Famous Greeks

Course No. 337
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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Course No. 337
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Course Overview

One of the most instructive and intriguing ways to learn history is through biography. By pondering the lives of great individuals—people who leave deep marks on both their own times and distant posterity—you can chart broad currents of events while also studying virtue and vice, folly and wisdom, success and failure. Moreover, you can appreciate them in the real circumstances of their times.

In a companion course to Famous Romans, classics scholar and master storyteller J. Rufus Fears examines a gallery of fascinating characters who shaped the story of Greece from the Trojan War through the rise of Rome.

Inspired by Monumental Works, Taught by a Great Teacher

These lectures—inspired and informed by the monumental works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch—allow you to do exactly that, guided by a truly great teacher.

Professor Fears is Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma—a 15-time award winner for outstanding teaching and three-time University "Professor of the Year."

From the heroes of the Trojan War to Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, he ushers you into the lives, achievements, and influence of many of the figures who made Greek history:

  • Great warriors: Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, and Alexander the Great
  • Masterful statesmen: Lycurgus, Solon, and Philip of Macedonia
  • Profound thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
  • Enduring artists and writers: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, and Plutarch.

His eye for character and his shrewd judgments are informed by a fine moral awareness and a deep familiarity with the times these famous lives were lived.

Gain a New Perspective on Familiar Classics

By attending to that context, Professor Fears offers you new ways of reading familiar classics by Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato.

Plutarch, a Greek writing during the heyday of the Roman Empire, composed his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans out of a conviction that the study of such lives can make us better as individuals and as citizens.

For 19 centuries, readers—and great writers—have agreed:

  • Plutarch fed the imagination of William Shakespeare, who based Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra on the Lives.
  • The American Founders, including both the Harvard graduate John Adams and the self-taught Benjamin Franklin, regarded Plutarch as a treasure trove of wisdom and wanted to see a copy in every schoolhouse.
  • Harry Truman was an avid reader of Plutarch, and spoke of the practical insights he gained from time spent with the Lives.

In keeping with that spirit, Professor Fears draws lessons from each life studied in this course, charting with you the intellectual and artistic currents of one of the most creative civilizations in world history.

The Center of Human Existence

For the Greeks, politics was the center of human existence. "Man," Aristotle said, "is a political animal."

This truth determines the selection of the lives covered and the course’s approach to them. The leading thinkers, artists, and writers of classical Greece can be understood only in the context of the political events of their day.

The most important single lesson we learn from Greece is that a free nation can survive only if its citizens care, at the deepest level, about politics.

The lectures focus on the five major periods of Greek history:

  • The Trojan War
  • Archaic Greece of the 8th through the 6th centuries B.C.
  • The Persian Wars
  • The golden age of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.
  • The age of Alexander the Great.
To the Walls of Troy: Homer’s Age of Heroes

For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan War was as real as yesterday’s headlines are to us, with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey holding near-scriptural status.

  • Alexander the Great slept with his copies.
  • Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, and Odysseus were role models and cultural heroes.
  • The influence of Homer resonated throughout Greek history.

Professor Fears argues that no modern work on leadership can rival the depth and power of Homer as the great poet dramatically explores what it takes to guide people and nations through the crises and hardships of life.

A Stand for Freedom and against the Odds: Greeks versus Persians

The decade of the Persian Wars (490–479 B.C.) was one of the most decisive in world history. It determined that Greece would remain free and bequeath to later ages the legacy of political liberty.

Professor Fears leads you in an examination of the lives of five of the most important actors in this momentous conflict.

Your path to understanding wends through the pages of Herodotus, as King Croesus of Lydia and the Persian emperor Xerxes serve as examples of all those who would abuse their power, and whom free peoples must resist.

And you look, as well, at three of the crucial Greek leaders—Leonidas, Themistocles, Pausanias—as you follow the stirring events of this epoch-making war for liberty.

Glory and Misery: Periclean Athens and the Peloponnesian War

The 5th-century golden age of Athenian democracy is the centerpiece of the course.

Although remembered as an age of glory, the 5th century was also a time of widespread misery. For it closed with the three-decade-long cataclysm of the Peloponnesian War.

That war—its causes, its course, and its consequences—forms the prism through which Professor Fears reads the lives who populate this part of the course.

  • Why did Pericles lead Athens into war with Sparta and her allies?
  • What lessons about morality, power, and leadership can we draw from Thucydides’s great account of it?
  • Can the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides be read as comments on the war and the attitudes that lay behind it?

In addressing these and other questions, Professor Fears introduces you to new ways to read such familiar classics as the Oedipus plays of Sophocles.

From Socrates to Alexander the Great and Beyond

The trial of Socrates was the test case of the ideals of the Athenian democracy. Professor Fears discusses that trial in the context of its impact on the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath of recrimination among the Athenians.

