The World of Byzantium

Course No. 367
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 367
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Course Overview

Try this thought experiment: Mentally chart the main phases of European history to 1500. If you're like most of us, you probably hopscotched from classical Greece through Alexander the Great, from the Rome of the Caesars to the Renaissance, with a detour into the long post-Roman hiatus known as the Dark and Middle Ages.

But this storyline is woefully incomplete, even misleading.

Why? It leaves out Byzantium.

And you're not alone. The mental charts drawn by most educated people would show the same gap.

As Professor Kenneth Harl notes:

"Far from being merely the eastern rump of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium was without a doubt the greatest state in Christendom through much of the Middle Ages.

"This story is far more important than any number of tales of palace intrigue, and is not as well known as it deserves to be.

"These lectures are a small attempt to help redress the balance."

Curious and Even Unsettling Civilization

The civilization of East Rome, or Byzantium, is seldom studied on its own merits because this seemingly remote world is a curious, even unsettling, mix of the classical and medieval.

Byzantine arts and letters, deeply steeped in traditional orthodoxy, seldom appeal to the modern Westerner, a product of the Enlightenment and the changes wrought by modernization. And the same can be said for Muslims, as well, whose own civilization owes much to Byzantium.

These lectures by Professor Kenneth W. Harl are designed to fill that gap. You come away with a widened perspective on everything from the decline of imperial Rome to the rise of the Renaissance.

Professor Harl's tellingly detailed lectures show how the Greek-speaking empire of Byzantium, or East Rome, occupied a crucial place in both time and space that began with Constantine the Great and endured for more than a millennium.

A Crux of Civilizations

You can take the word "crucial" literally.

Centered on its magnificent fortified capital at the lucrative crossroads of Europe and Asia, Byzantium was a crux of civilizations.

It was a colossus that bestrode two continents: a crucible where peoples, cultures, and ideas met and melded to create a world at once Eastern and Western, Greek and Latin, classical and Christian.

It was truly a fulcrum of world history.

A Grandeur That Still Awes

Byzantium's spiritual grandeur and mystical vision of humanity, God, and the cosmos can still be glimpsed. You can see them in:

  • the awesome, soaring dome of the Hagia Sophia, 100 feet across and tall enough to hold a 17-story building, still the greatest domed building in Istanbul and the model for the great domed churches of the empire
  • the luminous mosaics of San Vitale at Ravenna, Italy
  • countless Orthodox churches on several continents.

For century after century, the Byzantines kept alive Hellenic arts and letters and Roman legal-political achievements over a vast arena of space and time.

The influence of this grand Orthodox Christian state was felt in Russia and southeastern Europe and throughout the Islamic world. And it influenced the Italian Renaissance, as well.

Renaissance scholars would name this powerful and brilliant civilization "Byzantium" after the ancient town that occupied the strategic spot where Constantine built his new capital.

The Byzantines called themselves simply hoi Romaioi—Greek for "the Romans."

An Empire of Accomplishment

A list of the achievements of Byzantium's emperors, patriarchs, priests, monks, artists, architects, scholars, soldiers, and officials would have to include:

  • actively preserving and extending the literary, intellectual, and aesthetic legacy of Classical and Hellenistic Greece (the Byzantine patriarch Photius was doing serious Platonic scholarship at a time when only three of Plato's dialogues were even known in the Latin West)
  • carrying forward pathbreaking Roman accomplishments not only in law and politics but in engineering, architecture, urban design, and military affairs—at a time when these had mostly been forgotten in the West
  • deepening and articulating Christian thought and belief through church councils and the work of brilliant theologians such as St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory of Nazienzus while spreading the faith to Russia and the rest of what would become the Orthodox world
  • developing the Christian monastic institutions whose eventual diffusion from the deserts of Egypt to the shores of the Irish Sea would help to sustain faith and learning through centuries of hardship and peril
  • shielding the comparatively weak and politically fragmented lands of western Europe from the full force of eastern nomadic and Islamic invasions
  • fusing classical, Christian, and eastern influences to create an art and culture of stunning beauty and splendor
  • helping to shape the course of the humanist revival and the Renaissance in Western Europe through the writings of the Greek Fathers of the church, the preservation of classical texts, and the example of church mosaics and the work of El Greco.
Three Chapters of the Byzantine Story

To tell this pivotal story, Professor Harl has divided his lectures into three conceptual phases.

