The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes

Course No. 3830
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3830
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Examine the relationship between the Han Empire of China and the nomadic confederacy of Xiongnu.
  • numbers Delve into the three major khaganates that emerged between the 5th and 9th centuries.
  • numbers Discover the origins of Genghis Khan and trace his epic conquests.

Course Overview

Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan loom large in the popular consciousness as two of history’s most fearsome warrior-leaders. Accounts of the ruthless conquests of these men called “The Scourge of God” and “Universal Lord” both fascinate and repel. Yet few people today are aware of their place in a succession of nomadic warriors who used campaigns of terror to sweep across the Eurasian steppes, toppling empires and seizing control of civilizations.

From antiquity through the Middle Ages, nomadic warriors repeatedly emerged from the steppes, exerting direct and indirect pressure on sedentary populations and causing a domino effect of displacement and cultural exchange.

It’s a part of history that’s often overlooked, but to have an accurate view of how civilization evolved, it’s important to have a clear understanding of who these people were and the magnitude of their impact on the world.

Consider these turning points set into motion by steppe nomads, each of which reverberates still:

  • The fall of the Roman Empire can be blamed at least in part on the Huns.
  • Christians of Asia Minor converted to Islam after the clergy fled the nomadic Turks.
  • The Mongol sack of Baghdad destroyed the city and its role in the Muslim world.
  • China’s modern-day Great Wall was constructed in response to the humiliation of Mongol rule.
  • The spread of Buddhism and trade followed the Silk Road, which allowed cultural exchange between nomads and settled zones across Eurasia.
  • Russia’s preemptive expansion into the northern regions was a reaction to the horror of being conquered by Mongols.

In controlling massive swaths of land and forcing wave after wave of displaced populations to make contact, these invaders facilitated a transfer of language, religion, culture, trade, weaponry, and technology that affects us to this day. Their military technology and tactics in particular—from stirrups and saddles to gunpowder and the strategic use of terror—would be adopted by civilizations on the edges of the Eurasian landmass, as well as by subsequent civilizations.

Now you can open a window on a part of ancient and medieval history you may not have realized existed in the 36 gripping lectures of The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes with veteran Great Courses Professor Kenneth W. Harl. This award-winning educator of classical and Byzantine history at Tulane University guides you through some 6,000 miles and 6,000 years to investigate how the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes played decisive roles in history. You’ll discover how a series of groups—from the Sacae and the Sarmatians to the infamous Huns and Mongols—pushed ever westward, coming into contact with the Roman Empire, Han China, and distant cultures from Iraq to India paving the way for our globalized world.

An Epic Thousands of Years in the Making

Opening in antiquity on the western steppes known as the Pontic-Caspian, this course first introduces you to the Indo-Europeans as it illuminates how the harsh environment of the steppes led nomadic populations to develop a way of life hearty in hunting and war.

You’ll then travel to early China to explore the Xiongnu, who were so feared by the Han Chinese that their leader was lavished with a tribute system know as “the five baits,” featuring the promise of marriage to a Chinese princess.

As you progress to the Middle Ages, you’ll take a detailed look at powerful Turkish-speaking nomads who brought Islam to the peoples of the steppes. Finally, you’ll delve into the Mongol Empire starting with the life and career of Temujin, as Genghis Khan was known before he was declared Universal Lord.

Along the way, you’ll

  • meet a cavalcade of fascinating figures such as Tamerlane, known as the “Prince of Destruction,” and Harun ar-Rashid, the caliph famously known from Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights;
  • trace the dispersion of Indo-European speakers across Europe, western Eurasia, and India, while examining the linguistic legacy of this migration;
  • encounter political confederations of nomads capable of challenging the great urban literate civilizations of Eurasia;
  • witness the creation of an early global economy and struggles to control trade along the legendary Silk Road; and
  • learn why Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and, most of all, Buddhism, were appealing to steppe nomads.

The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is also filled with riveting accounts of battles fought by hordes of horse archers and compelling stories, such as Attila’s marriage proposal from the bored and scandalous Empress Honoria in A.D. 450. You’ll be enthralled as you listen to how her offer and his demand-laden acceptance—which was rejected by her brother Valentinian, the Roman emperor—led him to amass the “barbarian army to end all barbarian armies” and ruthlessly ravage western Europe.

A Portrait of Barbarians beyond Brutality

With Professor Harl’s guidance, you’ll look past the stereotyped images of the barbarians so you can develop a true comprehension of the central roles these people played in history by linking the settled civilizations along the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Yellow rivers.

He delivers a wealth of information contrary to the popular notion that the region’s ancient and early modern peoples were culturally backward. For example, you’ll learn how

  • the domestication of the horse and the invention of light chariots by the Indo-Europeans gave the nomads a military edge and allowed for stock raising and the mobility of families;
  • the Scythians ushered in an era of cavalry warfare by perfecting the saddle;
  • Islamic Turks maintained a policy of protection toward Christians and Jews;
  • Genghis Khan used Chinese engineers and mapmakers to help his army conquer the Jin Empire and Transoxiana; and
  • Turkish rulers and the conqueror Tamerlane adopted the distinct architecture originated by the Samanid emirs, Islamizing the cities of Transoxiana.

You may also be surprised to learn of the relationships some of these tribes had with the Greek world and the great Roman and Persian empires, or to see how steppe nomads even built great states within the wider Mediterranean world. This is particularly true of the Parthians, who created the first nomadic empire in the Near East.

