Rome and the Barbarians

Course No. 3460
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3460
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Course Overview

The history of the Romans and the "barbarians" they encountered as their mighty legions advanced the frontiers of Classical civilization has in large part been written as a story of warfare and conquest. But to tell the story on only that level leaves many questions unanswered, not only about the Romans but about the barbarians, as well.

  • Who were the Celts, Goths, Huns, Persians, and so many others met by the Romans as they marched to the north and east? And what made them barbarians in the eyes of Rome?
  • What were the political, military, and social institutions that made Rome so stable, allowing its power to be wielded against these different cultures for almost three centuries?
  • What role did those institutions themselves play in assimilating barbarian peoples, first as provincials and often as players in a vast process of Romanization?

What Is a Barbarian? Explore the Basis of Western European Civilization

Rome and the Barbarians tells the story of the complex relationships between each of these native peoples and their Roman conquerors as they intermarried, exchanged ideas and mores, and, in the ensuing provincial Roman cultures, formed the basis of Western European civilization.

As you examine the interaction between Rome and the barbarians from 300 B.C. to A.D. 600, you learn that the definition of barbarian was, effectively, the "next group not under Roman control." And you see how that definition was always changing, as former barbarians became assimilated into the Roman world, becoming provincials and, often, eventually Romanized themselves.

In leading you through this 900-year period, Tulane University's Professor Kenneth W. Harl organizes the course around two major themes:

  • The makeup of Roman society, politics, and military organization, particularly from the standpoint of how those institutions enabled the Romans not only to conquer those peoples, but integrate them
  • The role played by the most recent of Rome's barbarian foes—especially the Germans and the Persians—in bringing down the Roman Empire, including the question of what gave them the military or political edge to accomplish this.

Throughout these lectures, and the introduction of each new barbarian culture, Professor Harl emphasizes three crucial aspects of Rome's relationships to them:

  1. The ability of the Romans to adapt and build pragmatically on existing structures of the barbarian world, using what worked, and not simply imposing a "Roman way"
  2. The ways the Romans looked on these barbarians not only as outsiders, but also as potential allies and provincials
  3. What barbarian societies were like at the time of Roman contact and conquest, and how, through assimilation, they contributed to the successful establishment of Roman provinces.

Enjoy an Intimate Sense of History

Professor Harl is a nine-time winner of Tulane University's Student Award for Excellence in Teaching. His other popular courses for The Teaching Company have explored The Era of the Crusades, The World of Byzantium, and Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor.

As in each of those courses, Professor Harl, in Rome and the Barbarians, puts on display a prodigious knowledge, combined with a wry wit and street-level familiarity with his subject that allows him to navigate the most distant pathways of history with a rare sense of intimacy.

In this course, Professor Harl has the opportunity to share the nuances of his principal area of interest and research—indeed, his passion—in exploring a subject whose influence on today's world, more than 1,400 years later, is as apparent to us now as it must have been then.

"What Rome perhaps gave, foremost, to the barbarian successor states were certainly some of the institutions, the literary culture, the organization that survived in the church, as well as the model to which to aspire," says Professor Harl.

"Even after Rome, as a political force, had disappeared, Rome remained a mentor to these peoples, who fused to become the ancestors of the modern Europeans.

"Rome is, therefore, ever present with us, and is ever a mentor, even to us today, as it was for those barbarians of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries."

Nine Centuries of Fascinating Characters

Beyond the institutions that made Rome so extraordinary, of course, are the equally extraordinary figures—both Roman and barbarian—whose names have been familiar to us for so long, along with some that are not.

