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The Big History of Civilizations

Use a cutting-edge historical approach to trace the story of human civilizations from our emergence as a species.
The Big History of Civilizations is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 83.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from big pleasure i wish they gave something akin to this in high school. it was very interesting, & i suspect that other than for those who have a solid education in this sphere, much of it is new & entertaining. His closing lectures were perhaps a bit dramatic, but didn't diminish the overall excellence of the course.
Date published: 2023-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating course! The professor addresses history from a very unique perspective. Instead of dwelling on the characteristics of a particular country or region, he "pulls back" his focus to address overarching themes. I found this approach to offer real insights about the 5000+ year history of H. sapiens. The professor is really outstanding. In some lectures he added an occasional picture of himself during his travels to many of the locations in the world which he has visited. This is not just armchair history.
Date published: 2023-08-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Concept Behind Big History is Great! I really enjoy listening to Dr Benjamin's presentations. He has such enthusiasm with the subject matter and revels in enunciating the names of people and places. Clear and articulate. Makes it fun as well as interesting. I also greatly enjoyed his lecture series on the Mongols. Paragraph. The concept behind Big History in drawing out fundamental processes in the development of civilizations provides an excellent perspective. I suspect that many scholars, including some historians have a tough time grappling with the immensities of time being covered. Being a geologist myself, the perspectives of the scale of time for earth history makes the human experience dwindle to that little second hand before midnight. But it also provides the ability to zoom in on the time scales and keep a larger perspective. For the history of human affairs the concepts presented of Big History is important to that end. Amongst these concepts, an important principle presented is in how more complex societies exercise an organized form of power. Anthropologists are said in the lectures to classify this management of influence over others as either coercive or consensual. Coercive is power exercised from above and consensual is power exercised from below. Essentially the elite versus the many. And it is driven by the control of resources. Either approach can develop into more complex societies, with other uncontrollable factors such as climate, marauding invaders, mountain barriers, deserts, and oceans often thwarting the sustainability of a civilization. However, perhaps overlooked is how and when these two types of control overlap. When does control by a coercive elite masquerade as consensual control? I think an opportunity here was missed as these central questions of the flow of Big History could have been applied to the accelerating nadir of the present. Paragraph. I noticed early on Dr Benjamin was frequently using the terms "climate change" and "sustainability" in regards to the success or failure of various civilizations. In the time frames of the Big History when covering the early human histories the concepts are correctly applied. On the scale of millennia climates do change and impact the status quo. He covers ample examples - from Younger Dryas to the Little Ice Age. I was happy with the usage of these terms in these larger contexts, but in the back of my mind I had a feeling I knew where this was going. Slowly but surely and accelerating into the last few lectures came the modern in vogue and politically driven usage of these terms of climate change and sustainability. The modern usage of these terms unfortunately carries significant collateral baggage because of current political agendas. In the very sense of applying Big History, interjecting the modern politics is disappointing and unfortunate. Lost was the application of the themes of Big History of the coercive versus the consensual exercise of power in the increasingly complexity of the era of modernity. When does a coercive exercise of power masquerade as the other? Paragraph. An example of this problem is that creeping into the themes of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in Lectures 33 and 34 was the blanket condemnation of European influence on the globe as being entirely destructive, negative, and exploitative. Capitalism (the consensus of a zillion individual choices) as usual, is knee-jerked condemned and in the same breath is said to need to be counter balanced with collective (coercive) powers that somehow will benevolently impose some kind of social, economic, and "environmental" justice against the greed and excesses of crass individual materialism. From the Lecture 33 the notes: "Late in the 19th century an ugly scramble to acquire colonies in Africa broke out between European powers, eager to gain access to captive markets and raw materials". Again that thinly veiled disdain for Capitalism as the ugly engine of colonialism and seeking "captive" markets and materials. Again implied is the need for a benevolent Socialism. This essentially classic Marxist theme of the classes of the haves versus the have nots always fails to mention the billions of humans globally wide that were raised out of grinding poverty because of the Industrial Revolution. The need for a collectivist solution to "income inequality" is more than evident in Lecture 34 with the theme of Capitalism versus Socialism. From the notes: "Many used direct action to try to improve the conditions of the working class. In 1848, demonstration, riots, and revolts in France, the Italian States, the Hapsburg empire, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and Britain were driven by poverty and the appalling conditions created by industrialization, but the military power of the state was too strong and monarchical authority was restored." Inexplicably overlooked is that 1848 is a seminal date in the development of communist "theory" which eventually led to the slaughter of tens of millions in the 20th century and is threatening the 21st century with even more potential for real destruction. This is "sustainability"? Paragraph. The Lecture 33 class notes can be quoted as asserting "A simple decision to burn coal in the absence of wood can fairly be said to have led to industrialization, innovation, colonization, mass migrations, the nation-state, and the justification of imperialism using racist ideology." The accusatory implications in this quote are clear: These are all bad things and coal burning caused all these bad things - including an undefined racist ideology. There is the speculation that the subsequent usage of additional forms of fossil fuels is the cause of a slight increase in various temperatures across the globe. Again quoting from Lecture 33: "Significantly, climate change might also have played a role in this process of world transformation, as it had done so in the previous history of civilization." And therefore it is implied that this time around it is a climate change that is said to be caused by the Industrial Revolution. Never considered are the eras of much warmer temperatures such as the Minoan, Roman, and Medieval Warm Periods impacting human civilizations in history that do not correlate with this burning of fossil fuels. Otzi died in a snow free Alpine Pass over 5000 years ago. It renders the expressed concepts of the cited CO2 levels as being significant towards warming and of being a pollutant extremely doubtful. The application of Big History should acknowledge this. However, one can forgive the historian for not fully understanding the geological sciences even within the time frame of the Holocene. Paragraph. Returning to the assertion in the Lecture 33 notes that one of the unfortunate aspects of the Industrial Revolution from the core catalyst of burning coal led to the "justification of imperialism using racist ideology" across the globe, one can hear the influence of the more modern and at large anti-European revisionisms of history. Favorite accusations from many in-vogue modern historians include that of Euro-centric "white privilege" against "people of color". The late 18th century through the early 20th century is said in the lectures to be the era of this unfortunate racist imperialism, again apparently as a consequence of burning coal. However, lost in these assertions of racist Euro-centric "white imperialism" are the "brown" descendants that are repeatedly exemplified as downtrodden victims - but are descendants of Spain and Portugal, members of the major European racist colonizing powers. Moreover, this process that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries is covered as such in Lecture 32 - before the coal burning began for which the Industrial Revolution is the purported cause of "racist ideology". Paragraph. Another key civilizational development that was not covered in the discussions of intellectual/philosophical development of administrative forms of government is the development of private property as an individual right as a fundamental civilizing principle. This should be a major point covered in applying the themes of Big History, particularly when posing comparison between modern and civilizations of the past. These lead to the central present day questions that Big History concepts were intended to address in the final two lectures. Will the concept of private property be eradicated in the throes of the in-vogue collectivism as is enshrined in the Communist Manifesto? Is a technology driven human society "sustainable" in the traditional and valid definition of that term without such an individual principle? And will it be a coercive or a consensual based society? This question central to the theme of Big History is essential to knowing if humanity can honestly address and tackle what are and what aren't real threats to human well-being, freedom, and fulfillment. Will a true consensus be allowed to be arrived at by free dialogue or will a fake consensus be foisted by a coercive elite that controls information? Dr Benjamin's excellent concept of collective learning is at risk of being hijacked by a collective brainwashing - a masquerade by an at large stealthy coercive elite attempting to assume control under the guise of a consensual population. An unfortunate attribute of our current civilizational development. Paragraph. But barring these important observations, the perspective that is created with the idea of Big History as applied to these last thousands of years makes these lectures very enjoyable and thought provoking. And I definitely enjoy Dr Benjamin's enthusiasm and his fun with the people and place names! Thanks much for producing these lectures. Dr Benjamin helped me frame some thoughts about the present and the near future with the context of Big History. Dave
Date published: 2023-04-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from My Big History Summary of the 20th Century The 20th Century was the tectonic plate of agrarian/traditional civilization colliding with the tectonic plate of modern/industrial civilization. As an example, Harry Truman, a man deeply rooted in agrarian/traditional civilization, dropped bombs, developed by modern/industrial civilization, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, traditional/agrarian society defends these atrocities, and you should expect them to, as they have the values of traditional/agrarian society. :)
Date published: 2023-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging lecturer and high yield information The lecturer is engaging and easy to follow. Lectures are well organized and the content is presented in an easy to follow manner. The lecturer focuses on high yield information that facilitates the viewer understanding the historical development of civilizations.
Date published: 2022-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is the second of Great Courses by Dr. Benjamin I've purchased. I purchased it because I was so impressed with his presentation. This one is entertaining, educational, and enlightening, too. Highly recommend it.
Date published: 2022-09-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Outdated Comments about when language appeared are outdated--specifically that Neanderthals did not have language. What else is outdated?
Date published: 2022-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned so much from this course Prof Benjamin does a great job organizing & presenting this massive history of humankind’s evolution in just 36 lectures. He’s given me new eyes to see & understand the ancient world & the challenges of modernity. Many concepts presented by Prof Benjamin will stick with me -- like how the Americas might have been colonized by China but for China's reluctance to subsidize new world expeditions & commerce; how Native Americans were on the cusp of great civilizations but for the European invasions; the Goldilocks Conditions that enable some societies to flourish while others die out. He brings it all together so it makes sense how we have come to where we are today. My daily half-hour lunchtime with “Big History” has helped me understand so much more beyond my own little world, seeing incredible cultures & events of the past and how they connect to & impact our present. I really loved this big picture view. I am so grateful to Great Courses & Prof Benjamin for offering courses like this. Thank you.
Date published: 2022-07-13
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The Big History of Civilizations is your chance to apply a cutting-edge historical approach to the epic story of humanity across time and around the world. Taught by acclaimed Professor Craig G. Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, these 36 sweeping lectures trace the grand story of human civilizations from our emergence as a species, through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and into the future.


