Famous Romans

Course No. 349
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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Course No. 349
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Course Overview

Like the authors who serve as sources for this course—Livy, Polybius, Suetonius, Tacitus, and above all, Plutarch—Professor J. Rufus Fears believes that individuals, not organizations or social movements, are the primary forces that make history. In this companion course to Famous Greeks, Professor Fears retells the lives of the remarkable individuals—the statesmen, thinkers, warriors, and writers—who shaped the history of the Roman Empire and, by extension, our own history and culture.

Hannibal, he points out, caused the Second Punic War personally, much as Adolf Hitler caused World War II.

All of history would be different if Pompey had been as aggressive as Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus.

Augustus—beginning at the age of just 19—resolved upon and brilliantly followed a doctrine of ruthless expediency in order to rescue Rome from a century of civil war.

Marcus Aurelius, that most noble and philosophic of rulers, may have hastened the Empire's decline by tolerating the wicked cruelty of his heir.

Professor Fears divides his presentation into three "turning point" epochs in Roman history: Rome's great war with Hannibal (the Second Punic War); Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic; and the imperial era between Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. As he presents the great figures of each period, he makes them seem personal and immediate.

For example, he introduces you to the heroes of the early Republic through an imaginary tour of the Forum as it appeared in 218 B.C. In his discussions on Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general who taught Rome more about warfare than any other enemy, Professor Fears puts you right in the heart of the action. You feel as if you are there, struggling with Hannibal and his war elephants as they force a path through the snowbound Alps in the autumn of 218 B.C.

Roman Versions of the Kennedys and Winston Churchill

In these lectures you will meet or gain greater insight into a succession of individuals who can be considered great and famous not only in Roman history, but in all of history. They include:

  • The Roman "Duke of Wellington." Like the Duke of Wellington and U.S. Grant, Publius Cornelius Scipio the Elder (236-183 B.C.) is among the great generals in history. His victory over Hannibal at the North African town of Zama in August, 202 B.C.one of the most decisive battles in history—earned him the title "Africanus," or Conqueror of Africa.
  • The Roman "John and Robert Kennedy." Tiberius (163-133 B.C.) and Gaius Gracchus (153-121 B.C.) were both strongly influenced by Stoic philosophy and its teaching that all men are created equal. Each tried to initiate bold reforms designed to counter corruption that resulted from the Roman Republic's growing wealth and power. Like the Kennedys of the 1960s, both were murdered, and their efforts initiated forces that would ultimately end the Republic.
  • The Roman "Winston Churchill." First regarded as a "shady" politician, and known as a drinker and womanizer, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) is perhaps the greatest evidence that individuals make and change history. He proved himself both a military genius—along with Alexander the Great one of the two greatest generals in history—and a man of political vision in his understanding that Rome needed to expand its reach beyond the Mediterranean world. Like Churchill, he was a brilliant writer: his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars is one of antiquity's greatest works of history.
  • The greatest statesman in history. The adopted heir of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavius (63 B.C.-14 A.D.), known to history as Augustus ("The Messiah") rose from a little-known youth of no discernable ability to an unequaled political leader who would best the likes of Cicero, Brutus, and Marc Antony. He saved and regenerated Rome, received the title "Father of His Country" ("Pater Patriae") in 2 B.C., and died at 77, having outlived almost all his contemporaries and detractors.
  • A teacher to equal Socrates and Jesus. Stoicism was a philosophy based on the Greek thinkers Zeno and Socrates. It was one of the great intellectual currents of the 2nd century A.D., and Epictetus (c. 50-120 A.D.), the son of a slave, was one of its greatest teachers. He taught that "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."Thomas Jefferson ranked Epictetus with the New Testament as a source of moral inspiration.
Enduring Lessons About Life and Liberty, Character and Virtue

As you study these and many other significant Romans, Professors Fears uses their stories to probe fundamental questions about the political and cultural history of Rome. What was the impact of Greek civilization on the Romans? Why did the Roman people, at the height of military, political, and economic power, abandon their republican liberty for the dictatorship of Caesar and his successors?

What made the 2nd century A.D. one the most creative periods in world history, worthy of comparison with the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Sophocles? And why did the central figures of Roman history hold so much appeal for the Founding Fathers of the United States?

Before concluding the course with Marcus Aurelius, whose private Meditations are a wellspring of honesty and humanity but whose standing as a ruler is another story, Professor Fears pays homage to his masters, the great biographers and analysts of vice and virtue Suetonius, Tacitus, and, above all, Plutarch.

Who were they? What did they write, and to what end? Why are their works so inspiring and worthy of study by any people or individuals who wish to preserve liberty and virtue for themselves, their society, and ages yet to come?

