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The World of Byzantium

Open new vistas of historical insight in this study of the crucial yet overlooked civilization of Byzantium.
The World of Byzantium is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 106.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Splendor and Turmoil in Constantinople “The World of Byzantium” is the second of Dr. Kenneth W. Harl’s lecture series that I have studied, after having previously watched “The Vikings.” I’m now looking forward to several others of his courses that I have ordered. It does not surprise me that this talented professor has been engaged to present so many of The Great Courses—eleven in the present catalogue. Others besides myself evidently appreciate his abundant teaching skills. Here are some particular strengths of the present course: * Each of its 24 lectures is packed with information. * This professor knows his material so well that he can present it conversationally. Even his occasional expressions of wry humour seem to be apropos and to help clarify points of information. * The 1100-year history of Byzantium is correlated with events and changes in the Western Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and so-called Barbarian territories. * Besides accounts of the deeds of various Byzantine emperors and other military leaders, their individual motivations and personalities are often convincingly revealed. * Wide-ranging and long-lasting influences of the Byzantine era on subsequent empires, religion, arts, aesthetics, and culture are outlined. * Some individual lectures have stand-alone merit. Lecture #9 (The Age of Justinian), #16 (The Iconoclastic Controversy), and #20 (Alexius I and the First Crusade), for example, each provide students with a richly particularized synopsis. * This course’s accompanying guidebook is a valuable aide, complete with lecture summaries, timeline, glossary, biographical notes, bibliography, and extensive recommended readings. Minor shortcomings that I feel obliged to cite are the appearance of a few errors in name-and-date captions on visual displays, and some inconsistent or imprecise pronunciations by Dr. Harl. My impression is that better proofreading or beta-testing of the course might have corrected these small problems. “The World of Byzantium” does deserve five-out-of-five stars and my enthusiastic recommendation.
Date published: 2024-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Byzantium Greatest of the Great courses so far for me. Presenter was so articulate Thank you
Date published: 2024-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Introduction to Harl's Comprehensive Approach This early (2001) and short (24 lectures) Harl course discusses events most of us have heard of but with a different “flavor”. Astounding Byzantine research brings both depth and clarity to events that didn’t “seem to make much sense”. Harl also shows who many modern social mechanisms that we “take for granted" arose. Lecture 2 (=L2) introduces Byzantium’s (and the Islamic Caliphate’s) very “anti-modern” approach to religion and state. There was no separation of the spiritual and secular. Anatolia was divided into Prefects, Diocese, and Provinces ruled by the “Imperial Church”. L3 describes now emperors created elaborate ceremony to increase the distance between themselves and subjects. To visualize ceremonial extremes: L14 describes the emperor’s steam powered mechanical chair. A foreign envoy would lower his vision to the ground while stating his purpose. The emperor would press buttons and by the time the envoy dared to raise his gaze, the emperor was “magically” floating above him and his emerald robe was now studded with rubies. 15-year taxes re-assessments paid for this "elevation by arrogance” but are a universal curse found even in the Inca civilization (TGC’s Lost Worlds S America by Barnhart). L4: civil wars and invasions depleted Roman armies and led to the employment of federate tribal armies in the 4th century. The Persians threatened the eastern provinces and Julian’s death in battle surrendered to the Shah key invasion routes in northern Mesopotamia. Harl tells us that the average Roman Dominate soldier averaged 5’2” while his German opponent was 5’7”. At the 378 battle of Adrianople Balkan Gothic women defended their supply wagons from Emperor Valens’ surprise attack. He died when the house he fled to was burned. In L5 Harl admits he is unable to explain the expansion of Christianity. He is not impressed that their deaths in the coliseum were a significant factor. Despite Constantine (d. 307), Christians were not in the majority until “well into the fifth century”. Though he describes himself as a life-long humanist, L6 presents a thorough review of divisions within the Christian Church over an inability to