Of course, these conquerors did use extreme violence, and these lectures recount shocking atrocities, including accounts of leaders being wrapped in carpets and trampled by horses, combatants being interred in walls, and at least one official having silver poured down his throat. More than once, you’ll witness a defeated leader’s skull being used as a drinking goblet, as was the nomadic tradition.

The Epitome of All Steppe Empires

In the final third of the course, you’ll discover how the Mongols amassed a world empire that made the 13th century the Mongol century. Professor Harl leaves no doubt as to why they were exceptional in terms of logistics, military organization, vision of empire, and knowledge of the world, surpassing all previous nomadic peoples who had constructed empires on or adjacent to the steppes.

Without minimizing the horrendous costs on the subjected people, he leads you through the long-range benefits of the Mongol conquests, with an analysis of the cultural exchange and prosperity that resulted from the Mongol Peace. Here, you’ll see how the Mongol kaghans set up courts, promoted trade along the Silk Road, introduced gunpowder to the Europeans, and promoted policies favorable to the spread of Buddhism.

An Unparalleled Learning Opportunity

A course this ambitious could only be possible with a skilled lecturer like Professor Harl, who pored over hundreds of original sources in synthesizing this material into a clear and powerful presentation. With so many years, so many miles, so many personalities, and so many civilizations covered so comprehensively, this course is truly unlike any you’ll find.