Among the many figures you'll come to know are:

  • Augustus, the emperor whose organizational genius allowed him to establish the constitutional basis of the Principate—the imperial government in which the emperor rules in accordance with the symbols and powers of the Republic
  • Constantine I, who reunited the Roman world and, in dedicating Constantinople—"New Rome"—as a Christian capital, assured the future of the Christian Byzantine empire
  • Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, one of the greatest of Roman commanders, whose defeat of Hannibal ended the Second Punic War
  • Diocletian, the emperor who put the empire on a sound fiscal footing and attempted to create a permanent Tetrarchy, wherein imperial power was shared by two senior and two junior emperors
  • Jugurtha, the Numidian king whose wars against his cousins for mastery of Numidia caused him to blunder into a scandalous war with Rome
  • Gaius Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman of them all and the creator of the Roman imperial monarchy. As a dictator, he reformed Rome, but his monarchical aspirations led to his assassination
  • Nero, whose amoral and outrageous conduct alienated the ruling classes and frontier legions and precipitated his downfall and suicide
  • Attila, the Hun ruler whose devastating raids into the Balkans earned him the sobriquet "Scourge of God," and whose life of warfare and violence ended, ironically, with a death from overindulgence at his own wedding
  • Shapur I, the second Sassanid Shah of Persia who waged three successful campaigns against Rome, captured the Emperor Valerian, and sacked Antioch, the third city of the Roman Empire
  • Ermanaric, the King of the Gothic confederation, remembered in Norse legend as a cunning and cruel tyrant, who committed suicide after being defeated by Huns and Alans in 375.

A list like this only begins to scratch the surface of the personalities brought to life by Professor Harl, whose dedication to this historical place and period is so complete he can be accurately described as speaking of individual Romans—as well as barbarian kings—as if they were acquaintances.

But these lectures deliver far more than personal snapshots, as compelling as those may be.

The Institutions that Shaped Rome and Its New Provinces

Professor Harl also brings to life the institutions that shaped both Rome and her relationship with, and assimilation of, the barbarians at her constantly expanding frontiers.

You learn about the nuances of Roman politics, and how one advanced—or didn't—in the Roman hierarchy.

You study the rules of servitude in the Roman world, and the upward mobility possible even for many slaves.

You find out about the daily lives of Rome's fighting men—including the techniques that made them so feared—and how changes in military organization brought about by the pressures of maintaining an empire took an inevitable toll on the might of Rome's forces.

Engage in an Unusual Depth of Detail

Professor Harl spices his analysis with a depth of detail that makes this long-ago world live once again. You'll learn about:

  • The extraordinary design principle behind Roman encampments, which still survives in the street plans of cities in Western Europe and elsewhere
  • The ignominious end of notorious Ptolemy the "Thunderbolt," ruler of Macedon, his head made into a drinking cup after his failure to defeat the Gauls, who, like other Celts, often took heads as a way of counting the dead
  • The Roman focus on enforcing taxation, and how this strengthened Carthage and gave Hannibal the funds to reopen the struggle against Rome
  • How Caesar's Commentaries, long maligned as little more than a primer for those studying Latin, survives as a guide to generalship relied on by no less a tactician than William Tecumseh Sherman
  • Professor Harl's light-hearted tale of how the Goths, no matter how much fear they stirred, were utterly stumped by the problem of mounting a successful siege against a walled city
  • The importance to the Romans of logistics, and how the elaborate all-weather roads they constructed to support their strategic mobility still form the road systems of Western Europe
  • The catastrophic Varian disaster and how it forever changed Rome's perceptions of whether the barbarians at the northwestern borders could ever be truly controlled
  • The humiliating fate of the captured Emperor Valerian—whom records suggest spent the remainder of his days as a mounting stool for Shah Shapur.

