Greek and Persian Wars

Course No. 3356
Professor John R. Hale, Ph.D.
University of Louisville
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Course No. 3356
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Course Overview

King Leonidas and a tiny contingent of Spartan soldiers—the famed "300"—hold the pass of Thermopylae against a powerful and enormous Persian force. It's one those historicial events where truth rivals the epic proportions of myth. Did it all really happen like that? Behind this renowned tale of legendary Greek heroism is another, more intricate story, one that you encounter in The Greek and Persian Wars. Spanning more than two centuries, these historic conflicts forged a new world order, sparking developments in battle strategy, naval technology, world exploration, and art and culture that affect the world even today.

Now is your opportunity to survey this globe-spanning conflict, as well as its enduring impact on the world at large. From the ancient battlefields of Thermopylae, Marathon, and Gaugamela, to the imperial halls of Persepolis, to the bustling marketplace of Athens, investigate the clash of the Greeks and the Persians over the course of 24 fascinating lectures.

Your guide on this epic journey is award-winning Professor and Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville John R. Hale. An accomplished archaeologist and teacher, Professor Hale captures the human experience behind some of the most remarkable episodes in ancient history. He traces the gripping trajectory of surprising upsets and changing allegiances, as Spartans, Athenians, and Persians constantly shift sides, make and break alliances, and exchange partners for enemies in a seemingly endless dance of battle and truce.

Be Transported Back in Time

It's a perspective on history you'll find virtually nowhere else. Bringing together both sides of the story—Greek and Persian—and providing remarkable details from ancient history, archaeology, and the stratagems of warfare, Professor Hale creates a complex and informative account of this world-changing era.

It's also a gripping saga. A gifted storyteller, Professor Hale weaves a spellbinding narrative that is both accurate and cinematic. You experience the sweep of history, but you also glimpse the more intimate stories behind the saga. With each anecdote, Professor Hale creates a picture in words, recounting vivid dialogue and delving into the internal psychology of the historic figures that shaped their world and the world we inhabit today.

You hear about famous turncoats, such as the Athenian Alcibiades, who helped the Spartans overthrow his native city, allied himself with the Persians, and finally returned to Athens to lead his hometown fleet. Treacherous allies, broken covenants, unity among strange bedfellows—all are a part of the twisting, turning saga of the Greek and Persian wars.

With Professor Hale's expert guidance, you gain a grand and nuanced perspective on the complicated relationship between these two remarkable cultures and rethink what you know about the Greeks and the ancient world. This course serves as a wonderfully detailed introduction to these two great civilizations and the world they built.

How an Epic Conflict Shaped the World

What you find is a world that was virtually re-created over the course of two centuries through the struggle of the Persians and the Greeks. In the words of Professor Hale, "The roots of our contemporary world lie in this period, in the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C., and above all, in that great split between East and West, which still dominates world affairs today."

As Professor Hale demonstrates, the Greek and Persian wars served as the crucible in which the most important cultural events in the history of the Western world occurred, including the invention of medicine, history, philosophy, and drama, as well as remarkable achievements in sculpture and architecture.

Many of the Greeks' greatest enduring cultural contributions were generated by their ongoing struggles with the Persians:

  • History: To commemorate the greatest battles, Greek chroniclers such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon literally invented a new literary form—history.
  • The arts: One of the greatest artistic achievements of ancient Greece, the drama was created when naval veteran Aeschylus crafted the first play.
  • Politics: Perhaps the Greeks' most remarkable cultural invention, democracy was born of the city-state's opposition to the imperial advances of its Persian neighbors.

But the Greeks were not alone in their ingenuity. Known for their relentless pursuit of victory in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles, the Persians undertook remarkable engineering projects, from the bridging of the Hellespont to the diversion of major waterways.

These wars also drove new innovation in naval technology, as Greeks and Persians alike took to the sea on enormous warships called triremes. These military ventures helped to expand the water-based network of trade relationships, bringing about an unprecedented cross-pollination of cultures that resulted in a vibrant cosmopolitan world community.