This course will teach you specific lessons about life, character, and politics, drawn from the examples of the famous Romans. Professor Fears has his favorite, and will tell you who it is in the last lecture.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Publius Cornelius Scipio
    It is a March day in 218 B.C., the year that will see the beginning of the Second Punic War. Join the consul P. Cornelius Scipio and his son as they tour the Forum, discussing its statues of heroes from Rome's early days. x
  • 2
    Few Romans did as much to make Rome a world power as did its worst enemy, Hannibal. This lecture follows the great Carthaginian general as he leads 59,000 men and 37 elephants over the Pyrenees, fights his way across Gaul, and pushes through the Alps into Italy. x
  • 3
    Gaius Flaminius
    On a foggy morning in 217 B.C., a Roman army marches along the shore of Lake Trasimene in central Italy. The career of its commander Flaminius opens a window on both Roman politics and the skill of Hannibal, who lies in wait in the hills above. x
  • 4
    Quintus Fabius Maximus
    The events at Trasimene led the Senate to name Fabius as dictator for six months. Why did he adopt his famous—and at the time, highly unpopular—strategy of avoiding battle with Hannibal? x
  • 5
    Scipio Africanus the Elder
    The son of the consul of 218 B.C., Africanus earned his sobriquet by crushing Hannibal in 202 at Zama (now Tunisia), one of the most decisive battles in world history. Here we compare Scipio and Hannibal and the lessons they offer. x
  • 6
    Scipio the Younger
    Here we stand with the grandson of Africanus and his teacher Polybius, quoting Homer and thinking of Rome's own future, as we watch Carthage fall in a terrible illustration of the Roman proverb vae victis ("woe to the conquered"). x
  • 7
    Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
    Rome had conquered Carthage, only to wind up divided against itself as wealth displaced virtue and undermined the constitution. Seeing the urgent need for reform, these descendants of the Scipio line prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve it. x
  • 8
    Amid the turmoil and corruption of the late Republic, men of towering capacity strove to impose their will on Rome's destiny. Crassus made himself the richest man in Rome, and then sought political and military triumph. x
  • 9
    Gaius Julius Caesar
    To Rome's top politicians, Caesar at first seemed nothing more than a political hack of little ability and less character. The challenge of conquering Gaul transformed Caesar and changed world history, laying the foundations for the civilization of France and Western Europe. x
  • 10
    Caesar and Vercingetorix
    Caesar's brilliant history, The Gallic War, recounts his defeat of the Celtic hero Vercingetorix and reveals his mastery of strategy, tactics, logistics, battlefield command, and peace settlements. x
  • 11
    Pompey the Great
    In 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon and plunged Rome into civil war. He did it in the cause of liberty for the Roman people, but his goal was to establish himself as dictator. In this crisis, the supporters of republican liberty turned to Pompey. x
  • 12
    Cato the Younger
    At Valley Forge, desperate to strengthen the morale of his starving, freezing men, George Washington had his officers put on Joseph Addison's play about Cato. This lecture explains why. x
  • 13
    Brutus and the Opposition to Caesar
    It is March 15, 44 B.C., and you are with Caesar as he walks to a meeting of the Senate in the Theater of Pompey, where he will be murdered by a conspiracy of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. Why did Brutus kill Caesar? What consequences flowed from this bloody deed? x
  • 14
    Statesman, philosopher, orator, and humanist, Cicero is one of Rome's greatest sons, and proof that a lawyer can succeed without sacrificing integrity. He upheld justice, moderation, and liberty in troubled times, and gave his life for these ideals. x
  • 15
    The adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, is the most compelling evidence of Caesar's foresight. Only 19 at the time of Caesar's death, as the princeps (First Citizen), Augustus would secure centuries of unprecedented peace and prosperity. x
  • 16
    Augustus enlisted the finest intellectual, literary, and artistic talent to create monuments of enduring excellence to his ideals and achievements. Did Vergil, the greatest of all Latin poets, craft The Aeneid as an allegory of Augustus? x
  • 17
    A sign of the Augustan system's genius was its ability to survive eccentric or even mad emperors. History is fascinated by those emperors' excesses, which indeed can be highly instructive. Claudius, for all his oddness, was a shrewd and able ruler. x
  • 18
    To the senator and historian Tacitus, Nero illustrated the grim reality of the principate and the fate of the Roman people, who had surrendered liberty for security only to find their fate in the hands of a mad tyrant. x
  • 19
    The rise of this brave and able emperor testifies to the collective political wisdom of the Senate. He was a military leader and statesman of vision whose domestic and foreign policy wrought fundamental changes in the imperial system of Augustus. x
  • 20
    Hadrian, Trajan's successor, is a gifted, perplexing, and controversial figure. A fine soldier and public servant, he was also an intellectual innovator and an architect of genius. But few of his contemporaries understood him. x
  • 21
    Born a slave, he was exiled from Rome for speaking too freely to the emperor. Despite offers to return, he lived on in a backwater, becoming one of the greatest exponents of that vastly influential approach to life known as Stoicism. x
  • 22
    A lawyer, intellectual, and family man, Apuleius had a fascinating career that brings to life the 2nd century, an age much like our own. His novel The Golden Ass is both a ribald yarn and a touching allegory of the human soul thirsting for redemption. x
  • 23
    Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus
    Worthy heirs of Herodotus and Thucydides, these authors embody the essence of the classical tradition of history: its concern with greatness of theme and greatness of soul, its high moral seriousness, and its noble regard for freedom. x
  • 24
    Marcus Aurelius
