Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation

Course No. 3480
Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
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Course No. 3480
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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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Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 70.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Antiquity of Euro-center? The names of the historical leaders of the empire centered in Rome will take some effort for me to associate. I value the language specific use by Thomas Noble. I have yet to listen more than four of half hour lectures. I can imagine the detachment of regions of the empire that are governed by the Rome center in name only. Social strata like an atmosphere?
Date published: 2020-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great course highly recommended This course is highly recommended. It is fast-paced, detailed, rich with enthusiastic delivery. If you really want to know late antiquity purchase this course. I would rate this is one of the top courses in the great courses teaching series. No need to write a very long expository review.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from i was very happy with the course as it is about time in roman history i didn't know very well. I would like to see course on the punic wars like one you have on the peloponnesian war
Date published: 2020-03-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Course…BUT… Professor Noble is quite knowledgeable about the period 235 – 802 A.D. He has a very interesting voice and pace. What this course is like is easiest to describe by comparison with "The Early Middle Ages" (300 – 1000 A.D) by Daileader. Noble has deeper information while Daileader is more concise. For example: Daileader's L8 summarizes in one sentence Noble’s entire 12th lecture. There are no maps in Noble's guidebook. This poses a major problem for the audio version. Daileader has maps. Noble's brilliance shows in his use of classic Question formation prior to material presentation. Here, your own answer exposes your knowledge/bias about the question. Your view then is subjected to a plethora of historical data. Your final answer has expanded your knowledge base. Example (L3): an Egyptian temple prayer petition brilliantly illustrated the hubris of the political crisis between 235-284 A.D: “Shall I have wages?" In a simple sentence, the insight of the “lowest" is seen to succinctly cut through the confusion of the “elite”. Noble’s approach is the opposite of stating “accepted fact" (by agenda-driven ”elite" committees) biased by its selectors' intent thereby precluding dissent (the Dewey-inspired NEA method). Is this important? About 15 years ago physicians were told we were not using enough narcotics. These elite "accepted facts” also came with a stick: reporting us to a national database if we did not "improve". Two strikes and malpractice insurance became unaffordable. I went back into the military. Those whose wills bent to this agenda flooded the market with narcotics for minor problems. Guess what happened. The head of the elite committee publicly repented but never went to prison as so many victims of supposedly "accepted facts” have. The fallibility of POV is clearly demonstrable. Regarding Julian “the Apostate", Noble states (L5) "Julian did not persecute Christians". Daileader (L4) states "He (Julian) looked the other way when pagan mobs attacked Christians but punished Christian mobs guilty of attacking pagans and executed some Christian army officers. The source for both authors is Bowersock’s “Julian the Apostate". L9 contains the interesting declension of the now oft used “xenophobic”: The Greek term for foreigners was “xenoi” and the Roman Latin term for xenoi was "barbari" for those "inferiors" living "outside of the country", yet the barbarians were non-nomadic, organized "small communities of farmers and herders" and characterized by “localized raiding & plundering” [as opposed to Roman institutionalized plundering]. So when one now uses the term xenophobic, it seems prudent to ask who is plundering whom with this term. L17 it was noted that “pagan critiques of Christianity “dismissed as absurd the Christian…idea of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). Hazen’s L2 of TGC "The Origin & Evolution of Earth" shows that's exactly what happened as a “singularity". Hazen also notes that gravity occurred 10 to the minus 45 seconds yet no atoms existed to satisfy Newton's gravity equation m1 or m2...the importance of an open mindset becomes obvious In L 18 Noble asks why Christianity spread despite its poor relations with the Roman state. In L20 he suggests it was related to Christianity’s attitude towards the world: to either “Embrace and change it, or flee it.” He had already discussed embracing/changing the world in L19: "the rise of the papacy is one of the great, original, distinctive achievements of late antiquity.” In L20 he sees monasticism as “fleeing the world”. Both arguments fail. 1. While the papacy provided a physical organization, it did not get Christianity through Diocletian or Julian; 2. The eremitic tendencies Noble attributes to monasteries are contradicted by monastic interactions with followers (L20) and Christians everywhere through the writings of Martin, Augustine, Benedict, et al (L21). The real impetus for Christianity is summarized by Noble’s phrase “living alone together”. Christianity appeals because in a hostile, broken world the “radical emptying of the (post-Fall) self” (L20) could be refilled by pursuit of humanity’s non-organic spiritual existence. (When people die, there is meaning behind the phrase “they have left us”.) “Living alone” became achievable by living “together” with Christ along with those on the same path. This “living alone together” worked in monasteries, as it worked during Diocletian persecutions before monasteries, as it helps Christians survive today’s secular “Primal Screams” (author Mary Eberstadt) in the US and Islamic persecutions in Africa and the mid-East. Noble’s section on Islam (L32, L33 & L35) is grossly underpowered and his statement in L31 that “that’s all there is to Mohammed’s life” is misleading. Noble ignores that the “al-Islam surrender” led to the Islamic view of the world as divided into only dar al Islam (the Muslim world) and dar al Harib (the world of war). The Ridda War (L32) and the Meccan decision that Muslims could not raid one another WAS a precondition for Islam’s violent wars of conquest. BUT it had a precedent in Mohammed’s duality of religion and warfare and his increasingly militant Hadith sayings. This warfare included Mohammed’s 29 battles culminating at Badr to subdue the non-believers of Mecca (only tangentially covered in L31). Noble also glossed over the origins of the Qur’an. Continuous Islamic warfare had resulted in the deaths of many of the helpers and companions of Mohammed who witnessed the oral tradition. The Third Rashidun Caliph (Uthman) ordered a desperate search for sources including shards of pottery, etc. From what he felt valid, the Qur’an was assembled. After the Uthman-generated Qur’an, Islam had started to fragment (L36). What Noble also ignores is that the Qur’an’s contents varied with that political fragmentation (apologist Ravi Zacharias and others). As Noble mentions (L32), the true Believer knows that the Qur’an has but a single, perfect version. The academic defense has been that only one who speaks Arabic can understand the recitations of Allah in the Qur’an, but of the 1.8 billion Muslims (2018 data) about 384 million are Arabic (2014 data), so scholarly divides are all most can expect.
Date published: 2020-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Edisode 23 conclusion Perhaps it takes a lover of this period to appreciate the ending of Episode 23, on the Patristics. The professor's "revenge of Dido" wrap-up stretches the last wish of Carthage's queen for someone to rise in her revenge to Augustine's throwing over Rome's eternity for that of classical thought. Brilliant. As are many linkages found in the series.
Date published: 2020-01-31
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Problem with disk quality control I really enjoy and benefit for other another course by Dr. Noble and this on started with that same quality. However in the past and this one comes up to his fine standards. But... I can't complete the course as the annoying "disc errors" are too prevalent and started on disk one. Several discs have have a cloudy appearance that will not clean off and will not play on any of several reliable players. I have received two replacement courses quickly without question each had the identical problem. Truly unfortunate as the lack of production quality control has ruined what I suspect is another great course.
Date published: 2020-01-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good Course, poor production I have done courses with Dr. Noble in the past and this one comes up to his fine standards. But... When I ordered the course on line it specifically stated that the course would be available streaming. It is not! When I received the discs a number of them have a cloudy appearance that will not clean off and have not played thru in a number of different players. I'm sorry I can't complete the course as the "disc errors" are too annoying. I will return the course.
Date published: 2019-12-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Format Disappointing I already had the Course in my collection but purchased this copy because I thought it was now a streaming edition. I was incorrect.
Date published: 2019-06-08
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