Sworn Enemies, Strange Bedfellows

The course begins with an introduction to the major protagonists—Greeks and Persians—and a breathtaking portrait of the extraordinary civilizations they founded.

On the one side, you meet the Persians—hardy nomads and horsemen who left the bleak uplands of the Middle East to build an intricate, exotic culture that dazzled the world with its luxurious cities, its ingenious engineering skills, and the exercise of political control built on the ceremonial display of power.

  • What was the battle like for the invading Persian force?
  • What challenges did they encounter, despite their vast numbers, in facing the Spartan enemy?
  • And why did they initially lose so many men before overwhelming the small Greek force?

On the other, you encounter the Greeks—as diverse as their many city-states, but united by their love of debate, admiration of intellectual cunning, and fierce commitment to freedom. Taking center stage in the Greek arena are the Athenians, who seized power early on by building one of the first strong naval forces, and their rivals, the Spartans, who countered the Athenian love of democracy and philosophy with a rigorous militarism.

Finally, you glimpse the cosmopolitan world imagined by the "last" great Greek, Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror who dared to envisage an empire in which Persia and Greece would at last be truly united.

On the Field of Battle

"Half of winning a battle," explains Professor Hale, "is persuading your enemy to fight a battle that they shouldn't." An expert on methods of ancient warfare, Professor Hale takes you out of the history books and onto the field of battle, with rare insights into how each skirmish was lost and won.

You go beyond the movement of troops and delve deeply into the strengths and foibles of the Greek and Persian leaders, the decisions they made, and the risks they took. You compare the different military technologies pioneered by each side, from the Greeks' deadly phalanx formation to the Persians' masterful marshaling of tributary forces, and learn why some flamboyant and seemingly deadly innovations—such as the use of elephants on the battlefield or scythed chariot wheels to mow down enemy troops—failed to live up to their daunting potential.

But Professor Hale, the recipient of numerous awards for distinguished teaching, including the Panhellenic Teacher of the Year Award and the Delphi Center Award, offers more than just textbook descriptions. An accomplished archaeologist, he provides rare and valuable insights gleaned from years of field work. From the depth of the Aegean Sea to the site of the Delphic oracle, Professor Hale has walked in the tracks of these ancient people.

So when he describes how the Persian fleet of Darius the Great was destroyed during a storm in the Aegean Sea, he can also tell you about his deep-water expedition to the site of the wreck, during which he and his colleagues discovered a priceless artifact.

From an analysis of the landscape of the battlefield of Marathon to modern archaeological surveys of the ground where Xerxes and his engineers dug an 80-foot-wide canal across an Aegean cape, Professor Hale marshals the latest scientific discoveries to test and confirm the legendary accounts of these ancient events.

