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The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes

Travel in time to an often overlooked area of history and learn the astonishing ways that cultures thought of as barbaric have profoundly influenced our world today.
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 225.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fills A Big Gap This is one of the most challenging TC courses that I have taken with Professor Kenneth Harl. Being thirty-six lectures is not unusual for his TC courses, but so much more is covered in this one, presenting so many unfamiliar names, places, and events, that I sometimes felt overwhelmed. As Professor Harl notes, the course traces the history of the Eurasian steppe nomads over six thousand years and six thousand miles, detailing their impact on “sedentary civilizations of Europe, the Middle East, India, and China.” As engrossing as I found this course, it is not for the faint-hearted :-). I came to the course being familiar with Professor Harl’s presentation style. He is clear and well-organized, moving along at a fairly quick pace. Included are many illustrations, the most useful being the dynamic maps to facilitate explanation of developments and military campaigns. The video version is the best way to appreciate the course. If I relied on the audio version, I do not think I could follow the lectures with enough comprehension. The gap filled by Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is one touched on by other TC courses by Professor Harl and others. In those other courses contact with nomadic peoples by the well-known and established, including Byzantium, China, India, Iran, and Russia, is discussed. But here, Professor Harl shows these nomadic peoples from the inside out, rather than just how others encountered them. Sure, there is a great deal on the steppe nomads’ depredations, but there is also much on social, economic, political, religious, as well as military matters. I especially appreciated Professor Harl’s treatments of the complex history of the steppe nomads with China (featuring among others, the Uighurs, that are in today’s news on China); Islam’s rise, expansion, and interaction with the Turkmen; and how the Russians finally ended the hold of the nomadic armies. There are also fine treatments of key figures like Genghis Kahn and his successors, and those with whom they came into conflict/contact. I now have a better appreciation of the Eurasian steppe peoples and their significant impact on world history. I came to this course on Great Courses Plus to learn about the Mongols. I could have started with Craig Benjamin’s TC course The Mongol Empire, but decided to start with my old favorite Professor Harl. Though the course covers more than the Mongols, they are the focus of nearly the final third of this course. Their importance to the story is underscored as the first lecture details the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. This is beginning with the end in mind. The extended background and the how and why of the Mongol ascendency (and decline) is quite exciting in Professor Harl’s hands. This 2014 course comes with one of the most detailed guidebooks I have encountered at 463 pages. It contains excellent lecture summaries with many illustrations, including two maps, timeline, glossary, biographical notes and bibliography. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2024-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Exemplary Lecture Good coverage both time and space. Clarifies and resolves many misapprehensions of the Steppe Peoples and their impact on global history. Well worth the time invested. The enthusiasm and passion for the subject by Professor Harl shines through and is indeed infecting.
Date published: 2024-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from West meets East Americans in general have such a lack of knowledge of history outside itself. I read a book years ago called the "warriors of the plains' thinking it would be a book about Native Americans, but was this topic also. I was enthralled, by the book where it really opened my mind. Now for the very animated professor Harl, he goes into deep detail almost as much Will Durant in the History of Civilization, but on different subject matter here. The only Occidental author who writes, or teaches so well on the Orient as the esteemed professor Harl is Sterling Seagrave. This piece is the crown jewel in my Great Courses vast library.
Date published: 2024-01-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Important Subject Often Overlooked This course highlights the importance of the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, something often not adequately addressed in high school or college classes. These steppe nomads had profound and enduring impact from China to South Asia to the eastern Islamic lands to Russia. They had indirect influence on the Northern Mediterranean lands and they influenced the Crusades. Dr. Harl describes who these people were, what impact they had on Eurasia, and how they managed to have such astounding influence. Dr. Harl addresses many different coalitions of steppe peoples. Some are well known such as the Huns, the Turks, and the Mongols. Others are less well known but who also play important roles in Eurasian history and culture. Dr. Harl walks through them all in a generally chronological order unpacking both the steppe people themselves and also the people whom they influenced such as the Han Chinese, the South Asian people, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Russians. This is one of the best presentations by Dr. Harl for The Great Courses (TGC). He rolls out complicated material in a comprehensible manner. There are still the distracting asides characteristic of any course by Dr. Harl. Also, he could have done a better job of helping us follow the more obscure references (e.g., Cumans, Hephthalites, Kagans, Kushans, Pechenegs, Sacae, Tarim, etc.). The course guide is average or perhaps slightly better than average by TGC standards. It averages about 8 pages per lecture, which seems to be slightly above average by TGC standards. Although formatted in bullet format, each “bullet” is actually a paragraph rather than a phrase or sentence. Each lecture has a glossary and biographical notes at the end, which is useful. However, there are only two maps in the entire course guide and they are tucked into an appendix. There is also an extensive timeline, a summary glossary (in addition to the glossary at the end of each lecture), a summary of biographical notes (again, in addition to the biographical notes at the end of each lecture), and a bibliography. I used an audio-only version. I think that the video version might have been much better because there were many places where maps would have made the content much clearer. (On the other hand, not having seen the video version, I cannot guarantee that such maps are actually in the video version.) The course was published in 2014.
