Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation

Course No. 3480
Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
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Course Overview

Edward Gibbon's stirring Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire painted an unforgettable portrait of the Roman Empire in a long, debilitating slide to oblivion, culminating in an agonizing death at the hands of barbarian savages. But two centuries after Gibbon, historians have reevaluated this picture to create a radically different understanding of the period, which they now call "late antiquity."

This new view posits several fundamental changes:

  • "Barbarians" were not all one people; they weren't particularly barbaric; and they entered the empire mostly by invitation or migration—not by invasion.
  • The sack of Rome by Visigoths in 410 was effectively a looting spree. Churches were spared and there was no slaughter of the population.
  • The "fall" of the western Roman Empire in 476 was hardly noticed by people at the time. It was only long after the fact that it was seen as a cataclysmic event.
  • Contrary to Gibbon's view of Christianity as a cause of Rome's decline, much of the empire's legacy lived on through the institutions of the church.

Far from being a period of decline and fall, late antiquity marked one of history's great turning points. The fundamental reordering of the Roman Empire that took place spawned three great civilizations: Medieval Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic Caliphate. This startling transformation survives to the present day in many of the political, cultural, and religious traditions spanning the region from the British Isles to the Middle East—traditions that have spread their influence around the planet.

Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation takes you through five momentous centuries that link the Classical world with the modern, in 36 half-hour lectures by distinguished medieval historian Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble, Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Continuity and Innovation

A brisk and entertaining lecturer and winner of prestigious teaching awards from the University of Virginia and Notre Dame, Professor Noble shows in fascinating detail how one storied era, the Roman Empire, gradually faded into something remarkably new but also recognizably the same.

Covering the period from A.D. 235 to 750, Late Antiquity opens with Rome near its pinnacle of power and geographical extent, stretching from Mesopotamia in the east to Spain in the west; from the Sahara Desert at the empire's southern limit to the Scottish highlands, the Rhine, and the Danube at its northern frontier. Yet severe cracks were beginning to appear. One portent of trouble: Between 235 and 284, a succession of 70 legitimate emperors and usurpers waged a bloody struggle for imperial control.

Five hundred years later, the map over which these men fought was almost unrecognizable. The Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople, was the only administrative division of the old Roman Empire still extant. From the east through North Africa to Spain, the new civilization of Islam ruled. And most of what had once been the western Roman Empire had broken into a succession of barbarian Christian kingdoms.

But where earlier generations of historians saw the end of Roman civilization, the new scholarly consensus is that Rome was reinventing itself, seeding its customs and culture into the sibling civilizations of western Christianity, Byzantium, and Islam.

In this course, you explore these key features of late antiquity:

  • How this tripartite division occurred
  • The memorable rulers who led the way, such as the Roman emperors Diocletian, Constantine, and Justinian; the barbarian kings Alaric and Clovis; and the Islamic caliphs Mu'awiya and Abd al-Malik
  • The advances in systematizing legal codes, which made late antiquity one of the greatest periods of jurisprudence in history, contrary to its reputation as a time of decay and disorder
  • The ebb and flow of different barbarian peoples, who were often ethnically diverse confederations of disparate tribes
  • The religious leaders who forged Christianity and Islam, including Anthony, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Muhammad
  • The architecture, visual arts, and literature of the period, which reflected both continuity with existing classical models and daring innovation

You also learn what it was like to live in the late antique world, how people earned their livings, how the rich and poor differed, the role of women in society, and the great cities of the era and what distinguished them.

New Institutions, States, Religions, and Arts

The long course of Roman history had its share of surprises, with stretches of stability punctuated by wars and the rise of successive rulers. But nothing in Rome's previous experience compared with the ferment of late antiquity, which saw the unpredictable growth of new institutions, states, religions, and arts. A betting person at the time, says Professor Noble, would have been very reluctant to risk a wager on any of the following developments, which in fact came to pass:

  • that the crisis of the 3rd century would be resolved by a seemingly ordinary general named Diocletian, who became emperor and gave the moribund empire a new lease on life for another two centuries;
  • that the followers of Jesus would not only establish the Roman state religion but also amass powers exceeding those of the emperor;
  • that the Old Testament prohibition against graven images would be ignored by most Christian leaders, sparking the spectacular growth of creative visual arts in the church; and
  • that, most shocking of all, a new religion called Islam would arise among the desert tribes of Arabia, with militant adherents who would take over permanently a large part of the Roman Empire.

A Period of Transition

At the start of late antiquity, Christianity was a persecuted sect. A century later, Constantine legalized the faith and embraced it himself, attributing to Christ the victory that made him sole emperor. But when he built his triumphal arch in Rome, he identified his benefactor only as "the highest god," an ambiguous phrase designed not to offend pagans. This perfectly illustrates how late antiquity was a transitional period, with a new order and new sensibilities taking hold only gradually.

Professor Noble shows this transformation occurring in many areas, including philosophy, history, and poetry. For example, Christianity took ancient philosophy in an entirely new direction, with thinkers such as the church father Augustine challenging and adapting classical ideas to create a rigorous new theology. In fact, Augustine qualifies as the most prolific author in the Latin language, surpassing even Cicero in his ceaseless devotion to setting his wide-ranging thoughts to paper.

The traditional classification of literary periods divides pagan from Christian, even though the early Christian writers adopted classical models in their use of rhetoric, literary genres, and poetic meters. You learn why it makes much more sense to see the writings of the church fathers and other late antiquity authors as the last great age of ancient literature.