Join Professor Hale for this journey and gain a new perspective on this monumental chapter in ancient history. To study The Greek and Persian Wars with this master teacher is to gain new insights into one of the most influential clashes of cultures the world has known.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The First Encounter
    The roots of our contemporary conflict between East and West lie in the ancient clash of the Greeks and the Persians. In this first lecture, you witness the birth of this divide in the 540s B.C., with King Croesus of Lydia's preemptive attack against the emerging Persian Empire and its ruler, Cyrus the Great. x
  • 2
    Empire Builders—The Persians
    Thanks to innovations in translation and archaeology, modern scholars are now able to reveal the glories of the Persian Empire. Here you learn about the achievements of this remarkable people. x
  • 3
    Intrepid Voyagers—The Greeks
    Next, you get to know the other protagonists of this epic tale: the ancient Greeks. You trace the movement of this seafaring people from their Greek homeland to Asia Minor and consider how their worldview is reflected in the great myths, literature, and philosophy they left behind. x
  • 4
    The Ionian Revolt
    During the rule of King Darius, son of Cyrus the Great, the Greeks in Ionia (Asia Minor) rebelled against Persian rule. Athenian supported in the burning of the city of Sardis sparked a bitter desire for revenge that not even the Ionian defeat at the monumental Battle of Lade could quell. x
  • 5
    From Mount Athos to Marathon
    To avenge the burning of Sardis, Darius sent his troops into Greece to pursue the Athenians. Despite a naval disaster at Athos, the Persians continued their relentless pursuit, only to face a surprising defeat at the famous Battle of Marathon. x
  • 6
    Xerxes Prepares for War
    After Darius's death, Xerxes renewed his father's plots for revenge against the Greeks. To reach them, he undertook remarkable feats of engineering, including the spanning of the Hellespont with pontoon bridges—evidence of both the Persians' technological expertise and their relentless drive. x
  • 7
    The Athenians Build a Fleet
    In this lecture, you meet a remarkable Athenian, Themistocles, who persuaded his people to build a navy for defense against the Persians. He later spurred the pan-Greek forces to seize the offensive by advancing to meet their enemies on the battlefield. x
  • 8
    Heroes at the Pass
    While the Greek naval forces blocked the Persian armada at sea, a small band of 300 heroic Spartans led by King Leonidas attempted to hold the pass at Thermopylae, a chief passage to inland Greece. In their tragic defeat, the Greek force found a legendary martyr in Leonidas and an example of courage in the famed 300. x
  • 9
    Battle in the Straits
    After the Spartans' heroic but disastrous stand at Thermopylae, the Persians marched on the deserted city of Athens and avenged the destruction of Sardis by burning the temples on the Acropolis. What followed is the most crucial battle of the Greek and Persian conflict: the day-long naval clash in the straits of Salamis. x
  • 10
    The Freedom Fighters
    You take a closer look at the remarkable victory of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis and learn why, despite far superior numbers, the Persians failed on that famous day. The Greeks then turned their attention to battle on land, and fought for the liberation of Ionian Greek cities, culminating in the Battle of Plataea. x
  • 11
    Commemorating the Great War
    You turn to an account of the strangest naval battle in history, the Battle of Mycale, which marked the final defeat of the Persians. x
  • 12
    Campaigns of the Delian League
    After the decisive defeat of the Persians, the Greek city-states met in Delos to form the Delian League. x
  • 13
    Launching a Golden Age
    With tribute pouring in from allies and conquests, Athens grew rich and launched a Golden Age that sees the birth of some of its greatest cultural innovations. x
  • 14
    Herodotus Invents History
    In this lecture, you examine one of the greatest achievements of the Athenian Golden Age, and meet the creator of a modern notion of history, Herodotus. x
  • 15
    Engineering the Fall of Athens
    After the close of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians allowed themselves to be goaded into war by a young hellion named Alcibiades. x
  • 16
    Cyrus, Xenophon, and the Ten Thousand
    With the death of Darius, his son Artaxerxes II was named successor. Darius's second son, Cyrus, under the facade of suppressing troublesome hill tribes, assembled the famed army of Ten Thousand to challenge his brother's claim. Among them is Xenophon, who later wrote about the march into the heart of the Persian Empire. x
  • 17
    The March to the Sea
    When Cyrus was killed in battle with Artaxerxes II, the Ten Thousand were left leaderless deep within Persian territory. In this lecture, you trace their perilous march to the sea and witness the battle, as witnessed by Xenophon, who became one of the Greeks' greatest historians. x
  • 18
    Strange Bedfellows
    In yet another strange reversal of allegiances, the Persians allied themselves with the Athenians in a battle against the Spartans, a conflict that came to a head in the historic battle of Cnidus. x
  • 19
    The Panhellenic Dream
    Sparta and Persia forged an accord known as the Peace of Antalkidas, the King's Peace, which effectively recognized the Great King of Persia as the overlord of the Greeks. In response, Athenian orators began a call for a Panhellenic League that would fight—once again—for Greek independence. x
  • 20
    The Rise of Macedon
    Who could the Athenians look to for leadership in the effort to unify Greece against the Persians? In this lecture, you meet Philip of Macedon, a remarkable empire builder. x
  • 21
    Father and Son
    As great as Philip's achievements were, the feats of his son, Alexander the Great, resound loudest throughout history. x
  • 22
    Liberating the Greeks of Asia
    We continue to follow Alexander's movement eastward, ending in Gordion, where he "unties" the famed Gordion knot. x
  • 23
    Who Is the Great King?
    Alexander finally entered the heart of Persia and faced the forces of Darius III twice, at Issus and then at the renowned battlefield of Gaugamela. Both times, Alexander allowed Darius to escape after crushing defeat. x
  • 24
    When East Met West
    Hear about Alexander's final confrontation with Darius, who was killed by his own companions. In the wake of his victory, Alexander sought to unite Persia and Greece. While the effort at political unification died shortly after Alexander's death, the cultural union became a major force in shaping our modern world. x

