Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Course No. 3180
Professor Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
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Course No. 3180
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Course Overview

What pieces of the distant past drift before your mind's eye when you think of ancient Mesopotamia? Perhaps it's the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon. Or is it entire populations paralyzed by fear before a ruthless invader? Maybe it's priests making sacrifices to the gods who rule over and protect their city.

Any of these images may come to mind, but each one is part of the legacy of a region from which our own culture has drawn many essential aspects, including writing, codes of law, cities, and even epic poetry.

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia takes you on an insightful journey through the area bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from Neolithic times to the age of Alexander the Great and into the lives of mighty emperors, struggling farmers, ambitious merchants, and palace servants. In 36 fascinating lectures, award-winning Professor Alexis Q. Castor reveals new insights into the real history of this region and demonstrates that all cultures lie in the shadow of Mesopotamia.

A Foundational Time and Place

Mesopotamia, a name coined by the Greeks, means "the land between the rivers" and refers to the region now mostly encompassed by the borders of modern Iraq. Originally, the area was home to a succession of peoples, from Neolithic villagers to the vast empires of Assyria and Persia.

The beginnings of cities and urban lifestyles during the 5th millennium B.C. are only two of the many factors that make ancient Mesopotamia such a foundational time and place in history. The region was marked by the changing roles and representations of rulers and by recurring regional instabilities and upheavals. East and West collided when the Persian Empire first tried to conquer Greece and then itself became the final conquest of Alexander the Great.

Examine Life in Mesopotamia

Between the Rivers looks back to the time when the first cities arose in Mesopotamia and kings created complex bureaucracies to rule their expanding territories, thus fostering the invention of writing and other technologies. You peer into the lives and fortunes of Mesopotamia's people and learn about the birth of the urban lifestyle, which was destined to become increasingly sophisticated as cultures expanded and cities evolved into the forms we know today. Cities, as you discover, became increasingly important to the Mesopotamian identity.

The 5th-millenium B.C. city of Uruk, 140 miles south of what is now Baghdad, was in fact civilization's first city, hidden until the early years of the 20th century, when it was unearthed by German archaeologists.

With a population estimated between 20,000 and 50,000, maintaining the well-being of Uruk posed different challenges than those faced by smaller fishing villages. The large population had to develop new ways to sustain itself, producing and acquiring food and other necessities on a scale never before imagined. There would be security issues as well, and in order to solve these issues, an enclosing wall was eventually built around the city.

Throughout the lectures, Professor Castor creates a detailed image not only of larger Mesopotamian society but of life on the level of the individual Mesopotamian as well. Among the many fascinating insights into daily Mesopotamian life you examine are:

  • how they ate, worked, learned, worshipped, married, and reared children
  • how their scientific ideas helped them order and understand the natural world
  • how they engaged with their powerful neighbors in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
  • how they waged war and experienced peace
  • how they endured the collapse of their cities

Unearth Unique Historical Finds

Scholars have come to know the details of ancient Mesopotamia through numerous archaeological discoveries, ancient documents, and important literary works, many of which you explore throughout the course. Excavations in Iraq have shaped Western ideas about ancient Mesopotamia, from the myth of the Hanging Gardens to important concepts about how Eastern cultures differed from Western cultures.

These profound historical records offer a wealth of fresh information about ancient Mesopotamian culture—new perspectives now made possible by the tireless efforts of archaeologists and historians. Among the many examples you consider are:

  • The 16 royal graves found at Ur: Excavated between 1927 and 1929, the royal graves from this southern city contained lavish quantities of gold, silver, semiprecious stones, and richly crafted artifacts—and also evidence of human sacrifice or ritual suicide. The overwhelming display of wealth and its grisly accompaniment offers an extraordinary demonstration of the power wielded by a Mesopotamian king and queen.
  • The Amarna letters: Named after the Egyptian city in which the tablets were discovered, this trove of 14th-century B.C. correspondence includes 40 pieces of official communication between the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten (or his father) and his contemporary rulers in the Near East. Written at a time of unusually peaceful cooperation among neighboring rulers, the letters consistently reveal an attention to the niceties of Mesopotamian diplomacy, as the correspondents acknowledged gifts, proposed royal marriages, or dispatched their own personal physician to the aid of a fellow monarch.
  • The 20,000 tablets found at Kanesh: Discovered at an outpost of Assyrian trade in what is now Turkey, these tablets are the most extensive documentation of merchant activity ever recorded from the ancient world. Dating from the early 2nd millennium B.C., they offer scholars a detailed portrait of the Mesopotamian trading community, including intimate glimpses into how goods were traded and the impact of long-distance trade on family life at home.