Aided by detailed maps and schematics of military engagements, these often neglected areas of history come alive in The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes. Whether your interest lies in Western or Eastern civilization, this course will provide you with startling new insights on how the world was shaped and introduce you to cultures and empires you’ve likely never encountered.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Steppes and Peoples
    The Mongol sack on Baghdad in 1258 is often seen as the epitome of the clash between barbarian peoples of the steppes and the peoples of the civilized world. Explore this notion and hear a detailed account of the destruction, then conclude with an overview of life on the steppes and the organization of this course. x
  • 2
    The Rise of the Steppe Nomads
    Learn about the earliest known nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppes, beginning with the origins of the Indo-European languages. See how innovations including the raising of livestock, the domestication of the horse, and the invention of the spoked wheel—and ultimately, the light chariot—transformed steppe life and led to migrations across Eurasia. x
  • 3
    Early Nomads and China
    As you shift focus from the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans on the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Mongolia, examine how Iranian and Tocharian nomads came into contact with China, their interaction, and the repercussions this contact had across the central and western steppes, and the great bordering civilizations. x
  • 4
    The Han Emperors and Xiongnu at War
    Han emperors found the tribute system granted Modu chanyu or “five baits”—by which the Xiongnu were promised Chinese brides, among other gifts—humiliating and unacceptable. Look closely at the relationship between the Han Empire of China and the nomadic confederacy of the Xiongnu, including Han attempts to eliminate the Xiongnu threat through war. x
  • 5
    Scythians, Greeks, and Persians
    Move from the eastern steppes to the western and central steppes in this exploration of the Scythians, Iranian-speaking nomads with great military prowess, who established a symbiotic relationship with the Greeks based on trade. Investigate this contact, as well as attempts to conquer the Scythians by the Persians and, later, Alexander the Great. x
  • 6
    The Parthians
    Look closely at the rise to power and achievements of the nomadic steppe peoples known as the Parthians who, despite clashes with the Romans, successfully ruled Iran and the wider Middle East from horseback for 400 years, creating the first nomadic empire in the Near East. x
  • 7
    Kushans, Sacae, and the Silk Road
    Examine the Sacae and Kushans, two steppe peoples forced west into the Middle East and India by the Xiongnu confederacy. Learn the key role both groups played in developing trade along the Silk Road and how Kushan ruler Kujula Kadphises and his successors carved out an Indian empire while creating conditions for Buddhism to flourish. x
  • 8
    Rome and the Sarmatians
    Through control of key trade routes and market participation, the Sarmatians amassed great wealth, which they used to strengthen their military ability. Prized as mercenaries, their military prowess influenced Roman tactics. Explore why, despite these advantages, no great Sarmatian leader emerged, and what effect this experience had on the Romans. x
  • 9
    Trade across the Tarim Basin
    Between the 2nd century B.C. and 2nd century A.D., the Silk Road brought about a virtual global economy. Shift your focus from discussion of specific groups to an exploration of this legendary route and its trade connections, including the types of goods moved, the people involved, and why these arrangements benefited all parties. x
  • 10
    Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity
    Continue exploring the importance of the Silk Road, but progress to a discussion of religions spread and practiced along the route. Learn why Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and above all, Buddhism, were appealing to nomadic populations, and the impact these faiths had on these people and their caravan cities. x
  • 11
    Rome and the Huns
    Turn to the Huns, who employed tactics similar to the Xiongnu and were viewed as both a major threat and militarily advantageous by the divided Roman Empire. Explore their conquests and the dual strategies eastern Rome used to manage the Hun threat—one of which faltered when Attila rose to power. x
  • 12
    Attila the Hun—Scourge of God
    Considered both a great leader and a merciless conqueror, Attila the Hun has captured the popular imagination for centuries. Conclude your examination of the Huns with the story of Attila, from his rise to power to his death, including the royal marriage proposal that ultimately led to the ravaging of western Europe. x
  • 13
    Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites
    To understand the history of the Hephthalites or "White Huns" and the Gök Turks in context, look at the Sassanid Empire—the contemporary rival to the late Roman world—from the monarchy’s aspirations to the way its Neo-Persian shahs came into conflict with Rome and these nomadic peoples. x
  • 14
    The Turks—Transformation of the Steppes
    Progress into the early Middle Ages, a period defined by the Turks. Start your exploration of this group by focusing on three major khaganates or confederations—the Avar Khaghans, the Gök Turks, and the Uighurs—which developed between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D., and would have major implications for the Islamic world. x
  • 15
    Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors
    Delve into the interaction of the Turks and Chinese, starting with a look at China since the Han dynasty’s fragmentation; then investigate the nomads who settled in China. Conclude with a discussion of unification under the Sui and Tang emperors, including their relationship with the Gök Turks and Uighurs. x
  • 16
    Avars, Bulgars, and Constantinople
    Think of the Middle Ages and you’ll likely conjure images of western Europe. But at the time of the Avars, Gök Turks, and Uighurs, Constantinople represented the great urban, Christian civilization bordering the Eurasian steppes. Begin the first of three lectures on the relationship between Byzantine civilization and the peoples of the steppes. x
  • 17
    Khazar Khagans
    Why did the Khazars convert to Judaism rather than orthodox Christianity? Why did the Byzantines, despite dealings with the Khazars across centuries, fail to win them over to their commonwealth? Get answers as you delve into the important role the Khazars played in Byzantine foreign policy and the controversy created by their conversion. x
  • 18
    Pechenegs, Magyars, and Cumans
    The Byzantines failed with the Khazars—but did they successfully absorb or convert any other nomads to orthodox Christianity and Byzantine civilization? Find out in this final lecture on their relationship with the peoples of the Pontic-Caspian steppes by looking at the Magyars, Pechenegs, and Cumans, as well as the Viking Rus. x
  • 19
    Islam and the Caliphate
    How did Muslim civilization emerge? Why did it burst upon the scene so dramatically? And how did it come to play such a significant role among Turkish-speaking nomads? Get background on the caliphate and its divisions, the teachings of Muhammad, and how a Muslim capital at Baghdad and associated cities spread Islam through trade connections. x
  • 20
    The Clash between Turks and the Caliphate
    Examine the initial contact between Islamic civilization and the Turkish nomads in detail by looking at the wars waged between the early caliphs and Turkish tribes. Conclude with the Battle of Talas, fought between the armies of the Abbasid caliphate and the Tang emperor, which represents a turning point for the Karluk Turks and Islam. x
  • 21
    Muslim Merchants and Mystics in Central Asia