Five Eventful Centuries Made Clear

Anyone who has ever consulted a historical atlas cannot help but be struck by the mercurial, often confusing maps that represent late antiquity. The DVD version of this course features hundreds of specially designed maps (some of which are also included in the course booklet) that marvelously clear up the story of shifting peoples and borders over the course of five eventful centuries. Created under Professor Noble's direction, these visual aids are unique for any comparable presentation of the subject.

Another way Professor Noble clears up confusion is by casting the ethnic identities of the barbarians in an intriguing new light. "No premodern people we know about ever called themselves German," he says. Similarly, the Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, and other groups who are traditionally pictured as tribal hoards knocking down the gates of the empire are really complex amalgams of different peoples, who forged a unified identity under the process of ethnogenesis and then settled the Roman Empire under a wide range of circumstances—some violent, most not.

After taking this course you will never think of the barbarians and the "fall" of Rome in quite the same way again. Your imagination will be alive with the incidents, innovations, and peoples of an exciting era that gave birth to us all: late antiquity.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The World of Late Antiquity
    After exploring the origin of the term "late antiquity," you learn why this historical view better reflects the period from the 3rd to the 8th centuries than the traditional view that Rome had a "decline and fall." This lecture also outlines the major themes and issues of the course. x
  • 2
    The Crisis of the 3rd Century
    In this lecture you turn to the crisis of the 3rd century, when Rome found its frontiers threatened on several fronts. Armies made and unmade emperors with alarming regularity. The literature of the period also reveals unmistakable feelings of despair and uncertainty. x
  • 3
    The New Empire of Diocletian
    No one could have predicted that Rome was about to raise up two of its greatest rulers: Diocletian and Constantine. You learn how Diocletian instituted a series of reforms that divided the empire into east and west while also launching the last and fiercest persecution of Christians. x
  • 4
    Constantine's Roman Revolution
    Turning to Constantine, you see how he extended Diocletian's reforms. Among them, he gave the empire a new capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. He also took the surprising step of legalizing Christianity. x
  • 5
    The House of Constantine, 337–363
    Constantine's dynasty lasted through his sons and his nephew Julian, who continued the path of reform. You examine administrative, foreign policy, economic, and religious challenges during this period. In religion, Julian attempted to restore the pagan cults. x
  • 6
    The End of a Unified Empire
    In the five decades after Julian's death in 363, the Roman Empire lurched from crisis to crisis. But it also raised up one of late antiquity's greatest rulers in Theodosius, who dealt with the Goths and the Persians and made Catholicism Rome's state religion. x
  • 7
    Ruling the Roman Empire—The Imperial Center
    This lecture looks at the powers, duties, and responsibilities of the emperors, together with the basic ideas that sustained the imperial regime. Also examined are the people who advised the emperor and the nature of the offices they held. x
  • 8
    Ruling the Roman Empire—The Provinces
    You turn here to the vast administrative hierarchy by which Rome accomplished the task of managing a state that extended from the north of Britain to Mesopotamia. Concluding reflections examine how effective Rome's government actually was. x
  • 9
    The Barbarians—Ethnicity and Identity
    The barbarians were continually changing groups of peoples who defy the popular view that they were ethnically distinct tribes that invaded the empire in a coordinated fashion. This lectures asks: Who were they? What were their relations with Rome? And how do we know about them? x
  • 10
    Rome and the Barbarians
    You take the Visigoths as a case study of barbarian interactions with the Roman Empire. The Visigoths under Alaric famously sacked the city of Rome in 410, but this was neither an invasion nor a catastrophe to the city. Around 418 they settled in Gaul under an imperial treaty. x
  • 11
    Barbarian Kingdoms—Gaul
    In addition to the Visigoths, the Burgundians and the Franks also erected kingdoms in Gaul. As the 5th century unfolded, the Franks overwhelmed the Visigoths and the Burgundians, creating the most successful and long-lived of the barbarian kingdoms. x
  • 12
    Barbarian Kingdoms—Spain and North Africa
    You examine the shifting fortunes of the barbarian kingdoms and their continuing relations with Rome. In 406 the Alans, Sueves, and Vandals crossed the Rhine, initiating a sequence of events that would eventually establish the Visigoths in Spain and the Vandals in North Africa. x
  • 13
    Barbarian Kingdoms—Italy
    Sent to Italy by Constantinople to restore order, the Ostrogoths created a remarkable kingdom under Theodoric. In the turmoil after Theodoric's death, the emperor Justinian invaded Italy, launching the devastating Gothic Wars. Eventually defeated, the Ostrogoths were supplanted by the Lombards. x
  • 14
    The Eastern Empire in the 5th Century
    This lecture steps back to survey the Eastern Roman Empire when the Western empire was embroiled in barbarian kingdoms. The long reign of Theodosius II (401–450) saw a great codification of Roman law, military successes in the Balkans, and continuing religious strife. x
  • 15
    The End of the Western Empire
    You come to the event notoriously known as "the fall of the Roman Empire"—meaning the empire in the West. In 476 the barbarian general Odovacer overthrew the last of the Western emperors, Romulus Augustulus, inauspiciously named for two of Rome's greatest leaders. x
  • 16
    The Age of Justinian, 527–565
    While Roman rule would never be restored in the West, the East raised up an exceptional ruler, Justinian, one of Rome's greatest emperors. His many reforms include the Corpus Iuris Civilis, perhaps the most influential collection of law ever assembled. x
  • 17
    The Christianization of the Roman World
    How did an obscure religious sect eventually take over the Roman world? Christianity had two things that no pagan cult ever possessed: a recognized body of authoritative texts, and an increasingly sophisticated administrative system that gradually reached across the empire. x
  • 18
    Christianity and the Roman State
