Great Battles of the Ancient World

Course No. 3757
Professor Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
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Course No. 3757
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Course Overview

Hollywood has gone to elaborate lengths to recreate the violence and mayhem of ancient warfare in movies such as Gladiator and Troy. But what were ancient battles really like? What weapons, tactics, armor, training, and logistics were used? And what were the crucial factors that could turn the tide of battle, giving one side victory and consigning the other to slaughter, capture, or, at best, escape to fight another day?

A professor of classics and history at The Pennsylvania State University and the teacher of our immensely popular course, The History of Ancient Rome, Dr. Garrett G. Fagan has devoted extensive study to ancient warfare. In these 24 lectures he takes you into the thick of combat in some of the most notable battles fought in the Mediterranean region from prehistoric times to the 4th century A.D.

Great Battles—Crucibles of History

"Battles, for all their madness, are worthy of study if for no other reason than that they are the crucibles of history," says Professor Fagan, who notes that a few hours of hard fighting can determine the fates of entire empires. Among the many fateful battles you study are:

  • Marathon: This clash between Athenians and the invading Persian army in 490 B.C.E. demonstrated the fearsome effectiveness of Greek hoplite phalanxes against Persian arms. Later European history would have looked very different had the Greeks lost at Marathon.
  • Gaugamela: In 331 B.C.E., Alexander the Great crushed a vastly superior Persian force in a classic hammer-and-anvil battle, in which his cavalry (the hammer) outflanked the enemy to drive it onto the spear-wielding phalanx (the anvil). When the dust had settled, King Darius III was in flight, and Achaemenid Persia, which had dominated Asia for three centuries, was at an end.
  • Masada: The Romans showed their mastery of the difficult art of siege warfare by breaching the virtually impregnable Jewish fortress of Masada, which fell on April 16, A.D. 73. The defenders took their own lives rather than surrender, ending the last chapter of the Jewish Revolt against Rome.

Famous Generals

You also follow celebrated confrontations between commanders of ancient times, including Hannibal versus Scipio, the 3rd-century B.C.E. equivalent of Lee versus Grant during the American Civil War, or Rommel versus Montgomery during World War II. At the head of a Carthaginian army, Hannibal nearly broke the back of Roman power in Italy, inflicting the worst Roman defeat ever at the horrendous Battle of Cannae in 218 B.C.E. But he met his match in P. Cornelius Scipio, who lured him to Africa for a killing blow at the Battle of Zama. Scipio was known ever afterward as Scipio "Africanus."

Other generals you study include:

  • Alexander the Great: Arguably the greatest general ever, Alexander was heir to the tactical innovations of his father, Philip II of Macedon, who, in turn, had learned new battle techniques from Epaminondas of Thebes. Alexander's stunning victories are marked by his maximally efficient use of military tools.
  • Julius Caesar: A brilliant tactician and master chronicler of his own exploits, Caesar won battles against barbarian armies and Roman rivals alike. He was preparing to conquer the Parthian Empire when he was struck down in the Roman Forum on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E.
  • Xenophon: Elected general after the massacre of his commanding officers, this soldier of fortune led a beleaguered army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries on a daring retreat from deep within Persian territory.

What You Will Learn

This course focuses on warfare in the ancient Mediterranean world, encompassing the region from Mesopotamia to Western Europe, including Egypt and North Africa.

The first eight lectures chart the development of warfare from prehistoric times to the glory days of the great states of the ancient Near East and Egypt. After examining theories about how to define war, you survey different models for the origins of warfare in the Upper Paleolithic (c. 37,000–12,000 years ago) and Neolithic (c. 10,000–5,000 years ago), testing them against the archaeological evidence, which provides our only clues to organized violence among prehistoric peoples.

Then you move into the historical era, starting with the first battles for which we have written accounts. These took place between the city-states of early Sumer (c. 3000–2350 B.C.E.), when armies of infantry that used rudimentary chariots clashed over honor, irrigation rights, and boundaries. Next you travel to Egypt and survey the changing nature of warfare in the Old to New Kingdoms (c. 2700–1070 B.C.E.), including the first fully recorded battle in history: the Battle of Megiddo between Pharaoh Thutmose III and a coalition of Syrian lords, fought outside the walls of a town in Palestine. You examine the fearsome Assyrian war machine as it developed c. 900–612 B.C.E., and the sophisticated army that allowed the Assyrians to forge the largest empire yet seen in the region. You also address disputed matters of the Trojan War and Homeric warfare.

