The Foundations of Western Civilization

Rated 5 out of 5 by from so, so interesting and enlightening I bought this course at the beginning of February. I am up to Lecture 14. I can honestly say that Professor Noble is teaching me things I never learned in school. If you want to learn about the ancient world from the very start of civilization this course is a must. The course starts with Mesopotamia. Right now I have just finished learning about Macedon and the Alexander's empire. I can't wait for each new lecture.
Date published: 2021-02-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Delivery Distracts, Obfuscates Subject Matter To whom is Prof Noble speaking? The professor spends equal parts of his lectures with closed eyes and open eyes wondering around the room - never looking at the camera - the student. This is highly distracting and gives an impression the professor cares little about connecting with the student. Professor Noble delivers with an irregular verbal cadence that amplifies his visual distraction from connecting with students. I looked forward to this, my 5th Great Course, but was too distracted to complete it. Perhaps I'll return to it someday, but in the meantime will search for another Western Civ course. I've a doctorate and perhaps a higher expectation.
Date published: 2021-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Superb Foundation All that has been feeds into all that is. Behind our modern states and institutions, behind our languages, our philosophies, and our values lies a cultural heritage informed by thousands of years of human history. If you live in Europe or much of North America, then there’s a good chance that your cultural milieu is at least partially shaped by what might broadly be called “Western civilization,” a product of human actions and interactions in times and places as diverse as ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Europe. Prof. Thomas Noble’s course "Foundations of Western Civilization" begins with some reflections on what it might mean to talk about the “foundations of Western civilization,” but in practice, here, it includes a historical and especially cultural overview of the prominent peoples, individuals, and events in the (approximately) Western Hemisphere, beginning at Sumer and Egypt, and encompassing Greece, Rome, and the greater European continent, among others. The course begins with the earliest recorded history and ends with the Reformation and age of exploration in about the 1500s. Even though, by necessity, it takes place at a fairly broad level, there’s a tremendous amount of information in this course, and Prof. Noble presents it with aplomb. Almost every sentence could be unpacked and mined for its implications, yet each thought flows neatly into the next, the professor never appearing hurried or like he’s trying too hard to fit too much in. Noble himself is a pleasure to watch and listen to, a genial-looking man who appears to be genuinely enjoying himself as he delivers meandering but incisive lectures seemingly without so much as a set of notes. Although, again, the lectures can only go so far into the details of any given subject, they do a fantastic job of providing (if you will) a foundation for further learning. If your interest is piqued by, say, Roman history, or perhaps medieval Europe, or the Reformation, The Great Courses has much more detailed offerings on each subject, and you’ll discover that Prof. Noble has given you the basic orientation and broad perspective you need to begin a closer study. If history is the indelible backdrop for what comes after, then we benefit from knowing what stage we play upon. I found it fascinating to see empires spread and recede, to be replaced by their successors; to learn exactly who the “barbarians” were who brought low the eternal city of Rome, and what became of them (for they didn’t simply disappear); to watch what amounts to the modern map of Europe and the modern system of nation-states slowly coalesce through the Middle Ages and beyond; to see the rationalism and scientific thinking we now take for granted gradually come to the fore from the medieval period to the Renaissance and Reformation. In my mind, this is an essential course: an enlightening survey, larded with enough information to last you a very long time, presented by a truly pleasant teacher. This is what a Great Course should be.
Date published: 2021-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extemporaneous A jaunt through the history of the West. Good selection of material. The lecturer spoke from his thoughts, not a teleprompter. Very impressive. This fellow must have been teaching this material for decades.
Date published: 2021-01-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Informative, interesting, but difficult to follow Professor Noble is a master of the subject. You can see in his lectures that he is enthusiastic, wanting to share his knowledge with the rest of us. Unlike some of the other professors, he lectures mostly unscripted. Listening to him is easier than reading his transcripts--some of his sentences are fragments. If you have patience, you will learn a lot.
Date published: 2020-12-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! This course really filled in a lot of gaps in my personal knowledge. Professor Noble is very entertaining, and I would love to take another course from him.
Date published: 2020-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I bought this course a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I’m now listening to it for the second time... and thoroughly enjoying it again. The professor has a very engaging and clear delivery. He makes it fun to listen to.
Date published: 2020-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought-provoking, informative, and fun My wife (a history major) and I (a math/physics student) have shared this over the past several weeks, and have not had a lesson that didn't teach us something, often challenging the basic premises of what we thought we'd learned in our various schools along the way. We're very glad we took it, and look forward to our next course on the Founding Fathers.
Date published: 2020-11-29
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"Western," "Civilization," and "Foundations"
1: "Western," "Civilization," and "Foundations"

These three seemingly simple words demand reflection. Where is the West? Who is Western? If civilization means cities, where do those come from? And when we look at history, how do we tell what is truly foundational from what may be merely famous? What is the difference between celebrity and distinction?

