The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Join a historically focused discussion of the dramatic interaction between Judaism, Christianity, and paganism presented by an award-winning teacher, classical scholar, and one of the most esteemed historians at The Great Courses.
The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 93.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Things Happen, Part 1 It's nice to have an in-depth look at the Roman Empire on the cusp between paganism and Christianity. That period is often treated so fleetingly that even an attentive history student could be forgiven for describing first millenium Europe as "There were Romans, then ... things happened, and Charlemagne." This course covers the early part of those "things": how Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire and the state pagan religion's reaction to it. Its usefulness extends to understanding how pagan holidays and traditions became some of today's, not just Easter and Christmas, but even the physical outlay of a cathedral. Professor Harl is very knowledgeable and his approach is comprehensive. Where scholarship has competing viewpoints, he invariably stresses "I think" or "in MY analysis" to make it clear that his is not the final word. Professor Harl would benefit from a more complete outline to lecture from, perhaps even a script. There are far too many stammers, corrections, and "uhhhhh"s. I get concerned when experts on a topic make freshman errors in pronouncing the terminology of their specialty - like stressing "apostate" on the first syllable. Professor Harl has to know Greek; he couldn't have obtained his doctorate without it. Yet he thinks the G in "Hagia Sophia" is pronounced. There's a reason the Turks spell it "Haya." I cannot possibly agree with the reviewers who find Harl to be a Christian apologist. I do not get that sense at all. If anything, he is a little hard on the early Christian emperors for their intolerance. The devout may even squirm at talk of early Christian disunity and power politics. As much as I enjoyed the content, the distracting delivery will probably keep me from returning to it. Still, it's worth recommending. There are few places to learn so much about "things."
Date published: 2021-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly what I was looking for! I've read a book or two on this subject. Dr. Harl's knowledge of this period is excellent. I learned many new things. And his enthusiasm makes studying history a joy! Highly recommend.
Date published: 2021-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantasy Course My ultimate fantasy course: a great prof with a sense of humour and the ability to convey different points of view; a well-prepared and stimulating series of lectures. The course I wish I'd taken in university. Thank you!
Date published: 2021-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary Finish! Such a great course. The world looks different to me now. Man crossed over from a world in which we lived with our gods, to a world in which the gods were only accessible through a divine elite.
Date published: 2021-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pairs Great w/ the Album "Songs for Pierre Chuvin" During the pandemic, when the Mountain Goats released a homemade album telling a story set in Late Antiquity, I tried and failed to get my hands on the history text it was based on: 'A Chronicle of the Last Pagans' by Pierre Chuvin. Alas, the release of a popular work based on an academic text from a university press quickly made that pursuit impossible. To console myself, I went looking for some material on the Great Courses+ to learn more about the time period of the late Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. As an already-avid student of Harl's lectures, I was incredibly pleased to see he had a course that exactly fit the bill! As usual, Harl does not disappoint: the lectures were loaded with the detailed analysis, anecdotal asides, and careful attention to numismatic evidence that I've always appreciated in Dr. Harl. And once my local library opened back up, I was able to supplement what I learned from Harl by getting Chuvin's text via inter-library loan. Thank you to Dr. Harl and the Great Courses+ for being ready and waiting with a detailed course to answer all my queries.
Date published: 2020-12-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fall of the pagans Interesting discussion of who the pagans and Christian's were and the decline of the pagans. Good examples of how historical figures of Roma and Greeks were involved
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How Christianity conquered the world Useful to better understand how Christianity developed and how this religion was able to erase previous religions, in particular the traditional polytheism originally practiced in the mighty Roman empire.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Seek to prove his point selects evidence to fit The lecturer announced early on the Christianity was rare until after Constantine. His basic view seemed to be that the upper and educated classes joined largely by force and pressure after the time of Constantine. At the same time the hoi polloi were somewhere between carried along by official government actions and driven in by force as when violent monks arrived in various villages. No one questions that in total numbers Christians were definitely a minority. Yet there is evidence that they were far more than a tiny marginalized sect. The upper classes that much of the lectures are focused were likely far smaller in number that the low class Christians. Harl quotes from Pliny the Younger writing to Trajan but leaves out the evidence for widespread Christian influence. “For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” David Aune in Word Bible Commentary on Revelation estimates there were about 50k Christians in Ephesus at the end of the first Century and Reike about 80K were in Asia at the time and Elliot is in the same neighborhood. It is fair to disagree with these numbers but to ignore them raises questions. In the same light for Harl to reference the Pliny letter and then ignore the content almost seems disingenuous.
Date published: 2020-05-16
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Why did pagan Rome clash with early Christians? How did Christianity ultimately achieve dominance in the Roman Empire and eclipse paganism in one of the most influential turning points in the history of the West? Find out the startling answers to these and other questions with The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity. This historically focused discussion of the dramatic interaction between Judaism, Christianity, and paganism from the 1st to the 6th centuries-delivered by classical scholar and award-winning Professor Kenneth W. Harl-allows you to explore in great depth the reasons that Christianity emerged and sparked a major transition for religion, culture, and politics.


