Review | The Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations – Kenneth W. Harl

About the Book

Locales like Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley, peoples like the Hittites or Assyrians, or rulers like Sargon, Hammurabi, and Darius are part of a long-dead antiquity, so shrouded with dust that we might be tempted to skip over them entirely, preferring to race forward along history’s timeline in search of the riches we know will be found in our studies of Greece and Rome.

But, according to Professor Harl, these civilizations, “act as the cultural basis for many of the civilizations that will emerge on the Eurasian landmass and will dictate the destinies of many of the people living today on the globe.” These remote, ancient civilizations stand behind the traditions of Greece, so it is critical to understand these great societies in order to better understand those that would come later – including our own.

These 12 fast-paced lectures cover many civilizations that may only receive a few lines of cursory discussion in the average Western civilization textbook. Beginning in the Bronze Age and the emergence of urban-based literate civilizations, the story continues through the demise of Persia’s great empire at the hands of the Greeks.

Along the way, you’ll examine advances such as the invention and evolution of writing, the development of vast empires dependent not only on military might but on laws and administration, the growth of trade, and the contributions of the Hebrews to the religious and ethical future of Western civilization.

History lovers will appreciate this course for its deep insights and its rock-solid foundation for deeper exploration. 

The lectures you get are: 

Cradles of civilization
First cities of Sumer
Mesopotamian kings and scribes
Hammurabi’s Babylon
Egypt in the pyramid age
The Middle Kingdom
Imperial Egypt
New peoples of the Bronze Age
The collapse of the Bronze Age 
From Hebrews to Jews
Imperial Assyria
The Persian Empire

Check out the Great Courses Plus here
Lecture on Audible here

I don’t know a whole lot about ancient civilizations. In fact, I’d say I mostly just know the highlights and like, pyramids and stuff. It isn’t that this isn’t an interesting topic, but I’ve never really found it that accessible and so I’ve always avoided it. I think I tend to gravitate toward more modern era things because they are easier for me to understand and I can see the direct impacts playing out on the world stage even now. 

So, yeah. Ancient civilizations have never been my bag. However, I recently jumped on a Great Courses Plus sale, and I saw this lecture series and thought, “why not.” 

I’ve heard a lot about Kenneth W. Harl, and his courses seem to have good ratings, so I figured this might be a good place for me to start. Now, this really is just an overview. There are twelve lectures, and a whole lot is covered in those twelve lectures. It worked for me, because it broke down important civilizations and developments and got my feet wet so I knew what I wanted to read as further research later. It also put me on a complete and absolute ancient history bing-fest with my books, so that’s a mark in its favour. 

I don’t typically enjoy overviews, but for something like this, I actually really appreciated it. Adding the video to these lectures was a really great thing to do, as it helped me to see the maps of trade routes in Sumer, for example, and movements in Egypt and the rise and fall of other dynasties and peoples who didn’t really make sense to me unless I saw their rough locations on a map. It also helped to see some of the artwork and examples of writing and what have you as he was talking. Learning about cuneiform is one thing, but seeing cuneiform while you learn about it is quite another. 

This lecture series is available on Audible, but unless you’re terribly familiar with terms and locations and etc, then you will probably want to google maps and etc as you listen. I also think the Audible lectures come with PDFs, so that might be a good option as well. 

Your mileage may vary as you listen to this lecture series. People who are more familiar with this topic and time period will likely find a lot of information they already know, and not much that is new. Also, he doesn’t really have enough time to deep dive into any of the civilizations and dynasties he covers, so if you aren’t one who enjoys summaries of important facts and events, then this might frustrate you more than enlighten you. 

That being said, this was basically exactly what I needed: an overview of important events, and a ton of new information delivered in a succinct way, by a professor who is intensely familiar with the topic in which he is teaching. Were their parts I wished he’d spent more time on? Yes. However, he gave me the foundation I needed to know what books I wanted to read to learn even more, and he taught me a whole lot that I didn’t know, or had forgotten since my art history days in college. 

I think my favorite parts of this were the parts touching on ancient Sumerians and their early cities, specifically the hows and whys of how writing came to be, and the first social stratification and the rise of kings and the like. Talk about something I literally knew less than nothing about, the lectures on that area and that period of time blew me away and now I’ve got a whole bunch of books loaded up on my kindle that cover ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. I found the parts on Egypt to be where my mind wandered the most, and I really currently want to know a lot more about the Bronze Age and the Persian Empire.

So while I do think that your mileage may vary depending on how interested you are in this topic and how much you already know, for me, this was exactly what I was looking for. I appreciated the professor’s knowledgeable delivery of information, and his ability to present succinct overviews without making me feel like I was just getting the highlights. Perhaps the highest mark of favor I could give this lecture series, is the fact that it’s made me want to learn more. 

The only real thing that keeps me from giving this a full five stars is the fact that this series is kind of dated, and I almost wish he’d made an updated series of lectures. I do wonder what new information has been found, if any. 

If you’re a fan of ancient history, and the Great Courses, you should really check this one out. 

4/5 stars

2 Responses

  • I think the trouble I would have listening to history lectures is that they remind me of those audio tours you get when you visit a castle. I always tune out after the first three minutes and that’s when I’m standing in a frickin’ castle.

    I think you’re probably right that an overview is a good way to whet your appetite and then you can delve into deeper research yourself if you are intrigued, but there is such a variety of topics here that it feels like you’d never settle down to one era being you had moved on to the next.

  • Astra

    I love Kenneth Harl. I’ve listened to all of his lectures. He definitely goes into more detail on many of the others.

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