The death of Socrates at the hands of that Athenian democracy convinced his influential followers, Xenophon and Plato, that the best form of government would be the rule of one outstanding individual.

Thus you will be introduced to the figures of Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great.

These monarchs, conquerors, and statesmen would expand and transform the Greek world and outline a vision of transnational brotherhood that remains an ideal today.

But Alexander died young, and the Romans and their empire would be his true heirs.

Thus your study of the lives of famous Greeks concludes with two remarkable figures who challenge Rome for world domination: Pyrrhus, the Greek-speaking king of Epirus, and Cleopatra, the last ruler of Egypt in the line of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy.

Both failed, but in instructive ways that make them worthy of inclusion in a course on Famous Greeks.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Theseus, legendary founder of Athens, traveled to the far corners of the Greek world doing great deeds, and at home he created the prototypes of Athens's key institutions. Athenians' beliefs about Theseus, like Americans about George Washington, set a standard for judging leaders. x
  • 2
    Achilles and Agamemnon
    No book on leadership could offer a better example than the conflict before the walls of Troy between Achilles and Agamemnon (c. 1250 B.C.). As Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon is in over his head. Excelling in the virtues he lacks is Achilles, "best of the Achaeans." Homer's genius will transform their power struggle into a timeless lesson in the moral dimension of politics. x
  • 3
    It is part of the genius of Homer to make the Trojan prince Hector, the Greeks' chief foe, into the noblest hero of The Iliad. Patriot, soldier, devoted husband and father, Hector embodies the virtues most admired by the Greeks and their tragic vision of life. x
  • 4
    Unlike the doomed Hector, Agamemnon, and Achilles, the wily Odysseus is the consummate survivor. For 10 years after the fall of Troy, angry gods make him wander the Mediterranean. In the end, his prudence and courage restore him to his home. Homer makes Odysseus's story into a metaphor for the human experience, wand gives us a look at the late Bronze Age. x
  • 5
    The legendary Spartan Lycurgus (c. 776 B.C.) represents a characteristic early Greek figure: the lawgiver who saves his country from civil war and establishes its characteristic political, social, and religious institutions. No such institutions in antiquity were as famous or significant as those of Sparta. x
  • 6
    Athenian democracy owes much to Solon (638–559 B.C.), a truly wise man who used his mind to serve his country. Many figures of archaic Greek history are hardly more than names to us, but this is not true of Solon. His poetry survives and offers us unique insights into the values and motives of this statesman whom our own Founders so admired. x
  • 7
    Why do great nations rise and fall? So asks the first true historian, Herodotus. A profound moral teacher concerned with the pitfalls of hybris (arrogance) and moral blindness, he begins his work on the Greek-Persian wars with the story of a monarch who belonged to neither people. How does the tale of King Croesus of Lydia (r. c. 560–546 B.C.) lead us to reflect on enduring issues of public morality and personal virtue? x
  • 8
    Both Plutarch and Herodotus would agree that Persia's King Xerxes (519–465 B.C.) belongs in any course on famous Greeks. Xerxes is central to Herodotus's Histories: He was responsible for the fall of his country. By studying the folly of Xerxes, Herodotus hopes the Greeks can avoid the same errors. x
  • 9
    It is a hot August morning in 480 B.C. Xerxes is closing in on Greece with 500,000 men. Facing him is Leonidas, king of the Spartans, with a small force of 7,000 built around a band of 300 Spartans. The stand they are preparing to make at the narrow pass called Thermopylae will become one of the most stirring in the annals of war. It will change world history and secure the place of Leonidas among the famous Greeks. x
  • 10
    The aftermath of Thermopylae was as critical for Athens—and for freedom in the ancient world—as May and June 1940 were for Britain and the cause of freedom in the modern world. In that dark hour, the British found a leader to rally them for the great test. In the same way, the Athenian democracy would find in Themistocles (527–460 B.C.) a man equal to the moment. x
  • 11
    Thucydides sees Sparta's King Pausanias (510–476 B.C.) as equal to Themistocles in intrepidity. By leading his allied force to an epic victory over a vastly larger Persian army at Plataea (479 B.C.), Pausanias ends the threat of Persian invasion and proves himself one of history's great captains. How do the Greeks manage to achieve this unlikely triumph? x
