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Famous Romans

Explore the lives of great, powerful, influential, and interesting Romans in this course by the unforgettable Rufus J. Fears.
Famous Romans is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 126.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent course! Prof. Fears remains one of the Great Courses' most popular lecturers over a decade after his death for good reason. His love of the classical era and the lessons it teaches is infectious, his command of the subject matter is impressive, and his impassioned style is entertaining. That said, I give this course four stars rather than five because I did find it as interesting or as well-presented as Prof. Fears' companion course on Famous Greeks, which I think is the best course he presented for the Great Courses. For me, this is a good course, not a great one, but still a worthy addition to the Great Courses' collection. The audio version is more than adequate, although you may want to reference a map if you are not familiar with the geography of the Roman Republic or Empire. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2023-09-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not a college level course Apart from the lectures on Stoicism, this is not a college level course. It is storytelling, suitable for a grade school classical curriculum. Given its rich subject matter, the lectures can at times be colorful and engaging, but it’s not at the level of other Great Courses. For example, Garrett Fagan’s “Emperors of Rome” and Jonathan Steinberg’s “European History and European Lives, 1715-1914” are in a completely different league with respect to critical evaluation of sources, penetrating analyses of their biographical subjects as well as a general scholarly gravitas. Professor Fears’s histrionics can become tedious – particularly his re-enactment of barbarian war whoops. His ‘life lessons’ schtick, relating the decision of an emperor to that of a contemporary CEO, is generally pedestrian. A final comment: the course itself is mistitled: it is not a study of lives, but for the most part a retelling of the story of Rome, often with only cursory study of the life referenced. In my opinion, only the lesson on Cato the Younger and some of the material on Stoicism had any value. This course should be placed in the section for high schoolers.
Date published: 2023-05-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from enjoyable, but with reservations Though Professor Fears' lectures here are highly enjoyable, and probably get a lot of the historical events right, his perspective is decidedly Christian (he pronounces "cavalry", for instance, "Calvary", a telling Freudian slip), and his accounts, consequently, decidedly moralistic, a manner usually avoided by more rigorous historians. I would recommend this course for its generally accurate information, but with reservations. For a more objective outlook, I'd look elsewhere.
Date published: 2023-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Master Storyteller Describes a World The Guidebook is good but pales to Fears’ story telling. There are three very different stories within these lectures. The first of IMPETUS and CUNNING, begins at the fire pit of the terrible Carthaginian god Baal where Hamilcar Barca, the great general of the First Punic War is about to sacrifice his 9-year-old son Hannibal. What happens next is truly a G. A. Henty-style historical adventure about men hand-splitting boulders that block ferocious mountain passes, desperate peoples, generals ignoring spirituality and Trasimene's horrific disaster. The cunning “track but avoid battle tactic with Hannibal” of Rome’s (dictator of last resort) Quintus Fabius Maximus was adopted by the Civil War’s General Winfield Scott to wear down Robert E. Lee. Hannibal finally made a mistake - trapping himself between the sea and Fabius’ mountain encampment. His wild escape from this trap (lecture 4 = L4) is truly worthy of a Hollywood movie. And then came the Battle of Cannae… L5 to 8 discuss the revenge of Rome by the brilliant Scipio Africanus the Elder. Here Fears begins wily observations: Scipio Africanus is best compared to U.S. Grant or Wellington, but such men “are less interesting to history than the men they defeated” (Hannibal, Robert E. Lee, and Napoleon). Fears shows that Scipio's strategy from 204 to 202 BC was later echoed in Napoleon’s quote: "The secret to success lies in careful preparation (but) speedy and decisive execution". The ominous truth of the Roman proverb "voe victis" (“woe to the conquered") would describe Carthage 56 years later. Roman Consuls tricked the Carthaginians into total disarmament, then razed the city, and sold its inhabitants. Our Founders felt disarming citizens to be the ultimate treachery. Huge Roman cranes then leveled Carthage’s huge apartment buildings and salted earth sterilized its ground. Corinth would be similarly razed. Rome became as dominating in the ancient world and as the U.S. is today. A second story type of CORRUPTION starts with a scene of Scipio Africanus gazing upon the Carthage carnage he’s destroyed and wondering if such hubris foretells Rome's decline. L7 tells of the Rome's elites (called “Equites" or horsemen class) who impoverished their fellow citizens. The Stoic brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus taught that all men were equal came against them. Their ultimate demise showed not only the sickeningly familiar power of the elite, but how the crowd can be bribed. L8: "Politics was controlled by vested interests, the (government) was corrupt, the people were apathetic. The situation recalls…our own days”. Wealthy Crassus’ astounding failure is a caution that being an "Equites" doesn’t qualify one as a leader. Fears shows how affluence and foreign influence corrode the willingness of citizens to support the community…ultimately destroying liberty. Fears also predicted our horrendous departure from the Middle East in L8's closing lines. The hubris next shifts to a "shady politician", drinker, and womanizer named Caesar. Opposing him (L24) in Gaul was the Germanic chief Vercingetorix who Fears admires as "fighting for a noble cause, even if you lose". (Gamers: check out “Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt"). Caesar was also resolutely opposed an uncompromising defender of Rome's constitution: Cato the Younger. Cato was admired by our Founders as "…the ancient paradigm for 'Give me liberty or give me death' ". George Washington used Addison's play "Cato" to get his men through Valley Forge. The Founders despised Caesar: the forerunner of totalitarian control. (L12): "Ultimately, every republic must make its choice for Cato or Caesar." Referring to our over-bearing bureaucracy, Fears adds: "We have