    You examine how the Roman state shifted from persecution to tolerance to promotion of Christianity. Several key pieces of legislation built the church into the public and private life of the empire. Christianity and the Roman state each benefited, with Christianity benefiting more. x
  • 19
    The Rise of the Roman Church
    It was by no means foreordained that the bishop of Rome, eventually to be called the pope, would achieve preeminence in the church. This lecture looks at how the bishops of Rome exercised their office and interacted with other church leaders. You also survey some significant early popes. x
  • 20
    The Call of the Desert—Monasticism
    The emergence of Christian monasticism in Egypt is one of late antiquity's most dynamic and characteristic achievements. Instead of engaging the world, as the church and its leaders did, monks fled normal society. This lecture focuses on the Desert Fathers and their first followers. x
  • 21
    Monasticism—Solitaries and Communities
    Within a century of monasticism's origins, monks and nuns could be found in large numbers in every corner of the Roman Empire. This lecture explores how and why the monastic movement spread. In the East the more solitary form of monasticism prevailed, whereas in the West the communal form triumphed. x
  • 22
    The Church Fathers—Talking About God
    The writings of the church fathers represent the last great age of ancient literature. Among the Greek fathers, this lecture focuses on Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus and looks at how they helped create a vocabulary and structures of thought for the Christian faith. x
  • 23
    Patristic Portraits
    Augustine was the most prolific author in ancient Latin letters, pagan or Christian. In his long and colorful life he became one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity. In addition to discussing Augustine, this lecture considers Origen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Jerome. x
  • 24
    "What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?"
    Tertullian asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"—meaning, why should Christians concern themselves with classical culture? You see how Christian writers adapted classical models in genres from philosophy to poetry to history. You also study the changing educational system in late antiquity. x
  • 25
    Graven Images—Christianity's Visual Arts
    Given the Old Testament prohibition against graven images, it was by no means certain that Christianity would develop visual arts. But it did—in profusion. After Christianity gained legal status in the empire, the arts exploded in a dazzling array of frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures. x
  • 26
    The Universal in the Local—Cities
    Cities were culturally dominant in late antiquity. At the same time, only 10% to 15% of people lived in urban areas. This lecture examines the nature of cities—large and small, central and remote—using careful reading of the evidence to extract information such as population numbers. x
  • 27
    Rome and Constantinople
    You explore late antiquity's greatest cities, Rome and Constantinople, studying population, occupations, cultural attainments, and major buildings. During this time, Rome faced challenge, shrinkage, and decay, while Constantinople was a great city just coming into being. x
  • 28
    Visigothic Spain and Merovingian Gaul
    You turn to Visigothic Spain and Merovingian Gaul. The Franks in Gaul and the Visigoths in Spain were the most successful of the early barbarian kingdoms. While the Visigoths eventually lost Spain to Berber and Arab invaders in 711, the Franks flourished under the Merovingian dynasty x
  • 29
    Celt and Saxon in the British Isles
    Moving to the edge of the late antique world, you examine the British Isles, which provide a fascinating example of how peoples who were little if at all influenced by the Romans were drawn into the orbit of European civilization by the Catholic Church. x
  • 30
    The Birth of Byzantium
    You shift to the part of the empire that lasted until 1453—the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually it became a distinctive regime that historians call the Byzantine Empire, developing a separate foreign policy from the West and evolving into its own form of Christianity: Greek Orthodoxy. x
  • 31
    Byzantium—Crisis and Recovery
    In the early 8th century, Byzantium appeared headed toward the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. But it was saved by a new dynasty of rulers, including Leo III, who instigated iconoclasm—the rejection of religious imagery. The end of the century saw the reign of the remarkable empress Irene. x
  • 32
    Muhammad and the Rise of Islam
    The rise of Islam is the most surprising development of late antiquity. You begin with a survey of pre-Islamic Arabia. Then you turn to Muhammad and his essential teachings, concluding with a look at the situation in the Arabian peninsula on Muhammad's death in 632. x
  • 33
    The Rise of the Caliphate
    After Muhammad's death, his associates fashioned a military machine that swept from Arabia to North Africa. By the early 8th century, parts of Persia and central Asia had also been overrun. This lecture concludes with a look at some of the early caliphs, the leaders considered to be Muhammad's successors. x
  • 34
    Material Life in Late Antiquity
    How was wealth generated in the Roman imperial and post-imperial worlds? How was that wealth distributed through society? The most revealing aspect of material conditions in late antiquity is the vast disparity of incomes between the wealthy and the ordinary citizens of the Roman world. x
  • 35
    The Social World of Late Antiquity
    This lecture looks at social conditions in the regions ruled by the Romans, the barbarian kingdoms, Byzantium, and the Caliphate. The all-pervasive feature of society that was most pronounced and likely to seem strangest to modern observers centered on entrenched ideas of hierarchy. x
  • 36
    What Happened, and Why Does It Matter?
    At the end of the 8th century, how would the rulers of Byzantium, the Frankish Empire, and the Caliphate have looked back on the world of Diocletian, 500 years earlier? The answer says much about the remarkable transformations of late antiquity. You conclude with reflections on what makes this historical period distinct. x

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Your professor

Thomas F. X. Noble

About Your Professor

Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his B.A. in History from Ohio University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History from Michigan State University. Professor Noble has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and research grants from the American Philosophical Society. In 2008 he received the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in...
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Reviews

Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 63.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from BEGINNERS BE PATIENT, MATERIAL IS VERY RICH This course contains a great lot of very versatile material. This is served to the viewer by a highly refined and expert server (Professor Noble) who follows a well organized procedure and accompanies the material with interesting pictures, maps and some computer graphics too. The dessert (lecture 36) is…awesome—one of the few instances of a course where the final lecture adds substantial value. One of the organizational principles adopted by Noble is to separate the material in narrative lectures (in the course of which historical events are enumerated more or less in sequence) and “thematic” lectures each of which is devoted to a single topic. Lectures 17-27 (reminiscent of Ehrman’s numerous Great Courses) as well as lectures 7-8 and 34-35 are thematic. Here Noble’s approach is kaleidoscopic, he serves a variety of hors d’ oeuvres (but no more), one would think in order to whet our appetite for further…private study or even for Ehrman’s courses which are much more wholesome. Of course, Ehrman has so much more time at his disposal! Although Professor Noble is obviously an excellent teacher, I would not recommend the DVDs as a first course on Late Antiquity. They contain such a wealth of information packed so densely that (in a way falling victim to Noble’s conscientiousness) they feel like a heavy Handbook which would, in my view, overwhelm students with absolutely no prior acquaintance with this period. Now I wish to turn to some idiosyncratic comments. Professor Noble’s teaching made only little of the material come alive before my eyes. I would tentatively attribute this personal reaction to Noble’s tight organization, remorseless “pigeon-holing” and relative (though clearly not invariable) preference for abstraction and obliqueness, occasionally verging on being evasive, as opposed to being concrete—this is probably the Professor’s coping strategy with limited lecture time but it often left me with a sense that, as it were, he did not want to put the finger “into the print of the nails”. Am I being blasé ? Well, I have been carried away by Professor Harl’s lectures on the Fall of the Pagans and on Rome and the Barbarians which cover many Late Antiquity topics and overlap with Professor Noble’s course, albeit only partially since Noble’s course is so very comprehensive. Still, come to think about it, there was one lecture by Noble which did elicit a sentimental reaction from me. It was No. 24 entitled “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”. In the course of this key lecture, Noble characterized as “no small accomplishment” (sic) a series of Late Antique intellectual developments. These developments included, among others, the abandonment of historiography in the Thucydidean style (which expressly avoided supernatural explanations) and a movement towards historiography exploring how… the hand of God steers human history. As a great grand child of the Enlightenment, I was appalled! In general, I completely fail to see what is the point behind Noble’s spending so much time to debunk Gibbon’s approach and instead to “sell” Late Antiquity as a sort of progressivist era, full of what Noble calls “achievements”. I don’t need any reassurance that Late Antiquity was a “good” period, rather I find Noble’s near-moralizing tone quite out-of-place and, from my perspective, definitely counterproductive. Late Antiquity is a mesmerizing period but if we are to court with value judgements, I would rather vote in favour of Harl’s position (lecture 24 The Fall of the Pagans) according to which, especially with the rein of Justinian, an iron curtain of totalitarianism (Harl speaks specifically in relation to religious persecution) descended across what had remained of the Roman Empire. Overall, however, I have no intention of pitting one titan against the other (i.e., Harl against Noble) for I acknowledge that they are both magnificent and provide complementary products so a to satisfy a wide range of viewers’ tastes!
Date published: 2017-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Necessay Corrective I needed something to listen to in my truck on long drives so I bought this set without any real knowledge about it. It turned out to be a fascinating course, that provides a necessary corrective to the common narrative about Rome and Europe and how we got to the Medieval time period. Combine a real scholar with provocative content and it makes for riveting listening. I have a Classics degree but I must admit it did conform to exactly the structure traditionally set up and I'm so happy I got this course nad broadened my perspective and understanding of the totality of the Roman Empire.
Date published: 2017-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from enlightens an obscure topic I'm a fan of this professor. This course is close (maybe too close?) to his academic expertise, and as a result I found it in some places too detailed and complex, but nevertheless I enjoyed it and felt that I learned a lot.
Date published: 2017-05-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too much religious content. I was having a great time with this course until I neared the middle portion and discovered that a third of the lectures focus on Christianity. No doubt, this was a significant movement from this era, but why go into so much detail over individual monks and their specific texts while only setting aside a grand total of 2 lectures dedicated to life in this era including games, arts, architecture, music, clothing, food, marriage, family, children, schooling, etc? I would condense those middle 12 lectures down to about 4 and expand everything else. Professor Noble should take that material and make a separate course on "The Ascension of Christianity in Late Antiquity". It definitely seems to be what he is most passionate about.
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Prof. Noble is an excellent lecturer. He is clear, informative and charismatic.. Among the many excellent "Great Courses" lecturers, he is my favorite. I found the material that he presented interesting and particularly useful in understanding both late antiquity and the following period of the Middle Ages.
Date published: 2017-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary journey to an Historical Time Period The instructor presents the historical information in the most clear and erudite manner. There is no doubt as to his credentials and vast knowledge of the material. Now that my curiosity has been piqued, I will pursue satiation with this course as a foundation for further inquiry. Thank you "Great Courses" for making this valuable course available.
Date published: 2016-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Course This is a wonderful course shining a bright light and illuminating what I was told at school were "the dark ages". The enthusiasm and depth of knowledge shown by Professor Noble is fantastic. The way he describes and shows you the evolution of the history over the 36 lectures is a joy to watch, and he doesn't seem to use any notes!! If you're interested in history but with relevance to the present day as well then this is the course for you.
