder. Depending on your email provider, it may have mistakenly been flagged as spam. If it is not found, please email customer service at ( or call 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: How will I know they have received my eGift?
A: When the recipient clicks on their email and redeems their eGift, you will automatically receive an email notification.
Q: What if I do not receive the notification that the eGift has been redeemed?
A: If the email notification is missing, first check your Spam folder. Depending on your email provider, it may have mistakenly been flagged as spam. If it is not found, please email customer service at ( or call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: I don't want to send downloads. How do I gift DVDs or CDs?
A: eGifting only covers digital products. To purchase a DVD or CD version of a course and mail it to a friend, please call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance. Physical gifting can still be achieved online – can we describe that here and not point folks to call?
Q: Oops! The recipient already owns the course I gifted. What now?
A: Great minds think alike! We can exchange the eGifted course for another course of equal value. Please call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: Can I update or change my email address?
A: Yes, you can. Go to My Account to change your email address.
Q: Can I select a date in the future to send my eGift?
A: Sorry, this feature is not available yet. We are working on adding it in the future.
Q: What if the email associated with eGift is not for my regular Great Course account?
A: Please please email customer service at ( or call our customer service team at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance. They have the ability to update the email address so you can put in your correct account.
Q: When purchasing a gift for someone, why do I have to create an account?
A: This is done for two reasons. One is so you can track the purchase of the order in your ‘order history’ section as well as being able to let our customer service team track your purchase and the person who received it if the need arises.
Q: Can I return or Exchange a gift after I purchase it?
A: Because the gift is sent immediately, it cannot be returned or exchanged by the person giving the gift. The recipient can exchange the gift for another course of equal or lesser value, or pay the difference on a more expensive item
Video title

Priority Code


Great Battles of the Ancient World

Course No. 3757
Professor Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
Share This Course
Course No. 3757
  • 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 200 illustrations, maps, portraits, and battle diagrams. Illustrations bring to life the mobility of Assyrian war machines, the iconic Trojan horse, and Roman legions; maps and battle diagrams offer a visual moment-by-moment account of battles including those at Meggido, Marathon, and the Teutoburg Forrest; and portraits reveal how contemporaries idealized military leaders including Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

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."

Hide Full Description
24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2005
  • 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

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Video Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
CD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 12 CDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

Garrett G. Fagan

About Your Professor

Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
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...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 80 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Very good history course When I first started this course, I expected something a little different. History was not my major in college so it took a little getting use to a scholarly presentation of history. Once into it, I really appreciated how the professor discussed the material and explained the context and seemingly contrary views of ancient history. I believe this in itself is a good reason to take a course like this at least once. The professor points out the viewpoints of the various sources (historical reports if any - in some cases there are none so all is inferred) and how the record may be tainted by the writer's bias, politics, etc. This is essential to gaining a true appreciation of history and the role of the professional historian in establishing an accurate interpretation of historical events. September 29, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Battles of the Ancient World I liked the strict rules of history used to evaluate sources, demonstrating that aspect of the field. It was fascinating to compare a few early battles with the "Decisive Battles of World History" Great Course lectures. This does not have quite as many illustrations as some other Great Courses, but once again the content (and the excellence of the images and maps when used) make it worthwhile. June 2, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Awesome My favorite hobby is studying military history. However, I do not know as much about ancient military history as I do of more recent history, but this definitely provided me with a vast understanding of how battles were fought so long ago. Totally worth it. March 6, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Interesting overview of the evolution of war. I trusted Professor Fagan to provide as thorough an overview of the significant battles of the ancient world as is known and I feel he does so in this course. In many cases, particularly in the oldest wars little is known of the actual strategy of engagement but we are told of the various weapons and the apparent size of the forces, the increase in specialization of soldiers over time, and the cost of the war in terms of lives, land and plunder. Fagan leaves us no escape from the brutality of war, the merciless actions of the conquerors and the suffering, death and torture of the conquered. There is little or no romance in this course but we are left with an understanding of the price our ancestors have paid in blood to bring us to these times and the enthusiasm which war seems to bring to each civilization no matter how clear the ultimate consequence. That is the value of the course to me. Professor Fagan speaks quickly, which I suspect is a habit he has acquired to compensate for a stammer. This impediment may make it difficult on occasion to understand a phrase or word but it is not a serious objection and his enthusiasm for the subject more than compensates. February 25, 2015
  • 2015-11-27 T14:18:06.005-06:00
  • bvseo_lps, prod_bvrr, vn_prr_5.6
  • cp-1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_80, tr_80
  • loc_en_US, sid_3757, prod, sort_default
2 3 4 next>>

Questions & Answers