chosen, for good or ill, Caesar. L13 begins stories of DECLINE. These are dark stories, centering on the flailing spasms of individuals who believe their personal vision outweighs democracy. Bribery comes readily: Caesar’s Will proposed 3 months wages and opening of his private gardens to every citizen. This resulted in his post-mortem deification. The courageous Cicero wrote "De Officiis: On Moral Obligations" (praised by Thomas Jefferson), stopped an overthrow of the Roman Constitution, but had himself "proscribed" (today we would say "cancelled") by Antony. L15's Augustus, despite flaws, defeats Antony giving the empire two additional centuries. Fears likened Tiberius, to Stalin and Nero. Tiberius caused Queen Boudicca's desperate revolt in Britain and Christian persecution (including the deaths of Peter and Paul). Trajan, the first emperor from the provinces, butchered Dacia for its gold, made statuary propaganda ubiquitous, and created enormous welfare…that killed individual initiative. Hadrian (whose Wall in northern Britain idled 12,000 troops) was "…liberal and progressive marked by the continuing growth in power of the central government". Reactions to all of this included monotheistic religion. For Romans, it started with (L21): "all divinities were…emanations of the "All God". Epictetus, the exiled ex-slave and Stoic teacher, lived humbly in Rome's backwaters but attracted Rome's best. He taught: all men are created equal with inalienable rights; all things happen in accord with the will of God; we only control our own thoughts; and “material goods are nothing but fetters depriving us of our freedom". Antoninus, similar to today’s leaders, had "…no conception that problems were brewing" while spending wildly. Finally, Marcus wrote his "Meditations" on personal peace…as the treasury drained and the 1 in 4 citizens died of the plague. Fears stories drive home his course Scope warnings about our own "empire".
Date published: 2022-06-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great set of lectures on ‘famous Roman’s’ I have many of Dr. Fear’s great courses and found this to be a particularly good one. Note, he includes both famous as well as infamous Roman’s and even Roman enemies (Hannibal). He provides a wealth of interesting anecdotes about each person. The written notes only summarize the subjects, so the substance in these courses lies in the lectures themselves. I wish there were more visuals, but even despite this, I learned much and hearing the lectures more than once helps. I found it interesting which subjects he chose. He did not include Constantine, and he readily admits this. I would have like to hear his thoughts about Constsntine and his sons leadership.
Date published: 2022-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Man Approach to History—As Advertised Professor Fears is upfront about following in the footsteps of Plutarch presenting Roman history by examining the lives of “Famous Romans”. Actually not all of his lectures center on a specific Roman, as one lecture is devoted to Hannibal. Certainly this makes sense, as Hannibal was a significant contributor to the development of Rome. Unlike Plutarch, Dr. Fears also takes two separate courses (the other being “Famous Greeks”) instead of examining the lives of specific Greeks and Romans in parallel. Interestingly, and I suspect not confidently, Dr. Fears has a total of 48 lectures over the two courses and Plutarch wrote 48 biographies in his book. I don’t really look at this course as one on the history of Rome, nor indeed does TTC bill it as one, given the course title of “Famous Romans”. And if this course is not strictly history, the argument as to how well it depicts Roman history is moot. And, I think, to a lesser degree arguments as to Professor Fears’ frequent flights of hyperbole as he recreates discussions between and among the various players that are most assuredly made up out of whole cloth. I admit that this almost casual approach to putting words and thoughts into the players (lesson 1 begins this to an extreme degree as he depicts how Cornelius Scipio instructs his son, the future Scipio Africanus the Elder, conqueror of Hannibal as to the meanings of life, duty and honor one fine morning in the Forum, is bothersome. But listening to Dr. Fears present this factually unbelievable, but likely accurate high-level depiction of father and son, it becomes easy to ignore the detail and just go along for the ride. After all, if Richard III did not say “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” before dying on Bosworth Field, but that does not lessen my appreciation of the play. And to be sure, Professor Fears, though not speaking in iambic pentameter, is a master storyteller. Don’t be put off by some possible inaccuracies Sit back and enjoy his approach. You will be well rewarded. Recommended, but I do deduct a bit for his approach, like Plutarch, in that he uses his lectern as a platform for a bit of moral instruction.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Vintage Fears, on one of his favorite topics I liked this course better than its companion on the Greeks, despite the fact that the names were generally less familiar to me. Professor Fears is really in his element talking about these topics—and he ranges far afield sometimes from simple biography—and he loves to draw parallels with contemporary American culture. The last 3 lectures—on Apuleius (and his ribald novel as a source for many classic literary and religious works and also as a parallel to 21st-Century America), the historians Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus, and the Obama-like emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius—were really good. Dr Fears is not for everyone, but I have treasured each of his courses, accepting that the same material can be (and has been, in other courses) taught well by others using very different approaches and delivery.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting look at Roman history Having listened to several of this professors courses, I feel like I got more out of this one than all the others. All of his courses follow the same format and personally I do not find that it suits me. But the course on Roman has me playing a different tune. I realized half way through that there is something to learn from great figures of the past. It reminded me again of why I love reading and learning about history.
Date published: 2020-02-21
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Inspired this time by the works of Livy, Polybius, Suetonius, and Tacitus as well as the indispensable Plutarch—Professor J. Rufus Fears retells the lives of the statesmen and thinkers who shaped Rome from its rise to world power in the struggle against Carthage to the decline of the Empire after Marcus Aurelius.