In the next eight lectures you cover warfare among the Greeks and their distinctive form of combat using hoplites, a type of armored infantry that fought in close formation called the phalanx. You study the Persian invasions of Greece (490–479 B.C.E.), examining the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea that decided this titanic clash. The disastrous Athenian expedition against Sicily (415–413 B.C.E.) during the Peloponnesian War is next, followed by the military revolution in the 4th century B.C.E., which saw the creation of a new and formidable fighting unit spearheaded by the cavalry and a reformed phalanx. This integrated and flexible army reached its pinnacle of efficiency under Alexander the Great, and you survey the battles at the Granicus River, Issus, and Gaugamela that made Alexander king of Persia.

In the third part of the course you study the legions of Rome, which evolved brutally effective tactics that gave them dominion over the entire Mediterranean basin. It is unclear how Roman legionary armies actually fought, and you explore various theories before following the legions into combat in their colossal struggles with Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218–202 B.C.E.). Then you compare the Roman legion and Macedonian phalanx—the two most efficient killing machines of the day—in duels fought in Italy in the 3rd century B.C.E. and in the Balkans and Asia Minor in the 2nd century. Next you consider Roman skill in siege warfare as exemplified by Julius Caesar's siege of Alesia (52 B.C.E.) and the siege of Masada in Judea in A.D. 72–73. The final two battles covered are Roman defeats and introduce the German tribal warrior. These are the battles of the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9, considered one of the most important battles in European history, and Adrianople in A.D. 378, which heralded the decline of Roman imperial power.

In the final lecture, Professor Fagan considers the recent proposal by scholar Victor Davis Hanson that there is a distinctively "Western way of war" traceable from the Greeks to the modern age. This intriguing view represents hoplite warfare as a unique development of Greek conditions that casts its shadow down to the present. Despite the theory's attractive simplicity, it has problems that Dr. Fagan details in a fascinating glimpse of scholarly debate in action.

Clash of Theories

The battles you study were fought so long ago, and accounts of them are so incomplete, that what happened involves considerable controversy. Professor Fagan presents contending theories and often his own hypotheses about how events unfolded during these bloody encounters. For example:

  • The standard view of battle mechanics adopted by opposing armies of Greek hoplites is that they advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in close-ordered formation and crashed into each other head-on. Then they sought, quite literally, to shove their opponents off the field, all the while stabbing with their spears. The minority view is that hoplite battle was more open, with hoplites standing up to six feet apart and fighting individually rather than as a mass. Dr. Fagan demonstrates how this minority view "is a lot more plausible and is supported by the ancient evidence better than the strange business of ritualized shoving."
  • Similarly, it is far from clear how Roman legionaries fought their battles. The principal ancient source, the historian Livy, is so confused on the point that it is obvious he never witnessed a legion in action. After considering various schools of thought, Professor Fagan draws on clues from different battle narratives to conclude that flexibility lay at the heart of the Roman system, so that no one "battle deployment" fit all.
  • On the issue of whether the Greek hoplites at Marathon charged the Persians across the one-mile gap separating the armies, as described by the ancient historian Herodotus, Professor Fagan notes that experiments carried out at The Pennsylvania State University with physical education majors suggest that Herodotus was wrong. Wearing weighted jackets and carrying mock nine-pound shields, only one of the Penn State athletes could run the mile-long course, and he was utterly exhausted—certainly not in a position to fight 24,000 Persians!