Lectures 1 to 12 provide you with essential background as they explain how the Roman world slowly gave way to distinct new blended cultures in the Latin, Celtic, and Germanic north and west, the Greek-speaking east (Byzantium), and later the Islamic south and east from Morocco to India.

You learn how the later Roman Empire under the forceful soldier-emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) responded to political and military crises, setting the stage for Constantine (r. 306-337), whose conversion to Christianity would point the Roman world in new directions.

You also meet the amazing emperor Justinian (r. 527-565).

This brilliant visionary built the Hagia Sophia, sponsored the magnificent codification of Roman law that bears his name, and sought to restore the entire Mediterranean world to his vision of a Christian and Constantinian empire.

But even the brilliant generalship of Belisarius and Narses could not make Justinian's policies a success. In the end came fresh crises that ended the classical world forever.

Lectures 13 to 21 deal with the achievements of medieval Byzantium, familiar to poets and novelists.

Its emperors warded off new invaders, checked the power of Islam, and directed a transformation of government, society, and culture.

The Byzantine State went through downs and ups of crisis and recovery, the latter sometimes directed by remarkable emperors like Alexius I Comnenus and the dynasty he sired (r. 1081-1185).

But the pressures from the Seljuk Turks and others were relentless and eventually triggered the Byzantine cry for help that led to the First Crusade (1095-99).

Lectures 22 to 24 run from the Fourth Crusade's horrifying sack of Constantinople (1204) to the Ottoman triumph of 1453. They tell a tale of political decline but enduring cultural and spiritual achievement.

Each in its own way, the Italian quattrocento and the Orthodox realm of Russia and Eastern Europe emerged as a legatee of Byzantium's mind and spirit.