Date published: 2016-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Once is not enough! I've been through the course once and I know that I will go through it again. Professor Noble's deep, rich knowledge and absolutely impeccable delivery make one thankful that the Great Courses gives one access to Professor Noble. What a treasure to spend one's time learning in this way. Years of reading on the topic would not deliver the living fullness of the topic which one finds in Professor Noble's course. At the end, I felt like standing and shouting "bravo"!
Date published: 2016-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Perspective and context Audio download For those considering purchase (why else would you be reading reviews?), these lectures are informative and sometimes detailed in explaining the context of this period of time from the perspective of Christians...and that in no way is meant to be a criticism. Prof Noble teaches at Notre Dame and holds a doctorate in Christian and classical history, and was President (for 2012) of the American Catholic Historical Association. More importantly, he's a very good and well-organized lecturer/speaker. His biases are my biases (for the most part) since we share a similar cultural background. These lectures cover the time period often referred to as the Fall of the Roman Empire...the lectures are about why that isn't necessarily the case. The reviews are great...some of the reviewers are so articulate and perceptive that it often makes me wonder how I could have missed some of their observations. I encourage you to read some of these prior to the lectures...you will get more from the course if you do. My only addition comes from a trip I took to the site of Ephesus, in Selçuk, Turkey. In this location you can wander through the ruins of an influential Roman city (especially in the early portions of the Late Antique period) then you can move passed the modern city with prominent mosques on to the Basilica of St. John (constructed during the time of Justinian...using many of the building blocks from the nearby ruins of the Temple of Artemis) giving you clear examples of the transitions from pagan to Christian to Islamic domination. For me, it brought the lectures to life...giving them the context to understand the perspective of dramatic changes and transitions through time. It made me ask what future lecturers will say about the changes occuring around us today that we cannot begin to recognize. Good, thought-provoking course that you'll enjoy even more with a coupon during a sale.
Date published: 2016-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lighting up the "Dark Ages" My history class in school practically omitted this period. There was Greece and Rome and then one day Rome fell (crash) and then there was the middle ages, the crusades -- something seemed to be missing. There was a gap labeled the "dark ages" when everybody apparently went to sleep and nothing happened. Now I am finally catching up with what was really going on while "nothing was happening".
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Change, Not Disappearance The central message of this course is that the Roman Empire did not so much fall as slowly fade away, to be replaced by three successor civilizations: the barbarian kingdoms of the West, Byzantium (i.e. the remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire), and the Islamic caliphate of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Ordinary peasants and even educated Greco-Roman elites would hardly have been aware that their civilization was “falling.” Rather than the “decline and fall” posited by Edward Gibbon, Noble argues for transformation and reinvention. I’ve read this thesis elsewhere and find it somewhat convincing for the West during the fifth century, but not at all for the East during the very swift Islamic conquest of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and later North Africa in the seventh century. I bought this course on DVD expecting to be familiar with most of the material, being more interested in Professor Noble's perspective rather than learning particular facts. For the most part I was right, but he gives viewers an explanation of late Roman administration under Diocletian and Constantine that was new to me and very welcome. I liked his use of coins to give us images of fifth through eighth century emperors, who apparently were no longer having busts made, perhaps for fear of violating the Biblical ban on graven images. There are some problems. The big one is poor sequencing of some lectures. His description of the barbarian kingdoms in the West comes BEFORE rather than AFTER the end of the Western Empire. Likewise the spread of Christianity up to Constantine’s reign comes AFTER rather than BEFORE the emergence of the Arian and Monophysite heresies. This order might well confuse viewers not already familiar with the period. A smaller one is Noble’s claim in Lecture 17 that the Apostle Paul taught Judaism and Christianity could not co-exist and were opposed to one another. But in his Letter to the Romans, Paul’s point was that despite the law (of the Torah# Jews had no special advantage over Greeks, because both were under the power of sin. He did not say Jews could not be Christians; he himself was a Jew. It was later that Judaism and Christianity became irreconcilable alternatives. In Lecture 34 Noble says that Massalia #Marseilles) began as a Phoenician and Carthaginian colony, but it was actually founded by the Greeks. Finally, Professor Noble left me with unanswered questions about the late Roman Empire. Why did emperors in both halves come to rely on leaders of Germanic origin to run their armies, such as Arbogast under Theodosius I or Stilicho under Honorius? Could they find no trustworthy and competent Italians, Greeks or Gallo-Romans? In the West, fifth-century emperors seem to have relied heavily on foreign mercenaries, being unable to raise troops in Italy, or from Gaul, Spain, and North Africa before those provinces were lost, but it’s not clear why. Was the late Roman peasant utterly unwilling to fight? Had the imperial population so declined during the previous two hundred years that the Empire could not afford any longer to take peasants away from food production? I’m not blaming Noble here; I don’t know of any historian who has addressed these issues.