Craig G. Benjamin

These big ideas of Eastern civilization emerged thousands of years ago, but they endured and shaped the long history of these regions all the way to the present.


Grand Valley State University

Dr. Craig G. Benjamin is Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where he teaches East Asian civilization, big history, ancient Central Asian history, and historiography. He earned his undergraduate education at The Australian National University in Canberra and Macquarie University in Sydney, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University. Professor Benjamin has received several awards for teaching, including the 2012 Faculty of Distinction Award from Omicron Delta Kappa Society (a national leadership honor society) and the 2009 Student Award for Faculty Excellence from the GVSU Student Senate. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Yuezhi: Origin, Migration and the Conquest of Northern Bactria and Readings in the Historiography of World History. He is coauthor (with David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown) of Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. Professor Benjamin is an officer of the World History Association and the International Big History Association. He is also a consultant for The College Board and a member of the SAT World History Subject Committee and the Advanced Placement World History Development Committee.

By This Professor

The Big History of Civilizations
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
The Mongol Empire
The Big History of Civilizations


A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

01: A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

Jericho and Anau are two of the world's oldest cities, and their stories have much to tell us about the scope of human history. Begin the course by examining what made these cities successful, and how they differed from each other. This starting point will introduce the concept and key themes of Big History....

30 min
The Rise of Humanity

02: The Rise of Humanity

Trace the origins of the human species from the emergence of proto-humans 2.5 million years ago to the rise of Homo sapiens from about 200,000 years ago. Professor Benjamin offers perspectives from biology, anthropology, archeology, and linguistics to show what makes the human species unique-and why we have been able to flourish....

29 min
Foraging in the Old Stone Age

03: Foraging in the Old Stone Age

Although it is often skimmed over in the history books, the Paleolithic Era is the longest time in human history, ranging from 200,000 to 11,000 years ago. Understanding this period is crucial for understanding the human history that follows. See how family dynamics, migration patterns, climate change, and more affected life in this fascinating era....

31 min
Origins of Agriculture

04: Origins of Agriculture

Archaeologists continue to debate precisely why and how humanity transitioned from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago. Delve into the agricultural revolution to find out how some combination of climate change, population growth, and human ingenuity led to one of the most important revolutions in human history....

31 min
Power, Cities, and States

05: Power, Cities, and States

After the agricultural revolution, the next major transition in human history was the rise of cities. After introducing you to life in the early farm communities, Professor Benjamin investigates the origins of power and its relationship to the state. Discover several of the abiding features of the world's early cities....

30 min
The Era of Agrarian Civilizations

06: The Era of Agrarian Civilizations

The vast Era of Agrarian Civilizations stretches nearly 5,000 years, from 3,200 B.C.E. to 1750 C.E. and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Tease out the large-scale trends and patterns of this period to find out what led to the growth of agrarian civilizations as well as the key barriers these civilizations faced....

30 min
Innovations of Mesopotamia

07: Innovations of Mesopotamia

Gain new insights into civilization by looking at one of the first: the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Here, use techniques from linguistics, genetics, archeology, climatology, and more to see how this society unfolded-and what lessons it has to offer us today. The approach in this lecture is "Big History" at its most engaging....

31 min
The Downfall of Sumer

08: The Downfall of Sumer

Wars and rumors of war abound in this next lecture on Mesopotamia. Survey the rise and fall of empires in the 1,000 years after the collapse of the Sumerians. See how laws and language barriers impacted the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and how the changing environment inevitably had the last word....

31 min
Egypt: Divine Rule in the Black Land

09: Egypt: Divine Rule in the Black Land

Dive into the world of Ancient Egypt during the time of the great pharaohs. In this sweeping lecture, Professor Benjamin shows you how environmental circumstances led to Egyptian power. Examine the work of modern-day geneticists, chemists, and other scientists who are shedding new light on this mythical civilization....