Indeed, even the Ottoman sultans, creators of the last great Islamic empire, owed a huge debt to their vanquished foes.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Imperial Crisis and Reform
    A century of crisis between A.D. 193 and 305 propelled the Roman world out of the classical into the early medieval age. After A.D. 235, a series of civil wars and invasions shattered the peace of the 60-million-subject Empire, profoundly changed all aspects of life, and set the stage for the rise of the civilization that would be known as Byzantium. x
  • 2
    Convinced that the Christian God had given him a signal victory, Constantine (r. 306–337) embraced the new faith and pointed the Empire in new directions. His sponsorship of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) and his decision to build a "New Rome" on the strategic Bosporus laid the foundations of Byzantium. x
  • 3
    State and Society Under the Dominate
    Abandoning republican fictions, emperors after the 3rd century A.D. ruled as autocrats. Imperial demands eroded civic life and put classical religion and civilization in jeopardy. As the 5th century dawned, the bonds that had tied local elites to Rome had loosened, and in the West the outlines of medieval localism were emerging. x
  • 4
    Imperial Rome and the Barbarians
    Citizen legions had long guarded Rome's frontiers. But after 235, emperors increasingly recruited barbarian tribal fighters under native leaders, thereby creating the very forces that would topple imperial power in the West. x
  • 5
    The Rise of Christianity
    Until the conversion of Constantine, Christians remained relatively few in number, mostly in Mediterranean cities. But Christian self-definition was well-honed by 312, putting Christian emperors and bishops into a position to reshape a classical world whose people mostly remained pagans into the 5th century. x
  • 6
    Imperial Church and Christian Dogma
    The Council of Nicaea in 325 endorsed the Trinitarian theology of Athanasius but did not settle all debate. Later councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) condemned Nestorians and Monophyistes, respectively. Emperors would continue striving to reconcile the latter, who commanded loyalty in the crucial provinces of Egypt, Syria, and eastern Anatolia. x
  • 7
    The Friends of God—Ascetics and Monks
    Solitary anchorites of the Egyptian desert inspired the 4th-century ascetic movement that led to medieval monasticism. St. Basil of Caesarea (330–379) penned rules regulating monastic life. His Latin counterpart, St. Benedict of Nursia (480–543), followed suit four generations later. Monasteries would play a decisive role in civilizing and converting Europe. x
  • 8
    The Fall of the Western Empire
    By 425, the western portion of the Roman Empire had shrunk to its Mediterranean core. The eastern court, secure behind Constantinople's Theodosian Walls, defied barbarian invaders, paid off Attila, and reformed its army. But it was too late to save the West, whose fall is usually dated to the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in 476. x
  • 9
    The Age of Justinian
    Justinian (r. 527–565) was a cultured visionary, tireless public servant, and the last of the great Roman emperors. His supporting cast, headed by his wife Theodora (a former courtesan) and his superb general Belisarius, was similarly brilliant. x
  • 10
    The Reconquest of the West
    Justinian knew he could not afford long wars, but felt he had to fight the Arian German kingdoms in Italy, the Vandals in Africa, and the Persians to his east. Commanding small, often-outnumbered armies, both Belisarius and Narses (the eunuch general) worked military wonders, though the former was driven from command by the emperor's distrust. x
  • 11
    The Search for Religious Unity
    Well schooled in theology, Justinian believed that a common creed could unite Chalcedonians and Monophysites. But he failed to reckon with the depth of the disagreements among Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria. Despite all his efforts, the imperial church at the end of his reign was even more bitterly divided than before. x
  • 12
    The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters
    Justinian presided over the synthesis of Jewish, classical, and provincial arts into a Christian art and architecture that shaped medieval aesthetics and created such glories as the church mosaics of Ravenna and the magnificent dome of the Hagia Sophia. This lecture also contains a fascinating discussion of the origins and design features of basilicas and other Christian church buildings in the Eastern Empire. x
  • 13
    The Emperor Heraclius
    Heraclius (r. 610–641), the next great emperor after Justinian, managed to tame the Persian threat and restore the empire's fortunes on other fronts as well. But as Heraclius lay dying, his achievement was being nullified by the might of Arab horsemen and their powerful new faith, Islam. x
  • 14
    The Christian Citadel
    For more than two centuries, the heirs of Heraclius battled Lombards in Italy, Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans, and Arabs in Anatolia. At the Battle of Poson (863), imperial forces won a victory that made it possible to carry Christianity and the civilized arts to the peoples of Eastern Europe. In the crucible of these wars was born the Byzantine Empire: Roman in government, Orthodox in faith, and Hellenic in language. x
  • 15
    Life in the Byzantine Dark Age
    Emperors of the "Dark Age" cracked down on corruption, and Constantinople fueled economic recovery by offering ready markets, but war and plague led to a demographic collapse by 700. Desperate imperial officials settled Slavs, Armenians, and Christian sectarians as soldiers or peasants, sponsored trade, and regulated prices. In response to crisis, emperors and subjects heroically reformed their world. x
