Ancient Empires before Alexander

Course No. 3150
Professor Robert L. Dise Jr., Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa
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Course No. 3150
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Course Overview

Ponder the term "the ancient world" for just a moment. What personalities, images, and events come to mind? For most of us, the legacy of the ancient world is symbolized by the twin pillars of Western civilization: the empires of Greece and Rome. But what about the empires that came before them?

Although realms such as Akkad, Assyria, Babylon, Hatti, and Ur dwell on the fringes of recorded history, they nevertheless represent human civilization's first experiments in empire building. Their intriguing reigns

  • gave birth to the political, judicial, religious, and military systems that would influence the administration of subsequent empires;
  • steered earlier societies on a course that would eventually lead to our modern world's intricate system of nations, states, and countries; and
  • played key roles in episodes in ancient history, such as the Babylonian captivity, the Trojan and Peloponnesian wars, and the eventual rise of the Greek and Roman empires.

The fascinating stories behind these empires are required knowledge for you to develop a full understanding of the ancient world in its entirety.

Ancient Empires before Alexander is your opportunity to finally complete your knowledge of the ancient world with a comprehensive look at history's first empires. Professor Robert L. Dise Jr. of the University of Northern Iowa—an expert on the history of the ancient world—examines these fascinating kingdoms as their own unique subjects, ones that reflect the struggles, successes, and failures of establishing an empire. Over the course of 36 insightful lectures, follow the Egyptians, the Mycenaean Greeks, the Persians, the Carthaginians, and others as they rise to glory, create administrative and military structures, clash with one another, and eventually collapse.

How Do Empires Rise? Why Do They Fall?

Until 200 years ago, these empires were little more than names. Some had even been entirely forgotten. Recently, however, profound advances in archaeology and history have vastly improved our knowledge about the world's first empires—those that provided the foundation for future empires to follow.

As Ancient Empires before Alexander is a course on the rise and fall of history's earliest empires, you spend much of the course immersed in the political, administrative, and military details of these thrilling civilizations. While social and cultural issues are not unimportant to the rise and fall of empires, they often play secondary roles, according to Professor Dise; rather, the aim of his lectures is to place each of these empires within a larger exploration of empire building.

Employing a wealth of archaeological and archival evidence, Professor Dise brings the ancient world's diverse empires to life through an analysis of three basic questions:

  • How did this particular empire emerge?
  • How was it governed and defended?
  • How and why did it ultimately fall?

These three seemingly simple questions, you quickly discover, raise a host of profound issues on the growth, development, and failures of vast imperial systems. Their answers also provide you with invaluable insights into the similarities and differences between the course's rich offering of empires—how one empire's success could be another's undoing, how administrative and imperial practices evolved from one realm to the next, and how the creation of new forms of rule and defense adapted to challenges from both geography and neighboring empires.

Ancient History's Greatest Empires—Revealed!

Throughout Ancient Empires before Alexander, you immerse yourself in the details of the dozen empires that flourished in the 2,000 years before the conquests of Alexander the Great paved the way for the triumphs of the Roman Empire. Grounded in a chronological approach, the lectures begin in ancient Mesopotamia and span the river valleys, deserts, and mountain ranges of the Near East. You encounter these empires and others:

  • The Akkadian Empire, the first empire in human history established in the late 3rd millennium B.C. by Sargon the Great. Sargon and his successors pioneered the techniques of imperial rule and set a pattern on which later Mesopotamian empires would emulate and elaborate.
  • The Empire of Hatti, which dominated Asia Minor. The emergence of this empire in the early 2nd millennium B.C. presaged the downfall of Mesopotamia's power in the ancient world. Unlike strongly centralized Mesopotamian empires, Hatti—home to the Hittites—was very loosely structured and almost feudal in nature.
  • The Persian Empire, which would grow into the largest empire the ancient world had yet seen, stretching from Libya to India. This wealthy empire supported local autonomy within its imperial unity and displayed a tolerance for its bewildering diversity of peoples. Alexander the Great, however, would spell doom for this impressive civilization.
  • The Carthaginian Empire, a sea empire (thalassocracy) that consisted of Phoenician settlements along the coast of the western Mediterranean and possessed far-flung trading networks. Carthage would eventually be destroyed by Rome during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century B.C.

In addition, you discover fresh new perspectives on more familiar ancient empires, including Israel, Babylon, and Egypt, as well as the interactions—both friendly and antagonistic—between these and other kingdoms.