30 min
Society and Culture of Egypt

10: Society and Culture of Egypt

Shift your attention from Ancient Egyptian power to the society's fascinating social, economic, and cultural achievements. Investigate Egyptian urban life, its system of trade, hieroglyphics, and religion. Thanks to its important heritage and influence on subsequent civilizations, Ancient Egyptian society remains truly astonishing....

31 min
Early Mediterranean Civilizations

11: Early Mediterranean Civilizations

The Mediterranean Sea played a key role in the development of the ancient world. Here, explore four smaller cultures that had an enormous influence on subsequent history, particularly trade and cultural exchange: the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans....

30 min
Mysteries of the Indus Valley

12: Mysteries of the Indus Valley

While agrarian civilizations were flourishing in Egypt and the Mediterranean, the extraordinary Indus civilization was emerging in South Asia. Witness the development of one of the most advanced and intriguing civilizations of its time, and then tour two of its most important cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro....

30 min
South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

13: South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

Continue your study of South Asia. Here, Professor Benjamin traces the rise of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions during the millennium between 1500 and 500 B.C.E. He then turns to the political and social organizations of the subcontinent, from the Indo-Aryan settlements through the Mauryan Empire....

30 min
China: Born in Isolation

14: China: Born in Isolation

Although contemporaneous with civilizations emerging in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and South Asia, East Asia's geographic isolation allowed for the development of unique ideas about government, society, and the individual. Find out about East Asian culture by exploring the rise and fall of the Shang and Zhou dynasties....

29 min
China's Dynasties and Influence

15: China's Dynasties and Influence

In this second lecture on early East Asian civilization, follow the history from the Warring States Period through the Qin and Han dynasties. Along the way, examine many of Chinese culture's most important contributions to world history, including its legal codes, and the invention of paper and printing....

29 min
The Importance of the Nomads

16: The Importance of the Nomads

Go inside the steppe environment to learn about the role militarized pastoral nomads played in world history. As you see how these societies responded to climate pressures and influenced neighboring civilizations, you will also chart the rise of the horse, which played an important role in nomadic society....

30 min
Oxus Civilization and Powerful Persia

17: Oxus Civilization and Powerful Persia

Pastoral nomads weren't the only early settlers of Central Asia. The recently discovered Oxus civilization and the Persians reveal a number of key themes for Big History, including the role of climate and geography, intensified social complexity, innovations in warfare and farming, and more....

30 min
Greece in Its Golden Age

18: Greece in Its Golden Age

Geography plays one of the most important roles in a civilization's development, and this holds true for the ancient Greeks. But it is the Greek experiments in government that drove much of their success. Tour the ancient Greek city-states of Athens, Sparta, and more to find out how they were governed, and how they dealt with conflicts....

30 min
Greek Gods, Philosophy, and Science

19: Greek Gods, Philosophy, and Science

The Greeks created one of the richest and most influential cultures in human history. From myths to music to philosophy, as you delve into this world, you'll explore the major Greek thinkers and the big questions they tackled-and gain a new understanding not just of their world, but also to better understand humanity today....

29 min
Alexander's Conquests and Hellenism

20: Alexander's Conquests and Hellenism

Although Big History looks at the macro lens, sometimes one individual truly shapes the course of human history. Alexander of Macedon is one of those people. As you'll find out in this lecture, his conquests reshaped the ancient world, leading to tremendous economic expansion, flourishing cities, and monumental advancements in science and art....

29 min
Building the Roman Republic

21: Building the Roman Republic

Rome began as an unremarkable city-state with a monarchy, but once the city established itself as a republic, Roman conquests spread dramatically across the Mediterranean. Here, review some of Rome's great leaders from its beginning through the assassination of Julius Caesar and the reign of Octavian, Caesar Augustus....

29 min
Triumphs and Flaws of Imperial Rome

22: Triumphs and Flaws of Imperial Rome

Pick up the story of Rome in the Augustan Golden Age and follow it through the infamous sack by the Visigoths. Explore the literature and propaganda of the empire, and examine the reign of some of Rome's most notorious rulers before concluding with a look at the emergence of Christianity....

29 min
New Ideas along the Silk Road

23: New Ideas along the Silk Road

The Era of Agrarian Civilizations was one of fluid borders and nomadic activity, which eventually led to dynamic trade routes between east and west. Here, Professor Benjamin transports you into the Han Dynasty's world of luxurious silks and spices. And see how the less tangible exports like ideas, arts, religion, and more were transmitted along the Silk Roads....