    After the Battle of Talas, Islamic expansion halted for 300 years. Explore Baghdad’s emergence as an intellectual and economic center of the Islamic world as well as the religion’s cultural achievements during this period, particularly in architecture. Then, learn why Turkish merchants converted to Sunni Islam—or their version of it—starting in the 8th century. x
  • 22
    The Rise of the Seljuk Turks
    Elaborate on implications of the previous two lectures, including the rise of a slave trade, as you trace a series of Turkish migrations that lead to new powers on the steppes. Focus on three states: the Karakhanids, the sultans of Ghazni, and the Seljuk Turks, who represent the greatest of these new political organizations. x
  • 23
    Turks in Anatolia and India
    After the Seljuk Turks emerged as a major factor in eastern Islam, they conquered two regions that were not previously part of Dar al-Islam: Asia Minor and northern India near Delhi. Here, take a comparative look at these conquests, including the Turks’ seesaw struggle with the crusaders. x
  • 24
    The Sultans of Rum
    How well did the Seljuk Turks use their victory? How did the sultans in Konya, the new center of Muslim Turkish civilization, forge a wider unity? What caused the region’s Christian population to convert? Explore how a new Turkish civilization in Asia Minor developed largely through religious architecture and the allure of Sufi mystics. x
  • 25
    The Sultans of Delhi
    In contrast to the Islamification of Asia Minor, examine Turkish conquests of northern India in the early 13th century. What were their successes and limitations in creating a Muslim civilization here? Begin by considering the political issues involved, then move to the cultural and religious landscape the Turks found themselves dealing with. x
  • 26
    Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors
    Begin your understanding of why the Mongols emerged and had such a dramatic impact on the 13th century by studying the interaction of the restored Song Empire and three nomadic groups who entered northern China in the 10th and 11th centuries when the Great Wall collapsed—the Khitans, the Jurchens, and the Xi Xia. x
  • 27
    The Mongols
    Genghis Khan’s rivals saw him as the embodiment of the steppe barbarian. But who was this man who united the Mongol tribes and set his sights on world conquest? Discover Temujin—as Genghis Khan was originally known—and who the Mongols were at the time of his birth. x
  • 28
    Conquests of Genghis Khan
    Pick up with Temujin’s new status as the great khan, and follow his nomadic army’s path of violent conquest—aided by skilled mapmakers and Chinese engineers—from the small kingdom of the Xi Xia to the Jin Empire to his most important campaign, the invasion of the Islamic world. x
  • 29
    Western Mongol Expansion
    Why did Genghis Khan have his third son, Ögedei, succeed him rather than his oldest, Jochi? Find out as you embark on the Mongols’ vast westward expansion. Witness Ögedei’s efforts to transition from a tributary-based empire to a tax-based one; then follow Batu’s invasion of Russia and Christian Europe, where he encounters an unexpected obstacle: fortified masonry castles. x
  • 30
    Mongol Invasion of the Islamic World
    Return to where the course began, with the campaigns of Hulagu. First, witness the political struggle to elect the next great khan. Then delve into campaigns including the sack of Baghdad, seen as the height of Mongol atrocities, and the battle that ended Mongol power in the Islamic world. x
  • 31
    Conquest of Song China
    At his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had achieved most of what he desired territorially. Why, then, did Kublai Khan and Möngke invade Song China? Investigate this conquest, which some scholars call the greatest of the Mongol’s military achievements, including the logistical challenges that Kublai Klan overcame by inventing a new army. x
  • 32
    Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange
    What were the costs and benefits of the Mongol conquests? Is it accurate to say that a pax Mongolica—a Mongol peace—was imposed in the sedentary civilizations that came under their control? Analyze these consequences, looking at the toll of Mongol destruction and the transformative cultural exchange and prosperity that arose. x
  • 33
    Conversion and Assimilation
    By Kublai Khan’s death in 1294, the Mongolians ruled four ulus, or domains, each of which ultimately crumbled: Kublai Khan’s homeland region, including Tibet and China; the central steppes of the Chagatai; the Ilkhans’ Persia and Transoxiana; and the western forest zones of the Golden Horde. Understand how each fell away from the Mongol imperial legacy. x
  • 34
    Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction
    Between 1381 and his death in 1405, Tamerlane waged seven major campaigns on his extraordinary career of conquest, defeating the Mamluk and Ottoman armies, crushing the armies of the Sultan of Delhi, and overthrowing the Golden Horde. Trace his brutality-filled path and learn why his empire was ultimately short lived. x
  • 35
    Babur and Mughal India
    With a reign of India that endured until the arrival of the British, the Mughals are remembered as great rulers by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Here, look at the life and legacy of the man who, as a descendent of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, would become the last great conqueror of the steppes. x
  • 36
    Legacy of the Steppes
    Conclude by considering why, by the 16th and 17th centuries, the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes ceased to play the decisive role they had for nearly 6,000 years. Then tie together what you’ve learned with a review of the course and a discussion of what this legacy means to us today. x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 183.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Bad Speaking Practices I was in Toastmasters International for 27 years. Prof Hart obviously never was or ever had any speaking training! His presentations are liberally sprinkled with meaningless and distracting "a," "ah," and other verbal garbage. Prof Hart knows his material, but his presentations are horrible. "A" for knowledge, "FFF" for presentation!
Date published: 2018-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Totally accuratte description of the course. An all encompassing discussion of the topic. Expert knowledge and presentation. The book's inclusion of a detailed time line, glossary of names and places and an extensive bibliography a major asset for further study. Superb maps fully illustrate empire locations, movements and battles. Wish the maps and their descriptions were available as an addendum or separate volume. Definitely will view the course a second time. This course is highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! I was very skeptical when I started this course: what could be so important about a bunch of nomads riding over the steppes shooting arrows? I was totally wrong! Professor Harl opened a fascinating and new (to me) perspective of world history. I should add that I hold a university degree in the subject of history, and still I had no idea about the depth and richness of the history of the steppes people and of their crucial contribution to world history and culture. Highly recomended.
Date published: 2018-10-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Challenge I found this a difficult course since I was not very familiar with the names of the numerous nomadic tribes of the Steppe. Initially, I had a problem keeping up with the fast pace of the lecturer but overcame this by doing homework. There is a short glossary at the end of each chapter. It need supplementing with internet research. I also recommend getting a topographical map of the Eurasian region. In the end, the course turned out to be very interesting and I learned a lot but it needed considerable effort.
