The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very grateful there’s a course on this topic Professor Harl has taught courses on Byzantium, the Vikings, and steppe nomads, as well as others for the TC. I share some of the criticism of Harl’s style. The truth is, his style is that of an earlier generation of TC instructors. But you know what? There’s no place else in the world that you can watch a course on steppe nomads. Heck, they even have a new one on the Mongols! So, the presentation is a little old fashioned, but if you are genuinely looking to learn about steppe nomads in an audio/visual format, you can’t beat this course. Few, if any, of its shortcomings are about its content.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I was tremendously impressed by this course and now have a far better understanding of how the steppe peoples shaped our world. I enjoyed ever moment of it.
Date published: 2020-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Professor in the business We need more Dr. Kenneth Harl! I've watched many courses of his and my favorite's have to be Rome and the Barbarians, The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity, and this one! I would absolutely like to see his Rome course on The Great Courses plus as I see it as still relevant. Maybe, if possible, bring him back for one more course on numismatics or military history.
Date published: 2020-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Enjoyable Experience! This was my first Great Courses experience and I'm hooked! The subject matter was very interesting, very well-taught, and I found the amount of material in the book and a 30-minute lecture just right - not too long, not too short. Prof Harl is good to listen to and he clearly knows his stuff. Good maps and images are provided in the lecture. I liked that each chapter in the book had a few questions at the end, which I did work through, and believe it reinforced my learning. The only slight criticism I have is that the chapter-end questions didn't always exactly relate to the chapter itself but perhaps to a previous one, or a later one. I bought the DVDs but found streaming the lectures an easier and better way of listening. Having a physical book was great. I am looking forward to my next course!
Date published: 2020-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History as it should be taught Most history is presented through a fragmented lens: US history, or European history, or Chinese history, etc. Kenneth Harl doesn't do that - he presents history across geographies and across time periods, showing how the great migrations of people affected human history across thousands of years. This view provides a lot of continuity that linked together some of the fragments I knew from other sources. The best part of the course is the "Aha" moments as different peoples' histories are linked in time and through time. I loved this course.
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broadened my views. I watched this originally on Great Courses Plus. Wanted to own it so I could share it with friends. It gave me an eye opening experience on the culture of a large part of the world. Also, being of Ukrainian heritage, it helped me learn about that part of the steppes.
Date published: 2020-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from ENJOYABLE SERIES I appreciate how Prof Harl can shoot from the hip instead of reading from script. It makes you feel that you really are in a classroom being taught by an enthusiastic human being, both fragile and fallible as we all are. It is not an easy task to cover '6,000 miles and 6,000 years of history' and I admire him for taking the challenge. So much information I believe I will have to watch again to absord more of it.
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A history of Eurasia! Recently finished this course of 36 lectures! How this group of nomadic tribes, who were the first tame the horses of the Steppes and invented the wooden saddles and later mastered charioteering as well as using cross-bow arrows have made their influence from China/Mangolia through Central and South Asia to the Eastern Europe, is a fascinating story. Starting initially as robbing and extracting tariffs from the caravan routes of the Silk Road, they managed to conquer the vast territory, and spread Islam to much of the region, etc.
Date published: 2020-04-28
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The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes
Course Trailer
Steppes and Peoples
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.

32 min
The Rise of the Steppe Nomads
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.

29 min
Early Nomads and China
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.

31 min
The Han Emperors and Xiongnu at War
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.

31 min
Scythians, Greeks, and Persians
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.

30 min
The Parthians
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.

31 min
Kushans, Sacae, and the Silk Road
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.

30 min
Rome and the Sarmatians
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.

30 min
Trade across the Tarim Basin
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.

30 min
Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity
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.

31 min
Rome and the Huns
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.

31 min
Attila the Hun-Scourge of God
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.

31 min
Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites
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.

29 min
The Turks-Transformation of the Steppes
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.

31 min
Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors
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.

31 min
Avars, Bulgars, and Constantinople
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.

31 min
Khazar Khagans
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.

32 min
Pechenegs, Magyars, and Cumans
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.

31 min
Islam and the Caliphate
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.

31 min
The Clash between Turks and the Caliphate
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.

30 min
Muslim Merchants and Mystics in Central Asia
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.

30 min
The Rise of the Seljuk Turks
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.

30 min
Turks in Anatolia and India
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.

31 min
The Sultans of Rum
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.

29 min
The Sultans of Delhi
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.

31 min
Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors
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.

30 min
The Mongols
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.

29 min
Conquests of Genghis Khan
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.

32 min
Western Mongol Expansion
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.

30 min
Mongol Invasion of the Islamic World
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.

31 min
Conquest of Song China
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.

30 min
Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange
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.

32 min
Conversion and Assimilation
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.

32 min
Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction
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.

31 min
Babur and Mughal India
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.

30 min
Legacy of the Steppes
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.

35 min
Kenneth W. Harl

We will be looking largely at archeological evidence and analysis done by anthropologists because we are operating largely in a world without writing.


Yale University


Tulane University

About Kenneth W. Harl

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 earned Tulane's annual Student Body Award for Excellence in Teaching nine times and is the recipient of Baylor University's nationwide Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. In 2007, he was the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor in History at Wofford College. An expert on classical Anatolia, he has taken students with him into the field on excursions and to assist in excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey. Professor Harl has also published a wide variety of articles and books, including his current work on coins unearthed in an excavation of Gordion, Turkey, and a new book on Rome and her Iranian foes. A fellow and trustee of the American Numismatic Society, Professor Harl is well known for his studies of ancient coinage. He is the author of Civic Coins and Civic Politics in the Roman East, A.D. 180-275 and Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700.

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