These thrilling empires, you learn, owe much to the leaders who ruled them and the warriors who protected them. As you explore each empire, you also meet some of the ancient world's most captivating figures and place their lives and deeds in the context of their respective kingdoms. Throughout the lectures, you come across awe-inspiring individuals such as

  • Hammurabi, famed for his code of laws and renowned for being a hands-on administrator of his empire;
  • Solomon, who succeeded his father David as king of Israel and centralized royal power;
  • Xerxes, who led a massive Persian invasion of the Greek city-states, only to leave the empire weakened and vulnerable to foreign attack; and
  • Hannibal, the brilliant Carthaginian general who engineered a series of stunning defeats of the Roman army yet failed to stop Rome's rise to imperial power.

An Invaluable Guide through the Ancient World

You'll find no better guide through the palatial halls, administrative offices, war-torn battlefields, and sacred temples of these diverse empires than Professor Dise. A passionate teacher and military historian who has spent his career immersed in this historical era, he packs each lecture of Ancient Empires before Alexander with a range of rich historical sources on which our current understanding of the ancient Near East rests, including

  • more than a million cuneiform tablets from imperial and municipal archives;
  • colorful narratives written by Greek, Roman, and Hebrew sources; and
  • archaeological remains excavated from once-lost cities and kingdoms.

With Professor Dise, you learn how to comb through these intriguing records, dodging pitfalls of misinterpretation and bias while teaching yourself how to examine historical documents and archaeological findings with a seasoned eye. You'll quickly become a more trained observer of human history and more informed about the ways the past is recorded and passed down to subsequent generations.

