The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

Course No. 3344
Professor Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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Course No. 3344
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What Will You Learn?

  • Witness the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire ruled by one man.
  • Survey generations of emperors, from Augustus to Constantine, and get to know these figures on a personal level.
  • Explore the culture, arts, and literature that flourished during the empire.
  • Gain a sense of what Rome was like for everyday women and men-and see how that experience contrasts with our image of the Roman Empire.
  • Uncover the many reasons for Rome's collapse and the end of antiquity.

Course Overview

In 31 BCE, on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in the Mediterranean, the Roman general Octavian surveyed the aftermath of the ferocious Battle of Actium, where he’d defeated his rival Mark Antony in a war for control of Rome. This moment, in which a military leader rests and reflects on his next move toward becoming the sole leader of the Western world, is the germ out of which grows one of the most breathtaking stories in world history. This leader would soon ingeniously maneuver his way to become Rome’s first emperor, setting the stage for five centuries of Roman expansion; warfare; and, ultimately, collapse.

When Octavian, who took the title of Augustus as the first emperor of Rome, defeated Mark Antony to become the sole ruler of the Roman world, it was a major turning point in Western civilization. Not only did his decades-long rule completely transform the old Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, but it also profoundly shaped the culture and history of our world today. The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome traces this breathtaking history from the empire’s foundation by Augustus to its Golden Age in the 2nd century CE through a series of ever-worsening crises until its ultimate disintegration.

Taught by acclaimed Professor Gregory S. Aldrete of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, these 24 captivating lectures offer you the chance to experience this story like never before, incorporating the latest historical research, perspectives, and insights that challenge our previous notions of Rome’s decline. Professor Aldrete examines the major events and familiar figures of the Roman Empire, including:

  • The political innovations of Augustus—and his one major shortcoming;
  • The mental instability and cruel acts of Caligula and Nero;
  • Writers such as Ovid, Horace, and Virgil;
  • The stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius;
  • Attila the Hun, Alaric, and other “barbarians” who threatened the empire; and
  • Christian philosophers such as Augustine and Jerome.

 

But this course also moves beyond the famous figures and delves deeply into the lives of ordinary Roman women and men. You’ll read the messages they left on tombstones or scribbled on walls as graffiti; examine what life was really like for average city-dwellers and the hazards they faced every day; spend a day in Rome’s spectacular public entertainments, such as gladiator games and chariot races; and explore some of the city’s marvelous architectural and engineering works, including the Pantheon and the aqueducts.

The more you learn about the ancient Romans, the more you will realize how much we still walk in their footsteps. From particulars of the English language to our system of government to our religious practices, we are still experiencing the echoes of the Roman Empire in our world today. Indeed, we cannot truly understand ourselves unless we comprehend the vital influences of Rome on the modern world—and the lessons the empire can still teach us. The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome is an informative—and highly entertaining—guide to one of the most important periods in world history.

Study the Roman Emperors—Stable and Strong, Strange and Insane

One major theme throughout the Roman Empire is the tenuous nature of power. Because Augustus selected heredity as his succession plan, each emperor had to reckon with choosing—or, in some cases, adopting—his heir. Frequently, emperors who inherited the title were incompetent at best, and some were downright depraved.

Because history is ultimately about people, Professor Aldrete introduces you to the characters behind the names, and brings their stories to life. You’ll find out who stabilized Rome, and how; who spent money on useless projects such as a 100-foot golden statue of himself in the nude; who the citizens loved and who the citizens feared. For instance:

  • Tiberius was dour and introverted, and was often tight-fisted, which didn’t endear him to the citizens, but he did secure the borders.
  • Caligula, meanwhile, took the throne riding a wave of popularity, but his reign soon degenerated into madness, bizarre actions, and terror.
  • Nero never fiddled while Rome burned, but he did murder senators, citizens, and even his own mother (a process that took numerous Monty Python-esque twists and turns).
  • Domitian had a habit of shutting himself in his room for hours at a time, catching and impaling flies.
  • Constantine founded a second capital city for the Empire at Byzantium and immodestly renamed it Constantinople after himself.

 

Discover Rome as Experienced by Everyday Citizens

While surveying the major figures gives you a broad look at the empire’s history, Professor Aldrete goes beyond the traditional “kings and battles” approach to show you what life was like for ordinary people—starting with the nature of the city itself.

Given the traditional historical emphasis on Rome as a civilized city of good governance, engineering marvels, and magnificent architecture, you might believe the city was a clean metropolis made up of beautiful marble and elegant baths. In reality, the city was dirty, dank, and disease-ridden. Professor Aldrete cites the five F’s: floods, fires, famine, filth, and fevers—not a place you’d want to visit.

