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Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Take an insightful journey through the area bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Neolithic times to the age of Alexander the Great and into the lives of mighty emperors, struggling farmers, ambitious merchants, and palace servants.

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 113.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Factual, but dry Professor Castor provides a comprehensive overview the various civilizations who lived in Mesopotamia through to the Parthians. Her history is not simply political, but contains some fascinating material on trade, social mores, food, and poetry. Her presentation is very factual, arguably dry; she is not one to inspire a sense of wonder about the past – which is something of a pity when considering how old some of these civilizations in fact are.
Date published: 2022-10-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dull I've made it through Lesson six. Professor Castor's presentation lacks enthusiasm and imagination.
Date published: 2022-09-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ancient Near East through an Archeologist’s Eyes Besides the obvious value to those interested in the Ancient Near East (ANE), this course is also valuable for those interested in archeology, in Jewish culture and religion, and in Christian culture and religion. The first four lectures provided an excellent overview of archology, perhaps the best insight into the science within The Great Courses (TGC) repertoire. Having established that foundation, the course then surveys the ANE from Sumer to Akkad to Mitanni to Assyria to Babylon to Persia and finally to Alexander the Great. The course focuses primarily on political developments but it also addresses religion, technology, and economics to a lesser extent. Although Israel and Judah are mentioned only in passing, several important figures in Jewish and Christian writings are studied in detail. Dr. Castor is a below average lecturer by TGC standards. The pitch and tempo of her voice varies little throughout the course creating a sense of monotony. I felt that she was reading the script rather than speaking to me. I should note that the content is very good; it is only the delivery that is lacking. Consistent with the personality of an archeologist, Dr. Castor is pains-taking and meticulous although not tedious. (This may contribute to the need for 36 lectures vice the more common 24.) Dr. Castor addresses gender issues far better than any other TGC lecturer I’ve heard. Lecturers who include gender issues at all typically devote a stand-alone lecture to the subject and then drop it as if to say, “There. I’ve talked about it now. Let’s get back to business.” However, Dr. Castor completely integrates gender issues throughout the course in ways that are illuminating and totally appropriate. The course guide follows the lectures closely. There are 15 black-and-white maps, which are important to understanding the material. However, they are all located in an appendix rather than integrated into the material. Further, the course guide does not include any pictures of the archeological artifacts. I used the audio version. Unfortunately, the only way to get a video version is by DVD. Since this course is presented through the perspective of an archeologist, the inability to see the maps and relics is important. The drop-off from video to an audio-only presentation is more significant with this course than with most TGC courses.
Date published: 2022-05-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Video recommended Dr. Castor is knowledgeable and thorough in her presentation and overall I enjoyed this course, although I sometimes felt it got bogged down in the weeds (details that might be of interest to an actual scholar of this period, but not so much to a casual student). My best suggestion to anyone considering this course is to get the DVD version if possible. I purchased the audio version (instant video is not available for some reason) and although Dr. Castor gives detailed and accurate descriptions of objects such as the Uruk vase, the victory stele of Narim-Sin and the Queen's headdress from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, it is impossible to fully appreciate the magnificence of these objects without actually seeing them.
Date published: 2022-02-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Like walking through a museum blindfolded While the lectures by Dr. Castor are excellent, their is no "instant video download" so the listener cannot see the hundreds of sites, geography, artifacts and archeology that she describes. Very frustrating!
Date published: 2021-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Overview I found Professor Castor informative and well-organized. The course is fascinating as an introduction to the ancient history of Mesopotamia. I would happily buy another course offered by her. I loved the use of archeology combined with written records.
Date published: 2021-06-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I don't know what to believe When viewing a course I have to have faith that the lecturer is giving me the correct information. However in lecture 3 she states that Sir Flinders Petrie discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. This is a momentous error as any Near East academic worth his/her salt would know that it was Howard Carter. With such an error I find it hard to trust other information given.
Date published: 2021-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fine Course A fine course about the fascinating history about the country we needlessly invaded and allowed their rich history to be looted. (My views. Not views given during the course.)
Date published: 2020-08-27
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The impact of ancient Mesopotamia on the development of human civilization—including writing, codes of law, cities, and epic poetry—is staggering. Between the Rivers: A History of Ancient Mesopotamia takes you on an exciting journey through this area bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from Neolithic times to the age of Alexander the Great. In 36 fascinating lectures, award-winning Professor Alexis Q. Castor gives you a detailed image not only of larger Mesopotamian society but of life on the level of the individual citizen as well. Ultimately, you gain a wealth of new insights into the real history of this region and discover that all cultures lie in the shadow of ancient Mesopotamia.


