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The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes

Travel in time to an often overlooked area of history and learn the astonishing ways that cultures thought of as barbaric have profoundly influenced our world today.
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 214.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative Course I love this course! While I have studied about some of these time periods and geographic locations before, this course helps me put it all together. I have learned about groups I had never known about, as well as the more well known tribes and empires.
Date published: 2022-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fantastic journey through time and space I have studied and watched many great courses lectures on ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia etc. I’ve also spent many hours with Roman and Greek history. This lecture series pulled it all together for me. The interactions of the Steppe peoples with their sedentary counterparts was enthralling. The movement between the different zones and different time periods was fantastic. The professor did a wonderful job telling the story of the Steppe and its impact on Western and Eastern civilizations. I highly recommend this lecture series. It is definitely in my new top 3 Great Courses’ series. Thanks Professor!
Date published: 2022-06-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Took me back to the history courses I hated. Names, dates, battles. I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Harl’s lectures on the Vikings, but this course suffers from poor delivery and being overly ambitious. It tries to cover too much time and space. Or, as the professor sums up, “6000 miles and 6000 years.” Lots and lots of maps show the locations of various steppe populations and the contemporary “civilized” empires. Arrows indicate the direction of migration of the steppe peoples and raids and campaigns from and into neighboring lands. Lots and lots of arrows. This is not to say the lectures are not informative; in fact, I found some quite interesting. If you are of a military bent, this may be the course for you. But, if you are more interested in the everyday life and what I consider the “culture” of the steppe populations, you may be disappointed. I would strongly recommend Professor Benjamin’s “The Mongol Empire” which I consider to be a far superior course. I did get irritated with Professor Harl’s hems and haws and fumbling for words and pronunciations (which certainly didn’t seem to be consistent) much more in these lectures than I did in Vikings. It often interrupted the flow of my thoughts, if not his. If you are going to get this course, I suggest getting the video as I think it would be difficult to negotiate the various empire and population boundaries, migrations, and battles without them. There are also images of many interesting ancient coins from Harl’s collection, and some paintings and graphics to supplement the material. The guidebook is quite good though some of the material, such as the relationship of Turkish languages to Indo-European, is contested. The outlines of the lectures are concise and informative, and the appendixes are very helpful – Timeline, Glossary, and Biographical Notes.
Date published: 2022-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Symphony Baribarians in the key of Asia Minor First of all, you have to love Dr. Harl because he sounds like Cubs announcer Harry Caray, making the play by play of centuries of world history. His encyclopedic knowledge of names, places and events is a rolling wave of fascination. All the members of Asia's Mt. Rushmore, namely Hannibal, Attila The Hun, Ghengis Khan, Kubla Khan and Temur all all vividly depicted and described. There is no hint of Harl reading anything; he obviously has this part of the world down pat. The use of maps is essential to understand the ebbs and flows. I took a previous course of The Monguls, but t his one added depth to it, simply by covering the centuries before and after. Objective, and many times giving both sides of an argument, he dispels myths and brings to light the reasons why we are here right now.