Date published: 2023-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stunning This 2014 course well demonstrates Harl's prodigious memory, insight, and incredible organization. His specificity amazes. For example, in Lecture 3 (=L3), he tells us that the failure of the massive Chinese Army vs. the Mongolian Army boiled down to a lack of selenium in Chinese soil preventing adequate Chinese horse bone structure and precluding Chinese cavalry! L2-L13: describes the peopling of the steppes from the West, Han China, the hardships of nomadic life, and the early east-to-west wars (up to the Hun wars with Rome and Hephthalite wars with Sassanid Iran). In particular, they describe the shaman-led steppes that produced incredible cavalry and forced recurrent migrations out of Han China. L14-25: the pressure from Tang China and the new Turk horse archers wreak ever-increasing violence against both Byzantium and the Muslim caliphate. When Turk tribes embrace Islam major changes occur: the scale of violence increases and the balance of power slips away from China. The last third of the course covers the Khans from Genghis through his grandsons who subjugated Russia, Iran, Transoxiana, and Song China with astounding violence yet miraculously spared Western Europe. For example: when Hulagu (Genghis Kahn's grandson) took Baghdad destroying the cultural center of Islam, 800,000 civilians were murdered, and blood ran in the streets for 40 days. The sacking army impregnated all females “to increase the number of Mongols”. Yet by 1361 (L34) there were no longer any great Mongolian Khagans because of Chinese repulsion of their occupation. On the other hand, Samarkand-based Tamerlane (“Timur the Lame") became the pinnacle of the ever-increasing brutality. His victories over the Golden Horde, mounds of skulls, and bizarre tortures of prisoners (including cementing live prisoners in walls) shocked the Muslim world and ended with the Ottoman army’s first significant defeat. The increasingly violent seesaw waves of depredation become a nauseating condemnation of humanity's capacity for inhumanity by the course end. Though I have space for only one, there is a multitude of worthy sidebars. Harl shows Islam’s university-labeled “Religion of Peace" to be a misnomer. By Muhammad's 632 death, his “Muslim conquest of Arabia was complete" (L19). By the 8th century, Islam divided the world into “dar al Islam" (the House of Islam) and “dar al Harb” (House of War/Land of Infidels). The Great Course "Early Middle Ages" (Daileader, L12) confirms this and adds: Jihad was "aimed at a political and legal (not religious) unification". Harl discusses Sunni Islam descending from the Umayyad family vs. Shi’ites descending from Muhammad's cousin Ali and the wars between the corresponding Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates. The Muslim slave trade of Europeans had been so all encompassing that “34 of 37 Abbasid caliphs were the sons of non-Arab slaves.” The Great Course “The African Experience" (Vickery, L13 & L14) adds that while Europeans bought enslaved peoples at the coasts, it was Muslim slave traders (and African kings) who enslaved the blacks from their villages. Islam remains a religion/state hybrid. MODERN PARALLEL (L11, L12): Harl emphasizes Attila's vast geographical knowledge and nearly real-time information about his opposition. This serves as a caution when we allow a Chinese balloon to cross our country (because someone in desolate Montana “might get hurt” if it were shot down there). Attila would have celebrated such nonsense with another round of wine from a human skull. L12 suggests an “Emperor Theodosius Timidity Prize" might in order. CONCLUDING REMARKS: The two Guidebook maps are tiny and the lettering almost unreadable. However, if you enlarge them, they can be used to help you track civilization movements. Taking Harl's course in audio would be extremely difficult. RELATED GREAT COURSES: 1.) Harl’s "The Vikings" (L23, 24) better details the 975 shifts in the axis of the Scandinavian/Rus slave trade of Slavic peoples from the Volga to the (Pecheneg controlled) Dnieper River cutting out expensive Turkomen middlemen; 2.) Harl's "Rome and the Barbarians" (L34) details Attila’s uncle’s (Ruga’s) extraordinary extraction of 350 pounds of gold from Rome in 422 and St. Jerome's 395 identification of Attila with the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".
Date published: 2023-05-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Lectures tend to give women secondary status The one think I have noticed about this series of lectures that the women who contribute this history are almost never refered to by name. Pulcheria, sister to Theodosius II practically ran the Eastern Roman Empire for her brother in the 5th century, but the only mention she gets is "the Emperor's sister". Women deserve to be acknowledged by name when someone is teaching history. Women are not secondary players in history.
Date published: 2023-05-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from great beginning then a bit boring it starts very interesting but when dates and names keep piling up it really bogs the overall interest down
Date published: 2023-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important History What an interesting course. Each lecture was information packed an well presented. The extent to which the Steppe Nomads influenced so many civilizations was not clearly unstood by me until listening to the lectures. Thank you!
Date published: 2023-02-05
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Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan loom large in the popular consciousness as two of history's most fearsome warrior-leaders. Yet few people today are aware of their place in a succession of nomadic warriors who emerged from the Eurasian steppes to seize control of civilizations. In the 36 gripping lectures of The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, award-winning Professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University guides you through some 6,000 miles and 6,000 years to investigate how these nomadic peoples exerted pressure on sedentary populations, causing a domino effect of displacement and cultural exchange. You'll discover how a series of groups-from the Sacae and the Sarmatians to the infamous Huns and Mongols-pushed ever westward, coming into contact with the Roman Empire, Han China, and distant cultures from Iraq to India and playing decisive roles in history and paving the way for our globalized world.


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.


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 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.

By This Professor

The Ottoman Empire
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes
The Vikings
The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes


Steppes and Peoples

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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