Spanning thousands of years of human history and encompassing regions both familiar and forgotten, Ancient Empires before Alexander is a remarkable tour through the unfamiliar reaches of the ancient world. It's an exciting way to explore the legacies of the world's earliest empires and an unforgettable opportunity to complete your grasp of the ancient world—in all its marvelous diversity.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A Meditation on Empire
    What makes a true "empire"? How do empires rise and flourish? How do they decline and fall? Discover pointed answers to these and other fundamental questions about the study of empires in this engaging course overview. x
  • 2
    Lands, Seas, and Sources
    Tour the geography of the ancient Near East, which played a decisive role in the region's fascinating empires. Then, look at the kinds of archaeological and documentary evidence—such as the discoveries from excavations of ancient sites and from historical writings—that help us better understand this period. x
  • 3
    Sargon and the Dawn of Empire
    Chart the rise of the Akkadian Empire, established by Sargon and strengthened by his grandson, Naram-Sin. Learn how they forged the pattern that future Mesopotamian empires would follow—one based on the central authority of a king—and how their empire eventually collapsed under pressures both within and without. x
  • 4
    The Third Dynasty of Ur
    In the late 22nd century B.C., the imperial dynasty of Ur III briefly rose to power in Sumeria. Professor Dise takes you inside the dynasty's founding under Ur-Nammu, its tyrannical taxation and economic systems, its imperial government and administrative structure under King Shulgi, and its disintegration after barely a century. x
  • 5
    The Empire of Hammurabi
    After Ur III, the subsequent power vacuum in Mesopotamia was filled by the famous king Hammurabi. See how he established the First Dynasty of Babylon and administered rule through a detailed code of law. Hammurabi was so entwined with the First Dynasty that, after his death, the empire swiftly collapsed. x
  • 6
    Mitanni and the Kassites
    Sort through the mysterious histories of two Mesopotamian empires that emerged after the First Dynasty of Babylon. The Mitanni of northern Mesopotamia lived in a decentralized state similar to a feudal society, while the Kassites in the south brought about a series of important social and economic changes. x
  • 7
    The Rise of Hatti
    Hatti, the Hittite kingdom, was the first Near Eastern empire that expanded beyond the river valleys of the Nile and Mesopotamia. Explore the kingdom's origins in early 2nd millennium B.C. Anatolia and study the dynastic crises that threatened its stability. x
  • 8
    The Government of Hatti
    In this lecture, focus on the elements of Hittite government, paying particular attention to the central role played by the Great King (the "Labarna")—especially in judicial matters. Hatti, you learn, possessed an intricate imperial system that blended hierarchy, bureaucracy, and feudalism. x
  • 9
    Hatti at War
    The history of Hatti, according to Professor Dise, is a history of war. Here, examine how this great empire conducted battles against threats from all around. Explore the details of chariot battle, listen to the Great King ask the gods for success in battle, and learn how defeated enemies were treated. x
  • 10
    The Climax and Collapse of Hatti
    Conclude your exploration of Hatti by studying its pinnacle of power from 1430 to 1200 B.C., the period known as the New Kingdom. In addition to investigating the key role played by the warrior-king Suppiluliumas, probe some possible reasons the empire suddenly collapsed, never to rise again. x
  • 11
    The Rise of the Egyptian Empire
    In the first of three lectures on ancient Egypt, chart the important role of geography in the empire's rise and delve into the historical resources that help scholars understand Dynasty 18—the greatest dynasty in Egypt's history. Then, see how Thutmose III's reign ushered in the golden age of Egyptian imperial power. x
  • 12
    The Imperial Army and Administration
    Unpack the intricacies of New Kingdom Egypt's administrative and military systems. Egypt's government under the New Kingdom was more tightly centralized than at any other point in the country's history, while its army played a critical role in both imperial expansion and defense. x
  • 13
    The End of the Egyptian Empire
    How did the massive Egyptian Empire disintegrate and disappear? Professor Dise looks at the final two dynasties of New Kingdom Egypt, focusing on the series of clashes between Egypt and Hatti and attacks from the Libyans and the Sea Peoples. x
  • 14
    The Minoan Thalassocracy
    Meet the most obscure of all peoples in antiquity: the Minoans. Thriving on and around Crete for roughly 2,000 years, the Minoans are important for many reasons, including their influence on the emergence of Greek mainland civilization and their possible creation of the first sea-based empire, or thalassocracy. x
  • 15
    Mycenae and the Dawn of Greece
    Legend and modern archaeological fact agree that the most important kingdom in Bronze Age Greece was Mycenae, which rose to power around 1600 B.C. Here, learn how the excavation of two key sites revealed insights into Mycenaean dynasties; then, explore the culture's decentralized government and its warlike nature. x
  • 16
    The Collapse of the Mycenaean World
    Mycenaean Greece flourished between the late 15th and early 14th centuries B.C., but by around 1180 B.C., it collapsed, probably from the inside. How did this happen? Was it the civilization's heroic culture, or the Trojan War? Either way, the empire's collapse signaled the end of Bronze Age Greece. x
  • 17
    The Birth of Israel
    See the story of Israel as the epic tale of a small kingdom's brief rise to greatness—one that would change the future of the entire world. Compare the biblical and archaeological evidence behind watershed moments in Israel's history, including the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. x
  • 18
    The Empire of David and Solomon
    Experience the short-lived imperial glory of ancient Israel under the reigns of King David and his son, Solomon. Under David, Israel expanded beyond the confines of Canaan through a series of decisive military campaigns. Unlike his father's reign, Solomon's rule centralized both royal power and control of religion under the king. x