  • 16
    The Iconoclastic Controversy
    Many Byzantines became convinced that icons meant idolatry, and hence divine punishment. Iconoclasm ("the breaking of images") began under Leo III (r. 717–741) and was finally settled by a moderate compromise in 843. The dispute defined orthodox ritual and widened the divide between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Henceforth, Rome looked west and Constantinople became the "queen of cities" for Eastern Europe. x
  • 17
    Recovery Under the Macedonian Emperors
    The illiterate usurper Basil the Macedonian (867–886) and his heirs sought legitimacy via military victory and patronage of the arts. They could not have acted more opportunely. The 10th century was an era of battles won and peoples baptized, including the Varangians of Russia and the South Slavs. By 1025, Eastern Europe had taken on its early shape as a Byzantine Orthodox commonwealth—Slavic in speech, Byzantine in aesthetics, and imperial in institutions. x
  • 18
    Imperial Zenith—Basil II
    Basil II—nicknamed "The Bulgar-Slayer"—was the greatest warrior of his age. Scorning imperial ceremony and ruling in splendid isolation with Varangian mercenary guards, he crushed rebellions and annexed Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria. But Basil left no heir, and his very success had created a false sense of security among his inept successors. Once again, the Byzantine Empire was headed for crisis. x
  • 19
    Imperial Collapse
    How did the Byzantine state, which Basil II had left in perhaps its strongest position since the days of Justinian, so quickly become enfeebled and exposed to new invaders both east and west? In 1071, on the distant Armenian battlefield of Manzikert, Byzantine forces facing the Seljuk Turks suffered a staggering defeat that changed world history. x
  • 20
    Alexius I and the First Crusade
    Alexius, committed to reversing the verdict of Manzikert by reconquering Anatolia, asked Western princes to send him knights. Pope Urban II took this appeal for mercenaries as a summons to liberate the Holy Land, unleashing the Crusades and the eventual ruin of Byzantium. x
  • 21
    Comnenian Emperors and Crusaders
    When the Crusades of the 12th century ended in failure, Westerners blamed Byzantine treachery rather than their own poor logistics and strategy. Distracted by the Crusades, meanwhile, Constantinople neglected the Seljuk threat and lost to the Turks again at Myriocephalon (1176). The fecklessness of a new and weak dynasty, the Angelans, left Byzantium's great capital vulnerable to Crusader assault. x
  • 22
    Imperial Exile and Restoration
    In April 1204, members of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople. Crusader barons and Byzantine generals carved out pieces of the faltering Empire. Michael VIII Palaeologus (1258–1282) eventually retook Constantinople, but neither he nor his less-than-brilliant heirs could reverse Byzantium's loss of even regional power or status. x
  • 23
    Byzantine Letters and Aesthetics
    Guardians of the classical heritage, Byzantine scholars saved many priceless Greek texts. From the 10th century on, emperors endowed schools and promoted intellectual life. Byzantine authors wrote in the tradition of Thucydides and Plutarch, and Photius revived the study of Plato. The mannerist church frescoes of the Byzantine 14th century compare with the best of contemporary Italian art, and exercised considerable influence on the Italian Renaissance. x
  • 24
    The Fall of Constantinople
    The Palaeologan emperors hoped to preserve their shrunken realm with Western aid but could not stop the Ottomans. The last emperor, Constantine XI, and his 7,000 gallant comrades went down fighting as the historic capital of the Christian East fell to the guns and bigger battalions of Sultan Mehmet II in May 1453. From the ashes of Constantinople, Mehmet built Istanbul, seat of a new Islamic empire that would last through World War I. 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 World of Byzantium is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a much overlooked period in history I have enjoyed every one of Dr. Harl's courses that I have taken, but this particular one is not only up to his usual standard, but touches a period in history which seems to be much under-reported.
Date published: 2012-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All You Could Wish For! This course is well researched, well organized and well presented. It covers the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from its inception in the 4th century to its demise in 1453. It is wide-ranging and deals with cultural and religious aspects as well as military and political elements. Professor Harl clearly demonstrates his excellent knowledge of the area’s geography. Despite some redundancies with Professor Harl’s courses on the Fall of Paganism and on the Crusades, this lecture series is well worth the investment.
Date published: 2012-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Almost overwhelming! This professor is extremely knowledgeable on the topic. He delivers his lectures in a well organized and very smooth manner. The detail is considerable. Since I knew nothing about the subject (except at the very beginning and end of the course) I tended to get a bit lost in the detail, but the overall impression comes through. This is a much neglected part of European history, and the wrap-up lecture explains why the material should have more importance in our European history courses.