Rome and the Barbarians gives you a new appreciation of how our Western world came to be and detailed knowledge about the individuals from royalty to "barbarian" who played key roles in that process.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Greek and Roman Views of Barbarians
    Professor Kenneth W. Harl introduces the course and its main themes, beginning with an explanation of exactly what the ancient Romans meant by the term "barbarian." x
  • 2
    The Roman Republic
    This lecture introduces the constitutional and political institutions of Rome during the "Middle Republic" years, when Rome emerges with her political, military, and constitutional institutions in place. x
  • 3
    Roman Society
    This lecture looks at the societal bonds in the early Roman Republic that cemented the various social classes, or ordinates, as well as the Italian allied communities, into a wider Roman Republic, or Res Publica. x
  • 4
    The Roman Way of War
    This central lecture introduces the third of the key institutions of the middle and late Roman Republic—the army—and discusses the extraordinarily successful and brutal Roman way of war. x
  • 5
    Celtic Europe and the Mediterranean World
    You meet the Celtic-speaking peoples of western and central Europe, in many ways the epitome of "barbarians" to both the Greeks and Romans. x
  • 6
    The Conquest of Cisalpine Gaul
    Professor Harl explains the role played by the Celts—known to the Romans as Gauls—in northern Italy and the profound influence they had on early Rome. x
  • 7
    Romans and Carthaginians in Spain
    This lecture deals with the initial Roman intervention in, and eventual conquest of, the Iberian Peninsula—or what the Romans called Hispania. x
  • 8
    The Roman Conquest of Spain
    Professor Harl takes a closer look at the period from 197 B.C. to 133 B.C., when the Romans were forced to come to terms with the commitments they took on by defeating the Carthaginians in Spain. x
  • 9
    The Genesis of Roman Spain
    This lecture discusses the development of Roman Spain, moving us into the area of social and economic changes brought on by the Roman conquest. x
  • 10
    Jugurtha and the Nomadic Threat
    This lecture discusses the relationship between Rome and the barbarians of Roman North Africa, especially the Numidians and their king, Jugurtha—with whom Rome blundered into an ugly frontier war. x
  • 11
    Marius and the Northern Barbarians
    Gaius Marius, the victor over Jugurtha, fights a series of battles against the dreaded Germanic-speaking northern barbarians that shape not only the direction of Roman foreign policy but, ultimately, Roman attitudes toward those barbarians. x
  • 12
    Rome's Rivals in the East
    Professor Harl shifts the focus away from the western Mediterranean to the peoples who lay to the east, at the frontier Rome inherited by taking over the hegemony of the Hellenistic world. x
  • 13
    The Price of Empire—The Roman Revolution
    This lecture examines the impact on Rome's institutions of her wars, conquests, and territorial acquisitions. x
  • 14
    Julius Caesar and the Conquest of Gaul
    The entire axis and dimension of the Roman world is transformed during this key period in the career of perhaps the most memorable of all Romans. x
  • 15
    Early Germanic Europe
    In this first of a series of lectures introducing new barbarians, Professor Harl discusses the Germanic tribes who came to epitomize the most ferocious barbarians the Romans had encountered. x
  • 16
    The Nomads of Eastern Europe
    This lecture introduces still more barbarians to the mix: the various Iranian-speaking nomads of eastern Europe. x
  • 17
    Arsacid Parthia
    This lecture examines how the Parthians came to become the dominant barbarian power in the Near East and the great rival of Imperial Rome for almost 300 years. x
  • 18
    The Augustan Principate and Imperialism
    The focus returns to Rome proper: what the Roman Empire was all about, how it evolved from the institutions of the Republic, and how changing political arrangements altered those institutions and, ultimately, Rome's relationship with the barbarians. x
  • 19
    The Roman Imperial Army
    As Rome moves from Republic to Empire, the Roman Imperial Army becomes a very different institution. x
  • 20
    The Varian Disaster
    In beginning a set of five lectures that discuss the different relationships between Rome and its various foes on the imperial frontiers, Professor Harl examines one of the most dramatic events in Roman imperial history. x
  • 21
    The Roman Conquest of Britain
    This lecture reveals some of the differences in how the Romans reacted to a Celtic-based civilization, as opposed to the German tribes in the imperial age. x
  • 22
    Civil War and Rebellion
    The record left by Tacitus reveals how the Roman Empire was ripped apart by civil wars and rebellions between A.D. 68 and 70, illuminating both the institutional weaknesses in the constitutional and military arrangements made by Augustus and Rome's relationships with its various provincial frontier peoples. x
  • 23
    Flavian Frontiers and the Dacians
