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Two Reviews – Ancient Greek History and Ancient Greek Religion MOOCs


Before his recent retirement, Professor Donald Kagan was both a Dean at Yale University and the Sterling Professor of Classics who taught two hugely popular courses: The Origins of War and Introduction to Ancient Greek History, available via Open Yale, a lesser-known source of online materials similar to M.I.T.s OpenCourseWare.

The lectures themselves are widely distributed on places like YouTube and iTunes, where it is easiest to download the videos, but the Open Yale site includes a copy of the course syllabus for those interested in following along with the class reading. I have to admit to having started listening to these lectures a few years back, but with my newfound interest in all things Greek, it seemed worth checking out this material anew as part of my Degree of Freedom lineup.

Like many an iTunes U course, the lectures from this class are indistinguishable from what you would get if you shelled out the dough to enroll in Yale since they are direct recordings (available as either audio or video) of the full sequence of 24 talks given over a semester.

In many ways, Ancient Greek History is the archetypical survey course covering a period from the archaic past (which Kagan calls “The Dark Ages”) though the rise of the polis (the Greek city state) up to the end of Greek independence with the conquest of Greece by the Macedonian king Phillip and his ambitious punk kid Alexander the Great.

While today we think of ancient Greece as the birthplace of Western cultural and intellectual foundations such as drama and philosophy, Kagan never lets us forget the significance of warfare as a driving force of Greek history. The sight of Yale students in shorts and summer dresses dutifully lining up to form a phalanx to demonstrate the classical ancient military formation was worth switching from audio to video for this one lecture. And by the end of the course, we are left in no doubt about the importance of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars as opening and closing (i.e., creating and destroying) the region’s unmatched 5th century B.C.E.

The outlier city state of Sparta with its militarized population and unique constitution is given its due in a pair of lectures about this strange societal experiment where barracks replaced family life. But it is the Golden Age of Athens to which Kagan (like most people teaching about this period) is inexorably drawn, with a half dozen lectures dedicated to the city’s rise during and after the Persian War, its move from democracy to empire and its stunning cultural accomplishments (since most of what we think of as Greek achievement was really the works of Athenians).

As Ancient Greek History was a survey course, each subject covered or touched on (the archaic age, Sparta, Athens, wars, literature, faith, etc.) deserves its own semester, as demonstrated by another course I recently finished from the outlier MOOC site Udemy on Ancient Greek Religion. While most of what’s on Udemy costs a fee, this class is part of The Faculty Project which is leveraging the Udemy course creation and distribution platform to provide courses on this and other subjects for free.

If edX’s Greek Hero was an opera and Kagan’s Ancient Greek History class a symphony, Ancient Greek Religion was more like a guitar solo by a dedicated and passionate performer. Professor Robert Garland is no stranger to this material or to educational outreach having taught ancient history and classics at Colgate University and via the Great Courses recorded lecture series. In the case of Ancient Greek Religion, Professor Garland seems to have decided to provide a brief overview of a topic that fascinates him, rather than recreate a full-blown college course online.

In fact, his few hours of lecture consist of the professor talking into his webcam and providing how-to instructions for praying to, pleasing and offending the gods, as well as how to ask for favors and avoid individual or communal pollution. Stories of the origins and behavior of the gods (derived from cultural works like Hesiod and Homer) are woven into these lectures, but the how-to nature of the presentation provides a non-traditional framework for the material. And it was the straight, respectful explanation of ancient religious practice that I enjoyed most about the course, given that it helped make concrete and meaningful a set of rituals that today’s students might otherwise dismiss as the activities of primitive, superstitious forebears.

That said, this Ancient Greek Religion MOOC is a little light on content, and even by Udemy standards low production values and lack of associated course materials left a lot of room for improvement in the class. (And not to be a nitpicker, but wasn’t it Poseidon, not Hephaestus. whom the ancients termed “The Earth Shaker?”)

Given that both courses were free, I suppose I shouldn’t pick such nits. But I will say that with three courses covering this period now under my belt, it’s safe to declare that you should take Greek Hero if you want to fully recreate the experience (and workload) of a full-semester college class, listen to Kagan’s Ancient Greek History (and do the readings) if you want a solid and engaging survey of the period. Tune into Garland’s Ancient Greek Religion MOOC if you want to hear about an interesting topic from an enthusiast dedicated to placing as few barriers as possible between students and a subject the professor is dedicated to keeping alive.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at