Traditional history has relied on elite, upper-class, and primarily male sources to tell us about life in Rome, but recent historians have focused on additional sources to bring the story of everyday Romans to life. In this course, you’ll examine a variety of sources that were previously overlooked or unexamined, including letters; administrative documents; epitaphs on tombstones; and, perhaps most interestingly, graffiti.

The graffiti gives us exciting insight into the minds of people long gone—and long ignored in the history books. You’ll discover eerily modern-sounding commentary on the walls of Pompeii, preserved thanks to the infamous volcano: advertisements for rooms for rent, creative and amusing political campaign ads, complaints about service in the local tavern, vulgar commentary, and even simple announcements along the lines of “Septimius was here.”

Investigate Why and When Rome Finally Collapsed

Two of the most intriguing questions about the Roman Empire are why, and when, it collapsed. As you’ll discover, historians can make the case for numerous years, including:

  • 31 BCE: The Battle of Actium, which marked the end of the Old Republic
  • 180 CE: The death of Marcus Aurelius, the last in a string of “good” emperors during Rome’s Golden Age
  • 312: Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the next major force to sweep across the West
  • 410: The Visigoth Alaric’s sack of Rome
  • 1453: The fall of Constantinople to the Turks
  • 1917: The Russian revolution and the final end of a system that had once considered itself the ideological heirs of Rome

 

Professor Aldrete does not give you an easy answer, but rather shows how history develops over time, driven by a multiplicity of factors. Forces ranging from barbarian invasions to economic collapse to climate change all played a role in the gradual end of the Roman Empire.

He also brings in a fascinating counter-perspective. The traditional story is one of collapse as Rome disintegrated and the gloomy “Dark Ages” emerged in the 4th and 5th centuries. Recently, historians have been re-examining the years from 200-600 and discovering a different story. They see in this era—“late antiquity”—invigorating change and a vibrant mingling of cultures.