Date published: 2012-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fills a big gap in the History we think we know... My study of History in school and college did not touch on the thousand years that the Eastern Roman Empire continued on, after the fall of Rome in the 400s AD. The term Byzantium meant something related to Turkey, some Islamic empire before the Ottoman Empire, right? Some complicated intrigue in the Sultan's palace, right? Well, no, not at all. I had no idea that the history of the Eastern Roman Empire (they called themselves Romans) was so rich or eventful. Tremendous up and downs, successes and failures. A terrible plague, so many wars, great leaders, horrendous leaders, invaders from all sides. Then there were the effects of the Crusades on them. There were the enormous effects that Byzantium had on western Europe. Saving art, Greek culture, Roman law, certain religious study and practices for the west. Constantinople must have been the greatest, the most beautiful, and the most advanced city on Earth for many centuries. Also, Byzantium was an enormous barrier protecting a divided and comparatively backward western Europe from the powers gaining in power and strength to the east of Byzantium. Dr. Harl is a great lecturer who brings this whole subject to life. He has a practical approach and is very even-handed, presenting the good with the bad, the great stories with the sad ones. Highly recommended, and very entertaining.
Date published: 2012-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Opened up a whole new world - Asia Minor. In school I studied western civ but never much about Byzantium. Harl is a great presenter. I listened to it twice and I am now reading the book
Date published: 2011-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Harl course to try first, but get the DVDs This course deserves the strong reviews, but I think I know why a couple of folks were disappointed. The negative comments seem to focus on "too much","hard to follow", or even "dry". I struggled with the audio version of another Harl course, but loved this one. Why DVD? The maps were not extensive, and there is relatively little text, but if the names are unfamiliar to you it becomes a parade of names. Seeing the maps and names on screen were very helpful to me. Get the DVDs. Some clearly have enjoyed the audio, but possibly they knew a little more of the material when they started than I did. Why do this one as a first Harl? It is a perfect mix of things you have heard of and thing that you haven't. It starts with Constantine, ends with the Crusades, and runs concurrent with the Middle Ages so some of the material may be familiar, but with plenty that is probably new. At a briskly paced 24 lectures, it is isn't quite the commitment that a 36 lecture Harl course would be if you haven't tried this professor. There is a reason why he has recorded so many courses. Recommended.
Date published: 2011-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecturer Just wanted to say that this was so good I was sad to have the series come to an end. I'm looking forward to seeing some of Professor Harl's other lectures.
Date published: 2011-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Professor Harl makes this often obscure history clear and relevant.
Date published: 2011-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite of Professor Harl's Lectures This was the first of Professor Harl's courses that I purchased and listened to, and it remains my favorite. The course content delivers on the promise: it reveals a portion of history that was neglected or minimized in the college courses I took on Western Civilization. With a combination of witty delivery and authoritative knowledge, Professor Harl gives the listener a thorough understanding of Byzantium, from its origins in late antiquity to its final demise in the late Middle Ages. He combines illustrative details and historical sweep adroitly, giving his lectures continuity and depth. Since listening to this course I have purchased several other courses that cover the same period of history, but none come close in providing the insights into Byzantium that this one does. If you, like me, thought that the Roman Empire came to an end in the fifth and sixth centuries, this set of lectures is a must for you. If you are already wiser than I was but would like to learn more about the Eastern Roman Empire, then you can do no better than this course. The course book includes several useful maps, a timeline and a glossary of names that enhanced my understanding of the material.
Date published: 2010-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A WORLD BETTER UNDERSTOOD This review refers to the DVD's. For whatever reason, the history of the world identified as Byzantium received scant attention compared to Rome and the West during my undergraduate days. One senses the same omission prevails in most of today's college curriculums. Dr Harl's course does much to fill that gap. His clear explanations contribute to helping one understand what happened in that world. Equally important, the ramifications of those events are explored. The graphics are helpful. One walks away from this series with a better grasp of the Byzantium world and, equally important, a deeper comprehension of the history of the West.
Date published: 2010-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating History I watched this DVD course this spring and am now going to watch it again. This period of history is not one that gets a lot of public exposure, but this course by Prof. Harl is a must to fill in your gaps. He has an engaging style, rapid, well delivered and entertaining style; keeps it moving and clearly knows his subject. Byzantium filled in a gap of my Ancient knowledge and the first thing you learn is the the Roman Empire didn't all fall, it was the Eastern Empire that created the real basis for the Italian Renaissance while the Western Empire broke apart. Greek in orientation, culture, art and religion are the basis for it's success. Prof. Harl makes what could be a dry subject an alive and wonderful experience.