33 min
History Begins at Sumer
2: History Begins at Sumer

Borrowing our title from a famous book by S. N. Kramer, we look at why this small slice of what is now southern Iraq became-along with Egypt-one of the two foundations of Western civilization.

30 min
Egypt-The Gift of the Nile
3: Egypt-The Gift of the Nile

As Sumer was the gift of the Tigris and Euphrates, so Egypt-a ribbon of fertile floodplain 750 miles long but not much more than 15 miles wide-has been called "the gift of the Nile." But the differences between Egypt and Mesopotamia tell us as much as the similarities.

31 min
The Hebrews-Small States and Big Ideas
4: The Hebrews-Small States and Big Ideas

Israel, built by the descendants of Abraham, was one of the small states that arose after the Egyptian Empire fell (c. 700 B.C.). Unified and independent only from 1200-900 B.C., it bequeathed to the West crucial religious ideas.

31 min
A Succession of Empires
5: A Succession of Empires

The peoples holding sway over the ancient Near East included the cruel Assyrians, the Medes, the Neo-Babylonians who overthrew the Assyrians around 600 B.C., and the Persians, who along with the Medes would build the largest empire the world had seen to that time.

31 min
Wide-Ruling Agamemnon
6: Wide-Ruling Agamemnon

Why is it important for you to grasp the archaeological record of the period from 1500-1200 B.C. in order to understand The Iliad and The Odyssey-two poems composed 500 years later?...

30 min
Dark Age and Archaic Greece
7: Dark Age and Archaic Greece

What unique circumstance-unknown before or since in human history-made the Greek Dark Ages so "dark"? And how do we "do" the history of a time and place that is so obscured from our view? Surprisingly, we know a good deal.

31 min
The Greek Polis-Sparta
8: The Greek Polis-Sparta

Spartan society was harsh and peculiar, yet many observers at the time and since have found "the Spartan way" strangely compelling. After all, they won the war against Athens, and their victory moved Plato to re-imagine Athenian society in The Republic. What were the main features of this system, and why did the Spartans embrace it?...

30 min
The Greek Polis-Athens
9: The Greek Polis-Athens

Lurching from crisis to crisis, the Athenians accidentally created one of the world's most freewheeling democracies-at least for adult male citizens-even as they were building an empire. How did the whole thing work, and what finally brought it down?

31 min
Civic Culture-Architecture and Drama
10: Civic Culture-Architecture and Drama

Can you list the key public buildings of an ancient Greek city? How did they combine beautiful and functional forms with deep ideological meanings? What made drama (including comedy) the public art par excellence?...

31 min
The Birth of History
11: The Birth of History

What does it mean to say that the Greeks, while certainly not the first people to reflect on the past, nonetheless "invented" history? How did Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, each in his own unforgettable way, contribute to this basic turning of the Western mind?

31 min
From Greek Religion to Socratic Philosophy
12: From Greek Religion to Socratic Philosophy

How did the Greeks begin moving from religious to more philosophical views of the world, and why did these views first arise in a particular part of the Greek world called Ionia? Who were the Sophists, what did they teach, and why did Socrates oppose them?

31 min
Plato and Aristotle
13: Plato and Aristotle

The goal of this lecture is to explain why Raphael's famous painting, The School of Athens, has Plato pointing up and Aristotle pointing down, and why both are defending and extending the work of Socrates....

31 min
The Failure of the Polis and the Rise of Alexander
14: The Failure of the Polis and the Rise of Alexander

Why couldn't thinkers as brilliant as Plato and Aristotle conceive of a non-imaginary alternative to the polis, and why does the career of one of Aristotle's students mean that in the end, such a shortcoming may not have mattered anyway?

31 min
The Hellenistic World
15: The Hellenistic World

The world after Alexander was cosmopolitan, prosperous, and dominated by Greeks and Macedonians all over the Mediterranean and far out into the old Persian Empire. Literature, science, and new philosophies flourished.

31 min
The Rise of Rome
16: The Rise of Rome

This lecture is about the foundations on which Roman history rests, including the geography of Italy and the two centuries or so of monarchical rule-ending, tradition says, in 509 B.C.-that the republic overthrew.