J. Rufus Fears

We are no wiser than the Athenians of the 5th century B.C., no wiser than Sophocles for our science of today has shown us the overwhelming power of genes, of DNA.


University of Oklahoma

Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer at Indiana University, and Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. An acclaimed teacher and scholar with more than 25 awards for teaching excellence, Professor Fears was chosen Professor of the Year on three occasions by students at the University of Oklahoma. His other accolades included the Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Great Plains Region Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the UCEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Professor Fears's books and monographs include The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology and The Theology of Victory at Rome. He edited a three-volume edition of Selected Writings of Lord Acton. His discussions of the Great Books have appeared in newspapers across the country and have aired on national television and radio programs. Professor Fears passed away in October 2012.

By This Professor

The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History
The Wisdom of History
Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life
Life Lessons from the Great Myths
Publius Cornelius Scipio

01: Publius Cornelius Scipio

It is a March day in 218 BCE, the year that will see the beginning of the Second Punic War. Join the consul P. Cornelius Scipio and his son as they tour the Forum, discussing its statues of heroes from Rome's early days.

33 min

02: Hannibal

Few Romans did as much to make Rome a world power as did its worst enemy, Hannibal. This lecture follows the great Carthaginian general as he leads 59,000 men and 37 elephants over the Pyrenees, fights his way across Gaul, and pushes through the Alps into Italy.

30 min
Gaius Flaminius

03: Gaius Flaminius

On a foggy morning in 217 BCE, a Roman army marches along the shore of Lake Trasimene in central Italy. The career of its commander Flaminius opens a window on both Roman politics and the skill of Hannibal, who lies in wait in the hills above.

31 min
Quintus Fabius Maximus

04: Quintus Fabius Maximus

The events at Trasimene led the Senate to name Fabius as dictator for six months. Why did he adopt his famous—and at the time, highly unpopular—strategy of avoiding battle with Hannibal?

31 min
Scipio Africanus the Elder

05: Scipio Africanus the Elder

The son of the consul of 218 BCE, Africanus earned his sobriquet by crushing Hannibal in 202 at Zama (now Tunisia), one of the most decisive battles in world history. Here we compare Scipio and Hannibal and the lessons they offer.

