Living History: Experiencing Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds

Course No. 3843
Professor Robert Garland, Ph.D.
Colgate University
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Course No. 3843
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Course Overview

Macedonia, 336 B.C.E. King Philip II is murdered under mysterious circumstances amid a cloud of intrigue.

Constantinople, 532 C.E. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian nearly abandons the city to an angry mob until his wife, Theodora, persuades him to stay.

France, 1095 C.E. Pope Urban II gives a speech that inspires thousands of his subjects to embark on a crusade to Jerusalem.

Time and again, moments shape history. We often examine history from a distant vantage, zooming in on a few dates and kings and battles, or spotlighting faceless trends and general themes. But history is made up of individuals who were as alive in their time as we are today. Pausing on a few key individuals and magnifying specific moments in their lives allows us to experience history in a whole new way—as a vibrant story, full of life.

Living History: Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds takes you back in time and throws a spotlight on two dozen turning points where the tide of history changes irrevocably. Taught by acclaimed Professor Robert Garland of Colgate University, these 24 dramatic lectures examine key events from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to medieval Europe and Asia. Spanning thousands of years and three continents, this course illuminates fascinating historical dramas on the individual scale.

More than covering great events that change the contours of history, Professor Garland takes you into the scene and allows you to hear what he terms the “heartbeat of history.” Rather than merely reviewing the facts of events such as the Battle of Marathon, the arrest and trial of Jesus, and the coronation of Charlemagne, you’ll engage with a variety of first-hand accounts and authentic primary and secondary sources to experience what it was like to live these events as they occurred. From reports by historians such as Herodotus and Livy to official scrolls and administrative records, these eyewitness sources and ancient documents take you back in time through the eyes of people who were there.

Through a blend of historical facts and imaginative reasoning, Living History: Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds offers you the chance to meet the actors and witness the great events as they occur. Professor Garland breaks down these turning points to days and even hours so you will truly feel like a participant in stories hundreds or thousands of years old—but still in a vibrant and fascinating world.

Meet Extraordinary Men and Women

In your tour of the ancient and medieval worlds, Professor Garland introduces you to some of the most captivating and enigmatic characters to have ever lived. You see Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and others as energetic, charismatic leaders who were complex and flawed people, by turns admirable and brutal, circumspect and brazenly power-hungry. Whether we view them as heroes or villains, they are fascinating.

There is perhaps no better example than Alexander the Great. Educated by Aristotle, a brilliant military tactician, and relentless in pursuit of his goals, he was also a paranoid megalomaniac with a desire for grandeur and a violent temper. These facets of his personality all come to bear on the moment when his army has had enough and refuses to march further into India. Witness how Alexander must back down while still saving face.

You’ll also encounter some extraordinary women and watch them defying the rules to make their mark on world history:

  • Observe how Cleopatra uses her charms, intelligence, and theatrical ability to achieve unprecedented influence in political affairs—and how her relationship with Mark Antony eventually enables Octavian to become the undisputed ruler of the Roman world.
  • Reflect on how Theodora, at one time a mime and possibly a prostitute, climbs her way up the social ladder to become the wife of a socially conservative emperor.
  • Meet Wu Zetian, a classically educated concubine who eventually becomes China’s first female empress, doing much during her reign to establish a meritocracy and improve the lives of her subjects.

Professor Garland also explores the lives of a wealth of key philosophical and religious figures, from the secular wisdom of Socrates to the deeds of Jesus and Muhammad to the breathtaking spiritual conversions of Ashoka the Great and the Grand Duke Vladimir, founder of the Russian Orthodox Church.

See How History Often Turns on a Moment

Beyond the people, what makes an event “great” often lies in its consequences. Hundreds or thousands of years have passed since the events of this course, yet we feel their rippling effects. When Pyrrhus marched his Greek army toward Rome, he had dreams of making his mark on the world’s stage, but his “victory”—and subsequent withdrawal—paved the way for Rome to supplant Greece as the dominant global power. Or consider Pontius Pilate’s decision to offer Jesus up for crucifixion to please the crowd, even though he likely believed Jesus innocent of the charges brought against him—the events resulting from his choice have resonated over millennia.

Quick decisions, a victory, a defeat, an impulse: these small moments shape history. One of the joys of this course is that in examining these moments, Professor Garland also reflects on contingencies. What if Charles Martel had not defeated the Muslim invaders at the Battle of Tours? Would Europe have become a largely Muslim continent? Or, what if Theodora had not urged her husband Justinian to stand firm and not flee when the angry mob at the hippodrome in Constantinople was baying for his blood? Would the Byzantine Empire have come to an abrupt end one hot afternoon? Reflecting on these contingencies makes clear the myriad ways in which the ancient and medieval worlds have made us who we are today.