Date published: 2018-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done and exciting! Very thorough and detailed. The Steppes come alive and provide huge amounts of insight to our world today.
Date published: 2018-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course I purchased this course about a month ago and have been savoring it -- rationing if you will -- ever since. Dr Harl clearly has outstanding knowledge of the material, presents it logically, and he employs highly useful visual aids. I also enjoy his sense of humor. The supplementary material also contains a recommended reading list, and I additionally am reading one of the books on Dr Harl's list. The only criticism I have is that his pronunciation of Chinese names is less than satisfactory. However, that really doesn't detract from the course's overall excellence.
Date published: 2018-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing tour de force but not for the faint hearte Wow! I'm impressed by the presenters grasp of and calm assurance in presenting his subject, which strikes me as dauntingly complex. I'm amazed that so much actual historic written and archaeologically documented evidence exists in on the steppe nomads. It is head-spinning to follow the migrations of the various (hard to pronounce) tribes and confederations of tribes, but I'm finding it very rewarding and it explains so much! Their form of warfare using cavalry tactics and the responses that their Chinese and later their European opponents developed to repulse these left a huge mark on history. Byzantine, Indian and European! For example: I was just reading a book about William the Conqueror's easy conquest of England because the had NO solid castles and no heavy cavalry - hardly any cavalry at all and no understanding of the tactics for withstanding them. The continental Europeans on the other hand, I conjecture, had developed cavalry originally, and probably built defensible castles too, because some of them (as this lecture outlines) faced cavalry invasions from the steppe nomads. This method of warfare then became "state of the art" in the middle ages in Europe. It is so cool to see get a glimpse of the sweep of history through these GTC courses and then be able to apply it to things I come across elsewhere.
Date published: 2018-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You Have to Be Interested, but . . . You have to be interested to follow through and finish this course, as it is highly detailed and the vast geography and timespan, and the many different peoples covered are generally unfamiliar to all but specialists. (I have some background in history and visited Central Asia once.) The strangest thing of all is that after a while it becomes clear that, in spite of the number of lectures in the course, Professor Harl is *condensing* the material, that there is far more of interest that could be discussed, given more time. Nevertheless, to someone with a strong interest, or some background, in the topic, this is an excellent treatment. The barbarian tribes in their movements affected the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese (repeatedly), Western Europe, the Islamic world (repeatedly) and Russia. I knew that there had been Scythians and Sarmatians and Huns and Seljuks and others, but knew very little about them. Now I know a little more. I had never heard of Kushans, Pechenegs, or Hephthalites, now I know a little about them as well. (And that the "barbarians" weren't exactly barbarian!) Finally, this course is great help in offsetting current news, misconceptions, and popular stereotypes when thinking about the geography and inhabitants of Russia, China, South Asia, and that vast area we call the Middle East. Well worth the effort.
Date published: 2018-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent depth Great in depth course. I have enjoyed many of this Professor Harl's courses (vikings in particular) . Really enjoyed this one as well. Only negative was he seem a little too gaga over the Turkish. Perhaps one too many sunny vacation there to remain objective.
Date published: 2018-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It was great! I was able to watch it at my leisure and learn.
Date published: 2018-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Full of information and easy to understand I have always wanted to know more about this time, place and peoples. This is a wonderful way to fill in my gaps of knowledge. The professor is easy to follow and gives insights from many points of view. He helps us see how societies are much more interconnected than we were taught in the past.
Date published: 2018-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Who knew the topic would be so interesting! A must for anyone interested in cultural history. Tremendous, comprehensive achievement by Prof. Hart. Get it on video, the maps are vital.
Date published: 2018-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course provides information not readily available in the usual sources, nor in school curricula. Professor Harl has a wealth of information that he has gathered for presentation. He is thorough without being suffocating. He covered not only the steppes, but also the early development of China and Russia. We had no knowledge of this material and feel is should be essential learning for an educated person. When we completed the course we felt that we had an overall understanding of the place of the people of the steppes in the evolution of western civilization.
Date published: 2018-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A picture is worth a thousand words Uighurs and Gurk Turks, and Huns -- Oh My! I got the course on audio and listen in the car. That may have been a mistake. Dr. Harl is an engaging lecturer, obviously well-informed and enthusiastic about a fascinating subject few of us know or thought anything about. He pronounces a few words oddly, which probably fits in with an accent alien to many of his Tulane students. I won't try to duplicate how he pronounces "Achaemenid" (Prof. Lee, in his course on the Persian Empire, pronounces it Ah KAY men id, and as a specialist on ancient Persia he probably knows) and where does he get the extra syllable in "Sassanian"? But those are simply endearing quirks that go along with a dry sense of humor that lightens an often grim topic. He presents a mass of complex, unfamiliar material and does as good a job as can be done juggling so many balls covering contemporaneous events in widely-separated areas. I tip my hat to him for that feat. But that's the rub. The number of balls he has to juggle is enormous and it can be hard to follow without maps, especially since most of us lack familiarity with the geography of that part of the world. I suspect the lectures would be much easier to follow on video. The two (!) maps in the coursebook look like screenshots of what are probably fine maps in full color, but nearly unreadable in black and white. One other matter of substance. I think it would have been useful to have more of an explanation up front about just what it is about nomadic steppe life that made these many different tribes so tough. I can guess that something about the weather, food sources, and pasturage had a lot to do with it, but I wanted more explicit information. Definitely worthwhile, but you might want to consider video, or listening with a historical atlas in your lap, which is hard to do while driving.
Date published: 2018-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very valuable course Excellent information that an American history hobbyist (with no foreign language skills other than a little Latin and very little Russian) can easily absorb and find credible. The professor covers the topic from so many angles that all his assetions grow in credibility. examples - Most of the nomadic peoples are reviewed from the perspective of language , archeology, culture, military tactics, political practices, geography. It all adds up to believability. As a bonus we get the readers digest version of China, Islam and India. How many Americans are craving for this, because we cannot make the commitment to reading a 1000 page book - especially since we do not know which 1000 page book to read?