    With Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic wore the imperial purple. No emperor was more dedicated or humane. His Meditations remain a beacon for all who would go through life with honesty and compassion. But how did he fare as a ruler? 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 Romans is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 121.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Man Approach to History—As Advertised Professor Fears is upfront about following in the footsteps of Plutarch presenting Roman history by examining the lives of “Famous Romans”. Actually not all of his lectures center on a specific Roman, as one lecture is devoted to Hannibal. Certainly this makes sense, as Hannibal was a significant contributor to the development of Rome. Unlike Plutarch, Dr. Fears also takes two separate courses (the other being “Famous Greeks”) instead of examining the lives of specific Greeks and Romans in parallel. Interestingly, and I suspect not confidently, Dr. Fears has a total of 48 lectures over the two courses and Plutarch wrote 48 biographies in his book. I don’t really look at this course as one on the history of Rome, nor indeed does TTC bill it as one, given the course title of “Famous Romans”. And if this course is not strictly history, the argument as to how well it depicts Roman history is moot. And, I think, to a lesser degree arguments as to Professor Fears’ frequent flights of hyperbole as he recreates discussions between and among the various players that are most assuredly made up out of whole cloth. I admit that this almost casual approach to putting words and thoughts into the players (lesson 1 begins this to an extreme degree as he depicts how Cornelius Scipio instructs his son, the future Scipio Africanus the Elder, conqueror of Hannibal as to the meanings of life, duty and honor one fine morning in the Forum, is bothersome. But listening to Dr. Fears present this factually unbelievable, but likely accurate high-level depiction of father and son, it becomes easy to ignore the detail and just go along for the ride. After all, if Richard III did not say “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” before dying on Bosworth Field, but that does not lessen my appreciation of the play. And to be sure, Professor Fears, though not speaking in iambic pentameter, is a master storyteller. Don’t be put off by some possible inaccuracies Sit back and enjoy his approach. You will be well rewarded. Recommended, but I do deduct a bit for his approach, like Plutarch, in that he uses his lectern as a platform for a bit of moral instruction.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Vintage Fears, on one of his favorite topics I liked this course better than its companion on the Greeks, despite the fact that the names were generally less familiar to me. Professor Fears is really in his element talking about these topics—and he ranges far afield sometimes from simple biography—and he loves to draw parallels with contemporary American culture. The last 3 lectures—on Apuleius (and his ribald novel as a source for many classic literary and religious works and also as a parallel to 21st-Century America), the historians Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus, and the Obama-like emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius—were really good. Dr Fears is not for everyone, but I have treasured each of his courses, accepting that the same material can be (and has been, in other courses) taught well by others using very different approaches and delivery.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting look at Roman history Having listened to several of this professors courses, I feel like I got more out of this one than all the others. All of his courses follow the same format and personally I do not find that it suits me. But the course on Roman has me playing a different tune. I realized half way through that there is something to learn from great figures of the past. It reminded me again of why I love reading and learning about history.
Date published: 2020-02-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Terrible: the company should stop selling it This course is remarkably bad. Every other Great Courses course on Rome is infinitely better. Prof. Fears presents as fact myths and stories the Romans told about themselves. Where other professors might say "this is myth," but explore what might lie behind it, Prof. Fears simply tells you the story as if it were fact. Ultimately, I had no confidence in anything Prof. Fears was saying. (I also found Prof. Fears's dramatic recreations of imagined dialogs highly irritating and somewhat sexist.) If you have liked other courses by Prof. Fears, I assume you will like this. If you like straight history, however, if you liked any other Great Courses course on Roman history, stay far away from Prof. Fears. I have rarely returned a Great Courses course, but I am returning this one.
Date published: 2019-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! I LOVE Professor Fears' courses. Not everyone does, I know, but I am one who believes that he does the besr job of any GC Co. professor at simulating interest in whatever subject he is treating. After any Fears course, I turn to the books to learn more. That is true about Great Romans. Sure, he embellishes the material. And, sure, you might disagree with his politics or religious convictions. So what! He is the outstanding story teller in the GC catalog. One always looks forward to his next lecture and next course. I envy the students at Oklahoma who could attend his classes. What a treat that must have been. I regret very much that he has passed away. I have been a fan for many years, even though I probably disagree with all political and religious points of view. So what! He inspires me to learn!
Date published: 2019-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have not watched this tape yet. I have not watched this tape yet but I can already tell you I will enjoy it because J. Rufus Fears is a master storyteller. I watched the Famous Greeks course taught by J. Refus Fears and I hated for this course to end. I not only learned a lot but I was captivated by his presentation. Great Courses has wonderful teachers for it's courses. I want to thank who ever started this program. It is awesome! I will rate the Famous Greeks course!
Date published: 2019-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Famous Romans Amazing professor who is passionate about these Romans. However, there wasn't dedicated lectures about two important Romans; Sulla and Marius. I was very impressed by the lecture on Tiberius and Giaus Gracchus. I learned and enjoyed the lectures immensely.
Date published: 2018-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great in presentation and content I like both the presentation and content. I had seen Dr. Fears before and as always he made it interesting.
Date published: 2018-07-03
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