View History through the Eyes of Ordinary People

Professor Garland is an amazingly empathetic lecturer, passionate about history and the people who lived it. Perhaps his greatest strength is taking you into the minds of ordinary citizens. While you have likely heard some of the stories in this course before, his approach sheds new light on such events as the first theatrical presentation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and the trial of Socrates. Both of these events reveal the way the Athenian democracy functioned at moments of unease and crisis.

Imagine the thoughts of Muslim envoy Ibn Fadlan, coming from cosmopolitan Baghdad in the 10th century, upon arriving in the wild territories of Central Asia. Or picture yourself in the crowd when Pericles or Pope Urban II gives an inspirational speech extolling the glory of Athens or Christendom. Would you be moved by the swell of the crowd and the enthusiasm of the day?

Witnessing these moments as a participant—slowing down to hear the “heartbeat of history”—is a captivating way of reflecting on the past. Living History: Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds takes you inside the hearts and minds of those who lived through fascinating human dramas—a novel approach to history you won’t find anywhere else.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Ramesses II: Heartbeat of History
    What do we mean by "living history"? Take an imaginative leap into the ancient world and discover the moment-by-moment heartbeat of history. Your first stop is the Battle of Kadesh, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II's all-but-disastrous campaign against the Hittites. See how the king spins a tactical retreat into a glorious victory. x
  • 2
    Marathon: The Persians Have Landed!
    Professor Garland takes you into the Battle of Marathon to show how the outnumbered Athenians scramble for help before heading to the coast for an impressive fight against the invading Persians. The Athenian debates, their surprise running charge into battle, and the strenuous marches come to life in visceral detail. x
  • 3
    Oresteia: Judgment at the Dionysia
    Take a break from battle and head to the Theater of Dionysis on a warm March day to view one of the most astounding theatrical performances in history. Not only is Aeschylus's Oresteia an innovative dramatic trilogy, the trial of Orestes is a deeply relevant consideration of Athenian democracy at a time of great unease. x
  • 4
    Attack on Attica: Pericles's Gamble
    Delve into the time of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War, where political action has required rural citizens to head into the city. There, the cramped urban conditions and pestilence breeds disaffection among the citizenry. Hear what Pericles had to say to inspire Athenians for the continued glory of the city. x
  • 5
    Socrates on Trial: For the Defense
    You might think you know Socrates, but in this lecture you'll encounter a whole new context for understanding one of the Greeks' most famous citizens. In the wake of the Peloponnesian War, tension lingers following the overthrow of an oligarchy in Athens, and the democratic population is in search of a fall guy. See how Socrates fits the bill. x
  • 6
    Conspiracy! Murder of Philip II
    Murder has always intrigued us, especially when the fate of a state hangs in the balance. Explore the mystery of Philip II of Macedonia, who is murdered amid a wedding celebration in 336 B.C.E. Is he killed by a jilted lover? A jealous wife? An ambitious son? This lecture takes you into Macedonian court life and considers the possible motives and social intrigue. x
  • 7
    Alexander the Great: Punjab Revolt
    Alexander is one of history's most interesting characters-a brilliant, flawed, complex leader. A restless megalomaniac tutored by Aristotle, he drives his army across the ancient world to conquer one land after another until they reach northeast India. There, his army revolts and forces him to retreat. Get inside the head of this fascinating leader. x
  • 8
    Pyrrhus: Deadly Dreams of Empire
    The Greeks had a tremendous run on the world stage, but their dominion arguably comes to an end the moment Pyrrhus sets sail for Italy. Although he is "victorious" in his conquest against the Romans, his withdrawals pave the way for Rome to come to the fore as the next great world power. See what drives Pyrrhus forward, and what holds him back. x
  • 9
    India's Ashoka the Great Repents
    Meet Ashoka the Great, whose story was all but forgotten until his carved edicts were unearthed in the 19th century. As leader of India, he leads a bloody charge into the neighboring province of Kalinga-but guilt from the battle drives him toward a transformative conversion. For the rest of his reign, he serves as a paragon of Buddhist morality. x
  • 10
    Hannibal: Rome Holds Its Breath
    Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, is one of the most remarkable military leaders of all time. During the Punic Wars he led his army to an astounding tactical victory against the Romans, and then held the defeated soldiers captive for ransom. Destiny hung in the balance as Rome awaited Hannibal's expected advance against the city. x
  • 11
    The Final Days of Julius Caesar