Date published: 2018-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very detailed and excellent graphics There is a ton of material in each lecture, with appropriate graphics. Really outstanding.
Date published: 2018-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nomads Really Get Around This exciting course by Kenneth Harl contains several stories in one. First, there is the exchange of goods, customs, religions, technology and invasions between the “barbarians” of the Eurasian steppe zone and the “civilized” regions to the south. In this respect it is very similar to Harl’s Rome and the Barbarians, but the geographic and cultural sweep is much, much broader. Second, there is the history of regions. Harl divides the 6000-mile-long steppe zone into three segments—west (north of a line from the Black to the Caspian Sea) central (from the Caspian Sea to the Jaxartes River) and east (from the Jaxartes to the forests bordering the Pacific Ocean). There are also at least two steppe-like extensions beyond the main zones, the plains of what we call today Hungary and Anatolia. Harl pays special attention to Transoxiana (between the Oxus and the Jaxartes)--home to nomads and caravan cities on the famous Silk Road--and to the Tarim Basin--present-day Xinjiang and the modern Uighur homeland. He also posits the amusing notion of a “vodka-hashish” line in western Eurasia that determined whether peoples converted to Orthodox Christianity or Islam. Third, there is the spread of two enormous language families, the Indo-European—here represented mainly by Iranian and Tocharian speakers--and the more recent Altaic, which according to Harl includes Turkish, Tunguskan, and Mongolian. Fourth, there are the great conquering leaders and peoples, the former including the very famous Attila, Genghis Khan, and Tamurlane (Harl’s favorite) as well as the less famous Modu Chanyu, Bumin, Tughril Bey, and Wanyan Min. The viewer has likely heard of Scythians, Huns, Turks, and Mongols, and perhaps Sarmatians, Parthians and Avars, but he/she will also learn about those who made a large impact upon Chinese, Indian or Persian history without touching the West: Xiongnu, Hephthalites, Kushans, Khitans, Jurchen and Moguls. In nearly all cases nomad peoples who didn’t simply stay put migrated from east to west—most impressively the Avars fleeing from the eastern steppes to Hungary and the Danube basin after their Turkish subjects revolted--or headed south to establish a new realm on civilized ground, as did the Parthians, Kushans, Seljuk Turks, and Jurchen. Only the Mongols conquered the entire steppe zone from east to west AND a good deal of Eurasian civilization, mainly Iran, Iraq and China. Harl draws attention throughout to a few important features of these nomad societies. First, until the arrival of gunpowder weapons, their compound bows and horseback mobility made them nearly unbeatable by civilized armies operating on flat ground. The Chinese could usually keep them away only by offering the “Five Baits” that included gifts, tribute and Chinese princesses. Second, they were very pragmatic about religion, willing to accept any faiths promising good fortune and personal salvation. Before about 700 AD these included Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Nestorian Christianity, and after 700 Islam. The nomads particularly liked mystics and monks who reminded them of native shamans using trances to contact the spirit world. Third, nomads usually applied lateral succession (older brother to younger brother) rather than patrilineal (father to son), a custom that sometimes led to civil war. Harl twice illustrates this point in an amusing way by showing little animated arrows flying among brothers and uncles of a model nomad dynasty. Now there are a few problems. For some reason, Lecture 10 doesn’t work correctly on my DVD player. As in his other courses, Harl sometimes irritates me with umms and uhhs, but this habit is less pronounced here. The most serious may be a question mark over his description of the Altaic languages. Wikipedia claims that the entire family as such is “largely discredited,” as most scholars have decided that the resemblances in vocabulary and grammar between Turkish and Mongolian are due to borrowing, not a shared origin. Earlier forms of both dialect groups are more different from each other rather than more similar, the reverse of what you would expect if the two arose from a common tongue. Britannica Online sustains the Altaic grouping, but also notes that it is disputed. Since I don’t feel qualified to take a firm stand on the matter, I will still give a 5 in all categories. The other problems are too minor to affect my rating. If you buy this course, you should certainly get the video version, so you can see the maps.
Date published: 2018-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Descriptive. Tons of well presented information, but I got the audio version, and you really need a map with the area and city names on it to follow the history.
Date published: 2017-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from at last, the other side of the story this course fills a huge hole in most traditional histories, and prof. harl is to be commended for putting it together. when we take the time to see things from the point of view of the “barbarians”—inasmuch as we can—the familiar narratives of eurasian history appear in a whole new light. furthermore what’s going on on the steppes themselves takes on an unexpected coherence as what had been little more than isolated tribal names suddenly start to form a meaningful sequence with their own histories, territories, and concerns. now as you might expect, there is a lot of material in this course. even if you’re generally familiar with ancient history, it will still be a challenge to keep the long list of different tribes and leaders straight. most steppe peoples don’t get more than a lecture or two, and many get less than that, so don’t be surprised if by the end you feel like you need a reminder as to the difference between a scythian and a sarmatian. i could tell immediately that this was a course i would have to do again. because most of what we know about the steppe peoples comes from their interactions with the “civilized”—i.e., literate—empires, we end up getting pretty comprehensive histories of these as well, particularly china, persia, and the muslim world. while this occasionally leaves you wondering who the course is really about, i feel that by and large prof. harl got the balance right, telling us what we needed to know about the settled civilizations so we could understand their relationships with their northern neighbours. just as prof. harl’s course on the vikings ends up being a history of scandinavia more generally, this one ends up functioning as a kind of prehistory of the turkish peoples. i found this fascinating because one rarely hears much about the turks prior to the emergence of the ottomans. the whole middle section of this course is all about the turks, and thus would presumably serve as a nice prelude to prof. harl’s more recent course on the ottoman empire. the final section on the mongols moreover is a fairly satisfying mini-course on the subject. given the necessarily episodic nature of the rest of the series, i thought it was nice to end with a sustained consideration of a single people and the political order they created. by all means get the video version, unless you’re that one in a million who has a rock-solid grasp of central asian geography and all of its permutations over some 6000 years. the maps alone are worth the extra cost: there are plenty of them, usually several per lecture, and they’re usually indispensable.