Kenneth W. Harl
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 Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity


Religious Conflict in the Roman World

01: Religious Conflict in the Roman World

The Christianization of the Roman world is one of the most important turning points in Western civilization. This lecture introduces you to the issues you will consider and the scholars whose seminal theories serve as the gateways to the course's different lines of exploration....

32 min
Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire

02: Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire

How were pagan gods worshiped in ancient Rome? Using evidence both literary and archaeological, grasp the diverse assortment of religious practices in an empire that ranged from Britain to Egypt and comprised a fifth of the world's population....

30 min
The Roman Imperial Cult

03: The Roman Imperial Cult

Learn how Rome's first emperor, Augustus, established an institution to venerate an emperor's spirit, or genius, which would then reside as a god on Mount Olympus. See how emperors took pains to deify their predecessors so as to position themselves next among that honored line....

31 min
The Mystery Cults

04: The Mystery Cults

Mystery cults were believed to be the worship to a particular god and involved the choice to join and undergo an initiation rite. You examine specific cults and the controversial question of whether they did, in fact, form a bridge between paganism and Christianity, as some scholars maintain....

30 min
Platonism and Stoicism

05: Platonism and Stoicism

Understand the powerful influence of philosophy-particular Platonism and Stoicism-on the morality and conduct of Rome's ruling classes. It was an influence rarely matched in the Western tradition, with even Christian theologians employing the doctrines of these two philosophical schools in defining their own faith....

31 min
Jews in the Roman Empire

06: Jews in the Roman Empire

What role did Judaism play in the Roman Empire? Learn how Rome's experience with this stalwart monotheistic faith-the first it had encountered-differed from the challenge of the Christian faith that would emerge from it....

30 min
Christian Challenge-First Conversions

07: Christian Challenge-First Conversions

Experience the first years of efforts to convert people to Christianity. Begin with the early leadership by James of those who were often called Jewish Christians and continue with the career of Paul, from his own conversion after a vision to his work propagating the message of Jesus....

31 min
Pagan Response-First Persecutions

08: Pagan Response-First Persecutions

Learn about early responses to Christianity, from the violent persecutions in Rome under Nero to the legalistic and easily avoided persecutions under later emperors. Grasp, too, the consequences of Roman ignorance of Christianity and the eventual momentum that ignorance would eventually give the new faith....

31 min
Christian Bishops and Apostolic Churches

09: Christian Bishops and Apostolic Churches

Nero's outlawing of a specific religion-unprecedented in Roman history-forced Christians to discover new ways to proselytize. Discover how the ideas of apostolic succession and a recognized canon shaped the voice with which Christianity could speak to the world....

31 min
Pagan Critics and Christian Apologists

10: Pagan Critics and Christian Apologists

Explore how both Christianity's pagan critics and its apologists reveals not only an evolution in pagan understanding of the new faith but a corresponding increase in the sophistication of the writings set forth by those defending it....