Date published: 2015-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Late Antiquity: Classical Paganism in a New Key The IDEA of Late Antiquity: CRISIS and TRANSFORMATION by Thomas Noble is presented as a model covering the historical period 235 AD through 750 AD -- from the 3rd century crisis of the Roman Empire to the rise of the early Middle Ages respectively. The course offers empirical, conceptual, and theoretical material that significantly extends the traditional catastrophic model of the DECLINE and FALL of the Roman Empire offered by Renaissance humanists and Enlightenment thinkers (Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). These lectures illuminate these so called DARK AGES with: an historical and cultural identity of its own, as a dynamic transition to the Middle Ages, and as a foundation for the emerging BARBARIAN KINGDOMS (medieval Europe / Western Latin Christianity ), BYZANTIUM (Roman Constantinople / Eastern Greek Orthodoxy), and the rise of the ISLAMIC CALIPHATE (Islam / Muslim world). Horace once stated that “captured Greece took captive her Roman captor”. Here we can restate Horace and claim that “captured Rome took captive her captors” which answers the professor’s opening question: “how was there three heirs of Rome born in late antiquity, and what did they owe, in their developed form, to the Roman world that was their common tutor?” The lecturer delivers scholarly on this question. These lectures clearly address in analytic details and conceptual terms: Rome and the barbarians, the Christianization of pagan culture, the birth of the Byzantine Empire, and Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Experience the social and cultural struggles and TRANSFORMATIONS of the barbarian Visigoths, Franks, Celts, Saxons, etc, and the dawning of the middle ages. Witness the political and spiritual persecutions and the eventual unlikely RISE of the Roman Church, monasticism, the Christian apologists and intellectual theologies filtered through Greek philosophy -- adopting, adapting, and TRANSCENDING pagan culture and its literary classics -- with a new metaphysical character. See art and architecture take on these cultural and religious THEMES and redesign the landscape of the body, mind, and soul. One can sense the Roman FORM but the CONTENT is thoroughly Christianized. Understand the tense dialogues and the ambivalence of Latin / Greek theology filtered through the iconoclast controversies surrounding the visual arts. Finally, chart the unlikely rise and SPREAD of the caliphate: the Islamic faith from Spain to Pakistan founded on Muhammad’s revelations from Allah and the recitation of the Koran according to Islamic beliefs. In the professor’s own words: “Late antiquity marked one of history’s great turning points … three sibling civilizations peered at each other with measures of admiration and suspicion around and across the Mediterranean world”. Rome and the late antique civilizations it generated still populate today’s headlines in my view. I now feel secure to enter the study of the MEDIEVAL WORLD with an intellectual FRAME OF REFERENCE. Thanks to both the professor and the Teaching Company for this enlightening journey beyond the so called Dark Ages, and through crisis and transformation … One of the very best courses to date -- enjoyable, enlightening, and transcending scholarship *** very highly recommended ***.
Date published: 2015-05-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent Very well organized and presented, easy to follow and listen to, great scholarly knowledge and interpretation of the information, intrigues listeners to want to learn more on this topic yet ....everything you could ask for in a Great Course. Of all the GC's I've purchased, this one is probably the most well done.
Date published: 2015-03-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Leave the weeds This era is best appreciated when one gets the big picture and does not get lost in the weeds of names and dates. The lecturer does a good job of giving context and even referring back to previous information to help the listener understand what he is addressing at the moment. By doing so, he gives you the opportunity to either immerse yourself in the minutiae or find the broader historical landscape. I chose the latter. I purchased the CD to be able to listen to it in the car and I assume Great Courses simply takes the audio from the DVD for the CD. As a result, some words may be lost when the lecturer drops his voice. He also does not spell out certain words so you can visualize them as his primary presentation was the DVD. That is where the guide book can be of help. Overall, an intriguing time period in world history, one that has not been given enough attention. We just say "The Dark Ages" and move on to the next phase in history. When we do that, we miss a lot of history that this series helps clarify and make interesting.
Date published: 2015-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellant End to the 'Dark Ages' Recent scholarship has brought an end to two of the persistent ideas about the 5th through10th centuries. This course explains why Gibbons 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' is now seen as a biased retelling of the 3rd through 5th centuries. The Roman empire in the West evolved into something else as Germanic speaking immigrants settled into various areas of the empire. The Roman empire in the east did fall - in 1456 - to the Turks. I really enjoyed this course and the new insights that the professor presented.
Date published: 2015-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The dark ages weren't so dark Somewhere, way back in time, I learned that Rome didn't fall with a crash but fizzled, in a way, from its own policies. Rome had allowed its provinces to run themselves as long as these provinces paid the proper tribute to Rome. And so it happened. Professor Noble clearly tells us that the terms "the fall of the Roman Empire" and "the dark ages" are inaccurate terms. The period from the 3rd to the 8th century CE were active, vibrant periods. Many of the other reviewers have given lots of details of this period so I won't repeat them. I noticed 2 themes: 1. How the hordes of 'barbarians' we learned about in school did not conquer Rome and, in fact, were quite receptive to the Roman ways, and 2. How much religion played a part in the history of this period -- from the Roman church and 'paganism' in the west to the Byzantine, and later, the Muslim in the east. Many of the issues that originated during this period are still being played out today. Professor Noble knows his topic and presents it well. I've taken other courses of his and will surely do more.
Date published: 2015-01-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History made fascinating This course, presented by an outstanding lecturer, covers the transition between the decline (transformation) of the Roman empire and the Early Middle Ages. It explodes many common myths about the events and personalities of late antiquity in a most engaging way. The key personalities, such as Diocletian, Constantine, Theodosius Ii, Heraclius, Augustine, Mohammed, and many others, are presented in a way that makes their contribution to the period come to life. This is a superb course presented by an outstanding lecturer who not only know his subject extraordinarily well but presents it with truly infectious enthusiasm. I particularly appreciated the frequent references to primary historical material, as well as commentaries on its source, volume, and reliability.
Date published: 2014-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Dark Ages in sharp focus and clear light A wonderful course that very neatly covers the period from the fall of the Roman Empire through to the Middle Ages, an area of history which has traditionally not received the attention it deserves. The advance of Christianity, the increasing power of the Catholic Church, and the advent of Islam, as major driving forces, receive the careful critical and detailed analysis required in this series. Professor Noble has a flowing, natural ability to speak with authority, always with a glint of humour where valid, and with important emphasis on succinct points. He is a first-class teacher, an accomplished lecturer, a great scholar thoroughly conversant with his subject. I bought the DVD version of this course: the maps and other graphics assist the course tremendously. A very highly recommended lecture series, truly casts light on the times traditionally known as the Dark Ages.