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Your professor

John R. Hale

About Your Professor

John R. Hale, Ph.D.
University of Louisville
Dr. John R. Hale is the Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He earned his B.A. at Yale University and his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. Professor Hale teaches introductory courses on archaeology, as well as more specialized courses on the Bronze Age, the ancient Greeks, the Roman world, Celtic cultures, the Vikings, and nautical and underwater archaeology. An...
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Greek and Persian Wars is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 77.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much More Than A History Lesson! Thank you, Professor Hale. You gave us much more than a history lesson with events and dates. You articulated a 2500 year old story in manner than that can still be appreciated in modern times. A story about people. A story in the context of the times during which these people lived. A story about the famous and not so famous and their respective contributions to history. I learned much more than the history of the Greeks and the Persians. I learned about our common humanity. Thanks again!
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Cyrus to Alexander, Empire to Empire This was my 2nd Great Course which I received almost exactly a year ago, but only now during the COVID-19 pandemic have I been able to dedicate the time to watch it. Dr. Hale has organized his program into a well-paced 24 lectures. It probably could have been done in 21 or 22 (not much filler here), but it appears that multiples of 6 is the rule at The Great Courses, so 24 was, in essence perfect. I also appreciated the symmetry that it begins with a Great King and ends with a Great King . Having just come from Dr. Garland's "Other Side of History," I'd had a bit of a primer for the regions and time period that Dr. Hale would be presenting. (And it may have been my imagination, but early in the lecture, he shows a picture of some archaeologists - of whom he was one - who went to the Aegean Sea...and one of them almost looked like a younger Dr. Garland) As other reviewers have noted, I was familiar with names like Xenaphon, Xerxes and so on, but usually only from cinematic and video game experiences ("300," "Assassin's Creed Odyssey") and it was fun to relive some of the ancient land and sea battles - where tactics succeeded and failed (or where lack of tactics succeeded and failed). Dr. Hale has a very informal approach to his lecture, looking alternately at the camera and around the room where other students are supposedly located. While that in itself is actually pleasing (it doesn't feel like there's going to be a test later), there are plenty of stutters and corrections which can take a viewer out of the picture he's trying to paint a little bit. As a student of video, I can see where there had to be additional takes (and overdubs) which also detracts for me. This contrasts to my previous Great Courses experience where Dr. Garland was constantly looking into the camera with the acumen of an experienced news anchor and had a slow, deliberate delivery which gave it a bit more polish. (Personally, I would take some of Dr. Hale and some of Dr. Garland for the perfect mix) I did enjoy how much Dr. Hale got into the recounting the battles (particularly the plight of Xenaphon's 10,000). You can tell this was a subject of passion for him, and that made it easy to go along on the ride with him. If you're not already familiar with this topic and if you like ancient history with all of the academia but none of the pressure, this is worth a watch. I can't speak for those who have a stable background in this subject, though.
Date published: 2020-04-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gret overview of the greek and persian wars The part I liked the best was the enthusiasm that the professor brought to the subject. The descriptions of the battles were like reading a suspense novel.
Date published: 2019-10-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from One More Among Many The classical Greek era is a favorite of TGC and also of many of us who take these courses. So much so that at least for me it becomes hard to keep them from blending one into another. For example the short course of Dr. Harl, “Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations” has its final lecture devoted to the Persian empire; ”Foundations of Western Civilization” with its early emphasis on classic Greece; “Ancient Empires Before Alexander” that includes much about Persia and Greece; “Great Battles of the Ancient World” describes Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, the march of the 10,000 and more; “Ancient Greek Civilization” includes lectures on Persia and the Persian Wars” and of course Dr. Harl’s course on Alexander. And this does not