    Continue your study of some of history's most enigmatic characters with a look at Julius Caesar, whose infamous murder on the Ides of March ranks as one of the most consequential assassinations. Professor Garland introduces you to Caesar's character before walking you through the conspiracy of that fateful day. x
  • 12
    Antony and Cleopatra's Death Pact
    In the wake of Caesar's assassination, power hangs in the balance as Mark Antony squares off against Octavian for sole control of Rome's empire. When the tide of the Battle of Actium turns against Mark Antony, his lover Cleopatra flees-and he decides to follow her, leaving the future of Rome to Octavian. Examine this decision and the tragedy that ensues for both Antony and Cleopatra. x
  • 13
    Jesus under Surveillance and Arrest
    Travel to the Roman province of Judea, where a humble carpenter has entered Jerusalem during the Passover. The city is seething with political and religious discontent, and Jesus is seen as a troublemaker. Witness his arrest and interrogation by the priests and Pontius Pilate, and consider Pilate's decision to put Jesus to death. x
  • 14
    Jerusalem Tinderbox: Temple in Flames
    Continue your exploration of Jerusalem, this time around 66 C.E., when the city's political turmoil reaches it peak. An insurgency rises up over taxes, and the ensuing Roman siege sparks a civil war. At the end of the Great Jewish Revolt, the city is in ruins, the Temple has been burned, and the Romans crucify thousands of Jewish prisoners. x
  • 15
    Roman Colosseum: Blood in the Arena
    Visit the newly finished Roman amphitheater circa 80 C.E., where the emperor Titus will celebrate the consolidation of his family's dynasty by hosting 100 days of gladiatorial games. Bloodthirsty and vicious, the spectacle is nonetheless captivating. After learning about the Colosseum's engineering, you'll experience what it was like to be there for the games. x
  • 16
    Visigoth King Alaric Descends on Rome
    On occasion, individual personalities shape large contours of history. Such is the case with King Alaric, the charismatic leader of the Visigoths, who conquers many Roman outposts before laying siege to the city itself. His victories don't conclude with the end of Rome, but it's clear the city's power is in decline. x
  • 17
    Nika Riots at the Racetrack: Theodora
    Head east to Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Empire and the eastern counterpart to Rome. During a day of chariot races at the hippodrome, riots break out and threaten the Emperor Justinian and his politically savvy wife, Theodora. Learn about this unorthodox marriage and how Theodora's counsel ultimately saves the empire. x
  • 18
    The Concubine Empress: Wu Zetian
    Wu Zetian's story is one of the most remarkable in all of history. She entered adulthood as a classically educated concubine during China's Tang Dynasty, and then worked her way up the social ladder to marry an emperor. Professor Garland charts her rise and shows how her success hinges on the mystery surrounding a child's death. x
  • 19
    Muhammad's Awakening and Escape
    Witness the founding of Islam by entering the world of Mecca in 622, where a prosperous businessman named Muhammad has a revelation that changes the course of history. Learn about his conversion and his journey to Medina. There he builds a community that will soon spread around the globe. x
  • 20
    Charles Martel Defeats the Muslims
    Take the battlefield in one of the most decisive battles ever fought between Muslims and Europeans. In the century after Muhammad, Islam's spread seemed unstoppable until the disastrous Battle of Toulouse followed by the Battle of Tours, in which Charles Martel, leader of the Franks, defeats the Muslim invaders. x
  • 21
    Culture Shock! Travels of Ibn Fadlan
    Follow the Abbasid Caliphate's administrator, Ibn Fadlan, as he travels from cosmopolitan Baghdad to the rustic wilds of central Asia. He brings money and instructions to King Almis of the Volga Bulgars, who has recently converted to Islam. Then he visits the Slavic Rus tribe for a bizarre and fascinating encounter. x
  • 22
    Vladimir Smashes the Idols of the Rus
    Observe the marriage of Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kiev, to Princess Anna, the sister to Byzantine Emperor Basil II, a deal brokered so Vladimir will send mercenary troops to Constantinople. Following the wedding, Vladimir makes it his mission to convert his land to Christianity by fiat and suppress paganism, thus founding the Russian Orthodox Church. x
  • 23
    Charlemagne Saves Leo III, Rogue Pope
    Pope Leo III is something of a rascal, possibly a philanderer, and involved in shady business deals. See how his relationship with Charlemagne, king of the Franks, keeps him out of trouble with the Vatican Council and how he alters the course of history when he crowns Charlemagne during a nativity mass, thus giving birth to the notion of "Europe." x
  • 24
    Urban II Unleashes the First Crusade
    Again and again, we see how history turns on a dime. Your journey ends in Avignon in 1095, when Pope Urban II gives a speech that shapes the next thousand years of European history. After calling the people to action, thousands take up arms and begin the long trek to fight the Muslims and retake Jerusalem. x