Alexis Q. Castor

The shattered objects and destruction seen in the Iraq Museum remind us of the widespread effects of war on cultures throughout human history.


Franklin & Marshall College

Dr. Alexis Q. Castor is Assistant Professor of Classics at Franklin & Marshall College, where she teaches ancient history, archaeology, and Greek. She earned her her B.A. in History from George Mason University and M.A. and Ph.D. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. She also completed graduate courses in Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history at The George Washington University. Professor Castor taught at GWU and was a research associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. In 2004, she team-taught the course Between the Rivers with Hilary Gopnik, Ph.D. At Franklin & Marshall, Professor Castor has been named Most Influential Professor twice by the senior class. Her research interests are in social history in the Greek world, especially the use of luxury goods to display status. In addition, she is interested in connections between Greece, the Black Sea, and Asia Minor.

The Iraq Museum

01: The Iraq Museum

Artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad remind us of the extraordinary culture that once flourished in Mesopotamia and that contributed to human civilization the earliest cities, complex economies, the first writing system, and the first empires.

31 min
Geography and Environment

02: Geography and Environment

This orientation to Mesopotamia's diverse geography and environment includes an examination of how some factors unique to the region may have encouraged agriculture and urbanism, and how geography shapes cultural and political organization.

29 min
Discovering Mesopotamia

03: Discovering Mesopotamia

In this first of two lectures on archaeology, we ask why the discipline is important to our understanding of Mesopotamia, and how early excavations helped shape Western ideas about the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.

31 min
Archaeological Methods

04: Archaeological Methods

This lecture analyzes some of the methods that archaeologists use, the artifacts they find, and the methods used to interpret them, providing us with a framework for understanding not only why we know what we know, but also those facts that we cannot know.

30 min
Farming and Early Settlements

05: Farming and Early Settlements

Recognizing that many questions about the prehistoric era remain unanswered, we speculate about the events that led people to settle in the first villages, finishing with a look at some early evidence of social complexity.

30 min
The Uruk Phenomenon

06: The Uruk Phenomenon

Early cities developed in their fullest form about 5,000 years ago. The city of Uruk - the earliest and largest city in southern Mesopotamia - has come to represent the rise of the city.

30 min

07: Writing

We trace early forms of record keeping, considering whether they contributed to the development of writing, and examine the technology of writing, the development of cuneiform script, and the modern-day translation of cuneiform.

31 min

08: Temples

This lecture looks at how and why temples were built, how they filled their religious purposes, their economic function within an urban setting, and how temples and rulers filled each others' needs and justified their respective roles in the city.

30 min
Mesopotamian Deities

09: Mesopotamian Deities

We meet some of the gods who were honored in temples, discussing their powers, their relationships with each other and with their human worshipers, and the rituals necessary to encourage their favor.

29 min
Gilgamesh—Hero and King

10: Gilgamesh—Hero and King

We shift our focus from the gods to individuals, specifically heroes, as represented in the "Epic of Gilgamesh," the world's first epic description of a hero and his adventures.

31 min
The Early Dynastic Period

11: The Early Dynastic Period

The idea of the city spreads quickly, and a string of them soon reaches up to central Mesopotamia. This lecture examines contemporary historical texts to see the emergence of political structures and rulers in these cities and examines their relationships with regions outside Mesopotamia.

31 min
Warfare and Diplomacy

12: Warfare and Diplomacy

Having learned that documents recording contemporary events are preserved for the Early Dynastic period, we turn to the subject of warfare to see how disputes were represented in written sources and images.

28 min
The Royal Cemetery at Ur

13: The Royal Cemetery at Ur

Burials were a final opportunity to display the strength and control of a king, and we examine one of the most spectacular and widely publicized examples, revealing much about the funerary customs for members of the political, religious, or social elite.

29 min
The Akkadians

14: The Akkadians

We move from the kings of cities to the first ruler who could legitimately claim his mastery over northern and southern Mesopotamia: Sargon of Akkad, whose rise marks the beginning of a new dynasty.

28 min
Ideology of Kingship—Naram-Sin and Gudea

15: Ideology of Kingship—Naram-Sin and Gudea

The reign of Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, shows, for the first time, a ruler worshiped as divine during his lifetime. With the reign of Gudea, the first ruler of a new dynasty, we see the king's representation return to a more traditional style.

29 min
The Ur III Dynasty

16: The Ur III Dynasty

The end of Akkadian control sees the newly independent city-state of Ur come to dominate Babylonia. Ur's rulers organize a much more centralized government that effectively controls the region for more than 100 years.

30 min
Life in a Mesopotamian City

17: Life in a Mesopotamian City

We return to the theme of urbanism to see what developments have occurred since we last explored the topic in the Uruk era, extrapolating from several centuries and sites to create a picture of urban life.