Date published: 2014-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Material, Amazing Professor Although I first obtained this course several years ago, I just recently completed it for the second time. It is very essential information about a time epoch that I had little prior knowledge of. Although the title, "Late Antiquity," might suggest everything covered is in the later part of the BCE period, the course goes well into the period we know as the Late Middle Ages. Dr. Noble does an excellent job of showing how economic, political, social, and religious factors were so intertwined, and how such factors were constantly changing. I viewed these lectures on DVD, and I found the maps, graphics, and visuals very helpful, especially since the political divisions of those times are quite different from today. Dr. Noble always remembers audio only listeners, since he often refers to certain areas as to what the area under examination is known as today. I also have Dr. Noble's course on Western Civilization on audio, and his voice is well suited for either medium. Some reviewers have sometimes commented on Dr. Noble's occasional stammering and fumbling for words. I did not find this distracting in the least, since I could tell that his mind was working so fast, his mouth sometimes had difficulty keeping work. I take this as a sign of his fantastic level of scholarship. This occasional speech deal, I feel, is more obvious on the video, and less when listening to him only on audio. This course fits in nicely with other similar Great Courses offerings. In addition to the Western Civilization course mentioned above, there is also some overlap, #and great supplementary information# in Dr. Harl's course on Rome and the Barbarians, and Dr. Daileader's course on The Early Middle Ages. And, I am sure that there are several other supplementary courses, of which I have not yet obtained. In conclusion, this course does a wonderful job of showing, as the later part of the course title suggests, in showing how some of the turbulent times of the ancient world, were gradually transformed into part of the "modern" that we know of in our own times.
Date published: 2014-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Late antiquity or Early Middle Ages? LECTURER: This is my first course given by Professor Noble. I enjoyed his presentation of the course. It was clear, interesting and well structured. Probably the best test of all: my mind found it easy to stay focused during my hour and a quarter commute and not wander to other arenas. CONTENT: Professor Noble presents a view that contends that history should not be divided as going from the Roman era directly to early Middle Ages, but instead, the era between late 3 century CE and middle eighth century CE should be considered “Late antiquity” instead. Of course there is no true or false answer to whether this idea should be adopted. Rather, we are told that using this division can be advantageous in the way we understand history. Namely, how did the Roman Empire (at least the Western half) cease to be? Professor Noble tells us that we must look at this as a very gradual and long process, and that it is probable that the contemporaries of that process didn’t realize that the Western empire was diminishing – it sort of “phased out” gradually. For this reason it is perhaps less appropriate to think of a one-time event that ends the Roman era and starts the early middle ages, and a phase out period (a long one) is prescribed instead. Once this perspective is established, Professor Noble sets the stage by describing the Roman Empire right before the beginning of its decline – the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine. He then describes the many aspects that would eventually bring to its decline: the political instability, the succession problems, the various barbarian tribes that fought and merged with the Roman Empire. A large part of the course is given over to describing how religion played a role in this process: on the one hand – the emergence of Christianity starting with the ground shaking event of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and the process through which the Christian religious administration would become more and more dominant and eventually partly shadow the Emperor himself. On the other hand, the birth of Islam and the huge impact this would have on the hated Persian foes, on Egypt, and on the Byzantine Empire. Overall this is a very interesting course relating to one of the most important transitions of our Western culture – the decline of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Christian church as a dominant power, and one which is really hard to understand.
Date published: 2014-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent professor, excellent course I've viewed most of the courses offered by Prof. Noble. They have all been uniformly excellent. Love hie sense of humor and his ability to lecture without sounding monotone or scripted. He just knows his stuff. Great course in preparation for watching the lectures on the Middle Ages. This period of history is complicated and could be confusing. But, the prof. has done a great job trying to mesh all the pieces together: Western Europe, Eastern Europe and North Africa. His insight, in addition to just facts, is outstanding.
Date published: 2013-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent. Not every Great Courses course merits repeated listening. But this one does. I've listened to it three times, and that's before I've listened to some other courses in my possession even once. It's that good and that packed with information. Frankly, I missed a lot in my first time listening. But the course repaid repetition richly in increased knowledge understanding. Prof. Noble is not the most entertaining instructor (but he's far from boring), but he packs in the information. I'd rather be informed than entertained. A great value.