30 min
Chaos and Consolidation in Eurasia

24: Chaos and Consolidation in Eurasia

Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, Afro-Eurasian civilization experienced a crisis with the collapse of the Han Dynasty in the east and the end of Roman administration in the west, leading to near-universal economic contraction. Employ Big History analysis to understand the different outcomes to these events-and their influence on future history....

30 min
Islamic Expansion and Rule

25: Islamic Expansion and Rule

The expansion of the Islamic civilization between the 8th and 10th centuries played a major role in the history of Afro-Eurasian states and cultures. Survey the story of Islam from the life of Mohammed to the Sunni-Shia split to the Islamic Golden Age. Review the pillars of the faith and the culture's impact on the world....

30 min
Legacy of the Mongols

26: Legacy of the Mongols

In the early 13th century, Mongol horsemen swept out of their homeland in the steppes to conquer the known world, and they would go on to create the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Enter Mongol culture and look at the violent conquests that led to a little-known Pax Mongolia before the Mongols returned to obscurity....

29 min
North American Peoples and Tribes

27: North American Peoples and Tribes

Shift your attention to the Americas, which developed on an alternate path from Afro-Eurasia. This first lecture traces the settlement of North America and investigates societies across different regions, from the southwestern deserts to the eastern woodlands. Learn about tribes such as the Iroquois nations, the Hopewell people, Pueblos, Chinooks, and more....

29 min
Agrarian Civilizations of Mesoamerica

28: Agrarian Civilizations of Mesoamerica

The unique geography of Mesoamerica-the long isthmus that runs from the present-day Panama Canal through Mexico-has driven the region's history over the millennia. Review the geologic formations and plate tectonics that created Mesoamerica, and then turn to its many cultures, including the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs....

29 min
Culture and Empire in South America

29: Culture and Empire in South America

Round out your study of the Americas with a journey down the Andean spine and up the Amazon River to discover the many civilizations of South America, including the Nazcans, the Mochicans, and the Incas. Tour archaeological sites, and then step back to consider the Big History of the Americas compared to Afro-Eurasia....

29 min
African Kingdoms and Trade

30: African Kingdoms and Trade

Sub-Saharan Africa has often been overlooked by outside historians who are considering the rise of human civilization, yet nations such as Mali and Ghana and the Bantu and Swahili civilizations all have a rich and fascinating history. Survey the story of Africa with a special focus on sub-Saharan geography, people, and civilizations....

30 min
Lifeways of Australia and the Pacific

31: Lifeways of Australia and the Pacific

The Pacific islands represent perhaps the last great chapter in humanity's colonization of the globe. The vast Pacific made migration slow until comparatively recently, yet seafaring technologies allowed many Polynesian societies to flourish. Study the aboriginal people of Australia and New Zealand, and then learn about chiefdoms in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, and more....

31 min
The Advent of Global Commerce

32: The Advent of Global Commerce

In this lecture, Professor Benjamin surveys the "Malthusian Cycle" of expansion from 500 to 1750 C.E., when favorable climate, global population growth, expanding exchange networks, and rapid innovation all paved the way for modernity. Reflect on European mercantilism, global exploration, and the period's great scientific achievements....

30 min
The Industrial Revolution and Modernity

33: The Industrial Revolution and Modernity

Zoom in on an obscure corner of Europe in the 18th century, where the burning of coal served as the necessary spark to launch the world into modernity. Find out why Britain was in such a good position to become a global powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution, and watch as the railroads altered the landscape of countries around the world....

30 min
The Transformative 20th and 21st Centuries

34: The Transformative 20th and 21st Centuries

Welcome to the Anthropocene! The 20th and 21st centuries are merely an eye blink on the scale of Big History, yet these years have wrought astonishing changes in the history of human civilization-and the story of our planet as a whole. Take a look at how nationalism, global capitalism, technological advancements, and rapid population growth have transformed our world....

30 min
Civilization, the Biosphere, and Tomorrow

35: Civilization, the Biosphere, and Tomorrow

Historians traditionally focus solely on the past, but here you have the chance to apply what you've learned about Big History to see what might be in store for us in the near future. Will we run out of oil? How will we adapt to a changing climate? How will population growth affect energy consumption? Consider a variety of scenarios for the year 2100....

29 min
Civilizations of the Distant Future

36: Civilizations of the Distant Future

We can envision scenarios for the year 2100, but what about 2600? Or 3100? Reflect on the possibilities, drawing from the imaginative work of futurists and science fiction writers. See where human civilization might go-and what might happen to us along the way-on this planet, or in the universe, as Homo sapiens, or even as some future species....

31 min