War's Grim Reality

Dr. Fagan ends by reminding us of the grim reality of war: Throughout history many millions have died on battlefields. "We owe it to them," he concludes, "and to the thousands who continue to perish in our planet's wars, to understand as fully as possible what it was that killed them. If this course has advanced its audience's comprehension of war even a little, then it has amply fulfilled its purpose."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Study Battles? What Is War?
    Professor Garrett G. Fagan addresses the importance of studying battles and surveys the changing scholarly approach to the subject since the 19th century. He concludes by looking at different definitions of warfare, particularly the "operational" and "social-constructivist" models. x
  • 2
    The Problem of Warfare’s Origins
    Three types of evidence shed light on origins of warfare: human remains bearing evidence of trauma, artifacts that function primarily as weapons, and monuments such as fortifications or depictions of warriors painted on cave walls. Their interpretations are far from straightforward. x
  • 3
    Sumer, Akkad, and Early Mesopotamian Warfare
    You enter the historical era when written records first become available. Such evidence allows us to reconstruct the conventions and conditions of warfare among the first cities in Sumer in c. 3000 B.C. and to explore the nature of Sumerian armies, weapons, and battle tactics. x
  • 4
    Egyptian Warfare from the Old to New Kingdoms
    Evidence of warfare in Old Kingdom Egypt is ambiguous, but it is much more plentiful in later periods, when the pharaoh's role was increasingly that of a war leader. Egyptian warfare was transformed by the introduction of the chariot. x
  • 5
    The Battles of Megiddo and Kadesh
    With New Kingdom Egypt you get the first fully recorded battle in history: the Battle of Megiddo. You also cover the later Battle of Kadesh, which is attested in both Egyptian and Hittite accounts. x
  • 6
    The Trojan War and Homeric Warfare
    The reality of the Trojan War has been debated since ancient times. In this lecture you survey the archaeological evidence for Troy and for warfare among the mainland Greeks, called Mycenaeans. x
  • 7
    The Assyrian War Machine
    The Assyrian military model of multiethnic, highly mobile armies relying on missile weaponry and chariots was to characterize major Near Eastern powers for centuries. You study the nature of the Assyrian army, the unique features of the empire it created, and the place of warfare in Assyrian imperial ideology. x
  • 8
    The Sieges of Lachish and Jerusalem
    You examine the art of ancient siege warfare by considering the two great sieges at Lachish and Jerusalem during the third campaign of Sennacherib (701 B.C.). The sources for these events include Assyrian written and iconographic records, accounts in the Bible, and archaeology. x
  • 9
    A Peculiar Institution? Hoplite Warfare
    The Greek hoplite was a heavily armed and armored infantryman who fought in a formation called the phalanx, dominating battlefields of the ancient world for almost four centuries (c. 700–338 B.C.). x
  • 10
    The Battle of Marathon
    The Battle of Marathon saw the forces of the Persian superpower defeated in the first major confrontation between Greeks and Persians on the Hellenic mainland. The battle itself was strategically indecisive and set the stage for the serious clash of Greek and Persian armies a decade later. x
  • 11
    The Battle of Thermopylae
    In the second Persian invasion of Greece, 300 Spartans with allied troops were charged with stopping an enormous Persian force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, while Greek armies mustered in the rear. Astonishingly, the fight lasted three days before the defenders were betrayed and then massacred. x
  • 12
    Naval Warfare and the Battle of Salamis