Date published: 2022-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History from the other side For background, my degrees are in the hard sciences. As I approached retirement, I started doing a wide variety of courses in art, philosophy, religion, travel, and history. I would rate myself as a novice in history when I entered retirement. I was very intrigued by this course which I categorized as history from the other side - the nomads, not the settled civilizations. Everything I had read / been taught before was from the viewpoint of the settled civilizations being attacked by the nomads. (Note that maybe world history courses in college have changed in the half century since I took them.) I put off buying this course because of the number of reviews that talked about the "annoying ums" uttered by the presenter and comments about his pronunciation of names. I can't comment on the correct pronunciation of names. I have no authority to say whether he is correct or not. With respect to the "ums", there are a lot of them. But I found that if I concentrated on the content, I soon filtered out the ums. If I focused on counting ums, there was no way to follow the material. So are you buying the course to count ums or see history from the other side? This course helps round out my knowledge learned from other courses that focus on a particular empires. I really enjoyed the scope of this course. The professor did an excellent job of presenting the initial sweep of people from west to east, and then the east to west return of the nomads. I am 2/3 of the way through the lectures and either the professor is using less ums or I am filtering them out better. Other people had negative comments about repetition in the course. I have found the repetition useful. I listen to a lecture every other day or so, so the repetition is good reinforcement. Perhaps if I watched 4 lectures in a row or two per day, I would be more aware of the repetition. I strongly suggest that you buy the video version of the course. The maps added greatly to my understanding of the region. (But I am more of a visual learner than an auditory learner. Religion and philosophy I can learn via audio formats. History and travel are much better for me in video formats) Finally, if you are a novice like me, consider one of the "big history" courses as a starting point.
Date published: 2022-04-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and important I broadly agree with the small proportion I’ve read of the large number of favorable previous reviews, and have been a fan of Professor Harl since his Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations, so I’ll only add a couple of points. One perennial complaint about the Great Courses guides is somewhat lessened for this course: it does have maps, but not as good as on the screen. And I was particularly struck by his treatment of the early Indo-Europeans. One tends to contrast them with barbarians, but he treated them in the context of other invaders who were good at war and horses.
Date published: 2022-02-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Some good information VERY badly presented. This lecture series provides basic information and entertainment for anyone with an interest in the cultures of the early peoples of the Eurasian Steppes, but the lecturer is EXTREMELY difficult to follow. This man butchers standard English and can't seem to decide how he wants to pronounce the names of peoples, places and terms from one moment to the next. And seriously, "schwangnoo"? I have never heard anyone pronounce Xiōngnú (or Hsiung-nu) that way, nor can I find any examples of that pronunciation after searching online. A lecturer should speak clearly, be consistent and reasonably easy to follow and understand, but this man is none of those. I am left with the distinct impression that Professor Harl has no respect whatsoever for the subject matter or the cultures on which he is lecturing and I have to wonder why he bothered, other than for a paycheck. I was so very happy to discover a Great Courses Plus/Wondrium lecture series on the early peoples of the Eurasian Steppes, but this course was very disappointing indeed. Unfortunately, this course is the only offering on the subject here, so I took my time and made much use of the rewind button on my remote. I will not bother with other lectures by Professor Harl.
Date published: 2021-12-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Barbarians of the steppes Awesome and embarrassingly educational course. Great professor/lecturer.
Date published: 2021-09-11
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Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan loom large in the popular consciousness as two of history's most fearsome warrior-leaders. Yet few people today are aware of their place in a succession of nomadic warriors who emerged from the Eurasian steppes to seize control of civilizations. In the 36 gripping lectures of The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, award-winning Professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University guides you through some 6,000 miles and 6,000 years to investigate how these nomadic peoples exerted pressure on sedentary populations, causing a domino effect of displacement and cultural exchange. You'll discover how a series of groups-from the Sacae and the Sarmatians to the infamous Huns and Mongols-pushed ever westward, coming into contact with the Roman Empire, Han China, and distant cultures from Iraq to India and playing decisive roles in history and paving the way for our globalized world.