  • 12
    Along with Lincoln and Churchill, Pericles (490–429 B.C.) is one of history's three greatest democratic statesmen. Why does he decide to lead his country into the great war with Sparta? This lecture and the three that follow paint a portrait of Pericles and his age that is quite different from the one found in most histories. x
  • 13
    Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia
    Pericles is an intellectual as well as a political leader. His Athens is a place of unprecedented creativity, resulting in works of art, philosophy, and literature that are still admired, debated, and studied today. The names of Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia (5th century B.C.) represent the leading intellectual, artistic, and cultural currents of this golden age. x
  • 14
    Tragedy is the definitive cultural statement of the Athenian democracy. Aristotle calls Sophocles (495–406 B.C.) the supreme tragedian. Active in politics and as a general, Sophocles leaves us three plays, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus, that can be read as parables about Pericles's rule, the mysteries of wisdom and suffering, and the moral dimensions of politics. x
  • 15
    Pursuing history as a field of study begins in 5th-century B.C. Athens with the idea that learning from the past is the best way to guide present decisions. Herodotus comes first, but Thucydides (471–400 B.C.) is the greater historian. His powerful and pathbreaking History of the Peloponnesian War is "the eternal manual of statesmen," as timely and vivid today as when it was written. x
  • 16
    Brilliant, willful, dynamic, and fatally seductive, Alcibiades (450–404 B.C.), the nephew of Pericles, is one of the most fascinating and disturbing characters in all of Greek history. Gifted like his uncle but without his integrity, he is a product of Athenian democracy whose career highlights some of its worst failings and excesses. x
  • 17
    A dogged foe of Alcibiades, the conservative aristocrat Nicias (465–414 B.C.) becomes one of three commanders of the Sicilian expedition, along with his hated rival. Ultimately, supreme command devolves on Nicias. Despite his reputation for virtue, he is lazy, inept, and fears responsibility. But he is worth studying; examples of bad leadership are often the most instructive. x
  • 18
    Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War
    Even after the disaster in Sicily, the Athenians refuse to give up, resorting to bold military and political strategies. They even bring back Alcibiades, who had worn out his welcome in Sparta, and whose military genius and political skill restores Athens to a commanding position. But Sparta, too, has a formidable leader in Lysander. x
  • 19
    Lysander and Socrates
    The exile of Alcibiades by the Athenians gives Lysander his chance to prove himself. He brings victory to Sparta, but smaller men pull him down. The destruction of the great by the mediocre is also the story behind the trial of Socrates. His closeness to Alcibiades is the real reason that his fellow Athenians hate him. x
  • 20
    The Trial of Socrates
    In his funeral oration, Pericles celebrates the Athenian democracy for its tolerance. The Athenians treasure freedom of speech as essential to true democracy. Yet this same Athenian democracy puts to death its greatest thinker and teacher, Socrates. Why? x
  • 21
    Xenophon, Plato and Philip
    After Socrates' death, his pupils Xenophon and Plato come to believe that Athens has a perverse form of government. But a polis such as Athens is no longer the center of action, for to the north a new power is rising that will change the world. Macedonia and its superbly capable and ambitious king, Philip II, are the cutting edge of history. x
  • 22
    Alexander the Great
    Plutarch makes Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) and Julius Caesar the centerpieces of his Lives. Alexander's generalship and political vision transform the world. Not only one of the greatest military leaders in history, he outlines a vision of brotherhood that remains an inspiring ideal today. x
  • 23
    The Romans are Alexander's true heirs. The life of King Pyrrhus of Epirus (318–272 B.C.) shows why Rome rather than Greece wins world mastery. His proverbially costly "victories" over the Romans offer an object lesson in how even a gifted leader may fail if he does not "pick his battles" well. x
  • 24
    The last and most serious challenge of Greece to Rome comes from Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.). Charming in turn with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, she nearly defeats Octavian. This lecture goes behind Roman propaganda to reveal her as one of the supreme figures of ancient history, a stateswoman whose vision of a Hellenic eastern empire foreshadows Byzantium. x