Date published: 2017-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Make Sure to Buy the Video Version This is the third course given by Dr. Harl that I have gtaken and I have at least one more in my queue. Clearly I have been a fan and this course makes me even more interested in acquiring more of his lectures. The subject matter in this course was only marginally familiar to me. Other than such names as Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Attila the Hun and Tamerlane and their incursions into Europe (Roman Empire to the Eastern European destruction by the Golden Horde), I really did not know much about the central Asian nomads. Professor Harl has greatly expanded my horizons and knowledge. While learning many things I did not know, I was reminded of some things that I vaguely remembered and had mostly forgotten, but that I can now put in context. For example although I did know that the Yuan dynasty was the result of Mongol invasion of China and subsequent rule, but I was completely unaware of the centuries of contact, conflict and cultural exchange between China and steppe nomads. It was really quite fascinating to see how that developed over time. Just so was the mostly westward movement of the nomadic tribes over time, each pushing another out to new territory. And there is more: the silk road, the movement of religions and various conversions, the politics of the nomadic tribes and how they impacted civilized politics, many various nomadic tribes about which I had no prior knowledge, and best of all the tactics of these barbarians that allowed them to quickly overrun pretty much any area they desired (and who knew that these barbarians used Chinese engineers to help destroy fortifications). Be aware that this course uses the “great man” approach, leaving very little descriptions of the more ordinary men and their lives. Not that this is not a valid approach and given the scope of the course more expansion is likely not possible. Indeed, the pace of the course is quick as Dr. Harl moves at breakneck speed. Not having as much background in the subject as I did in other courses of his that I have taken, I often re-watched blocks of a lecture where my prior knowledge did not allow me to grasp the issues as he delivered them. As many other reviewers have mentioned, Dr. Harl is not the smoothest presenter, as he not only speaks quickly, he also uses “uh’s” a lot, perhaps as a pause to make sure he has not overrun his thoughts. I did not find this off-putting, as did others, but be forewarned. Aside from some minor factual errors that others have noticed, Professor Harl’s command of this material is overwhelming. For me (and I think for most) a lack of knowledge of central Asian political geography over many centuries, makes the video version almost mandatory. Fortunately the maps in this course are first-rate, showing invasion lines and trade routes and the resulting political changes due to them. As an aside, I kept waiting for a bit of Coleridge: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree..." But perhaps no time. Get the video.
Date published: 2017-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Experience in Itself My enjoyment of this course is well beyond what I expected. First of all, Prof. Harl is an outstanding lecturer presenting materials that are very difficult to organize in the most understandable manner and mixing in enough of the human experience to keep it entertaining. I bought this course on a lark because l knew so little about the steppe barbarians other than Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. After all, how many others can you name? This course reveals the extraordinary impact that the steppe barbarians had on world history. The materials are presented chronologically, ethnically, politically and based on religious affiliation. I usually purchase the audio version but the photographs and especially the maps make this course much more understandable and memorable. Thank you, Dr. Harl. Enjoy.
Date published: 2017-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Expertly done as usual for Professor Harl. Eye opening
Date published: 2017-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes This particular course interested me because it's an important part of world history, but not something I know much about. I first bought it on Audio CD, as I like to listen to Great Courses in the car, and am not much for watching screens. The course was fascinating, as good as Prof. Harl's other Great Courses, but I don't know enough about the geography of these regions to have been able to follow as well as I would have liked. I bought two ancient history atlases purportedly about this area, but they were no help. I was kicking myself for not buying the DVD version in the first place when ALL the Great Courses went on sale for 70% off. That was my chance to get the DVDs at an affordable price. Now I'm looking forward to going through this course again, this time with the visuals I needed.
Date published: 2017-08-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what I expected I have finished watching about half of the lectures in this course, and have been disappointed with the content. I suppose that most people who will watch/listen to this course will be generalists without much familiarity with the subject(s) covered. Whatever information course participants may have, I suspect that they are not trained in classical history. The presentation of material, however, refers to Greek and Roman sources, and uses their classical place names rather than names that are in current use. Specifically Jaxarte River for the Syr Darya as a continuous and annoying example. Additionally, the lecturer mispronounces names making them often unrecognizable! I would expect that a scholar of such renown would have researched and know how to say Xiongnu!!! Not to mention many other names from Chinese, Persian and Turkic backgrounds. The mispronunciations are annoying and distracting, and provoking. I suspect that Professor Hurl is an excellent lecturer and source on areas of his specialized studies. His references to those areas are fluid and interesting as his knowledge shines through. For much of the content concerning the "Barbarian Empires" his delivery is filled with hesitations, restatements, "uhh's" and sometimes obvious note scanning as the information is presented. On a final note: One of the most exciting things that the Professor shared was a PIE chart that showed the relationships among many Proto IndoEuropean languages. It would have been wonderful to be able to read, examine and use it as Dr. Harl develops the themes of his lectures. However, the PIE chart that he uses early in the lecture series is not reproduced in the book. That is a real loss to this participant.
Date published: 2017-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As usual, top notch I have at least 5 or 6 of his lecture series. Dr. Harl is a fabulous presenter. This one on the Barbarians cover a history that is tangent (and less known) to standard classical history studies. He covers the Northern peoples from China to Eastern Europe that fringe the "civilized world" and the pains they caused the great empires of antiquity. The course is densely packed with info and the course guide book is thick. A good value.
Date published: 2017-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent information provided by the professer This is the first title I have purchased from great courses and I like it very much. I recommend the video version which has excellent maps and illustrations which really help.