    You survey the naval developments that led to the trireme in the late 6th century B.C. and then focus on the Battle of Salamis, which saw the Persian fleet defeated by Athens. The lecture ends with the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.). x
  • 13
    The Athenian Expedition to Sicily
    The Athenian assault on the heavily forytified city of Syracuse in Sicily represents one of the greatest military follies in history. The ensuing disaster was a turning point in the wider Peloponnesian War with Sparta (431–404 B.C.). x
  • 14
    The March of the Ten Thousand
    You follow the exploits of the "Ten Thousand," a contingent of Greek mercenaries caught deep in hostile Persian territory around 400 B.C. Their fighting retreat, conducted over 1,500 miles, demonstrated the superiority of Greek hoplites and later inspired Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia. x
  • 15
    Macedonian Military Innovations
    Warfare among Greek city-states in the 4th century B.C. led to a new style of hoplite combat using a refined version of phalanx. Adopted by King Philip II of Macedon, these tactics helped create a fearsome military machine that was to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and Asia for more than two centuries. x
  • 16
    Alexander’s Conquest of Persia
    Using the Macedonian phalanx, Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire in 334 B.C., winning major battles against overwhelming odds at Granicus (334 B.C.), Issus (333 B.C.), and Gaugamela (331 B.C.), making him ruler over all of Persia. x
  • 17
    The Legions of Rome
    Abandoning the Greek-style phalanx, the Romans created an army that would conquer the known world within two centuries. The essential elements of Roman legionary equipment and tactical formations are examined. x
  • 18
    The Battles of Cannae and Zama
    An examination of Roman battles begins with the worst defeat in Roman history, the disaster at Cannae, inflicted by Carthaginian military genius Hannibal. The routed Romans waited 14 years for their revenge against Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. x
  • 19
    Legion versus Phalanx—Six Pitched Battles
    The two greatest tactical systems of the ancient Mediterranean were the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman legion. They met in battle at several engagements, allowing us to weigh their relative advantages. You consider the results of six battles. x
  • 20
    The Sieges of Alesia and Masada
    You look at developments in siege warfare during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, examining in detail two great Roman sieges: Alesia (52 B.C.) and Masada (A.D. 72–73). Both required enormous networks of camps, towers, moats, and palisades to seal off the besieged. x
  • 21
    Caesar’s World War
    Between 49 and 45 B.C., Caesar fought a civil war across the empire against his Roman rivals. You examine the battles of Pharsalus, Zela, Thapsus, and Munda, paying particular attention to what allowed Caesar to win in each case, especially since he was often outnumbered. x
  • 22
    The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
    In A.D. 9, three Roman legions were ambushed and massacred in the Teutoburg Forest by Germans under Arminius, a former auxiliary in the Roman ranks. You explore accounts of the battle and the remarkable archaeological discoveries that have shed new light on German tactics. x
  • 23
    Catastrophe at Adrianople
    The Roman defeat at Adrianople in A.D. 378 was only the second time in Roman history that an emperor was killed in action against a foreign foe. Assessing the battle, you survey the Goths and the threat they posed in the 4th century, and you examine the military organization and equipment of the Later Roman Empire. x
  • 24
    Reflections on Warfare in the Ancient World
    You address two final questions: (1) Why did warfare play a central role in the societies of the ancient Mediterranean? (2) Was the so-called "Western way of war" invented in Archaic Greece and has it been continuously practiced up to the present? x