31 min
The Roman Republic-Government and Politics
17: The Roman Republic-Government and Politics

What does it mean to speak of the "constitution" of the Roman republic? What are the essential offices, procedures, and ideals involved, and how did the whole thing really work?

30 min
Roman Imperialism
18: Roman Imperialism

By the time the republic found that it didn't merely possess but was an empire, Roman rule extended from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia, and from the North Sea to the Sahara Desert. How and why did this happen?

30 min
The Culture of the Roman Republic
19: The Culture of the Roman Republic

The Romans "did" more than war and politics. They created a distinctive culture that flowered in magnificent lyric and epic poetry, assimilated profound Greek influences, and gave us Cicero as Rome's greatest booster and toughest critic.

30 min
Rome-From Republic to Empire
20: Rome-From Republic to Empire

The 200 often-turbulent years between the murdered reformers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and the rise of Octavian saw the old Roman system drown amid overwhelming temptations and tensions brought on by Rome's very conquests.

30 min
The Pax Romana
21: The Pax Romana

When Octavian became Augustus princeps-"First Citizen"-in 31 B.C., he was inaugurating a 200-year period of security, prosperity, and wise rule that Tacitus would nonetheless wryly label "a desert [that we] called peace." Was Tacitus right?...

31 min
Rome's Golden and Silver Ages
22: Rome's Golden and Silver Ages

To understand how culturally creative and important the principate was, you need only reflect that what today strikes the popular imagination as quintessentially "Roman" is a product of this period (republican Rome was a city of wood).

31 min
Jesus and the New Testament
23: Jesus and the New Testament

No well-informed observer in the time of Augustus and his successors would have predicted that a world-changing movement would arise in a small, poor, and insignificant region of Palestine. But that is what happened.

31 min
The Emergence of a Christian Church
24: The Emergence of a Christian Church

The word "church" (ekklesia) occurs only twice in only one of the Gospels (Matthew). Yet Paul, whose letters predate the Gospels, uses the word routinely. This intriguing fact is your gateway to the fascinating history of early Christianity....

31 min
Late Antiquity-Crisis and Response
25: Late Antiquity-Crisis and Response

For 100 years after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, the Romans put up almost no great public structures-a sign of severe trouble. What lay behind this crisis, and how did Diocletian (who became emperor in 284) and his successor Constantine successfully respond?

31 min
Barbarians and Emperors
26: Barbarians and Emperors

Although the notion that Rome somehow "fell" remains pervasive, scholars of late antiquity (c. 300 to 700) have no use for the idea. More intriguing still, there weren't any barbarian invasions as usually understood.

31 min
The Emergence of the Catholic Church
27: The Emergence of the Catholic Church

Once Rome stopped persecuting its adherents, the new Christian faith spread through the Roman world in the form of a large, hierarchical organization. Still, achieving a "catholic" (i.e., universal) definition of key beliefs proved difficult.

32 min
Christian Culture in Late Antiquity
28: Christian Culture in Late Antiquity

How and why did it matter that Christianity triumphed in the Roman world? Church Fathers, the lives of monks and nuns, and the interaction of Christian faith with a host of day-to-day issues hold the answer.

30 min
Muhammad and Islam
29: Muhammad and Islam

As with ancient Israel or 1st-century Palestine, no one could have predicted that 7th-century Arabia would become the cradle of a world-changing new religion. Yet new as it was in many ways, Islam had important ties to Greece and Rome as well as the scriptural traditions of the West.

30 min
The Birth of Byzantium
30: The Birth of Byzantium

When he rebuilt an old Greek town in about 330 and named it after himself, what did the Emperor Constantine think he was doing? (Hint: It wasn't "founding something called 'Byzantium.'") What was the result, over the centuries, of Constantine's vision?

31 min
Barbarian Kingdoms in the West
31: Barbarian Kingdoms in the West

Within and without the old Roman frontiers, the world of the West became a world of small Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic kingdoms. What were they like, and how does understanding them prepare you to grasp the history of the West properly?

31 min
The World of Charlemagne
32: The World of Charlemagne

How could Charlemagne have achieved so much? He ruled more of Europe than anyone else between the times of the Romans and Napoleon. Yet his Carolingian empire survived him by barely more than a generation.

31 min
The Carolingian Renaissance
33: The Carolingian Renaissance

Since 1839, scholars have been associating the Carolingians with a "renaissance." Why? What is Carolingian culture's distinctive contribution to the West, and how does it set them apart from their Muslim and Byzantine contemporaries?