31 min
First Christian Theologians

11: First Christian Theologians

Examine the work of Saint Clement, who established Christianity's claim to equality with the pagans as heirs to classical intellectual culture, and of Origen, whose ability to argue in Platonic terms and contributions to defining the canon make him one of the most important thinkers in Christian history....

30 min
Imperial Crisis and Spiritual Crisis

12: Imperial Crisis and Spiritual Crisis

The stability and peace of the Roman Empire was shattered with the assassination of Severus Alexander, and the ensuing political and military crisis transformed the Roman world. Many have maintained that this crisis paved the way for large-scale Christian conversion, but there are tantalizing arguments to the contrary....

32 min
The Great Persecutions

13: The Great Persecutions

Analyze two great periods of empire-wide persecution distinct from the largely localized ones examined earlier. Learn how Christian martyrdom was perceived very differently by the pagan and Christian communities, and that its ability to bring about conversions may have been minimal....

32 min
The Spirit of Late Paganism

14: The Spirit of Late Paganism

Explore how the spiritual life of paganism fared during the political and military crises examined in the preceding lectures. See how these had an impact on not only pagan worship but also the intellectual work of pagan philosophers like Plotinus and the emergence of an independent religion known as Manichaeism....

31 min
Imperial Recovery under the Tetrarchs

15: Imperial Recovery under the Tetrarchs

The 20-year period known as the Tetrarchy-during which the emperor Diocletian shared imperial power with three colleagues--was critical to the Roman Empire, ending civil war and invasion, restoring order and prosperity, and giving Rome something it had never had: a principle of succession....

33 min
The Conversion of Constantine

16: The Conversion of Constantine

Analyze one of the most decisive turning points in Roman history and of Western civilization. Interpret the legendary story as it has come down to us in light of recent scholarship and what we now understand about Constantine's world and the forces that would have motivated him....

32 min
Constantine and the Bishops

17: Constantine and the Bishops

See how the same principle that had always steered Rome's efficient use of power-absorbing institutions rather than simply crushing them-was used to create a new hierarchy within the Roman imperial system from the existing network of apostolic churches....

33 min
Christianizing the Roman World

18: Christianizing the Roman World

How and why did Constantine set about making the Christian faith central to Roman life? See how his vision unfolded in multiple areas, including the reshaping of the urban landscape to claim public and religious space, economic changes, and the use of pilgrimages and Christian missionary activity....

31 min
The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters

19: The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters

Explore how Christians managed to alter the cultural heritage of their pagan past-including architecture and the visual and literary arts-in ways that made this heritage distinctly Christian while still preserving as much of it as possible....

31 min
The Emperor Julian and the Pagan Reaction

20: The Emperor Julian and the Pagan Reaction

Experience what happened when a Christianizing Roman world was told by their new emperor that decades of change would be undone and that Rome's religious and cultural history would again be reversed, this time turning back to paganism and a restoration of the old gods....

32 min
Struggle over Faith and Culture

21: Struggle over Faith and Culture

Grasp how the death of Julian the Apostate-and the end of his short-lived program to restore paganism's dominant role-forced the empire to grapple with two all-encompassing questions: Could the Constantinian revolution in fact be reversed? What religion would take charge in the Roman world?...

31 min
New Christian Warriors-Ascetics and Monks

22: New Christian Warriors-Ascetics and Monks

Take in the different perceptions of asceticism by pagans and Christians and how Christian ascetics and monks, in particular, proselytized and won conversions to Christianity with a power and influence that even the Roman Empire could not have matched....

31 min
Turning Point-Theodosius I

23: Turning Point-Theodosius I

Witness the crucial turning point in the spread of Christianity in the Roman world. Three new laws opened the floodgates for the destruction of pagan sanctuaries, a ban on public sacrifices, and the declaration of Nicene Christianity as the only legitimate faith and a requirement for citizenship....

31 min
Justinian and the Demise of Paganism

24: Justinian and the Demise of Paganism

Learn how Justinian, even in a Roman world still predominantly pagan, implemented a "persecuting society" that would ensure, by the time of his death, a Western world where being civilized was defined as being Christian, as were its notions of the divine and the ethical....

35 min