Date published: 2010-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my Favorite Courses I first listened to this course when I was in my Sophomore year of High school. Now 4 years later because of that initial introduction I have majored in the study of the Ancient world, focusing on the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium. This course was not only influential in my life but Dr. Harl is a clear lecturer with a dry, satirical and often quite witty sense of humor. I enjoyed how his jokes were perfectly placed to lighten an often dry subject. The material is well presented and concise. With the historical background and foundation of Byzantium clearly defined from the earliest stages. The mixed heritage of Byzantium, rooted in Greek and Roman traditions colored it's history for centuries along with later influence from the East and Dr. Harl is very good at emphasizing the points of influence. His lectures were extremely good at emphasizing the fact that Byzantium was not just a civilization bound by the Orthodox faith, but a civilization built on much stronger and more ancient foundations. There was a civilization that created the glorious mosaics that remain and this series brings it eloquently to light. I would highly recommend devoting your time to listening to these lectures, there is much to be learned from Dr. Harl about the great continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. These lectures are augmented with many images that illustrate some of the art and battle strategies he mentions, however they are not vital and I would recommend either format.
Date published: 2010-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A pleasure Like Professor Harl's other courses, this is a well presented, fact filled treatment of the subject. Byzantine history is often given short shrift in ancient and medieval history courses and these lectures go a long way toward filling those deficiencies. The discussions of various personalities helps bring the picture to life.
Date published: 2010-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Byzantium Coms Alive Professor Harl may not be the best lecturer at the Teaching Company, but he is the best one I've heard. Like his history of the Peloponnesian War, we not only learn of the events of the Empire but of the people and players that shaped those events. Professor Harl likes to claim that he is a humanist first. And his love of the personalities both great and small brings the human element into the events described. The course also includes history of Western Europe and Islam which greatly helps in giving the world of Byzantium context. It complements his other course on the Crusades, which I also highly recommend.
Date published: 2010-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Oratory at its Best Harl is much more than a lecturer and scholar. He is an entertainer. Brilliant presentation sprinkling in light comedy when needed amongst scholarly knowlege of the material. One of the best courses I have taken. I have listened to almost thirty
Date published: 2010-05-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Subject The Eastern Roman Empire is often overlooked in favor of its Western counterpart, but the fact alone that Byztantium lasted much longer is reason enough to want to learn more. TTC veteran Prof. Harl is back and presents all the details of palace intrigue. The fact is the Byzantine Empire is very interesting and this lecture is a must for all history buffs.
Date published: 2010-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Harl rules! I went to Tulane as an undergrad, where Dr. Harl was a sort of mini-celebrity. He would offer wine and cheese in his classes, and there was always a waiting list, so I never had the pleasure. Now, I am making up for lost time!! The course presentation was excellent, covering the expected fundamentals of Byzantine history from late antiquity to its fall to the Turks in 1400s. Details are given about theological background, and the culture of Byzantium, crucial for an understanding of the time and place. My only complaint relative to content is that I was hoping for more information about the interaction of Byzantium with the rising Russian nation. But not every course can be all things, especially as this is a shorter course. Some have complained that Harl's presentation is dry, and while it may lack superficial flair and humor, the entertainment value is in the content. Exciting and entertaining details and anecdotes are fused in along the way that convey the lecturer's love of his subject matter. Dr. Harl has a rapid and clear speaking style, which is very helpful to me listening in my car, as it prevents my mind from wandering. On the strength of this course, I have already ordered his other series on Vikings.
Date published: 2010-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magisterial Course on Byzantine Empire This is a stunning course on the history of the Byzantine Empire, showing it to be the keystone of the Western Civilization of the Renaissance, the many smaller states making up what we now call Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire. Harl does a superb job reviewing the history of the empire from the time of Constantine, placing the Eastern Empire in the context of the decline of Rome, showing how the Eastern Empire picked up the classic Greek heritage, preserved it, and enhanced it for the Western Renaissance. He goes on to describe the relationships of the Byzantine emperors with the other peoples of the Balkan states, Greece, Anatolia, Russia, and the Middle East. As if this weren't enough, he also carefully describes the influences of Byzantine culture on both the West and on the Ottoman Empire which succeeded it. He makes it very clear that both the Western world and the Muslim world owe great cultural debts to the Byzantines. What really makes this course resonate is Harl's extremely broad base of knowledge of the enormous period covered by the Byzantine Empire--from 300 AD to 1453 AD, and encompassing historical and cultural events from the land of the Franks to Italy to North Africa to Eastern Europe to Russia to Central Asia to Egypt and the Mid East. This course is a tour de force! I have read several books on the Byzantine Empire, but none can come close to accomplishing what Harl does here. It is much too easy for a book on the Empire to dissolve into a listing of sometimes good, sometimes lackluster emperors without communicating the importance of what the Empire accomplished, sometimes in spite of itself.