Embark on a True Adventure

Professor Castor has twice been named Most Influential Professor by Franklin & Marshall College's senior class. Experienced both in the classroom and on archaeological excavations, she plunges you into the daily life of Mesopotamia's vast range of cultures and animates peoples such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Medes.

In a land where the real history is even more astounding than its legends, the journey you take through ancient Mesopotamian life in Between the Rivers is a true adventure of exploration and discovery—and one you are not likely to forget.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Iraq Museum
    Artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad remind us of the extraordinary culture that once flourished in Mesopotamia and that contributed to human civilization the earliest cities, complex economies, the first writing system, and the first empires. x
  • 2
    Geography and Environment
    This orientation to Mesopotamia's diverse geography and environment includes an examination of how some factors unique to the region may have encouraged agriculture and urbanism, and how geography shapes cultural and political organization. x
  • 3
    Discovering Mesopotamia
    In this first of two lectures on archaeology, we ask why the discipline is important to our understanding of Mesopotamia, and how early excavations helped shape Western ideas about the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. x
  • 4
    Archaeological Methods
    This lecture analyzes some of the methods that archaeologists use, the artifacts they find, and the methods used to interpret them, providing us with a framework for understanding not only why we know what we know, but also those facts that we cannot know. x
  • 5
    Farming and Early Settlements
    Recognizing that many questions about the prehistoric era remain unanswered, we speculate about the events that led people to settle in the first villages, finishing with a look at some early evidence of social complexity. x
  • 6
    The Uruk Phenomenon
    Early cities developed in their fullest form about 5,000 years ago. The city of Uruk—the earliest and largest city in southern Mesopotamia—has come to represent the rise of the city. x
  • 7
    We trace early forms of record keeping, considering whether they contributed to the development of writing, and examine the technology of writing, the development of cuneiform script, and the modern-day translation of cuneiform. x
  • 8
    This lecture looks at how and why temples were built, how they filled their religious purposes, their economic function within an urban setting, and how temples and rulers filled each others' needs and justified their respective roles in the city. x
  • 9
    Mesopotamian Deities
    We meet some of the gods who were honored in temples, discussing their powers, their relationships with each other and with their human worshipers, and the rituals necessary to encourage their favor. x
  • 10
    Gilgamesh—Hero and King
    We shift our focus from the gods to individuals, specifically heroes, as represented in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's first epic description of a hero and his adventures. x
  • 11
    The Early Dynastic Period
    The idea of the city spreads quickly, and a string of them soon reaches up to central Mesopotamia. This lecture examines contemporary historical texts to see the emergence of political structures and rulers in these cities and examines their relationships with regions outside Mesopotamia. x
  • 12
    Warfare and Diplomacy
    Having learned that documents recording contemporary events are preserved for the Early Dynastic period, we turn to the subject of warfare to see how disputes were represented in written sources and images. x
  • 13
    The Royal Cemetery at Ur
    Burials were a final opportunity to display the strength and control of a king, and we examine one of the most spectacular and widely publicized examples, revealing much about the funerary customs for members of the political, religious, or social elite. x
  • 14
    The Akkadians
    We move from the kings of cities to the first ruler who could legitimately claim his mastery over northern and southern Mesopotamia: Sargon of Akkad, whose rise marks the beginning of a new dynasty. x
  • 15
    Ideology of Kingship—Naram-Sin and Gudea
    The reign of Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, shows, for the first time, a ruler worshiped as divine during his lifetime. With the reign of Gudea, the first ruler of a new dynasty, we see the king's representation return to a more traditional style. x
  • 16
    The Ur III Dynasty
    The end of Akkadian control sees the newly independent city-state of Ur come to dominate Babylonia. Ur's rulers organize a much more centralized government that effectively controls the region for more than 100 years. x
  • 17
    Life in a Mesopotamian City
    We return to the theme of urbanism to see what developments have occurred since we last explored the topic in the Uruk era, extrapolating from several centuries and sites to create a picture of urban life. x
