Other than about five merely 4-star minutes on what medieval knights wore in one of the later lectures, I can find little to fault with this Great Course. Robert Garland makes the past come alive in colorful, carefully chosen, elegant prose. One shouldn't let oneself be fooled by a posh British accent, but let's face it - it doesn't hurt. Nor does Garland's dry humor. He describes the ancient Egyptians, for example, as wearing a lot of "bling", and notes that while the Norman invasion brought to the English language words for cooked cow and pig, i.e. "beef" and "pork", the frenchified Norsemen neglected to teach the Brits how to cook and left them to eat appalling food for another thousand years.
Surrounding these lighter moments is endlessly fascinating information about how people lived, such as that Rome was full of five-story apartment buildings. Who knew? And that the ancient Egyptians were such a conservative society that only experts can tell the age of paintings they made 500 years apart -- so little did their art change over time. I also came away with a rather different impression of Ancient Greece than I went into the course with, thanks to Garland's detailed descriptions of the separation of the sexes and the way slavery worked. In many ways Ancient Greece reminded me more, in the end, of the Arab world where I have lived, than of modern Western democracies.
Some might bristle a bit at the slight academic leftist bent to some of the lectures, with their focus on the poor, the slaves, women, the everyman. This is, however, the point of the course, after all, and once you get past the occasional sense that someone's been hanging out a bit too long with the sociology department the information conveyed is all fascinating, not least the nuanced descriptions of how slavery worked in the ancient world (also reminiscent of how slavery still works in remote areas of the Sahel and Maghreb).
One insight I found provocative was that there was what Garland calls a lack of a social conscience in the ancient world. It occurred to no one, apparently, that slavery was in any way wrong, or that the sexes or even all men were deserving of equal rights. Given the many modern-seeming sentiments -- about love, virtue, self-discipline, ambition, etc.-- that Garland describes among the ancients, it's surprising that none of the many great thinkers of these early civilizations came up with at least the idea that no kinds of humans were, deep down, better than any others, or deserving of the status of chattel. (Of course then Jesus came along and had these ideas to some extent, and he was a product of that world.)
Another thing I liked about this course was that just when you were thinking, "Really? How can we know that?" about one or another factoid, Garland would explain the source of the information, without every burdening the lecture with too much referencing. And again, just when you would start thinking, "Really? Did they really say that or think that? Am I supposed to just take your word for it?" he would pull out the perfect quotation from an ancient source, giving credence yet again to the sense he delivers so elegantly throughout, that these people really were not so different, in the end, from ourselves.
I've loved many of The Great Courses but this one was among the most fun to listen to. I thought Liulevicius found just the right balance between the grand narrative and intriguing details from each voyage of exploration & discovery. I loved that he began "at the beginning," with human wanderings across the earth. His lecture on the colonization of the islands of the Pacific was particularly fascinating. He has lovely "asides" into Montaigne's early cultural relativism, Jules Verne's classics, The Odyssey, T.S. Eliot & more that contextualize the voyages he describes in wider social history. On top of all this he has an energetic and precise speaking-style that I found very pleasant to listen to.
Jennifer Paxton is a fantastic storyteller. Her delivery of this course is perfect - not an "um" or an "uh" to be heard in any of the 36 lectures (or however many there were). Even when I was getting a bit lost among the Henry's, Richard's, half-great uncles and all the other kingly kinship drama that seems to have shaped so much of the politics of Medieval England, Paxton's lectures were always a joy to listen to. Paxton exhibited unpretentious mastery of the subject, gliding seamlessly between battle plans, social history, and literature. She inserts just the right amount of detail, and just the right amount of humor, into the telling. I know she has one other briefer course, and I hope she will narrate more.
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