Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Donald Kagan, a renowned Yale classics professor, has been thinking about the ancient Greeks for a lifetime and you can get a taste of his learning in Introduction to Ancient Greek History (website, iTunes).

Kagan, the author of a seminal four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, was also among the group of disillusioned liberals who came to be known as the “neoconservatives” in the 1970s. You can hear echoes of his political views in these lectures, for example when he praises the citizens of the Greek city states for their patriotic devotion and willingness to do battle in defense of their homelands.

I’ve been dipping in and out of this course since it first appeared in 2008. Here are some of the nuggets I’ve encountered in the first 10 lectures.

1) In the background of the Iliad, one can hear echoes of the vanished Mycenaean culture which disappeared 400 years before Homer.

2) When the Greek city states recovered from the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean culture, they sent out expeditions to explore and then colonize new lands in the Mediterranean basin. That is the origin of Greek states as far away as Sicily.

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Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Image credit*

3) The famous oracle at Delphi had a well-deserved reputation for predicting the future. Kagan explains how this worked. A priestess of Apollo sat in a cave, and apparently went into a trance induced by the mists and vapors in the cave. When a petitioner asked her a question, she would reply in gibberish, which was then interpreted by the priests. And how could the priests be right? Kagan believes that because people from all over the Greek world came to Delphi, the priests of Apollo gained an unmatched knowledge of current events and political trends. “What I’m suggesting to you is that this was the best information gathering and storing device that existed in the Mediterranean world. These people knew more than anybody else about these things, and so consulting that oracle was a very rational act indeed.”

As with all of the Open Yale Courses, you have your choice of downloadable audio, downloadable video and streaming video lectures. In addition the website provides lecture transcripts and syllabi.

*Image credit: Wikipedia.  Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.
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3 Responses to Introduction to Ancient Greek History

  1. This is very helpful. I think I will redirect my students to your site. Besides, I doubt the majority of them will read the book.

  2. Francis says:

    If you only listen to the first ten lectures then you’re definitely missing out on the best parts of this course! Kagan knows the wars of ancient Greece like nobody else, and the lectures are absolutely fascinating, especially in the second half as Sparta and Athens really come to blows. Best iTunes U course I’ve taken.

  3. Master Kim says:

    Kagan is wrong; he either knows the truth and is skewing the information for some reason (?not sure why he’d do that) or he doesn’t realize the significance of this detail and made a mistake about it because of that factor. The priest at Delphi was not a man, they were women — including the woman who went into the trance. I think this is difficult to imagine for most modern people, but it’s very possible that one of the wisest people of ancient Greece were a group of women. I think this changes the dynamics of the way we typically think about the ancients. It’s like saying that Menelaus kidnapped Helen from Troy, instead of Paris kidnapping Helen; this is a very big detail.

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