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The Foundations of Western Civilization

In this sweeping course, you get the classic grand tour of ancient Western civilization, taught by an award-winning professor of history at Notre Dame.
The Foundations of Western Civilization is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 354.
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Rated 2 out of 5 by from mumbler Have you ever sat at a banquet table while at the opposite end someone is telling a story for all to hear and then at the end leans over to the person sitting next and tells them something? That is the way this lecturer is. The course is interesting. The lecturer starts loudly enough but often by the end of a thought he is whispering or mumbling. You would have to know the material in order to follow but if you know the material why bother to take the course?
Date published: 2024-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Excellent material, wonderful presentation, mastery of the content and "footnote" information was clearly evident, and Dr. Noble was pleasant to listen to. As for the Instant Video, it starts automatically where I left off lecture-wise, there was good sound and video quality, and no distractions during any of the 48 lectures. My other related courses were good but seemed "run-of-the-mill" and less scholarly than this one. I've heard many good courses and lectures on my way to my Ph.D. and have given a few of my own (so they say) but this is probably the best "Western Civ" course you could ever hope for.
Date published: 2024-03-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unbearable voice Though the matter is interesting i stopped for good in the middle of second lecture, the squeaky high pitched voice is so distracting… :-(
Date published: 2024-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Western civ 1 Great and knowledgable and very well organized esp the context of each lecture feeding into each one
Date published: 2023-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing journey with a gifted story teller.. Professor Nelson is a great story teller of ancient history, extremely engaging and passionate. i avoidrd history till now..and alteady purchased part 2 of the wholw series.
Date published: 2023-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just a wonderful course I have purchased dozens of the Great Courses and have seen professors ranging from excellent to quite poor. I must say that Dr. Noble is my favorite of all. His amazing knowledge of the subject combined with his enthusiastic and lively presentation makes this one of your very best offerings. I would love to have had Dr. Noble as a teacher when I was in college.
Date published: 2023-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great series The lecturer clearly enjoys this topic and that makes it fun and educational for the viewer.
Date published: 2023-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So interesting What great lectures - I'm learning so much and loving every minute!
Date published: 2023-08-11
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You can discover the essential nature, evolution, and perceptions of Western civilization from its humble beginnings in the great river valleys of Iraq and Egypt to the dawn of the modern world. This broad, sweeping series helps you cover an enormous amount of historical material as you see how Western civilization evolved. Concentrating on the period 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600, Professor Thomas F. X. Noble unfolds for you the fascinating story of how the global reach of the West came to exist, what makes it distinctive and unique, and its possible future.


Thomas F. X. Noble

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


University of Notre Dame

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.

By This Professor

01: "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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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

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