Historians could debate the end of the empire all day, but Professor Aldrete simply presents the evidence and leaves it to you to formulate your own answers. One thing is certain: The Roman Empire may be ancient history, but it is far from over. The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome gives you an exciting, informative, often-amusing, and always entertaining look at an era and a people who continue to astound and interest us today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Dawn of the Roman Empire
    Your course opens by setting the stage for Rome's transition from a Republic to an Empire. Octavian, overlooking the Ionian Sea after the ferocious Battle of Actium, has just secured victory in a civil war against Mark Antony. He will soon achieve what Julius Caesar could not: one-man rule over Rome. Delve into this major turning point in world history. x
  • 2
    Augustus, the First Emperor
    Meet the man who became Rome’s first emperor: Octavian, who took the title of Augustus, was relatively short and sickly, but clever and astute. His great political innovation—taking the title Augustus, gaining control of the military, and ruling Rome without inspiring his own assassination—is one of history’s most astonishing feats. x
  • 3
    Tiberius and Caligula
    Augustus may have been a tremendous emperor, but he failed in one key area: choosing a successor. After an almost comical series of events, he secured a male heir (a son of his wife's by a previous marriage) to take the throne. Witness the debacle of Roman leadership under Tiberius and then Caligula. x
  • 4
    Claudius and Nero
    The succession after Caligula continued to be a problem for the Roman Empire. Claudius, though physically challenged, was a good administrator. Nero, however, was depraved and self-aggrandizing, and nearly bankrupted the empire. Trace the strange, sad, and bloody story of their rule. x
  • 5
    The Flavian Emperors and Roman Bath Culture
    Following Nero, a quick series of emperors took power, ultimately ending with Vespasian, the first in the line of Flavian family emperors. After reviewing the story of these emperors, their accomplishments, and their shortcomings, Professor Aldrete offers insight into Roman bath culture and what it meant for the city. x
  • 6
    The Five Good Emperors
    Round out your survey of the early Roman emperors with a look at the rulers of the 2nd century, including Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. Get to know their stories; their approach to ruling; and their achievements, such as Trajan’s military conquests and Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical meditations. x
  • 7
    Hazards of Life in Ancient Rome: The Five Fs
    You might think of Rome as a grand city filled with shining marble and peopled with decadent-toga-clad citizens. In reality, the city was a swampy, stinking, disease-ridden mess with filth in the streets and a fire nearly every night in one of its buildings. See what life would have been like for Rome's ordinary citizens. x
  • 8
    Roman Art and Architecture
    Two of the great legacies of the Roman Empire are its art and architecture. You will reflect on the Etruscan and Greek influences on Roman portraits and sculptures, see how Augustus used art as propaganda, and learn about some of the many architectural and engineering innovations—including the Pantheon and the aqueducts. x
  • 9
    Roman Literature
    Roman literature had its roots in Greek influences, but by the time of the Empire, Roman writers had come into their own. The works you will study include the fiery rhetoric of Cicero; the poetry of Horace and Ovid; and Virgil’s epic about Rome’s founding, the Aeneid. You’ll also review histories, technical works, and writings on Christianity. x
  • 10
    The Ordinary Roman Speaks: Graffiti
    The traditional understanding of Rome was based on accounts by upper-class males, who wrote the primary sources historians relied on for generations. More recent historians have looked at new sources to gain a fuller sense of the city's history. You will examine graffiti preserved at Pompeii in order to hear directly from everyday Romans. x
  • 11
    Final Words: Burial and Tombstone Epitaphs
    Continue your study of everyday Romans with a look at the epitaphs on their tombstones. While elaborate tombs were reserved for the very rich, people of all social classes had their thoughts and stories inscribed on tombstones. You will also explore how the Romans buried their dead. x
  • 12
    From Commodus to Caracalla
    Marcus Aurelius may have been a wise philosopher, but he didn't act wisely when appointing his son Commodus as heir; who turned out to be a throwback to the megalomania of Caligula and Nero. Emperor Septimius Severus provided a short period of stability, but his son, Caracalla, was yet another unbalanced ruler. x
  • 13
    The Crisis of the 3rd Century
    The empire hit a low point with Elagabalus, who was arguably the worst Roman emperor of all—which is saying quite a lot. Then Rome teetered on the brink of total collapse due to a deadly combination of civil war, barbarian invasions, economic collapse, and natural disasters. x
  • 14
    Diocletian and Late 3rd-Century Reforms
    Just when the Roman Empire seemed on the verge of collapse, a series of hard-headed, practical emperors managed to rescue it. Follow the astonishing story of how these men, led by the reformer Diocletian, drove back the barbarians and stabilized the faltering Empire. x
  • 15
    Early Christianity and the Rise of Constantine
    Stability never lasted long in the Roman Empire. At the dawn of the 4th century, Christianity emerged as a major world force—made manifest by Constantine’s dramatic and unexpected conversion. Find out how and why Christianity developed and spread, and the role it played in subsequent political events. x
  • 16
    Constantine and His Successors
    Take a closer look at Constantine and explore his motivations for converting to Christianity. Learn about the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicaea, which codified key aspects of Christian theology. Then see why Constantine founded a new capital city at Byzantium, and the state of the empire at the end of his life. x
  • 17
    Gladiators and Beast Hunts
    Gladiators dominate today’s popular imagination when it comes to ancient Rome—and indeed, the Romans loved their spectacles and sports. As you will find out here, gladiator combat was only one of many popular entertainments in the empire. Find out who the gladiators were and what their lives were like. Then turn to another popular contest: the beast hunt. x
  • 18
    Chariot Racing, Spectacles, and Theater
    Although gladiators dominate Hollywood films, chariot racing was actually the most popular sport in the Roman Empire. Go inside the Circus Maximus and learn about the factions and teams of chariot racers. Then shift your attention to the world of the theater, where plays, mimes, and music entertained the masses. x
  • 19
    The Roman Army
    No survey of the Roman Empire would be complete without a detailed look at one of its most central institutions: the military. Take a look at the organization of Rome's fighting forces. See what kind of equipment soldiers were outfitted with, how they trained, and what joining the military meant for farm boys in the provinces. x
  • 20
    Barbarians Overwhelm the Western Empire
    Administration is only half the battle in maintaining a tremendous empire. You also have to defend the borders, and from the 3rd to the 5th centuries, Rome experienced an increasing wave of invasions by outsiders. Here, Professor Aldrete introduces you to the Huns, the Visigoths, the Vandals, and other invaders who penetrated Rome's borders and plundered the empire. x
  • 21
    The Byzantine Empire
    While the western half of the Roman Empire had clearly collapsed by the end of the 5th century, the eastern Romans in the Byzantine Empire flourished for another thousand years. Visit the world of Constantinople, meet fascinating figures such as Justinian and Theodora, and see what made the Byzantine Empire so successful. x
  • 22
    When and Why Did the Roman Empire Fall?
    Generations of historians have struggled over—and disagreed about---the fundamental questions of when and why the Roman Empire fell. This lecture critically evaluates a wide range of possible answers to these complex and enduring questions. x
  • 23
    Late Antiquity: A New Historical Era
    Traditionally, historians have viewed the years 200 to 600 as a time of collapse and stagnation, the end of Rome and the arrival of the “Dark Ages.” Recent historians have taken another look at this era and seen a time of invigorating change, a vibrant mingling of cultures, and an exciting transition between antiquity and the Middle Ages. x
  • 24
    Echoes of Rome
    In this final lecture, consider the legacy of the Roman Empire, which influences us in innumerable ways, from our language to our legal codes. Because history is ultimately about people, Professor Aldrete closes with a few final voices to keep everyday Romans alive, and a reflection on what they might tell us today. x