Kenneth W. Harl

We will be looking largely at archeological evidence and analysis done by anthropologists because we are operating largely in a world without writing.


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 earned Tulane's annual Student Body Award for Excellence in Teaching nine times and is the recipient of Baylor University's nationwide Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. In 2007, he was the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor in History at Wofford College. An expert on classical Anatolia, he has taken students with him into the field on excursions and to assist in excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey. Professor Harl has also published a wide variety of articles and books, including his current work on coins unearthed in an excavation of Gordion, Turkey, and a new book on Rome and her Iranian foes. A fellow and trustee of the American Numismatic Society, Professor Harl is well known for his studies of ancient coinage. He is the author of Civic Coins and Civic Politics in the Roman East, A.D. 180-275 and Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700.

By This Professor

The Ottoman Empire
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes
The Vikings
The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes


Steppes and Peoples

01: Steppes and Peoples

The Mongol sack on Baghdad in 1258 is often seen as the epitome of the clash between barbarian peoples of the steppes and the peoples of the civilized world. Explore this notion and hear a detailed account of the destruction, then conclude with an overview of life on the steppes and the organization of this course.

32 min
The Rise of the Steppe Nomads

02: The Rise of the Steppe Nomads

Learn about the earliest known nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppes, beginning with the origins of the Indo-European languages. See how innovations including the raising of livestock, the domestication of the horse, and the invention of the spoked wheel-and ultimately, the light chariot-transformed steppe life and led to migrations across Eurasia.

29 min
Early Nomads and China

03: Early Nomads and China

As you shift focus from the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans on the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Mongolia, examine how Iranian and Tocharian nomads came into contact with China, their interaction, and the repercussions this contact had across the central and western steppes, and the great bordering civilizations.

31 min
The Han Emperors and Xiongnu at War

04: The Han Emperors and Xiongnu at War

Han emperors found the tribute system granted Modu chanyu or "five baits"-by which the Xiongnu were promised Chinese brides, among other gifts-humiliating and unacceptable. Look closely at the relationship between the Han Empire of China and the nomadic confederacy of the Xiongnu, including Han attempts to eliminate the Xiongnu threat through war.

31 min
Scythians, Greeks, and Persians

05: Scythians, Greeks, and Persians

Move from the eastern steppes to the western and central steppes in this exploration of the Scythians, Iranian-speaking nomads with great military prowess, who established a symbiotic relationship with the Greeks based on trade. Investigate this contact, as well as attempts to conquer the Scythians by the Persians and, later, Alexander the Great.

30 min
The Parthians

06: The Parthians

Look closely at the rise to power and achievements of the nomadic steppe peoples known as the Parthians who, despite clashes with the Romans, successfully ruled Iran and the wider Middle East from horseback for 400 years, creating the first nomadic empire in the Near East.

31 min
Kushans, Sacae, and the Silk Road

07: Kushans, Sacae, and the Silk Road

Examine the Sacae and Kushans, two steppe peoples forced west into the Middle East and India by the Xiongnu confederacy. Learn the key role both groups played in developing trade along the Silk Road and how Kushan ruler Kujula Kadphises and his successors carved out an Indian empire while creating conditions for Buddhism to flourish.

30 min
Rome and the Sarmatians

08: Rome and the Sarmatians

Through control of key trade routes and market participation, the Sarmatians amassed great wealth, which they used to strengthen their military ability. Prized as mercenaries, their military prowess influenced Roman tactics. Explore why, despite these advantages, no great Sarmatian leader emerged, and what effect this experience had on the Romans.

30 min
Trade across the Tarim Basin

09: Trade across the Tarim Basin

Between the 2nd century B.C. and 2nd century A.D., the Silk Road brought about a virtual global economy. Shift your focus from discussion of specific groups to an exploration of this legendary route and its trade connections, including the types of goods moved, the people involved, and why these arrangements benefited all parties.

30 min
Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity

10: Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity

Continue exploring the importance of the Silk Road, but progress to a discussion of religions spread and practiced along the route. Learn why Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and above all, Buddhism, were appealing to nomadic populations, and the impact these faiths had on these people and their caravan cities.

31 min
Rome and the Huns

11: Rome and the Huns

Turn to the Huns, who employed tactics similar to the Xiongnu and were viewed as both a major threat and militarily advantageous by the divided Roman Empire. Explore their conquests and the dual strategies eastern Rome used to manage the Hun threat-one of which faltered when Attila rose to power.

31 min
Attila the Hun-Scourge of God

12: Attila the Hun-Scourge of God

Considered both a great leader and a merciless conqueror, Attila the Hun has captured the popular imagination for centuries. Conclude your examination of the Huns with the story of Attila, from his rise to power to his death, including the royal marriage proposal that ultimately led to the ravaging of western Europe.

31 min
Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites

13: Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites

To understand the history of the Hephthalites or "White Huns" and the Gök Turks in context, look at the Sassanid Empire-the contemporary rival to the late Roman world-from the monarchy's aspirations to the way its Neo-Persian shahs came into conflict with Rome and these nomadic peoples.