  • 19
    The Dawn of Assyria
    Around 2000 B.C., Assyria was a backwater district ruled by its conquerors. So how did it evolve into one of antiquity's greatest empires—one that spanned more than 1,000 years and came into contact with other imperial powers in the ancient Near East? Discover the answer in this fascinating lecture. x
  • 20
    The Rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire
    The Neo-Assyrian Empire, which emerged at the end of the 10th century B.C., was characterized by a more aggressive spirit than before, something you discover in a close analysis of its rulers, their frequent military campaigns, and the subsequent Great Rebellion that brought about nearly 80 years of chaos. x
  • 21
    The Government of Assyria
    Here, explore the details of Assyria's highly centralized government—the most comprehensive apparatus of imperial administration that the Near East had seen up to this point. In addition, examine the real reasons behind the Assyrians' infamous brutality toward their enemies and their policy of deporting conquered populations. x
  • 22
    Assyria at War
    The massive military machine of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was essential to combating the many threats along its weak frontiers. Focus on the Assyrian army's organization, its weaponry, its battle tactics and strategies, and its rationale for waging war against the Aramaeans, Babylonians, and others. x
  • 23
    The Climax and Collapse of Assyria
    Meet the empire's three last rulers: Sennacherib, who stabilized and expanded the empire; Esarhaddon, who instigated the conquest of Egypt; and Ashurbanipal, who suppressed the Great Rebellion of Babylonian peoples. Then, investigate the internal and external causes of Assyria's fall and the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. x
  • 24
    The Neo-Babylonian Empire
    After a lengthy period of subjugation under the Assyrians, in the late 7th and early 6th centuries Mesopotamia rose again in the form of the Chaldean, or Neo-Babylonian, Empire. Piece together the empire's story—as well as its vibrant cultural and economic life—using insightful archival and archaeological evidence. x
  • 25
    The Rise of the Persian Empire
    Turn now to a riveting examination of the greatest empire in the ancient Near East: the Persian Empire. Created during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559–530 B.C.), the empire was a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual realm that established a successful model for ruling diversity. x
  • 26
    The Outbreak of the Greek Wars
    Plunge into the heat of battle between the Persian Empire and the city-states of Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars, which raged from 499 to 449 B.C. Explore Persian efforts to neutralize Greek autonomy and discover the strategies that led to a Greek victory at the epic Battle of Marathon. x
  • 27
    Xerxes and the Invasion of Greece
    Follow the second phase of Persia's war against Greece, this time under the reign of King Xerxes. Professor Dise guides you through the details of three key battles: the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae, the chaotic sea battle at Artemisium, and the Greek victory at Salamis, which crippled Persian morale. x
  • 28
    From Plataea to the Peace of Callias
    How did Persia's wars with Greece end? Discover the answer in this lecture, which explains how the Battle of Plataea forced the Persian Empire to go on the defensive, endure a series of defeats, and ultimately reach a cessation of hostilities in 449 B.C. with the Peace of Callias. x
  • 29
    The Persian Empire from 450 to 334
    It was only with the help of shrewd and capable leaders that the Persian Empire restored itself to power after the Greco-Persian Wars. Learn how Artaxerxes, Darius II Ochus, and other Persian leaders revived their empire—just in time to meet the threat posed by Alexander the Great. x
  • 30
    The Government and Army of Persia
    Learn how the rule of Darius I brought about the classical Persian system of imperial administration, with its system of satrapies (provinces) and royal treasuries. Also, travel along the Royal Road (the empire's central communications network) and explore the massive—but flawed—Persian army. x
  • 31
    Alexander and the Fall of Persia
    In just four years, the greatest empire the ancient world had ever seen fell—and all at the hands of Alexander the Great. How did this happen? Chart the collapse of the Persian Empire in this piercing examination of the Macedonian leader's military campaign to conquer the ancient world. x
  • 32
    The Origins of Carthage and Its Empire
    After the end of the Persian Empire, the only Near Eastern state left was Carthage. Learn how this outpost in the western Mediterranean evolved into the greatest sea empire the world had ever seen—and would ever see—for the next 2,000 years. x
  • 33
    Ruling and Defending Carthage's Empire
    Examine how Carthage administered its empire—through both a monarchy and a government composed of the magistrates, the council, and the people—and defended it with a mercenary army and a citizen navy. Both the Carthaginian government and military, you learn, reflected the commercial nature of the empire. x
  • 34
    The First War with Rome
    Perhaps the most epic conflict of the ancient world was the Punic Wars waged between Carthage and Rome. Discover how the first phase of conflict was born in Carthage's struggle for control of Sicily—first with the Greek city of Syracuse and then with the emerging Roman Republic. x
  • 35
    Hannibal and the Fall of Carthage
    Even though he was a masterful leader, Hannibal's military strategies during the Second Punic War were not enough to stave off Carthage's eventual defeat by Roman forces. Explore the final two phases of the Punic Wars, which ended with the total destruction of Carthage and the triumph of the Rome. x
  • 36
    Ancient Empires before Alexander, and After
    Conclude your journey through more than 2,000 years of history with a final look at the startling differences and similarities between these ancient empires. From Bronze Age Mesopotamia to Carthage, each of these realms is a chapter in the fascinating story of empire—a story that will continue as long as human ambition endures. x