  • 18
    Food and Drink
    This lecture examines food and drink from prehistory to the time of Alexander the Great, drawing on evidence ranging across artistic representations, archaeological discoveries, scattered written references to feasts sponsored by temples or rulers, and even poetry. x
  • 19
    Assyrian Trade Networks
    A mammoth archaeological find of 20,000 tablets found at an Assyrian merchant outpost allows us to study trade not as part of a statewide bureaucracy, but as a private enterprise, with evidence of an international trade network in textiles, tin, silver, and gold. x
  • 20
    Hammurabi of Babylon
    A long reign gives a new ruler time to found a new and impressive kingdom, forging a strong personal rule largely concerned with justice for his people and bringing peace to the era. x
  • 21
    Zimri-Lim of Mari
    We will discuss the turbulent closing decades of the rich state of Mari—destroyed by Hammurabi's final major campaign—which was controlled first by the Assyrians and then by the last of its rulers, Zimri-Lim. x
  • 22
    We survey the types of Mesopotamian laws that have survived, from the very end of the 3rd millennium B.C. to Hammurabi's laws of the 18th century, to the 11th-century Middle Assyrian precepts that regulated the appea and behavior of the royal court. x
  • 23
    Medicine, Science, and Math
    This lecture examines scientific thought and how science helped order and explain the natural world for Mesopotamian cultures. We will discuss medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and divination—the most challenging and important science in the Mesopotamian world. x
  • 24
    Poetry and Literature
    We look at poetry and literature that explores a range of themes—including creation, the deeds and personalities of the gods, suffering, and divine justice—and also examine proverbial wisdom, jokes, love poems, and the use of magic spells. x
  • 25
    We return to our survey of the political history of the region by looking at the Near East as a whole, with much of our insight coming from a collection of letters between kings discovered at an Egyptian site known as Tell el-Amarna. x
  • 26
    Assyrian Expansion
    We focus on two 9th-century B.C. rulers, Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, whose leadership and innovations were essential to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. x
  • 27
    Sargon II
    This lecture traces the remarkable spread of the Assyrian empire in the second half of the 8th century B.C., beginning with the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III and continuing with that of Sargon II, six years later. x
  • 28
    Ideology of Empire
    Using both literary and visual sources, we look at several features of Assyria's rulers and military that characterized the empire and contributed to its dominance. x
  • 29
    Control and Revolt
    In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Assyria is in firm control of an enormous empire, ranging from Mesopotamia to Egypt. But certain trouble spots, especially in Babylonia, reveal weaknesses that will contribute to its unexpected collapse in the late 7th century. x
  • 30
    Medes and the Neo-Babylonian State
    When Assyria falls, it is at the hands of the Babylonians and their king, Nabopolassar, who were aided by the Medes, a tribal people. We look at both of these peoples, including Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar, whose building successes exceed even his political and military accomplishments. x
  • 31
    The Rise of the Achaemenids
    This lecture focuses on the Achaemenids, or Persians, an Iranian culture that blended elements of earlier cultures to rule the empire, using a variety of methods, including a new language, coinage, and road network, to control the area. x
  • 32
    Persians in Egypt and Greece
    We look at Persia's excursions against both Egypt and Greece, the latter of which—likely an attempt by the Persian king, Darius, to gain access to the riches of the West—results in a stunning defeat far from home. x
  • 33
    Xerxes’s Invasion of Greece
    Ten years later, Greece again repels a Persian invasion. This lecture focuses on descriptions of the Persian king, Xerxes, by the Greek historian Herodotus, who compares Greeks with Persians as representative of a democratic versus tyrannical way of life. x
  • 34
    Persian Art and Culture
    This lecture considers an array of artifacts, from small seal stones to massive palace architecture, to illustrate the blend of many artistic and cultural themes to create a new, identifiably Persian, style of art. x
  • 35
    Alexander the Great
    Alexander defeats the Persians in 331 B.C. and quickly captures Babylonia. Welcomed as a legitimate successor, he often behaves as a traditional Mesopotamian ruler might, rebuilding temples and seeking to expand the empire, ultimately dying without naming a successor. x
  • 36
    After Alexander
    This final lecture glances ahead at the history of the region after Alexander's campaigns in light of the course's major themes. x