even count such stand-alone course such as “Ethics of Aristotle”, a bio of Herodotus, the Republic of Plato and “Classical Archeology of Greece and Rome” another standout of Dr. Hale. And these are just courses that I have taken, not at all I’m sure the full list. All of the courses have provided me with information that I did know previously, or helped me look differently at a subject that I thought I knew reasonably well. This course has a specific perspective, not exactly present in those listed above. That is, that the world would be very different had these conflicts have been resolved differently. To be sure, this is likely true of almost anything—but in this case had the Persians come out on top, the very idea of Western Civilization would likely not even be a term. While one can well disagree with Professor Hale, he indeed makes a compelling case. His focus is specific: the few hundred years between about 540 BCE (a somewhat arbitrary date based on one early conflict) to the death of Alexander in 323 BCE (a very reasonable bookend). And the focus becomes more narrow in mostly considering only Greece (Macedonia seems included in Greece of the title) and Persia and by also largely passing over non-Greek/Persian issues such as the Peloponnesian War. Interestingly he does include some peripheral items such as a sicussion of Aeschylus’s “The Persians”, tidbits like that, I loved. These inclusions seem to me to be in line with his lecture style, that seems to be storytelling that hard history. Certainly some reviewers take exception to his digressions, but I rather liked the style, one of an expert who knew where he was going, how to get to the end and did not mind at all taking an occasional side road or detour. There are plenty of gems here, even for those who know a great deal about the subject and period. For example, his description of the Battle of Salamis with the Great King Xerxes looking down from on high was perfect and his speculation as to that observation effecting the outcome of the battle, well worth considering. Is this then a course worth purchasing? If you know a great deal about this period, perhaps not. But if you don’t or want a very focused view of what happened between Greece and Persia for a couple of hundred years, pick it right up. Although I thought the audio was sufficient, I missed maps during real time and needed to refresh my memory for some locations afterwards. The maps included in the course booklet are helpful, but insufficient.
Date published: 2019-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In depth presentation and illuminating I wanted more information about this period and I wasn't disappointed. Professor Hale was very knowledgeable about the subject matter and this was seen by the continuity of the flow of his delivery. The sessions flowed pretty much according to the timeline with only a few references to earlier sessions. I also like how Professor Hale presented links between the past and current times.
Date published: 2019-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from PROF HALE ENJOYS HIS SPECIALTY I find it unusual when students become offended by a professor's take on a subject as though it were 'politically incorrect'. You must enjoy the subject as the professor does from his/her perspective since they have spent most of their life deeply dedicated to such a subject. If someone is excited about something then maybe they see something that you don't...or can't... without their guidance. Would you eat a restaurant where the cook does not enjoy cooking?...Not me! Certainly Prof Hale is enthusiastic in his work, even specializing in underwater archaeology. This course is one of many crucial times in history that changed the world forever and Prof Hale does a great job of telling the tale. Do yourself a favor with any one lesson per day and learn to appreciate what is being presented to you. Prof Hale is top of the line.
Date published: 2019-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fine introduction for hostory fans The lectures are very well organized, spare, yet captivating. This side of early history is not covered in texts I used, so this course nicely fills gaps. One could do this by CD, but the maps are very helpful.
Date published: 2019-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Athenian Bigot The presenter has a great delivery, but glosses over fact that do not support his view of history. Strongly suggest people interested in this subject consider the Peloponnesian War offered by Kenneth Harl which despite its name covers the same material more objectively. Thucydides writes in Book 1 of the Peloponnesian War "...if Lacedaemon (Sparta) were to become desolate and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power" Professor Hale proves Thucydides correct. I wish I could get my money back for this course!
Date published: 2018-08-18
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