    With this lecture and the next, Professor Harl concludes Rome's creation of its frontier, setting the stage for an examination of why Rome fell and the role played by the barbarians. x
  • 24
    Trajan, the Dacians, and the Parthians
    This lecture concludes imperial Rome's wars of conquest against her barbarian foes by concentrating on the career of the emperor Trajan, the first man of provincial origins to become emperor. x
  • 25
    Romanization of the Provinces
    In the first of three lectures dealing with the social and economic transformations of the frontier provinces, Professor Harl looks at the ability of the Romans to adapt existing institutions, bring in their own concepts of citizenship and political organization, and incorporate her foes into the Roman system. x
  • 26
    Commerce Beyond the Imperial Frontiers
    The economic and social changes brought on by imperial Rome had a profound impact not only on the traditional societies of the provinces, but on the barbarian peoples living beyond the Roman frontier. x
  • 27
    Frontier Settlement and Assimilation
    This lecture examines how the movement of barbarians along Rome's frontiers took place and the kind of exchanges—both social and material—that ensued. x
  • 28
    From Germanic Tribes to Confederations
    The "3rd-century crisis" is seen as the era when Rome would be profoundly altered by the unique changes going on in the frontier provinces and the distinct provincial societies emerging as a result of immigration, trade, and military service by the barbarians. x
  • 29
    Goths and the Crisis of the Third Century
    As Goths begin to attack the mid and lower Danube, they are seen by Roman authors as a particularly vicious and new threat at a time when Rome is already feeling mounting pressures from her own civil wars and the Sassanid Shahs of Persia. x
  • 30
    Eastern Rivals—Sassanid Persia
    This lecture examines why the Persians represented such a formidable threat and why the Romans massed so much of their forces in the East, thus exposing their Danube and Rhine frontiers to the Goths and West Germanic tribes. x
  • 31
    Rome and the Barbarians in the Fourth Century
    This lecture explains the changes that occurred in the Roman world as a result of the wars and invasions of the 3rd century A.D. and the ways in which the emperors Diocletian and Constantine were fundamental to those changes. x
  • 32
    From Foes to Federates
    In this lecture, Professor Harl deals with the relationships between the barbarian foes of Rome and the new imperial order created by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D. x
  • 33
    Imperial Crisis and Decline
    The Battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378, in which Goths defeated the Eastern Roman field army—slaying the emperor Valens—proves decisive in its aftermath as it alters the character of the late Roman Army. x
  • 34
    Attila and the Huns
    This lecture takes a close look at the Huns—along with their most famous king—and their role in the breakup of the Empire and the shaping of the political and cultural landscape that followed. x
  • 35
    Justinian and the Barbarians
    Two related subjects are covered: the aftermath of the Hun attacks, with the breakup of the Western Empire and collapse of the imperial government, and the reign of the emperor Justinian, the dominant figure of the 6th century A.D. x
  • 36
    Birth of the Barbarian Medieval West
    This lecture concludes the course by reminding us of how Rome, though its empire was broken up in the West and greatly contracted in the East, has indeed survived in many ways. x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Rome and the Barbarians is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 83.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting for Background History and Information Having a passing interest in this subject, I found this to be worth my time and would recommend it to anyone doing a more than usual in-depth study of the subject. The instructor not only gives the usual dates, people and places, but goes into why these events were unfolding, what was driving Roman leaders to do what they did, and how those actions caused trouble for themselves and their successors. We usually think of Rome dealing with only one set of barbarians, but as the empire grew and absorbed the barbarians at their borders, this made the barbarians just beyond their borders the "new" barbarians. The Romans also had to deal with the vast amounts of tribes moving into Europe from the East looking for new lands to settle and plunder. As the Roman empire hired vast amounts of barbarians as mercenary soldiers for their far flung legions, trained and equipped them, and gave them advanced status in the empire, these "barbarians" learned the Roman system of "doing business" and started to turn on their "masters". This is a process that went on for generations and the Romans never seemed to learn from this mistake. It is interesting to think of the various Gothic tribes as only being seen in Eastern and Central Europe, but we find that because of Rome hiring them as mercenaries to bulk up their legions, they appear to also settle in Spain and North Africa, and eventually cause more problems for future Roman rulers.