Date published: 2009-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on a lesser known world Professor Harl does it again. Interesting subject, superb lecturer, wealth of information.
Date published: 2009-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All depends on what you're seeking I had to go back and check all the reviews to see if I had left a note here. Apparently I hadn't. I wanted this course because that part of history is one vast gap in my knowledge. I was and am mostly interested in the interplay of the Eastern and Western Faiths with the political situations of their time. For me, this course was a perfect fit. A Greek (and Orthodox) friend read some of the material and came away upset with what he called the "Western Bias." I, on the otherhand, felt that Dr. Harl played it a little loose with the West, and laid a too-forgiving hand on the Eastern Church. I suppose that means that as neither of our biases were satisfied, Dr. Harl probably hit it all right on the nose. I really liked this course (except for a lip-sync problem on three lectures).
Date published: 2009-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb survey of a vast history I've long been fascinated with the Byzantine Empire and how it evolved from Classical Rome. I've read 20+ books on the subject, including John Julius Norwich's magisterial three volume Byzantium series. The saga of the formation, rise, survival, repeated recovery, and eventual collapse of the Byzantines is fascinating, amazing and important because of Byzantium's enduring legacy and influence on the modern world. It's daunting to cover 1200+ years of history (Prof. Harl starts in the Rome of the late 200s and goes to 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.) Editing is the key to avoid drowning in vast lists of battles and emperors. Prof. Harl delivers, with passion and insight. He does a superb job on the main flow of Byzantine history, covers the main episodes and players (Constantine, Justinian, Heraclius, Alex Comnenus, Basil II, etc.) in enough detail to understand them as people and understand the problems they faced. Prof. Harl also provides important insights into the culture and economics of the Empire. So, I recommend this course VERY much. If you are new to Byzantium it will be a thrilling and eye-opening adventure. If you know a lot of its history, you will learn more and understand what you knew better.
Date published: 2009-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Serious History Prof. Harl covers, in depth, over 1100 years of Byzantine history, from the end of the reign of Diocletian to the fall of Constantinople. I listened to this course immediately after doing 'Great Civilizations of Asia Minor' - which I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the Byzantine Empire should start with for an overview. The extraordinary achievements of a civilization, which is now all but forgotten in Western Europe, and the remarkable succession of great and not so-great emperors, cruel and vain empresses, provincial pretenders to the throne, occasionally brilliant generals, scheming eunuchs, ascetic monks, and power hungry patriarchs are illuminated by the light of the professor's scholarship. Yes, he can be a little dry - but this is serious academic history - and he can be funny at times (sometimes unintentionally - someone really should tell him that Anna Comnena was not a "silk stocking" but a "blue stocking" ...) He is never boring if you are interested in the subject matter. For the first time I think I have actually understood what the esoteric theological debates between the "Orthodox" and various heretical sects over the nature of Christ and the Trinity were all about - all though it still baffles me why they mattered so much. Those who think the Byzantine Empire consisted of a load of crazy monks and oriental despots murdering one another, which left no lasting legacy for Western Europe should be reminded that the overwhelming majority of the Ancient Greek literature and philosophy that has survived to modern times - including nearly all the old manuscripts which provided the inspiration for the Italian Renaissance - derives from copies made during the Byzantine period. Why have 7 (and only 7) tragedies of Euripides come down to us? Because some teacher of Greek literature in Byzantium thought these 7 plays were the best Euripides wrote and should be preserved for the benefit of students. Recommend for the serious student of history.