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Your professor

Alexis Q. Castor

About Your Professor

Alexis Q. Castor, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College
Dr. Alexis Q. Castor is Assistant Professor of Classics at Franklin & Marshall College, where she teaches ancient history, archaeology, and Greek. She earned her her B.A. in History from George Mason University and M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. She also completed graduate courses in Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history at The George Washington University. Professor...
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Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 106.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopot I bought this a month ago. We are watching 30 min. per night. We find it interesting but wish the presentation had more pictures or detailed maps.
Date published: 2018-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview A good overview of the ancient history of the area from the view of archaeological information that has been found. It was interesting to have the procedures involved in finding historical data covered as well as what was found. It is a shame there was no video course available, although it did encourage further research to find pictures of the artifacts that were evocatively described.
Date published: 2018-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A superb presentation of complex material I just finished 'Between the Rivers' by Dr. Alexis Castor. She does a great job of organizing and presenting historical and cultural data from the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian cultures. The course spans an impressive 3,000 years of history but Prof. Castor provides a good mix of grand organizing ideas and concepts with very human (and sometimes humorous) stories and examples that illustrate her points. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2018-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite Great Courses I teach humanities part-time and bought this course years ago to learn more about the history and culture behind the artifacts discussed in my course. It has become one of my favorite Great Courses. Prof. Castor is engaging, thorough, and a pleasure to listen to. I've listened to the course in its entirety more than once (the lecture on Gilgamesh, about five times). I highly recommend the course to anyone interested in the cultures of the Ancient Near East. I wish I had bought the DVD instead of the CDs.
Date published: 2018-04-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from appropriate wait. wait. Sir Flinders Petrie discovered King Tut's Tomb????? Am I missing something? What else is inaccurate? Fair overview. Quite general in content.
Date published: 2018-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview The Professor's Presentation is a bit dry, but this does not make the course hard to follow. The course covers an incredibly wide span of history and material, making a very complex subject intelligible.
Date published: 2018-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Things We Uncover Castor knows her stuff and presents it well. I especially appreciated her discussions of our own archeological methods and assumptions—of how the things we uncover can only be viewed through today’s lenses. Good teaching should always acknowledge its own assumptions and possible biases, and these lectures offer examples of a fine teacher doing just that.
Date published: 2018-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Introductory Overview I had little knowledge of the near East and this was quick and easy. I drive a lot for work, so having the audio download allowed me to learn the material without having to spend any extra time. If you're already an expert on the subject, this is too basic for you. But I was a beginner and it was GREAT.
Date published: 2017-09-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not enough analysis/in-depth discussion I had a hard time getting into this course. While the topic intrigues me and the professor seems like a pleasant person, I just don't think it got into any deep analysis or thought-provoking concepts. I would expect more from a 36 lecture course focusing on one region. In a way it was too simple. I don't consider myself an expert in ancient Mesopotamian history but I honestly am not sure if I learned much from this course. And that is rare for me to say after 60+ courses. The professor has a clear, steady speaking style which is helpful but the downside is she seems to be so concerned with avoiding filler words ("um", "Uh") that she pauses in strange locations when delivering a sentence as if she is grasping for the right word and at times it is hard to understand what she is trying to accent. I also had a hard time following the organization/structure of the course. There were lectures on the political/military narrative as well as those concentrating on everyday life in Mesopotamia but I didn't sense a rhythm in bringing these lectures together. It was as if the course was struggling for an identity: is it more focused on one or the other? Sure the answer can be "both" but the synthesis of it all seemed to be off. What were the main learnings/topics/themes of this course? And how does the everyday life and political narrative bring it together? If you're interested in Mesopotamia I would instead recommend "History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective". The professor was spectacular and did justice to the various empires he covers (one of the few 5 star courses in my view). However, be warned that due to the breadth of the course you will not find an in-depth survey on the region. It looks like other possibilities would be "Ancient Empires Before Alexander" and "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" (I have not taken these courses).