Date published: 2019-07-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative Learned a lot and unlearned things I thought I knew. Prof. Harl is an excellent teacher. For anyone wishing to learn more about the era I would recommend first watching his lecture series The Great Civilizations of Asia Minor as it leads well into the subject of the Roman Empire.
Date published: 2019-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great History of the Roman Empire This is an overall superior course. Professor Harl is one of the better professors featured in the Great Courses. This might be my favorite course that I've listened to so far by Professor Harl, and I've listed to about half a dozen of them. In many ways, this isn't just a course about Rome's interaction with the barbarians, but it is also a good summary of the history of the Roman Empire in general. The professor makes a good argument that the history of Rome is inextricably linked with its relationship to the various barbarian groups that it faced. Of particular note, this course contains one of the best summaries of the collapse of the Roman Empire that I have ever heard. This course is well-worth the time.
Date published: 2019-06-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from No Go for streaming on my iPad. I have tried several times to view this course on my iPad, but nothing comes up. Very discouraging.
Date published: 2019-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Harl Home Run! I know I'm late to the game on this one (I was waiting for the price point I wanted!) and that Rome and the Barbarians has been around for many years (2004). But, I'd be remiss at not giving credit and high praise where it's due. I'm, admittedly, a big Professor Harl fan and don't suffer the problem many younger folks seem to nowadays what I consider the right mix of knowledge, personable presentation, camera presence, and witticism. Professor Harl is one of the Great Courses most knowledgeable presenters and overcomes the lack of graphics capability ALL those years ago with more than 'adequate' maps and his depth of knowledge and experience with the topic. Two BIG thumbs up for Rome and the Barbarians!!
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Difficult to concentrate It is difficult to get involved with the history because of the Professor's use of "ahhhhh" after every phrase.
Date published: 2019-03-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from An Old-School TGC Offering that Needs a Makeover I guess I have been spoiled by taking a lot of courses produced recently by TGC. The visual andtechnical elements have been raised to much higher levels than they were 10 or 15 years ago, as I was painfully reminded when I watched these videos in October 2018. If you’re a longtime TGC student as I am, this will be a walk down memory lane: the Bach theme, the phony class applause, the living room set complete with Colliers Encyclopedias and Harvard Classics, the lectern and the “invisible students,” and the talking head that seldom makes eye contact. From a technical standpoint, this course suffers from a lack of subtitles, and in packaging, from the old-fashioned approach of “2 DVDs per case,” which makes this course take up three times the shelf room of more recent courses. As I mentioned in a review of Prof. Harl’s course on the Crusades, his mannerisms have become very distracting to me (peering over his glasses, mispronouncing words, the endless streams of “uhs” and “ums”). He is clearly a knowledgeable professor when it comes to antiquities and the history of the Mediterranean, but he would be helped by a teleprompter and a better director. (His more recent “Fall of the Pagans” is a definite improvement.) One thing this course has which current TGC courses lack is a thorough course book. The thick little volume accompanying this course has a thorough timeline, glossary, “cast of characters” and bibliography. These features have gradually disappeared in recent years. What about the actual content of the course? Well, for one thing, it is LONG: 36 lectures. And several of the chapters are just a stream of names and dates that eventually leave the viewer crying “uncle.” Prof. Harl takes a fairly standard chronological approach, introducing each new gang of barbarians as they arrive on the timeline. The course is well-illustrated with maps, coins, artifacts, and scenery, so I would definitely recommend the video version. But overall, I wish that TGC would redo this series, condensing it and making it less like a barbarian shopping list.
Date published: 2018-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Both informative and entertaining! I bought the DVD (that comes with free video download). I found the information very informative because it chronicles Rome's relationship with whom they considered barbarians, from the earliest days of Rome, to the aftermath of the barbarian takeover of the territory that was the Western Roman Empire. I absolutely loved this series because it helped me better understand the root causes and relationships that led to the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Medieval Period, a very confusing period in history.
Date published: 2018-10-02
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