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Your professor

Robert Garland

About Your Professor

Robert Garland, Ph.D.
Colgate University
Dr. Robert S.J. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London. A former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the George Grote Ancient History Prize, Professor Garland has educated students and audiences at a...
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Reviews

Living History: Experiencing Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 29.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating from Beginning to End Normally I do not appreciate an historical hodge-podge packaged like this, but Professor Garland does a good job in breathing some life into a number of familiar as well as other seemingly obscure historical events. Some may fault him for his imaginative re-creations and his focus “on historical moments when an individual has an illuminating revelation or where the tide of history changes dramatically” (Course Guidebook, Page 1), but I think it works quite well. The amount and quality of the context provided make the lectures particularly effective. Professor Garland does especially well in addressing such present-day interests as women (throughout) and Islam and Christianity (with the final lectures on developments and clashes between the two). This is not to say that there are not times during the lectures when I questioned Professor Garland’s use of such words as “possibly”, “might have”, or “perhaps” to spice the narrative. But doing so, he makes it possible for us to enter into the events “empathetically.” Moreover, he points out frequently how sometimes “history turns on a dime.” The only quibble I have with this course concerns the hype of the “living history” title, and promotion as revealing the “heartbeat of history”. Maybe I am too critical. I am, however, appreciative of Professor Garland’s providing the kind of detail and background left out of or glossed over in other accounts. Even if these lectures are not “living history”, Professor Garland’s organization, style, and delivery make for compelling listening. This 2015 TC course comes with a fine 192-page illustrated course guide containing excellent lecture summaries and a useful annotated bibliography. You are on your own, however, if you need maps or further biographical detail.
Date published: 2018-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Superb One From This Professor I decided to go through it again and am struck afresh by the side explanations and added perspectives this great researcher/lecturer's work. I have another of his talks and it too was notably great. In both, he makes figures in distant history human and long-ago events seem recent. He is one of your top three or four perhaps. But I fear shorting other superb lecturers, so many to choose from. The lecturer of Spain was wonderful, the Great Battles....was such. And....on and on.
Date published: 2018-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from loved this This was the second course of Dr. Garland's that I purchased and I just love how engaging he is. Obviously this course is about "great events" so they are all exciting and turning points in history, but Dr. Garland really brings these moments to life.
Date published: 2017-10-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I prefer clear lines between fact and assumptions The speaker presents some figures with significant bias. He coats some rotten cherries with a thick layer of chocolate. He clearly has a high regard for some individuals and glosses over or justifies actions of those he favors. I like more fact and less opinion or a clear statement that one has a bias.
Date published: 2017-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Will add this lecturer to among my favorites. The lecturer has chosen topics that have long been of interest to me, but nevertheless, he brings new insights to each one. He captures my attention throughout every lecture with his speaking style and content.
Date published: 2017-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Living History Robert Garlands approach to presenting history is unique and engaging. Check out his courses.
Date published: 2016-12-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from We're losing the patient, doctor! The Heartbeat of History! Oh my, this charged introduction inspires the armchair historian to prepare his mind for immediate insertion into the pivotal moments of history, to stand next to Xerxes, Alexander or any number of conquering generals, kings and other heroic figures! Alas, this is more akin to "The Slow Methodical Digestion of History". The fire was rapidly extinguished, the luster gone and the swords rusted. The professor wowed me with one of his other offerings about Daily Life in the Ancient World. His charm and ability to make you feel as though you could relate to the "other side" of history was infectious! In this course, he plods through history in a dull, monotonous walk. At times, I lost interest, at times I felt like I was hearing absolutely nothing new. His speech habits, quirky and charming in a previous course, were a serious detraction in this offering. I wish I could recommend this course, but there is nothing new here. Rather than detecting the heartbeat of history, this course flat-lined!
Date published: 2016-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Living History in Context This course represents the method in which history should be viewed and taught. All historical events have a certain background and context. Professor Garland is expert in highlighting factors in which these historical characters and events occur the context of ancient & medieval history. His delivery is excellent. His topics are highly informative. I would also highly recommend his course on "The other side of history". You will not be disappointed.
Date published: 2016-11-10
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