30 min
Food and Drink

18: Food and Drink

This lecture examines food and drink from prehistory to the time of Alexander the Great, drawing on evidence ranging across artistic representations, archaeological discoveries, scattered written references to feasts sponsored by temples or rulers, and even poetry.

30 min
Assyrian Trade Networks

19: Assyrian Trade Networks

A mammoth archaeological find of 20,000 tablets found at an Assyrian merchant outpost allows us to study trade not as part of a statewide bureaucracy, but as a private enterprise, with evidence of an international trade network in textiles, tin, silver, and gold.

30 min
Hammurabi of Babylon

20: Hammurabi of Babylon

A long reign gives a new ruler time to found a new and impressive kingdom, forging a strong personal rule largely concerned with justice for his people and bringing peace to the era.

31 min
Zimri-Lim of Mari

21: Zimri-Lim of Mari

We will discuss the turbulent closing decades of the rich state of Mari (destroyed by Hammurabi's final major campaign) which was controlled first by the Assyrians and then by the last of its rulers, Zimri-Lim.

30 min

22: Laws

We survey the types of Mesopotamian laws that have survived, from the very end of the 3rd millennium B.C. to Hammurabi's laws of the 18th century, to the 11th-century Middle Assyrian precepts that regulated the appeal and behavior of the royal court.

31 min
Medicine, Science, and Math

23: Medicine, Science, and Math

This lecture examines scientific thought and how science helped order and explain the natural world for Mesopotamian cultures. We will discuss medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and divination - the most challenging and important science in the Mesopotamian world.

30 min
Poetry and Literature

24: Poetry and Literature

We look at poetry and literature that explores a range of themes (including creation, the deeds and personalities of the gods, suffering, and divine justice) and also examine proverbial wisdom, jokes, love poems, and the use of magic spells.

30 min

25: Internationalism

We return to our survey of the political history of the region by looking at the Near East as a whole, with much of our insight coming from a collection of letters between kings discovered at an Egyptian site known as Tell el-Amarna.

31 min
Assyrian Expansion

26: Assyrian Expansion

We focus on two 9th-century B.C. rulers, Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, whose leadership and innovations were essential to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire.

29 min
Sargon II

27: Sargon II

This lecture traces the remarkable spread of the Assyrian empire in the second half of the 8th century B.C., beginning with the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III and continuing with that of Sargon II, six years later.

30 min
Ideology of Empire

28: Ideology of Empire

Using both literary and visual sources, we look at several features of Assyria's rulers and military that characterized the empire and contributed to its dominance.

30 min
Control and Revolt

29: Control and Revolt

In the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Assyria is in firm control of an enormous empire, ranging from Mesopotamia to Egypt. But certain trouble spots, especially in Babylonia, reveal weaknesses that will contribute to its unexpected collapse in the late 7th century.

31 min
Medes and the Neo-Babylonian State

30: Medes and the Neo-Babylonian State

When Assyria falls, it is at the hands of the Babylonians and their king, Nabopolassar, who were aided by the Medes, a tribal people. We look at both of these peoples, including Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar, whose building successes exceed even his political and military accomplishments.

30 min
The Rise of the Achaemenids

31: The Rise of the Achaemenids

This lecture focuses on the Achaemenids, or Persians, an Iranian culture that blended elements of earlier cultures to rule the empire, using a variety of methods, including a new language, coinage, and road network, to control the area.

31 min
Persians in Egypt and Greece

32: Persians in Egypt and Greece

We look at Persia's excursions against both Egypt and Greece, (the latter of which likely an attempt by the Persian king, Darius, to gain access to the riches of the West) resulting in a stunning defeat far from home.

30 min
Xerxes’s Invasion of Greece

33: Xerxes’s Invasion of Greece

Ten years later, Greece again repels a Persian invasion. This lecture focuses on descriptions of the Persian king, Xerxes, by the Greek historian Herodotus, who compares Greeks with Persians as representative of a democratic versus tyrannical way of life.

31 min
Persian Art and Culture

34: Persian Art and Culture

This lecture considers an array of artifacts, from small seal stones to massive palace architecture, to illustrate the blend of many artistic and cultural themes to create a new, identifiably Persian, style of art.

31 min
Alexander the Great

35: Alexander the Great

Alexander defeats the Persians in 331 B.C. and quickly captures Babylonia. Welcomed as a legitimate successor, he often behaves as a traditional Mesopotamian ruler might, rebuilding temples and seeking to expand the empire, ultimately dying without naming a successor.

30 min
After Alexander

36: After Alexander

This final lecture glances ahead at the history of the region after Alexander's campaigns in light of the course's major themes.

30 min