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Your professor

Robert L. Dise Jr.

About Your Professor

Robert L. Dise Jr., Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa
Dr. Robert L. Dise Jr. is Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches highly popular courses on the history of the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and classical civilization. He earned his B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Before joining the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, Professor Dise taught at Clinch...
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Ancient Empires before Alexander is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 89.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable yet hard to follow The information seems like it would be interesting but hard to pay attention. It is like hearing a speech or being read a book.
Date published: 2020-07-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from great detail, a little dry If Prof. Dise had the panache of Profs. Harl, Brier, Fagan and Baum (to name just a few) this would be at least a 4 star course. There is a large amount of information that is interesting but it is given in a rather dry manner. It is sort of like a course in basic math that recites the multiplication tables. Useful but not all that interesting. Perhaps this is necessary because it is in a sense a survey course. There are courses on Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as on the origins of ancient civilizations that seem more vibrant. I guess it is the details that give history a rich texture and make it enjoyable. A survey course doesn't have that luxury. Still, it does put the ancient empires in a chronology that is useful and not covered by those other courses. My suggestion would be to take this course for its perspective and then go into the specific courses for the details. Let me put in a plug for Dr. Brier's courses on Egypt and all of Dr. Harl's courses.
Date published: 2020-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Follow-On Course The instructor is excellent. This is the place to start. The course is a 36 session course; if the instructor is not any good it does not matter how much information is in the course. This period of time in history raises so many questions as to why all the continuous fighting occurred in such a short period of time. As any excellent instructor, pro's and con's, differing views of many experts were brought up and discussed. Anticipated questions were presented and answered at each stage of histories of the empires. The pace of the course was a great add-on to the introductory course I had just completed. The expansion of detail was exactly what I was looking for. The course is well worth the price and I recommend it anyone interested in this time of history.
Date published: 2020-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sensationally Good! Splendid. Professor Dise has a fabulous command of his subject manner and a delightfully agreeable way of presenting the material, cogently and informatively. I loved this course and would like to see more of his stuff on the Teaching Company!
Date published: 2020-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wealth of Information A wealth of information presented with informative dialogue and visuals.
Date published: 2019-09-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Detailed Military History; Little Else If you are into military history, you will appreciate this course. The vast majority of time is given to details of many, many battles: who fought whom; dates; places; tactics (including helpful visuals on the DVD); names and brief bios of rulers and generals; how warriors were obtained (volunteers, conscripts, mercenaries, slaves); what fighters wore and what weapons they used (many visuals) and how their particular armor and weapons helped or hindered them; how captives were treated (sometimes with mercy, more often tortured and/or killed, including removal of various body parts, impaling, crucifixion, or just "slaughtered"; thankfully no visuals here); and political outcomes. Beyond this is some consideration of the administrative structures of the various empires when this information is available. And I particularly appreciated our professor's detailing the sources, or lack thereof, and their presumed reliability, or lack thereof, for each empire. Be aware, however, that there is almost no consideration of social, cultural, family, occupational, or religious aspects of life in these empires. (Religion is mentioned only in regard to its relation to the status of the king.) It is, of course, fine to offer a course in ancient military history. My objection here is that this was not made clear in the course description. Yes, we do read that we "spend much of the course immersed in the political, administrative, and military details of these thrilling civilizations. While social and cultural issues are not unimportant to the rise and fall of empires, they often play secondary roles, according to Professor Dise; rather, the aim of his lectures is to place each of these empires within a larger exploration of empire building." But we also read that this course will enable us "to develop a full understanding of the ancient world in its entirety," and that it offers "a comprehensive look at history's first empires." These latter statements are untrue and very misleading. Also, as is obvious from the list of lectures, only Near Eastern and Mediterranean empires are covered. Professor Dise is knowledgeable and well-organized, and presents the material in clear, straightforward, unembellished English. While others have objected to the fact that he is obviously reading off a teleprompter, I have no problem with this per se. But the unvarying stress and rhythm of each sentence, while not a monotone, becomes so monotonous that I often found my attention drifting, and the regularly diminished volume at the end of most sentences sometimes made it difficult to understand these words. (I also very much wish our professor had referred to countries and empires as "it" rather than "she", but I realize this is just a random peculiarity of my own.) The final lecture was, for me, by far the best, incorporating an overview and analysis of the history which was fascinating, and which was mostly missing from the rest of the course. So - A worthwhile course for those with an interest in a detailed military history of the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean empires. It is for you that I recommend the course. For others, I suggest you read the course description carefully.
Date published: 2019-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly what I wanted Answered all my questions about where the city states were, who fought whom, who was most powerful through time, what the difference between Syria and Assyria were, and what happened to the conquered people. I used the written Course material extensively. Good, comprehensive overview for my purposes.
Date published: 2018-12-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Lacks historical interpretation or context I concur with many of the other critical reviews. Few of the lectures held my interest. The presenter offers little or no historical insight to the periods he addresses, and many of the lectures appear to be only a chronological list of events and names. I was particularly disappointed in the lectures on the ancient Levant. It sounded almost like Dise was reading verbatim from the Old Testament.
Date published: 2018-06-05
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