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Your professor

J. Rufus Fears

About Your Professor

J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
J. Rufus Fears (1945–2012) was the David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his PhD from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was a Professor...
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Famous Greeks is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 124.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Storytelling—Good; History—Not So Much This is the second course I’ve taken from Professor Fears (the other being “Famous Romans") and this time I knew what to expect. I still appreciate his lecture style, where he sets a scene and brings us all into the time and place in history. But I dislike more than ever his almost casual attitude in separating what is fanciful and what is either factual or grounded in rigorous research and analysis. It is certainly easy enough for the listener to discount as implausible, conversations that no one could have overheard or recorded,but not so easy to distinguish which of the many moral observations that he puts into the minds and mouths of the players are factual and which are his views. To be sure, at times this is enlightening, as when he gives an interruption of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata that is very much at odds as to what I thought. But I found his continual comparisons of those ancient Greeks to modern persons to be suspect at best and often wildly off the mark. For example, to cite Pericles, along with Lincoln and Churchill as the three greatest politicians of all time, seems to be questionable, although interesting, while his comparison of an ancient commander to Patton made me think that while he might know a lot about Greece, his understanding of Patton was deficient. For me, this second set of lectures made me realize that even his storytelling had some serious deficiencies. For example, Professor Vandiver’s lectures made me much more aware of the culture of ancient Greece, than did Professor Fears approach. Plus, she always presented differing academic views and did not discount the ones that differed from hers. Often Dr. Fears does not acknowledge other views and when he does, gives them little credence. More significantly, he often ignores important points about his subjects if they conflict with the points that he is attempting to make. For example, Dr. Fears is a major Alexander fanboy. We never get told about his sexuality or the murder of one of his close friends while in a drunken frenzy, to cite only two instances. I recommend this course for anyone who wishes a fun, though surface view of classical Greece and many of the major players of the day (both real and mythical). Just be aware that, at least in my opinion it has little depth and is at times misleading. In short the storytelling is good and the stories are just that.
Date published: 2020-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful storyteller This 2001 release consists of telling the story of Ancient Greece by focusing on its most famous individuals, Plutarch-like. Professor Fears is a storyteller, more like Herodotus than Thucydides, but he stays within what is broadly agreed upon by scholars. Don’t be fooled by his seemingly off-the-cuff presentation; he’s got his facts straight, even if paraphrasing historical texts and occasionally adding a humorous elaboration, trying to show how that conversation might have played out in modern times. After a couple of lectures, I was hooked and started looking forward to the next segment. I have already seen several TGC video on ancient Greece, so know the history pretty well, but he brought some fresh insights, and was able to take the larger view than professors who are focussing on just one figure or single event. He gives the best explanation I have heard to date of why the Greeks felt it necessary to sentence Socrates to death, for example. This is a survey course, and would be a good first course to take before some of the other Greek courses. This falls very close to the top of my all-time favorite TGC courses. Looking forward to Famous Romans.
Date published: 2020-06-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A relic, not a historian. Honestly, the Instructor is a arrogant opinionated past-his-prime old man who far too often teaches his opinions instead of history and seems unwilling to acknowledge basic historical facts he does not like, AND to sometimes teach things that simply arent true. For example, he clearly worships Alexander, and justifies Alexanders more genocidal actions as "needing to set an example" (30,000 Thebans sold into slavery?) while referring to the Theban Sacred Band as "close friends" instead of "lovers" because Fears is so clearly uncomfortable with the fact that sex between men was common and accepted in Ancient Greece. "Close friends" seems to be as far as he seems to be able to go in referring to male lovers in the Ancient World .Also he closes his presentation on Alexander by DIRECTLY LINKING ALEXANDER TO OUR FOUNDING FATHERS IN THE US--saying that "all men are created equal" is based on Alexander!!!!! No other (sober) historian would claim this with a straight face. My point is Fears is an old, rigid thinker who is clearly past his prime as an educator and who values his opinions and overt biases over history... and who then presents these opinions/biases as fact.
Date published: 2020-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am enjoying this course, it is engaging. Lots of information in a narrative style that promotes remembering it. The professor is really good.
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good not great While I feel that Professor Fears is a gifted storyteller and lecturer, I do not think I have learned anything new about the important figures of Greek history. But I will say this of him. He makes me realize just how important it is to study the past. The ancients believed that in studying the great heroes and statement of the past gave them a way to better inform how they should act and behave. “Know Thyself” was a famous saying among the Greeks. And many of these figures teach me the powers and limits of what it means to be a human being.
Date published: 2020-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Substance and style I am so glad I trusted the positive reviews and bought this course. Rufus Fears is absolutely one of my favorite professors of The Great Courses. Listening to Famous Greeks was a great restorative, an antidote to the "non-personal" view of history which, taken all by itself, is wearying. I love Prof Fears's style of delivery, his accent, his diction, his approach, his knowledge of and comfort with his subject matter -- some of the things which the negative reviewers complained mightily about. But I think maybe Rufus Fears is for adults -- not young adults, either. But who knows? Maybe the newer generations coming up will get back into human character and intentions as also being important to history past, present, and future again -- and will be better able to tolerate the idea of individual persons mattering, and delivery styles that have style. (I just bought his Churchill and Famous Romans courses in the fullest confidence I will be adding both to my favorites list.)
Date published: 2019-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I thoroughly enjoyed this course, both content and presentation. Dr. Fears is a first-class lecturer.
Date published: 2019-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Famous Greeks Rufus Fears was perhaps the single most effective lecturer I have ever been blessed to hear. As prophetic as Cornell West, bringing a breathtaking depth of mastery of the topic, and sculpting each lecture with a genius of incisive detail, Dr. Fears opens to both the novice and scholar a treatment befitting Thucydides himself!
Date published: 2019-08-06
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