Date published: 2017-09-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Delivery really mars this course I have to add my voice to the chorus of complaints about Prof. Castor's presentation. This otherwise reasonably good course is undermined by the constant... halting... delivery... of Prof. Castor. There were a couple of things that distracted me from a full appreciation of the material. As noted, the constant halting between every word (or so it felt) was very hard to get used to. I also was distracted by her seemingly random naming conventions. She switches between using the ancient names, modern names, and (for some reason) Roman names. Just pick something, tell us what you're doing, and stick with it. (I started Prof. Lee's Persian Empire course immediately after finishing this one, and that's the first thing Prof. Lee does: tells us what his naming convention's going to be so we know what area's he's talking about as soon as he says it.) All right, though. These are mostly nits. What about the course itself? Overall, I thought the course was reasonably good. As others have noted, the course is archaeology heavy, which was fine by me. However, the archaeology details again appeared to be more random than systematic. I'm not sure there's a better way to weave in the archaeology, but there do seem to be a large number of complaints about it, and I can't totally disagree. There were plenty of interesting details in the course. Lecture 19, on private trade networks, was fascinating. Apparently, there is has been a cache of private trade tablets discovered that detail a family trade network between Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The story of the trade network really is fascinating, and well told by Prof. Castor. On the other hand, there were several lectures that I thought have very little useful or interesting content. A whole lecture on food felt very speculative to me, even though she had ancient recipes and other strong evidence. It just seemed like it was such a small slice, I wondered what the point was. The lectures on laws, and medicine, science and math (two lectures), even though they should have been fascinating, she managed to somehow make boring. I had to keep rewinding those lectures, just because I kept losing the thread. Overall, Prof. Harl's short course on the origin of great ancient civilizations is much more fun to listen to, even though he covers more ground in only a third the number of lectures. I can't recommend this course because it has too many flaws. However, I don't think there's another Great Courses course that covers this specific ground in as much detail. I did learn plenty when I could pay attention. For example, I totally misunderstood the relationship between the Assyrian empire and the neo-Babylonian empire. I thought the neo-Babylonian was the great empire and the Assyrian, the stepping stone. The reverse is really true (apparently). The Assyrian empire is the great one and the neo-Babylonian a relative footnote. As I already mentioned, the lecture on the private trade networks was fascinating. So the course is worth listening to, but I have to say that it's in spite of Prof. Castor's presentation, not because of it.
Date published: 2017-06-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very extensive The lectures did start a bit slow but it ended well. Prof. Castor is very knowledgeable and takes great care in her presentation. Seldom did she look to her me shows the command of historical and archeological details. Prof. Castor stated many times that there are gaps as to information that is available but did a good job filling the gaps with plausible viewpoints. The further back in history, concrete information is difficult to obtain. These lectures do not purely rely on just written historical information that is available, but also archaeology finds. Great course
Date published: 2017-04-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Ancient Mesopotamia This is a good introductory course. I would suggest it for anyone interested in western history/civilization. Although it ends before the advent of Christianity it provides insight in to the myths around stories like the Great flood and the creation of mankind. For people interested in current affairs this points out that that area of the world has been rife with conflict since before written records. Very good course.
Date published: 2016-08-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopot This is NOT a course on history , it is a course on archeology .
Date published: 2016-08-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Are You Kidding Me? The assertions the Professor makes, that the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to the life created around agriculture are, frankly, idiotic. The facts are strongly against the Professor's theory. I do not know the underlying reasons that she has for teaching this, but to pretend that the hunter-gatherers lived in the Garden of Eden (where drought only impacted the crops that people grew, but not the fruits and berries hanging on the bushes and trees) is ridiculous and is misleading the students looking to this authority figure for truth and learning. Very sad. Do not buy this.