resolve the “one” (Monophysite) or “dual” (Chalcedonian) nature of Christ. The Nestorian argument is also briefly dealt with. This lecture reverberates throughout the course. L8: "Fall of the Western Empire" is a review of Harl’s courses on barbarians from the Visigoths under Aleric to Attila’s Huns. L9: Justinian and his amazing wife Theodora (who originally survived via prostitution) were a remarkable pair. She could “read" people and prevented Justinian from abandoning Constantinople during the Nike nobility revolt in 532. He surrounded himself with extraordinary talent often of humble origins. One of these was Tribonian, a nerdish legal advisor who summarized Roman jurisprudence from 2000 books into 2 to 3 million lines of legalese in 150,000 lines. He also established the precedent system of checking what prior jurists said. L11 returns to Christian disunity. Justin’s interesting, but ultimately failed, attempt to find commonality was the phrase: “One of the Godhead suffered for us.” L20 -L21 contains in-depth discussion of the Crusades. The Comnenian Emperor Alexius I, ruled via a consortium of great families and wanted to take back Anatolia: After fiscal reform, he appealed to the West for mercenaries to regain Anatolia in such a way that Pope Urban II could interpret it as a call to free Jerusalem. The first Crusade cut a path of destruction through the Byzantine Empire, required aid from Alexius, and captured/controlled a series of territories (“Outreamers") including inland Edessa and coastal areas from Antioch to Jerusalem. This was not in Alexius’ plans. Other Crusades failed. The 4th, expecting aid from Constantinople, got none and consequently sacked the city. After Islamic reunification, Mehmet II seiged Constantinople’s 7000 stalwart citizens with cannon for two months before an accidentally unlocked door allowed Islamic victory in 1453 (L24). The course is quite a ride. Enjoy. CON: L16's icon debate (worshiping pictures) has heated adherents and foes, yet Harl doesn't mention illiteracy. People prior to the printing press were illiterate and often learned only through pictures.
Date published: 2023-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Typically outstanding Kenneth Harl course Very interesting and informative. Dr Harl explains things in an accessible way, as always. Important individuals are brought to life by his vivid descriptions.
Date published: 2022-06-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The World of Byzantium I bought this course hoping to learn about how the Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine world. I have not yet completed the course because I think the instructor/professor is very boring. He seems to go on and on about minutia and he puts me to sleep. He certainly is not like J.Rufus Fears, my favorite prof.
Date published: 2022-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent. Highly Recommended I bought this course for the exact reason Professor Harl cites in the introductory marketing content: " ... Mentally chart the main phases of European history to 1500. If you're like most of us, you probably hopscotched from classical Greece through Alexander the Great, from the Rome of the Caesars to the Renaissance, with a detour into the long post-Roman hiatus known as the Dark and Middle Ages. But this storyline is woefully incomplete, even misleading. Why? It leaves out Byzantium..." The course addresses the gaps in my historic knowledge well. I'm really glad to experience this course and thankful for the great courses to present this course to all of us. If your knowledge of this topic is entry-level, you'll find this course very useful.
Date published: 2021-12-27
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Could Not listen on audio book!!! The topic sounds wonderful. When I played on my cell phone through my hearing aid, lecture one jumped to the start of lecture 24! I have tried several times. How to correct this? Also, I prefer audio CD to listen to in my car. Would like many more of those. Thanks. Looking forward to finding out how to hear this series.
Date published: 2021-11-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Talks too fast, swallows his words! I'm exhausted trying to follow this man. He speaks as though it is a summary getting through the information as quickly as possible for people who already know the material. Too much detail skimmed over very fast, not taking time with the main points.
Date published: 2021-10-18
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Join award-winning scholar and lecturer Kenneth W. Harl in this study of the crucial yet overlooked civilization of Byzantium. These lectures fill a gap in history and give you a much wider and more accurate perspective on everything from the decline of imperial Rome to the rise of the Renaissance.