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Your professor

Gregory S. Aldrete

About Your Professor

Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each...
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Reviews

The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 30.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great addition! Taken together with his "Rise of Rome", and having heard the other courses on the subject since Kenneth Harl, I found both courses really good. Aldrete is an engaging lecturer, clearly enjoying and excited about the subject matching this with well thought out course. You get the regular and still interesting facts, people, and battles, remembering some, getting to know others, plus he adds specific lectures on general aspects of the culture, society such as some emphasis on origin legends that helped shape the Roman character and which will influence the course of its history, on entertainment, Roman Army. I specially liked that he dedicated more time explaining contemporary debates among historians about more thorny issues like the fall of the roman empire or the end of the Republic, as well as giving a good perspective on the role of women and the availability (or not) of good sources and why this is so.
Date published: 2019-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Trying to Recover! By the end of this course I was exhausted! I felt like I had been alongside each emperor and in every battle! The professor was articulate, great with his gestures and enthusiasm, and made Rome come alive with his knowledge! Rome is usually glorified and you see the whitewashing but here we learned about the unseemly side as well - filth, famine, murder, treachery, etc. A fascinating journey back in the day!
Date published: 2019-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! Better than I hoped! I am studying the Latin Language with a view to becoming proficient in reading and writing (Speaking???) Latin, mainly for Ecclesiastical use. As I reflected on my language studies, it became clear to me that I needed to know the history, culture, and tradition within which the Latin Language arose. This course from The Great Courses, and others that I have purchased or will purchase, are doing that and more. I cannot recommend “The Roman Empire,” and related courses, too highly. You will not regret your decision.
Date published: 2019-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Greatest Empire Ever I am a Roman History fan. Years ago I bought The Great Courses "The History of Ancient Rome". That course was best in describing the last 150 years of the republic. This course takes off from where the best of the former course leaves off. It gives you an accurate and sharp picture of the most important and well known Roman Emperors. I found the best parts when we read source material from regular Roman citizens, from graffiti, barial stones, and letters were very enlightening.
Date published: 2019-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course, great professor I believe the professor made this course even more interesting when learning I would like add subtitles when displaying, as some Rome words not knowing. More chart and pictures would make it better to understand.
Date published: 2019-07-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject by a great educator This course is a good continuation of what Professor Aldrete had done earlier with his course “The Rise of Rome”. Overall, I found this to be a decent course. I was really hoping for some more information about Roman emperors like Claudius and Nero but I was a little disappointed in that respect. I really wanted to know a bit more about some of the ways in which emperors like them ruled or did not rule in the case of Nero and other despotic emperors. While “The Rise of Rome” looked at daily life during the Republic, this course takes that a step further by looking at the culture of the empire. One of the highlights I want to mention is on the gladiator fights and chariot races. Since we have preconceived notions about them because of Hollywood, it was very refreshing to know more about how gladiators fought and died in the area. I think this course will help someone have a greater understanding of life during the Roman Empire and its importance to the history of the Western World.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome, as usual. My 95 year old father is thrilled with the course on gravity. I'm loving Tai Chi and my husband and I are enjoying the Roman Empire.
Date published: 2019-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Outstanding Course in All Respects This is another completely excellent course from Professor Aldrete. (I was, in fact, tempted to just copy my review from "The Rise of Rome", which I called "Fascinating Subject, Outstanding Teaching." I feel the same way here.) The course is for anyone with an interest in the history of Western civilization, as well as in ancient Rome in particular. The major political and military events are well-covered. In addition, and very much appreciated, are lectures on daily life and ordinary Romans, art, architecture, literature, mass entertainments, dangers such as fire and famine, and the like. Particularly well done are the last two lectures, which place Rome's history in broader historical context, and which detail the specific influences ancient Rome has had and continues to have on our own lives. Professor Aldrete is excellent, as usual. He is appropriately organized, and speaks eloquently in a well-modulated, conversational voice. (Yes, he does introduce too many pauses within sentences, but I learned to ignore that.) The visuals, including photos of places and of art, and maps, are quite helpful, but the course could be appreciated in audio as well. I have to add what I think is the most essential take-away from these courses: Rome was the greatest empire in the world, and it fell. What makes us think we will go on forever? Is it time to get concerned?? So - An outstanding course, with my highest recommendation. Enjoy, and learn.
Date published: 2019-06-04
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