29 min
The Turks-Transformation of the Steppes

14: The Turks-Transformation of the Steppes

Progress into the early Middle Ages, a period defined by the Turks. Start your exploration of this group by focusing on three major khaganates or confederations-the Avar Khaghans, the Gök Turks, and the Uighurs-which developed between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D., and would have major implications for the Islamic world.

31 min
Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors

15: Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors

Delve into the interaction of the Turks and Chinese, starting with a look at China since the Han dynasty's fragmentation; then investigate the nomads who settled in China. Conclude with a discussion of unification under the Sui and Tang emperors, including their relationship with the Gök Turks and Uighurs.

31 min
Avars, Bulgars, and Constantinople

16: Avars, Bulgars, and Constantinople

Think of the Middle Ages and you'll likely conjure images of western Europe. But at the time of the Avars, Gök Turks, and Uighurs, Constantinople represented the great urban, Christian civilization bordering the Eurasian steppes. Begin the first of three lectures on the relationship between Byzantine civilization and the peoples of the steppes.

31 min
Khazar Khagans

17: Khazar Khagans

Why did the Khazars convert to Judaism rather than orthodox Christianity? Why did the Byzantines, despite dealings with the Khazars across centuries, fail to win them over to their commonwealth? Get answers as you delve into the important role the Khazars played in Byzantine foreign policy and the controversy created by their conversion.

32 min
Pechenegs, Magyars, and Cumans

18: Pechenegs, Magyars, and Cumans

The Byzantines failed with the Khazars-but did they successfully absorb or convert any other nomads to orthodox Christianity and Byzantine civilization? Find out in this final lecture on their relationship with the peoples of the Pontic-Caspian steppes by looking at the Magyars, Pechenegs, and Cumans, as well as the Viking Rus.

31 min
Islam and the Caliphate

19: Islam and the Caliphate

How did Muslim civilization emerge? Why did it burst upon the scene so dramatically? And how did it come to play such a significant role among Turkish-speaking nomads? Get background on the caliphate and its divisions, the teachings of Muhammad, and how a Muslim capital at Baghdad and associated cities spread Islam through trade connections.

31 min
The Clash between Turks and the Caliphate

20: The Clash between Turks and the Caliphate

Examine the initial contact between Islamic civilization and the Turkish nomads in detail by looking at the wars waged between the early caliphs and Turkish tribes. Conclude with the Battle of Talas, fought between the armies of the Abbasid caliphate and the Tang emperor, which represents a turning point for the Karluk Turks and Islam.

30 min
Muslim Merchants and Mystics in Central Asia

21: Muslim Merchants and Mystics in Central Asia

After the Battle of Talas, Islamic expansion halted for 300 years. Explore Baghdad's emergence as an intellectual and economic center of the Islamic world as well as the religion's cultural achievements during this period, particularly in architecture. Then, learn why Turkish merchants converted to Sunni Islam-or their version of it-starting in the 8th century.

30 min
The Rise of the Seljuk Turks

22: The Rise of the Seljuk Turks

Elaborate on implications of the previous two lectures, including the rise of a slave trade, as you trace a series of Turkish migrations that lead to new powers on the steppes. Focus on three states: the Karakhanids, the sultans of Ghazni, and the Seljuk Turks, who represent the greatest of these new political organizations.

30 min
Turks in Anatolia and India

23: Turks in Anatolia and India

After the Seljuk Turks emerged as a major factor in eastern Islam, they conquered two regions that were not previously part of Dar al-Islam: Asia Minor and northern India near Delhi. Here, take a comparative look at these conquests, including the Turks' seesaw struggle with the crusaders.

31 min
The Sultans of Rum

24: The Sultans of Rum

How well did the Seljuk Turks use their victory? How did the sultans in Konya, the new center of Muslim Turkish civilization, forge a wider unity? What caused the region's Christian population to convert? Explore how a new Turkish civilization in Asia Minor developed largely through religious architecture and the allure of Sufi mystics.