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Your professor

Garrett G. Fagan

About Your Professor

Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
Garrett G. Fagan (1963–2017) was a Professor of Ancient History at Pennsylvania State University. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and was educated at Trinity College. He earned his PhD from McMaster University and held teaching positions at McMaster University, York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also gave many public lectures to audiences of all ages. Professor Fagan had an extensive...
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Great Battles of the Ancient World is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 117.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great attention to detail This course really goes into the depths of what constitutes war but also the shear horror of how little we know about these ancient cultures. There is such little evidence but what is available is laid out in such an interesting way. I love to watch an episode or two and follow up with reading the supplemental chapters in the guidebook. This is great for anyone fascinated by history.
Date published: 2020-02-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intro to Ancient Warfare Considering the evidence of internecine strife as far back as the Stone Age, it’s possible that the world’s oldest profession is actually soldiering. In this course, Professor Garrett Fagan surveys ancient military history, starting even farther back than written records and working his way forward through twenty-four lectures. To be fair, the course might be better titled something like “Ancient Warfare,” as the course says as much or more about the nature and evolution of battle over the course of ancient history as it does about actual, specific engagements. That’s not entirely Prof. Fagan’s fault: most of our sources for the very earliest recorded battles, in places like ancient Egypt, consist of victory stelae, loot lists, and other documents of a cursory or jingoistic bent. Prof. Fagan does his best with these, but you’re never going to fill a 30-minute lecture with talk of tactics based on such slim sources. Even as sources become more robust toward the Greek and especially Roman periods, much of each lecture is often devoted to context and background, like the build-up to a battle, the nature of the militaries involved, or how the soldiers were equipped. I thought all this information was very interesting, but if you’re watching the course specifically to learn about the tactics of ancient engagements, you might feel too much time is spent on other subjects. Prof. Fagan is not the most dynamic presenter on The Great Courses. Although he doesn’t obviously use notes or a Teleprompter, he does generally sound like he’s reading (or perhaps reciting) from a prepared lecture. I never felt that this was a major detriment, though, and mention it only as a point of reference. Visuals are fairly minimal in this course. There are some images of ancient monuments, military equipment, and (most useful) the occasional tactical map, but while these things break up the monologue a little, none of them are really essential. (The maps are all included in the course booklet.) That is to say, if you listened to the audio-only version, you wouldn’t miss too much. "Great Battles of the Ancient World" may be, arguably, just slightly misnamed, but I still thought it was intriguing and informative. Only the dead may have seen the end of war, but the wars of the dead may yet be of great interest to we who are still alive. ~
Date published: 2020-01-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Armor and troop movements, not geopolitics I bought this course because I had enjoyed Professor Fagan’s earlier course on the history of ancient Rome. That course was well-paced, engaging, and entertainingly presented. This one is a different matter. I cannot quarrel with his knowledge (I don’t know enough to check his facts), his speech is clear with his delightful Irish accent, and the material covered lives up to the title. I listened to this course in the audio format, and that was a struggle. It was very difficult to follow the rapid fire descriptions of weaponry and formations which made up the major part of the subject matter. I confess that my eyes glazed over in trying to keep up with whose cavalry was on which wing, whose mercenaries were in the center and whose were on the flanks, the layout of the terrain, and so on. I should mention that the last lecture, in which he gives an extended critique of Victor Davis Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture,” was fascinating. If much more of the course had been discussions of that sort, it would have been much more enjoyable. If the video format includes numerous illustrations of weapons and armor, along with diagrams of troop movements during battles, it would undoubtedly make this course much more palatable. I would strongly discourage customers from taking the audio version unless they are sure they can handle it. The course certainly delivers what it advertises, but the subject matter likely will appeal to a very narrow audience interested in and able to follow the military minutiae. If one is interested in the larger geopolitical issues that led to the battles, or the results of them, other courses will have to suffice. In a web search about Professor Fagan, I was distressed to learn that he died of cancer in early 2017 at a relatively young age. This was certainly a loss for the field of classical studies, not to mention his family and colleagues.
Date published: 2019-09-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hard to Follow The course has some good content such as descriptions of the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legions, their weapons, and their fighting strategies. The discussion of sieges was good. I also enjoyed the lectures on the Roman battles at the Teutoburg forest and Adrionople and how the results helped to end the Roman Empire and affect European history. I applaud Professor Fagan for his knowledge and organization. However, his presentation was often hard to follow. Sometimes, he spoke too fast; other times he used words that I did not recognize even when I looked them up. When he described a battle, he would often refer to generals rather than the main combatants – I could not follow who was who. His reflections on warfare in the beginning and last lectures left me wanting more. In my mind, the basic reason for warfare goes back to the preditor/prey relationship between animals all the way up to Homo Sapiens. His discussions of tribes, city/states, greed, etc., strayed from basic human nature, the pathological need to fight and kill that has existed throughout history. One other criticism is the guidebook that was brief and lacked depth. I think it was put together to satisfy the course requirements. In conclusion, I recommend the course to learn about ancient history and warfare. There are some very good lectures, but there are also several lectures that were hard to follow.
Date published: 2019-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Enjoying the details of warfare from the earliest history. Great clarification about who were the peoples waging war and about the evolution of weapons. Where these battles were fought (on the map) and the sequence of the battles is also new to me. Usual coursework doesn't have time to go into detail about this, so the additional information and discussion keeps the listener eager to learn more. I usually look at two or three lectures a day.
Date published: 2019-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Study This is an interesting study of ancient battles and warfare. The course is purely focused on Mediterranean cultures, so no ancient battles of China or other places. While I wish the course was broad enough to cover a larger geographic area, this is still an excellent course. The course strikes a nice balance between the pace of the presentation and the detail of the material. The professor is clearly knowledgeable and presents in a clear manner.
Date published: 2018-11-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent value Great time duration. Entertaining. Excellent information conveyed.
Date published: 2018-11-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting subject but presented dryly Interesting information on many of the major battles of ancient Western Civilization. The details on items like the Persian Wars, Alexander's Conquests, and Hannibal vs Rome were wonderful But Professor Fagan was very clinical about the battles. Yes, he was fair and mentioned all viewpoints, but to the point that the actual battle information was a bit lacking. I wanted more on the Battle of Cannae, not why some historians thought it improbable that Hannibal's elephants were immaterial. Still lots of details, Just wish it was told in a more interesting way.
Date published: 2018-07-06
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