Date published: 2009-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Byzatium -- like an athlete who stayed too long? So the Roman Empire didn't "fall" or even wither in or around 476 C.E. The Eastern portion of the empire, Byzantium, lasted for about 1,000 more years.Still, I came away from this class shaking my head about the whole thing. Byzantium as the successor to Rome struck me much the way Michael Jordan did when he played for the Washington Wizards. Yes, it was a continuation of a great career, but do we really feel better for having seen it? Doesn't a part of us wish he had simply retired a Chicago Bull? Doesn't a part of us wish the Roman Empire had simply retired after Romulus Augustulus was sent packing? OK. I know this is an exaggeration. Byzantium produced great art and had much to do with the varying ways Christianity evolved. But still, war after war with neighbor after neighbor; palace intrigue after palace intrigue, succession crisis after succession crisis, incompetent emperor after incompetent emperor with good ones way to few and far between ... speaking of which, how good were the good ones ... really? Justinian made inspired great copy for future historians, but life for those living under him was, to put it politely, exceptionally wretched, and his people hated his guts. Notwithstanding the imperfection of my Michael Jordan-Washington Wizards analogy, I think there is something to it; perhaps with effort, I'd find a closer fit. But consider . . . the word "byzantine" has been adapted into our language as an adjective, and a pejorative one at that, independent now of the Eastern Roman Empire. There has to be a reason for that. Anyway, what has this to do with Prof.Karl's course? Some reviewers here did see it as a tough one to slog through. But that's not a knock on Prof.Karl. He didn't create or govern the Byzantine Empire; he just teaches it. And his teaching is straight, no-nonsense and thorough and allows us to draw our own opinion of Byzantium and its place in history. There is room for disagreement; after all, that theological impact is definitely worthy of discussion. But that, ultimately, is what great teaching is all about. . . inspiring thoughts, ideas, etc. I'll bet those of us who took this course could have some terrific and rollicking debates on a Byzantium bulletin board . . . thanks to the way Prof. Karl opens our eyes and stimulates our minds.
Date published: 2009-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and engaging Kenneth Harl has a gift for sharing his passion for history. That extends even to Byzantine history, which is normally one of those things you might learn about to fill in a gap, but is otherwise a difficult pill to swallow.
Date published: 2009-06-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Rich and informative This was a very rich experience for me. I like Professor Harl's style and he is always insightful and informative. Well done
Date published: 2009-06-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Byzantine Byzantium Using a noun as an adjective for this course seems appropriate. I found it difficult to follow, despite spending 6 months on my own discovery of Byzantium five years ago. I traveled to Istanbul for find the remnants of Byzantium and spent 2 weeks in that city walking the windy streets. Byzantium deserves better than this course.! I would say it could support a good 48 lectures easily. This course hits the highlights but the sequential flow of the civilization isn't there, unlike Fagan's History of Rome, which was quite good. I think Harl is very knowledgeable. In only wish he hit more than the highlights. For someone with limited knowledge of Byzatium this series would be difficult to follow. . . you would need a lot of reading to fill in the gaps. Some good lectures even though it was difficult to piece them together with a lot of space left inbetween.
Date published: 2009-05-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Very Dry Teaching Methodology I must start off by saying that I am a HUGE fan of The Teaching Company. Through their courses, I have been exposed to Rome, to Greece, to Egypt, and now to Byzantium as well as to Asia Minor. Professor Harl - though very knowledgeable - is probably not the best teacher if you are a novice. If you are already a historian or on your way to becoming one, he might be a great asset. His style of teaching is dry, unfocused and filled with so many mundane and unnecessary details (names of people, cities, clans, kings, queens, tribes) that you completely lose track of the broader picture. I was very disappointed with his style, though once again I must confess - he is very knowledgeable and history is NOT my first subject. There are a bunch of courses on my list right now, and I am keeping away from them simply because of Professor Harl. Which is too bad.
Date published: 2009-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rare opportunity to learn about Byzantium How many of us learn about Byzantium in school? This is an opportunity. After Harl's lectures in Byzantium I purchased Crusader, Barbarian, Vikings and Barbarian tapes as well. He is wonderful and all these topics seem his specialty
Date published: 2009-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Harl brings Byzantium to life! Professor Harl is now, along with Professor J. Rufus Fears, my favorite lecturer in the "Great Courses" series. His approach is different from that of Professor Fears...but equally exciting and outstanding. While Professor Fears favors the "moral of the story" approach, Professor Harl brings a more humourous, juicy slant to history. Byzantium is a shamefully neglected subject in history classes, to which Dr. Harl does amazing justice. 5 STARS!!
Date published: 2009-02-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Slogging though Byzantium On the positive side, I will say that I am appreciative of exposure to the characters and events found in the series World of Byzantium,, and that my rather harsh rating is relative to other Teaching Co. courses. That being said, the course amounts to a blow by blow reading of events and a brief introduction to figures. One might as well read a timeline. This is History in its stereotypical form - dry. I come away with no real sense of what the Byzantines were really like, but rather a summary familiarity with some important things that happened while they lived.
Date published: 2009-02-17
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