Date published: 2016-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Slow to Start Expedition The History of Mesopotamia by Professor Alexis Castor is not a bad course, but there are a number of problems with the course that could potentially damage your enjoyment. I know the first third of the course is one of the weaker starts of a course I have taken in a long time. Personally I found those sections rather slow and boring, with an injection of rhetoric that reflects a more modern interpretation of history that had me wondering about the course ahead. I enjoy archaeology, I believe that any course should be supplemented by archaeology when dealing with antiquity. In this case, however, much of the beginning was archaeology that was supplemented by source material. As the course progresses, narrative history becomes more pronounced. I recognize that such a complaint is merely my taste, and I have tried to judge the course objectively. Ultimately, however, I simply did not find those early lectures interesting at their current lengths. Had they been condensed, I would have enjoyed it much more. This is completely unlike me. I am used to listening to these courses to their conclusion and wanting more, in this course I only started to want more when it was almost over. That is not a good sign, and it only made me realize belatedly that part of the course was a chore to listen to. That is actually a shame. Professor Kenneth Harl's Asia Minor course set out to do something very similar to Professor Castor. The end results could not be more different. When Harl was done, I had been eagerly waiting to continue learning. He covered a geographical region of similar importance with a third less the time and a far larger range of time. He is not without his own mediocre showings, but in this case at least his was objectively great, while this was simply middling. Professor Castor is not without her moments though. This course is only less by contrast, but judged upon its own merits some of the most fascinating aspects of the course were when she turned to the people of Zimri-Lim, Sargon of Akkad, Sargon II, Gilgamesh, and Hammurabi. Those were good courses, and the course on Zimri-Lim was something of a diamond in the rough, and it remains the highlight of this course. If Professor Castor had made the entire course as engaging as those lectures, then this would have received full marks from me. As of now, however, it is a 4, but only just. If you love archaeology more than narrative history, then my early complaints may not matter too much to you. If you are more interested in the middle section of the course, then I can more readily recommend this course to you for that is the period where Professor Castor starts to shine. Ultimately I do recommend this course, if only for those long car rides or those afternoons where time permits. So where to go from here? While this course is okay, there are far better ones to explore similar material. I already recommended Professor Harl's Asia Minor course. It is an example of a course such as this one in intent, but better in execution. While Castor's course ends with Hellenism, Harl brings Asia Minor to the dawn of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier is a more narrowly focused course, one that combines archaeology and historical narrative excellently. His course is the definitive course for Egypt, as one might bring up Fagan for Rome. Professor Dise's course on the Ancient Empires before Alexander is a broader survey on antiquity in the near east. Dise has some stumbling blocks, but its high notes far surpass those few early growing pains. For those interested in good female professors, there are several available at the great courses. Professor Vandiver is a classical historian whose courses on Herodotus, Classic Literature, Classic Mythology, and Greek Tragedy are all very good. Dorsey Armstrong also stands out as a highlight, as the professor who sold me the Medieval Age. Much of her coursework at the Great Courses has been on expanding the offerings available to us in that subject, my favorite of which was King Arthur. Jennifer Paxton is another great historian, though rather tragically she only has two courses at the great courses, one of which is largely redundant if you already viewed her marvelous course on Medieval England.
Date published: 2016-06-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great survey, delibertly delivered... Audio download, though I'd probably spring for the extra bucks and go with the video...the lectures really need annotations, maps and visual aides (pictures of recovered art and stellae). Professor Castor has presented a very meticulous set of lectures dealing with the 'Fertile Crescent' area, aka Mesopotamia, that covers an enormous period of time. Even though the lectures themselves are somewhat detailed, when taken as a set, this history only serves as a survey of the history of the area in general. It left me wanting to know more about each successive dynasty and kingdom that existed during this 3000+ year time span, with a cast of thousands (e.g. Zargon...what a great name; Hammurabi the lawgiver; Naram-Sin, perhaps the first god-king) . The good professor speaks clearly, seemingly choosing her words carefully...sometimes falling into a rhythm that is a bit slow, but the material may require careful listening and reading along with the guidebook (which I found a bit lacking). This course compares well with Bob Brier's course on Ancient Egypt...covering just about the same time period. Here's an admission about my experience that might help the potential buyer, who has been reading reviews, both negative and positive. I began these lectures while on a long, over-night airplane