Date published: 2017-07-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Okay with flashes of "good" but not "great" If you're interested in some really good history of the various nomadic clans from the western, central, and eastern Steppes as well as how they interacted with the great empires of the day, then this course is for you. But a warning: the professor's style can be hard to adapt to (at least for me it was). First the good: 1- I learned alot. Let me reword that: ALOT. This course covers so many civilizations including those I had never heard of; and I've taken many many history courses. 2- Professor Harl knows his stuff inside and out. Say what you want about his style but he is an encyclopedia of facts, big and small. I don't know how his head doesn't explode from carrying all that content (I say this as an extreme compliment!). 3- This course provides good historical narrative on the major nomadic steppe cultures and their interactions (alliances and battles) with civilized sedentary empires like China, Rome, Byzantine Empire, India, Islam, and Russia from aprx. 600 BC to apx. 1500 AD Steppe groups covered: o Earliest Indo-European speaking nomads that migrated to the Steppes (6500/5000 BC) o Xiongnu ( frequently battled with the early dynasties of China in the eastern steppes) o Scythians (interacted with the Greeks and Persians in the western steppes) o Parthians (conquered regions of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire) o Sacae (western nomads who eventually settled in India) o Kushan (western nomads who eventually settled in India) o Sarmatians (interacted with Rome in the western steppes) o Huns (battled Rome in the west) o Hephthalites (battled the Sassanid Empire or Neo-Persian Empire in central Asia) o Avar Turks (eastern battles with the Chinese and expanded into central Asia and the west where they interacted with the Byzantine Empire) o Gök Turks (originally allies of the Sassanids against Hephthalites but they form their own kingdom in central Asia after conquering the Avar Turks) o Uighurs Turks (conquered the Gök Turks in central Asia) o Bulgars Turks (interacted with the Byzantine Empire in the west) o Khazars Turks (interacted with the Byzantine Empire in the west) o Magyars (interacted with the Byzantine Empire in the west) o Pechenegs Turks (interacted with the Byzantine Empire in the west; Originally allies with the Rus but became enemies of the Russians) o Cumans Turks (interacted with the Byzantine Empire in the west) o Western Turks (including the Karluks; These tribes battled with the Arabian forces of Islam in Central Asia) o Karakhanid Turks (converted to Islam) o Ghaznavid Turks (ruled over Central Asia and northern India) o Seljuk Turks (conquered the Abbasid Islamic Caliphate and Asia Minor from the Byzantine Empire) o Northern India Turks (Islamic tribes that ruled northern India) o Khitans (clashed with the Song dynasty in northern China) o Jurchen (battled the Khitans in northern China) o Kara-Khitans (battled the Karakhanid Turks, conquered central Asia, and overthrew the Seljek Turks) o Mongols (conquered the Jurchen, the Kara-Khitans, Abbasid Islamic Caliphate, Russia, and China) o Central steppes Turks led by Tamerlane (conquered central and western steppes) o Central steppes Turks led by Babur (established the Mughal Empire in India) Weaknesses of the course: 1- The professor throws so much information at you that he often doesn’t stay on the charted narrative but instead ventures off onto side tracks or gets “lost in the details” vs. sticking with the big picture leaving your head spinning at times 2- I took the audio version and while I can't speak to the quality of the video version, I found this course somewhat hard to follow without a map/visual because the professor hops around regions in lightning speed and without notice, referring to areas by their ancient names (vs. referring to a region as “modern day <country x>”; Great example: I can swear the professor loves to hear himself say "Transoxiana" and will find every opportunity to get it in each lecture) or rivers and other natural features that are not well known; I think he knows these areas so well that he is comfortable jumping all around but it can be bewildering to those without great knowledge of the layout of the ancient world. All in all I would still recommend this course. There is just way too much in it you will never find in other courses. While I wish it could've been done differently and more streamlined (I always thought that one of Professor Harl's shortcomings is he loves to dispense knowledge and facts but comes up short in the art of "teaching"), I found exploring these Steppe cultures an enlightening and worthwhile journey.
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mongols and Huns and Scythians! Oh My! The subject of this course intrigued me because I knew next to nothing about the steppe nomadic peoples. I have listened to several of Professor Harl's other courses for The Teaching Company so I was pretty certain that the time would be well spent. I did enjoy the course, but I was stunned by the scope of the subject matter. As Prof. Harl said in his final lecture, the course ranges over six thousand years and six thousand miles. The history of this region of Eurasia is wave after wave of nomadic tribes, rising to dominance over their nomadic peers as well as the "sedentary" peoples in their path as they swept forward in conquest, usually from east to west across the steppes. In turn, they would be displaced by the next wave originating in the eastern steppes. Central to their lifestyle and success in battle is the domesticated horse of the steppes. Until the invention of firearms in Europe, these nomad horse archers were usually victorious over other military forces. My description is an oversimplification: some of these nomads impacted the Chinese empire, the Indian subcontinent, the forests that would become Russia, as well as central Europe. These nomads only show up on the fringes of the history we know but they had a huge impact on trade and the spread of religious belief. A cautionary note: This course should be viewed via DVD or video streaming. An audio-only version of the course will lack the maps, showing migrations of peoples and armies, present throughout the course. Almost none of these are present in the guidebook provided by Prof. Harl for the course (the guidebook is about 450 pages, counting the back matter, and is packed with information—but nothing like the maps shown in the video). Without these maps, appreciation of the historical events will be very limited.
Date published: 2017-07-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Misinformation This was my first introduction to the great courses and a MAJOR disappointment. I am not a historian but there are so many major mistakes I cant believe this guy claims to be a historian and teaches. I found the information to be filled with historical inaccuracies. I question that he is not a paid Putin supporter as he constantly inaccurately credits things to Russia or the Orthodox church. He refers to places as Russia in the BCE!! Everything is in Russia and Russians did things well before Moscow existed. Othodox Christians were busy at work centuries before the Great Schism. He is also such a terrible speaker, Um...Um...UM.. and horrible mispronunciations. It is impossible to listen to this
Date published: 2017-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Big History This course was impressive in the breadth and novelty. It spans about 2000 years and covers an area from the pacific ocean to eastern Europe, India and modern Turkey. The steppes of central Asia give rise to various tribes who invade China, India, Europe, and the middle east. My wife and I watched it and we learned both geography and history. The prof was energetic and clearly in command of his material. There were photographs of different geographical regions so we could begin to grasp why the peoples were nomadic and centered their lives around horses. The maps in the DVD were helpful and it would be hard to appreciate the movement of peoples without them because boundaries of various countries changed with time. it stimulated a desire to visit these areas to see where some of the events described in the course occurred and what the great cities of the past look like today
Date published: 2017-06-07
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