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
Imperial Crisis and Reform

01: Imperial Crisis and Reform

A century of crisis between 193 CE and 305 CE propelled the Roman world out of the classical into the early medieval age. After 235 CE, a series of civil wars and invasions shattered the peace of the 60-million-subject Empire, profoundly changed all aspects of life, and set the stage for the rise of the civilization that would be known as Byzantium.

32 min

02: Constantine

Convinced that the Christian God had given him a signal victory, Constantine (r. 306–337) embraced the new faith and pointed the Empire in new directions. His sponsorship of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) and his decision to build a "New Rome" on the strategic Bosporus laid the foundations of Byzantium.

30 min
State and Society Under the Dominate

03: State and Society Under the Dominate

Abandoning republican fictions, emperors after the 3rd century CE ruled as autocrats. Imperial demands eroded civic life and put classical religion and civilization in jeopardy. As the 5th century dawned, the bonds that had tied local elites to Rome had loosened, and in the West the outlines of medieval localism were emerging.

30 min
Imperial Rome and the Barbarians

04: Imperial Rome and the Barbarians

Citizen legions had long guarded Rome's frontiers. But after 235, emperors increasingly recruited barbarian tribal fighters under native leaders, thereby creating the very forces that would topple imperial power in the West.

30 min
The Rise of Christianity

05: The Rise of Christianity

Until the conversion of Constantine, Christians remained relatively few in number, mostly in Mediterranean cities. But Christian self-definition was well-honed by 312, putting Christian emperors and bishops into a position to reshape a classical world whose people mostly remained pagans into the 5th century.

30 min
Imperial Church and Christian Dogma

06: Imperial Church and Christian Dogma

The Council of Nicaea in 325 endorsed the Trinitarian theology of Athanasius but did not settle all debate. Later councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) condemned Nestorians and Monophyistes, respectively. Emperors would continue striving to reconcile the latter, who commanded loyalty in the crucial provinces of Egypt, Syria, and eastern Anatolia.

30 min
The Friends of God—Ascetics and Monks

07: The Friends of God—Ascetics and Monks

Solitary anchorites of the Egyptian desert inspired the 4th-century ascetic movement that led to medieval monasticism. St. Basil of Caesarea (330–379) penned rules regulating monastic life. His Latin counterpart, St. Benedict of Nursia (480–543), followed suit four generations later. Monasteries would play a decisive role in civilizing and converting Europe.

30 min
The Fall of the Western Empire

08: The Fall of the Western Empire

By 425, the western portion of the Roman Empire had shrunk to its Mediterranean core. The eastern court, secure behind Constantinople's Theodosian Walls, defied barbarian invaders, paid off Attila, and reformed its army. But it was too late to save the West, whose fall is usually dated to the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in 476.

30 min
The Age of Justinian

09: The Age of Justinian

Justinian (r. 527–565) was a cultured visionary, tireless public servant, and the last of the great Roman emperors. His supporting cast, headed by his wife Theodora (a former courtesan) and his superb general Belisarius, was similarly brilliant.

30 min
The Reconquest of the West

10: The Reconquest of the West

Justinian knew he could not afford long wars, but felt he had to fight the Arian German kingdoms in Italy, the Vandals in Africa, and the Persians to his east. Commanding small, often-outnumbered armies, both Belisarius and Narses (the eunuch general) worked military wonders, though the former was driven from command by the emperor's distrust.

30 min
The Search for Religious Unity

11: The Search for Religious Unity

Well schooled in theology, Justinian believed that a common creed could unite Chalcedonians and Monophysites. But he failed to reckon with the depth of the disagreements among Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria. Despite all his efforts, the imperial church at the end of his reign was even more bitterly divided than before.

30 min
The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters

12: The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters

Justinian presided over the synthesis of Jewish, classical, and provincial arts into a Christian art and architecture that shaped medieval aesthetics and created such glories as the church mosaics of Ravenna and the magnificent dome of the Hagia Sophia. This lecture also contains a fascinating discussion of the origins and design features of basilicas and other Christian church buildings in the Eastern Empire.

30 min
The Emperor Heraclius

13: The Emperor Heraclius

Heraclius (r. 610–641), the next great emperor after Justinian, managed to tame the Persian threat and restore the empire's fortunes on other fronts as well. But as Heraclius lay dying, his achievement was being nullified by the might of Arab horsemen and their powerful new faith, Islam.

30 min
The Christian Citadel

14: The Christian Citadel

For more than two centuries, the heirs of Heraclius battled Lombards in Italy, Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans, and Arabs in Anatolia. At the Battle of Poson (863), imperial forces won a victory that made it possible to carry Christianity and the civilized arts to the peoples of Eastern Europe. In the crucible of these wars was born the Byzantine Empire: Roman in government, Orthodox in faith, and Hellenic in language.