trip and did not have my usual online companion (Wikipedia, etc.); just the PDF notes. The first lecture sets up the order of the lectures and laments the loses of artifacts during the Iraq war. The next thing I knew I was listening to the very delightful introductory music to lecture NINE. (So sorry Dr Castor!). I did redouble my efforts and diligently read/listened to those lectures while resting on a distant beach. On my return trip, having learned my lesson well, I restarted the lectures and made it to lecture TWELVE before awaking. I finished the lectures wide awake, with the help from the internet, and found them fascinating. The guidebook follows closely the lectures, so you can easily listen, search and read, without missing a beat. Very much recommended for those who, as I, know very little about the early history of Mesopotamia. With a sale and a coupon, I was able to get these lectures for under a buck a lecture...a great deal!
Date published: 2016-05-19
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Gave up and sent back I've enjoyed probably about 50 great courses since 2004 but this one I finally gave up on and returned. Castor speaks with excruciating slowness enunciating every syllable until you're ready to throw something. Even this I might endure by speeding up the audio as other reviewers have done, but that wouldn't overcome the main problem with the course: the content is targeted to a not particularly bright junior high student and much of the lectures are vague generalities strung together as filler. Don't waste your money on Castor when there are first rate courses on ancient history by other lecturers such as Kenneth Harl. P.S. Even the graphics are repetitious...
Date published: 2016-04-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from basic overview, indifferent presentation Do you know the difference between the Sumerians and the Babylonians? Do you know what Uruk and Ur are, and why they're important? Do you know the story of Gilgamesh in broad strokes? Did you know that cuneiform is a script used to write many languages, including Hittite and Akkadian? If you answer yes to most or all of these questions, I'd say this course is probably too introductory for you. As someone with a basic familiarity with the history of Mesopotamia, it was certainly too introductory for my purposes, and again I wish the Great Courses would rank their courses as beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I'd also note that Professor Castor is a dry presenter who speaks in simple, declarative statements in a monotone, and her very rare attempts at humor typically fall completely flat.
Date published: 2016-04-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mediocre Professor presentation was not very good. Eye contact with camera or audience was lacking. Not great speaking skills. Course content was OK.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from SoSo Good to listen to but hard to watch. She makes me nervous.
Date published: 2016-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introductory Course I found this course to be very helpful to my understanding of the ancient history of this part of the world. It is well-organized and clearly presented. The Professor is obviously nervous for the first couple of lectures, but she does get more comfortable after that. She speaks very clearly, although at a somewhat slower pace than many of the lecturers. This did not bother me, but it may be a problem for some listeners. The visuals in the DVD were good - the maps in the study guide are okay. Because I am really pretty unfamiliar with this part of the world, I found a series of books by Rose Publishing Company that are called "Then and Now" Atlases. They are designed to be used with Bible studies, but they are great for any of these classes that deal with the ancient Middle East. The maps in these books have transparent overlays so that you can see what the modern-day countries are that comprise the ancient areas. I have found these "Then and Now" atlases very helpful for this and some other courses dealing with the ancient world of the Middle East.
Date published: 2016-01-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from DEFINITELY GET THE VIDEO I normally listen to the audios while driving or working out. I figured this would pretty much be general information and although some video would be good I could look up things on the Web. BIG MISTAKE! This course REALLY needs the visual information! MY MEDIOCRE RATINGS ARE FOR THE AUDIO VERSION. The professor is VERY knowledgeable and does an excellent presentation. But without any visuals it really misses a LOT. If I had the video version I probably would rate the course 5 for ALL the rating criteria. One of the things I found particularly surprising was that Prof. Castor said that she is a Hellenist, i.e., her specialty is the culture from the time period of Alexander the Great and its subsequent spread to influence Western society. You'd never know it from her presentation. You'd think that THIS is her specialty!