29 min
The Sultans of Delhi

25: The Sultans of Delhi

In contrast to the Islamification of Asia Minor, examine Turkish conquests of northern India in the early 13th century. What were their successes and limitations in creating a Muslim civilization here? Begin by considering the political issues involved, then move to the cultural and religious landscape the Turks found themselves dealing with.

31 min
Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors

26: Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors

Begin your understanding of why the Mongols emerged and had such a dramatic impact on the 13th century by studying the interaction of the restored Song Empire and three nomadic groups who entered northern China in the 10th and 11th centuries when the Great Wall collapsed-the Khitans, the Jurchens, and the Xi Xia.

30 min
The Mongols

27: The Mongols

Genghis Khan's rivals saw him as the embodiment of the steppe barbarian. But who was this man who united the Mongol tribes and set his sights on world conquest? Discover Temujin-as Genghis Khan was originally known-and who the Mongols were at the time of his birth.

29 min
Conquests of Genghis Khan

28: Conquests of Genghis Khan

Pick up with Temujin's new status as the great khan, and follow his nomadic army's path of violent conquest-aided by skilled mapmakers and Chinese engineers-from the small kingdom of the Xi Xia to the Jin Empire to his most important campaign, the invasion of the Islamic world.

32 min
Western Mongol Expansion

29: Western Mongol Expansion

Why did Genghis Khan have his third son, Ögedei, succeed him rather than his oldest, Jochi? Find out as you embark on the Mongols' vast westward expansion. Witness Ögedei's efforts to transition from a tributary-based empire to a tax-based one; then follow Batu's invasion of Russia and Christian Europe, where he encounters an unexpected obstacle: fortified masonry castles.

30 min
Mongol Invasion of the Islamic World

30: Mongol Invasion of the Islamic World

Return to where the course began, with the campaigns of Hulagu. First, witness the political struggle to elect the next great khan. Then delve into campaigns including the sack of Baghdad, seen as the height of Mongol atrocities, and the battle that ended Mongol power in the Islamic world.

31 min
Conquest of Song China

31: Conquest of Song China

At his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had achieved most of what he desired territorially. Why, then, did Kublai Khan and Möngke invade Song China? Investigate this conquest, which some scholars call the greatest of the Mongol's military achievements, including the logistical challenges that Kublai Klan overcame by inventing a new army.

30 min
Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange

32: Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange

What were the costs and benefits of the Mongol conquests? Is it accurate to say that a pax Mongolica-a Mongol peace-was imposed in the sedentary civilizations that came under their control? Analyze these consequences, looking at the toll of Mongol destruction and the transformative cultural exchange and prosperity that arose.

32 min
Conversion and Assimilation

33: Conversion and Assimilation

By Kublai Khan's death in 1294, the Mongolians ruled four ulus, or domains, each of which ultimately crumbled: Kublai Khan's homeland region, including Tibet and China; the central steppes of the Chagatai; the Ilkhans' Persia and Transoxiana; and the western forest zones of the Golden Horde. Understand how each fell away from the Mongol imperial legacy.

32 min
Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction

34: Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction

Between 1381 and his death in 1405, Tamerlane waged seven major campaigns on his extraordinary career of conquest, defeating the Mamluk and Ottoman armies, crushing the armies of the Sultan of Delhi, and overthrowing the Golden Horde. Trace his brutality-filled path and learn why his empire was ultimately short lived.

31 min
Babur and Mughal India

35: Babur and Mughal India

With a reign of India that endured until the arrival of the British, the Mughals are remembered as great rulers by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Here, look at the life and legacy of the man who, as a descendent of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, would become the last great conqueror of the steppes.

30 min
Legacy of the Steppes

36: Legacy of the Steppes

Conclude by considering why, by the 16th and 17th centuries, the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes ceased to play the decisive role they had for nearly 6,000 years. Then tie together what you've learned with a review of the course and a discussion of what this legacy means to us today.

35 min