31 min
The Expansion of Europe
34: The Expansion of Europe

Despite being battered by centuries of Muslim, Magyar, and Viking attacks and invasions, Europe was able by 1095 to begin striking east and south in a series of Crusades that would span two centuries. It was one of history's great reversals. How did it happen?

31 min
The Chivalrous Society
35: The Chivalrous Society

The three-part medieval scheme of fighting men, praying men, and working men is worth pondering, but so are all those whom it omits.

31 min
Medieval Political Traditions, I
36: Medieval Political Traditions, I

What are the two words that best sum up the national achievements of England and France during the Middle Ages? Why do medieval historians now avoid the term "feudalism"?

31 min
Medieval Political Traditions, II
37: Medieval Political Traditions, II

European history as commonly taught centers tightly on England and France as the key nations of Europe at this time. This lecture will explain why you ought to challenge that view.

31 min
Scholastic Culture
38: Scholastic Culture

The great Scholastics-Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas-were brilliant, often eccentric thinkers who came out of the Latin-speaking clerical and academic world that gave the West one of its greatest intellectual and institutional patrimonies: the university.

31 min
Vernacular Culture
39: Vernacular Culture

The years from 900 onward saw an explosion of vernacular (i.e. non-Latin) writings. Why did people begin creating formal written works in their native tongues? Does knowing this literature bring us closer to the people of medieval Europe?

31 min
The Crisis of Renaissance Europe
40: The Crisis of Renaissance Europe

To understand the Renaissance, you must know the political, religious, and social context in which it took place. The age was one that Dickens might have called "the worst of times." The Renaissance was a response to grave challenges.

31 min
The Renaissance Problem
41: The Renaissance Problem

So, what's the problem? Actually, there are four-or at least one problem with four sides. Here are two clues: How did a movement that began in Italy wind up with a French name? And how can a "re-birth" be something new?

31 min
Renaissance Portraits
42: Renaissance Portraits

How to capture a sense of the Renaissance? With cultural biographies of Boccaccio, Petrarch, Lorenzo de' Medici, Pope Pius II, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others.

31 min
The Northern Renaissance
43: The Northern Renaissance

What happened when the Renaissance and its "new learning" crossed the Alps? Humanists could be found on both sides of the mountains, but they turned to different sources north and south, with fateful results.

31 min
The Protestant Reformation-Martin Luther
44: The Protestant Reformation-Martin Luther

"The" Reformation (if indeed there was only one) is not as obvious a historical phenomenon as you might think. To penetrate its meaning, you will find it helpful to begin with the first of its magisterial figures, Martin Luther.

31 min
The Protestant Reformation-John Calvin
45: The Protestant Reformation-John Calvin

Why is seeing the Reformation as "Protestants versus Catholics" such a serious mistake, and what view makes better sense? To answer those questions, you will consider other major Protestant figures besides Luther, especially John Calvin.

31 min
Catholic Reforms and "Confessionalization"
46: Catholic Reforms and "Confessionalization"

Beginning around 1550, the Catholic Church undertook a reformation of its own, founding new institutions and launching new religious orders. At the same time, "confessional" lines were hardening on the religious map of a permanently divided Europe.

31 min
Exploration and Empire
47: Exploration and Empire

In purely material terms (population, natural resources, etc.) the peninsular appendage of Asia that is Europe should not have been the one among all world civilizations to span the globe. But starting in the latter decades of the 15th century, that is what happened.

30 min
What Challenges Remain?
48: What Challenges Remain?

You leave the West in 1600, on the cusp of the Age of Empire, the Scientific Revolution, and the Baroque Period. It's a long way from those mud-walled villages in Mesopotamia to the threshold of its modern era, but certain patterns, problems, and possibilities endure to make the West what it is.

33 min
Thomas F. X. Noble

One great scholar said that history was a process of challenge and response. Surely we must ask what challenges remain.


Michigan State University


University of Notre Dame

About Thomas F. X. Noble

Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his B.A. in History from Ohio University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History from Michigan State University. Professor Noble has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and research grants from the American Philosophical Society. In 2008 he received the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Teaching from Notre Dame. In 1999 he was awarded the Alumni Distinguished Professor Award and a David Harrison III Award for outstanding undergraduate advising, both from the University of Virginia. Professor Noble is the author, coauthor, or editor of 10 books and has published more than 40 articles, chapters, and essays. His coauthored textbook, Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment, is in its 5th edition. His research has concentrated on late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, focusing on the history of the city of Rome, the history of the papacy, and the age of Charlemagne.

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