30 min
Life in the Byzantine Dark Age

15: Life in the Byzantine Dark Age

Emperors of the "Dark Age" cracked down on corruption, and Constantinople fueled economic recovery by offering ready markets, but war and plague led to a demographic collapse by 700. Desperate imperial officials settled Slavs, Armenians, and Christian sectarians as soldiers or peasants, sponsored trade, and regulated prices. In response to crisis, emperors and subjects heroically reformed their world.

30 min
The Iconoclastic Controversy

16: The Iconoclastic Controversy

Many Byzantines became convinced that icons meant idolatry, and hence divine punishment. Iconoclasm ("the breaking of images") began under Leo III (r. 717–741) and was finally settled by a moderate compromise in 843. The dispute defined orthodox ritual and widened the divide between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Henceforth, Rome looked west and Constantinople became the "queen of cities" for Eastern Europe.

30 min
Recovery Under the Macedonian Emperors

17: Recovery Under the Macedonian Emperors

The illiterate usurper Basil the Macedonian (867–886) and his heirs sought legitimacy via military victory and patronage of the arts. They could not have acted more opportunely. The 10th century was an era of battles won and peoples baptized, including the Varangians of Russia and the South Slavs. By 1025, Eastern Europe had taken on its early shape as a Byzantine Orthodox commonwealth—Slavic in speech, Byzantine in aesthetics, and imperial in institutions.

30 min
Imperial Zenith—Basil II

18: Imperial Zenith—Basil II

Basil II—nicknamed "The Bulgar-Slayer"—was the greatest warrior of his age. Scorning imperial ceremony and ruling in splendid isolation with Varangian mercenary guards, he crushed rebellions and annexed Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria. But Basil left no heir, and his very success had created a false sense of security among his inept successors. Once again, the Byzantine Empire was headed for crisis.

30 min
Imperial Collapse

19: Imperial Collapse

How did the Byzantine state, which Basil II had left in perhaps its strongest position since the days of Justinian, so quickly become enfeebled and exposed to new invaders both east and west? In 1071, on the distant Armenian battlefield of Manzikert, Byzantine forces facing the Seljuk Turks suffered a staggering defeat that changed world history.

30 min
Alexius I and the First Crusade

20: Alexius I and the First Crusade

Alexius, committed to reversing the verdict of Manzikert by reconquering Anatolia, asked Western princes to send him knights. Pope Urban II took this appeal for mercenaries as a summons to liberate the Holy Land, unleashing the Crusades and the eventual ruin of Byzantium.

30 min
Comnenian Emperors and Crusaders

21: Comnenian Emperors and Crusaders

When the Crusades of the 12th century ended in failure, Westerners blamed Byzantine treachery rather than their own poor logistics and strategy. Distracted by the Crusades, meanwhile, Constantinople neglected the Seljuk threat and lost to the Turks again at Myriocephalon (1176). The fecklessness of a new and weak dynasty, the Angelans, left Byzantium's great capital vulnerable to Crusader assault.

30 min
Imperial Exile and Restoration

22: Imperial Exile and Restoration

In April 1204, members of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople. Crusader barons and Byzantine generals carved out pieces of the faltering Empire. Michael VIII Palaeologus (1258–1282) eventually retook Constantinople, but neither he nor his less-than-brilliant heirs could reverse Byzantium's loss of even regional power or status.

30 min
Byzantine Letters and Aesthetics

23: Byzantine Letters and Aesthetics

Guardians of the classical heritage, Byzantine scholars saved many priceless Greek texts. From the 10th century on, emperors endowed schools and promoted intellectual life. Byzantine authors wrote in the tradition of Thucydides and Plutarch, and Photius revived the study of Plato. The mannerist church frescoes of the Byzantine 14th century compare with the best of contemporary Italian art, and exercised considerable influence on the Italian Renaissance.

30 min
The Fall of Constantinople

24: The Fall of Constantinople

The Palaeologan emperors hoped to preserve their shrunken realm with Western aid but could not stop the Ottomans. The last emperor, Constantine XI, and his 7,000 gallant comrades went down fighting as the historic capital of the Christian East fell to the guns and bigger battalions of Sultan Mehmet II in May 1453. From the ashes of Constantinople, Mehmet built Istanbul, seat of a new Islamic empire that would last through World War I.

30 min