31 min
Scipio the Younger

06: Scipio the Younger

Here we stand with the grandson of Africanus and his teacher Polybius, quoting Homer and thinking of Rome's own future, as we watch Carthage fall in a terrible illustration of the Roman proverb "vae victis" ("woe to the conquered").

31 min
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

07: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

Rome had conquered Carthage, only to wind up divided against itself as wealth displaced virtue and undermined the constitution. Seeing the urgent need for reform, these descendants of the Scipio line prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve it.

31 min

08: Crassus

Amid the turmoil and corruption of the late Republic, men of towering capacity strove to impose their will on Rome's destiny. Crassus made himself the richest man in Rome, and then sought political and military triumph.

31 min
Gaius Julius Caesar

09: Gaius Julius Caesar

To Rome's top politicians, Caesar at first seemed nothing more than a political hack of little ability and less character. The challenge of conquering Gaul transformed Caesar and changed world history, laying the foundations for the civilization of France and Western Europe.

31 min
Caesar and Vercingetorix

10: Caesar and Vercingetorix

Caesar's brilliant history, "The Gallic War," recounts his defeat of the Celtic hero Vercingetorix and reveals his mastery of strategy, tactics, logistics, battlefield command, and peace settlements.

31 min
Pompey the Great

11: Pompey the Great

In 49 BCE, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and plunged Rome into civil war. He did it in the cause of liberty for the Roman people, but his goal was to establish himself as dictator. In this crisis, the supporters of republican liberty turned to Pompey.

31 min
Cato the Younger

12: Cato the Younger

At Valley Forge, desperate to strengthen the morale of his starving, freezing men, George Washington had his officers put on Joseph Addison's play about Cato. This lecture explains why.

31 min
Brutus and the Opposition to Caesar

13: Brutus and the Opposition to Caesar

It is March 15, 44 BCE, and you are with Caesar as he walks to a meeting of the Senate in the Theater of Pompey, where he will be murdered by a conspiracy of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. Why did Brutus kill Caesar? What consequences flowed from this bloody deed?

31 min

14: Cicero

Statesman, philosopher, orator, and humanist, Cicero is one of Rome's greatest sons, and proof that a lawyer can succeed without sacrificing integrity. He upheld justice, moderation, and liberty in troubled times, and gave his life for these ideals.

31 min

15: Augustus

The adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, is the most compelling evidence of Caesar's foresight. Only 19 at the time of Caesar's death, as the "princeps" (First Citizen), Augustus would secure centuries of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

31 min

16: Vergil

Augustus enlisted the finest intellectual, literary, and artistic talent to create monuments of enduring excellence to his ideals and achievements. Did Vergil, the greatest of all Latin poets, craft "The Aeneid" as an allegory of Augustus?

31 min

17: Claudius

A sign of the Augustan system's genius was its ability to survive eccentric or even mad emperors. History is fascinated by those emperors' excesses, which indeed can be highly instructive. Claudius, for all his oddness, was a shrewd and able ruler.

31 min

18: Nero

To the senator and historian Tacitus, Nero illustrated the grim reality of the principate and the fate of the Roman people, who had surrendered liberty for security only to find their fate in the hands of a mad tyrant.

31 min

19: Trajan

The rise of this brave and able emperor testifies to the collective political wisdom of the Senate. He was a military leader and statesman of vision whose domestic and foreign policy wrought fundamental changes in the imperial system of Augustus.

30 min

20: Hadrian

Hadrian, Trajan's successor, is a gifted, perplexing, and controversial figure. A fine soldier and public servant, he was also an intellectual innovator and an architect of genius. But few of his contemporaries understood him.

31 min

21: Epictetus

Born a slave, he was exiled from Rome for speaking too freely to the emperor. Despite offers to return, he lived on in a backwater, becoming one of the greatest exponents of that vastly influential approach to life known as Stoicism.

31 min

22: Apuleius

A lawyer, intellectual, and family man, Apuleius had a fascinating career that brings to life the 2nd century, an age much like our own. His novel "The Golden Ass" is both a ribald yarn and a touching allegory of the human soul thirsting for redemption.

31 min
Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus

23: Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus

Worthy heirs of Herodotus and Thucydides, these authors embody the essence of the classical tradition of history: its concern with greatness of theme and greatness of soul, its high moral seriousness, and its noble regard for freedom.

31 min
Marcus Aurelius

24: Marcus Aurelius

With Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic wore the imperial purple. No emperor was more dedicated or humane. His "Meditations" remain a beacon for all who would go through life with honesty and compassion. But how did he fare as a ruler?

32 min