Date published: 2015-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mesopotamia as a Bridge Between East and West Mesopotamian history is integral to an understanding of ancient history. It often gets overshadowed, though, by Egypt, Greece and Rome. I have had many courses where Mesopotamia was at least somewhat discussed—Ur, Babylon, the Assyrians, etc…. However, before this course I had not taken a course that focused exclusively on Mesopotamia. I am grateful that I took this course because it gave me a much greater appreciation of the role Mesopotamia served as the bridge between the East and the West. As explained in the course, Mesopotamian culture and politics profoundly influenced many aspects of the ancient world. This influence is made apparent through the professor's excellent instruction. The professor, who is both humorous and knowledgeable, covers the history of this region from pre-history through the conquest of Alexander the Great. She generally follows the chronological political history of the region but takes frequent detours to cover topics such as religion, family life, architecture and food. The professor makes each lesson informative and enjoyable. I now have a better understanding of Mesopotamian history and a greater interest in visiting museums featuring exhibits from this region.
Date published: 2015-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Solid Foundation for Understanding Mesopotamia I very much enjoyed this course. Professor Castor does a good job of interrelating a variety of influences that affected the development of cultures in the Mesopotamia. Very factually based and when there are multiple interpretations of facts, she clearly presents the options.
Date published: 2015-03-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Material Presented Slowly I've watched at least half a dozen ancient history survey courses from TGC, and this course beautifully fills in many of the details those courses gloss over. The problem with those other courses is they can only devote a few lectures to this area of the world. Dise's course (link below) is the best of these other courses at covering this time and area, but he also covers Asia Minor, Egypt, Crete, Greece, Israel, and Carthage, so he can't spend too much time between the rivers. In this course, Castor goes into far more of the history and culture and does a very nice job. I learned a lot more about this area and period of history which made this course worthwhile. I also appreciated all the photos which were shown, making the purchase of the DVD a good choice. My one complaint is that she speaks too slowly. After the first few lectures, I upped the speed on my DVD player so that each lecture finished in just under 20 minutes. Which, as others have observed, means this could have been a 24-lecture course rather than a 36-lecture course. That being said, I still recommend this course. There's a lot to learn here.
Date published: 2015-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course Interesting material. Clear, easy to listen to presentation. The focus is more on archeology and less on culture than I had anticipated, but I still recommend the course highly.
Date published: 2015-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Voyage of Understanding It is both fascinating -- and more than a bit sad -- that the peoples of the Middle East continue to be embroiled in the kind of territorial and resource rivalries that, as this course reveals, date back to the earliest residents of the land between the rivers. I deeply appreciated two things in particular about Dr. Castor's course: 1) The clarity in which she presented a lot of information about successive peoples and empires, while skillfully emphasizing continuities of focus and enterprise; and 2) The degree to which she shed light upon the conditions of life of both rural and urban "regular people" throughout this history. While most ancient history -- just as in more contemporary accounts -- centers about the doings (and occasional thoughts) of rulers and warriors, her efforts to flesh out the lives of the non-rich and non famous were very interesting, thus bringing home how very much like us they were in all things essential. While her style of presentation is very much that of a lecturer, it is always vital, her eye contact with the viewer is excellent, and she occasionally shares a wonderful smile as she recounts a more amusing aside or anecdote. I also applaud her consistently respectful and context-giving manner of presenting these ancient peoples to us. Well done, Professor Castor, and thanks, Teaching Company!
Date published: 2014-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Listen and listen again! This was a fascinating class and well worth a second or third listen. This is such an important, and yet for Americans, a mysterious part of the world (except for oil and war issues) that a class like this really helps give a broader understanding of the history and culture of the Middle East. You can see more clearly just from where these folks may be coming in their culture and beliefs. And besides, listening to this professor pronounce some of the names is like listening to music! She makes it sound so effortless and melodious! Makes me wonder if the whole ancient language sounded so pretty! Great course for anyone who wants to expand their horizons with a greater understanding of the Near East.
Date published: 2014-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Between The Rivers Excellent presentation. Dr. Castor is very listenable.
Date published: 2014-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Material but Lackluster Presenter. This was a wonderful lecture full of detail and varied from more than just the common "highlights." I enjoyed all of the lectures on some of the less known details such as trade, food, custom, etc... The only issue I had with the entire series was the professor. Her delivery is very dry, plodding and can get boring quickly unless you are committed. This is not to say her material is bad but her presentation lacks enthusiasm and energy.
Date published: 2014-03-27
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