Date published: 2013-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction to little understood period I was unsure of this course but wanted to fill in some gaps in my understanding of history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the middle ages. The course begins by explaining how difficult it is to find the beginning and end of what is termed "late antiquity" ranging from as early as 250 AD to as late as 1500's when Constantinople fell. His timetable for this course is roughly 300 to late 800 AD. I bought this course as well as the course "Italy before the Italians" to fill in gaps I felt in my knowledge of history. . I am glad I did since both are excellent and give me a much better understanding of a period that is not often studied. As with many of the Great Courses there are overlaps with other courses but rather than be repetitive they give different perspective and this course is one of those. The presenter has a different demeanor than others but is engaging and his enthusiasm for his area of study is infectious. He is easy to follow and held my attention. As with many courses some lectures better than others and some can be tedious in certain details. But this is less fault of presenter than the nature of the periods being discussed. His explanation of how Rome declined and eventually disappeared is very different from the Hollywood image of barbarians at the gates and gave me a clear understanding of the fact that these were in many cases not barbarians as we would think of them but often allies of Rome who later took hold of territories and by treaty ruling with what was left of the Roman Empire. During the period of the decline of Rome (a better way to view it than the fall of Rome since it occurred over a very long time period) there were often multiple leaders of the Roman world both in succession and after Diocletian co rulers in different parts of the empire. Many for very short periods. While this can be confusing, the presenter does an excellent job of sorting this out and making sense of what happened and why. The treatment of the Franks, Visagoths, Ostergoths and Vandals were of particular interest. The rise of the Christian church and of the Catholic church in its early days also helps to form a picture of how the post Roman world developed. There are not as many graphics in this course as in others but the maps are very helpful and what graphics there are useful. But this is one course that probably could be enjoyed equally on DVD or on audio CD. For those (like me) who have not studied this historical period in any depth or have little understanding beyond perhaps Gibbons "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" this course is extremely valuable. One I can recommend without hesitation.
Date published: 2013-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pure excellence... There are lots of reason why this course is worth its weight in gold, platinum, or something even more precious, like knowledge. Other reviewers have given their reasons for appreciating this course and Professor Noble, I cannot add to that. I will only say that it is one of the very best courses in the Teaching Company catalog. Do not hesitate to purchase it.
Date published: 2012-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course! Great Professor! This is the kind of course that enables The Great Courses to live up to its name. The course material was diverse and deep, but never heavy. Professor Noble's enthusiasm for his topic was infectious, and each lecture was a joy to listen to. Although I am fairly well-read about the period, Professor Noble gave me insights and interesting tidbits I had never heard before. He treated his listeners like adults, never pandering or trivializing. The time period covered in this course was considerable, and the events complex, but they were all handled with a confident aplomb that made me sorry to see the end of the course. I think it would be great fun to have coffee with this guy! This is one of the Great ones!
Date published: 2012-08-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Nuggets buried The material was interesting, but the lecturer is one of the most redundant I've ever listened to here or in person. I found myself frequently fast-forwarding when he signaled that he was about to begin one of his frequent rhetorical triplets: he'd use a mundane phrase, then pointlessly reword it not just once but twice, as if he were afraid his audience couldn't understand him. He also felt the frequent need to deny some preconception he was sure his audience must have, even though it normally was some silly belief that could hardly be common. Too bad, because the buried factual information (though not necessarily his workaday personal conclusions from them) was fascinating, and could have been delivered in one-tenth the time if a skillful editor could snip out the nonsense.
Date published: 2012-07-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Read Giibon instead You'll learn more about late antiquity from reading Gibbon and enjoy it more. Nothing in this course contradicts Gibbon, although Prof. Noble would like to pretend otherwise. The Roman Empire declined and eventually fell because of immoderate greatness, barbarism and religious intolerance. I was unable to accept Prof. Noble's interpretation that the Roman Empire was transformed and that the eventual outcome was positive for western civilization. As other reviewers have pointed out, too much time is spent in this course on fussy details and on Christian religious material. I learned some things, but it wasn't as much fun as it could have been.
Date published: 2012-06-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Could be better The course material is quite interesting, covering western Europe from roughtly 300A.D. to 800A.D. Professor Noble speaks well, uses graphics well, and seems to know his material. But he tends to repeat himself. He says thing over and over. In other words, he is redunant. He should realize that this course is recorded, that people can replay stuff, that they can go back for review. In other words, he need not repeat himself. As I said early, he knows his material and is in general thorough. Yet he could cover more material if he didn't keep repeating himself, that is, if he were more concise, and use less words, as I am illustrating. But on the whole, the course is better than average.
Date published: 2012-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Wonderful Course I just finished this 36-part course and enjoyed every lecture! The content and organization of the course were just perfect: detailed and scholarly yet accessible and engaging. Professor Noble's speaking style is terrific and the course guide is quite helpful. I highly recommend this course to anyone who has ever wanted to know more about the fascinating period from the decline of Rome in the West to the beginning of the medieval world.
Date published: 2012-01-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Dissenting Review I thought Thomas F.X. Noble's Western Civ series was just great, but this one I didn’t love. Virtues: He’s energetic, smart, articulate and informed. Noble’s main thesis is that the Roman Empire didn’t come to an end in a dramatic, sudden way -- that the transition from Rome to medieval Europe was slow, gradual, and many sided. Which is fine and interesting. But -- and here comes the carping -- there was ‘way more detail than I needed (and I count myself as someone who's pretty interested in the material), 'way too much scholarly hairsplitting and nitpicking, and 'way too much telling us how things weren’t instead of how they were. An example: Noble often spends a a good chunk of a lecture on how we know what we know about the lecture's topic. It's semi-interesting enough stuff, but for a general audience it's the kind of throatclearing that ought to be got thru in a minute or two, not in five or ten. It took me about six months to get thru this series, mostly because I just couldn’t build up much enthusiasm about it. All that said: judging from the prevalence of hyper-positive reviews here, maybe you'd do better to ignore me and give the series a try.
Date published: 2011-11-10
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