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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 102.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course by a master of his subject I purchased this course some time ago but have only just now watched it. The presenter is exceedingly knowledgeable of his subject and seeks to share that knowledge with his students. He is clear in his purpose and focus as he seeks to show how Christianity went from a minor religious faith, to a persecuted faith, to the dominate faith of the Roman Empire. His insights are clear and very helpful. I know that some reviewers object to his hesitations, "uh", but this is a very minor thing when compared to his knowledge of his subject. I highly recommend this course and will certainly watch it again one day.
Date published: 2024-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Topic! Excellent instructor! Dr Harl brings history alive. He is so knowledgeable and has a great teaching style. Instead of pieces of clay Dr Harl showed all these interesting coins. Also the maps are so helpful in understanding the detail and context. I could tell Dr Harl loves what he teaches and I loved learning so many new interesting facts. I also appreciated that Dr Harl gave us at times his personal opinion that differed sometimes from the general view and his explanations made very much sense to me. Honestly, I loved this course! I have zero critique.
Date published: 2024-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gets into the weeds, just how I like it! Love a professor that really knows everything about his subject. From the larger moments to the minutia that make the machine of history come alive. He truly is a fanboy of ancient coins, the sign of a very precise kind of mind. Loved it! great to have on for anyone interested in the religions of Rome from experts to beginners.
Date published: 2023-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have listened to this series over and over again I have listened to this series over and over again! Every time with great fascination and interest. Dr. Harl makes a magnificent presentation, and somehow anticipates all of my interests.
Date published: 2023-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Imagine Harry Caray giving a history lesson I love everything that this guy teaches. He sounds like Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, giving a play by play of world history. He keeps it interesting and brings in the usual "inside baseball" facts about the historical figures. He truly gets you excited about the nascent church and how Rome responded to it. Well balanced and well delivered
Date published: 2023-02-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good if you are interested in Christianity The picture is very misleading. This isn't about pagans but about the development of Christianity in that context. My only serious critique is that he treats the bible as a history book and not as literature. While that is a serious problem, it is also something that is fairly common, especially here on Great Courses. I think it might be the result of a Christian bias that are common in USA.
Date published: 2022-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stunning In Depth And Cohesion Professor Harl produces courses where I read the Guidebook first. While he provides enormous "bang for your buck", trying to take in Harl's fact and logic barrage is a bit difficult without Guidebook preparation. The Guidebook is well done including the nice mini biographies of major players that are given at the ends of many chapters. If notes are taken, a Transcript is probably not necessary. ROMAN PIETY: In the early course, the form and sincerity of Roman worship is shown to be impressive. Lecture 2 (= L2) tells us that in the Roman (1/5 of the world's population) empire, the temples were NOT places to congregate but homes of the gods. Participation in worship occurred in theaters, around monuments, and in processions (sponsored by the elite) through colonnaded streets. "Morality and piety were taught in the home… (it was) …the fabric of society" to a degree that stunned the Greek historian Polybius. Romans accepted religions if they had age and tradition - including the ancient God of Judaism. CREATION: (L5) Plato saw three realities: 1.) A passive craftsman creator god "…made the universe in a single act"; 2.) The ideas and forms of the material world would exist forever and 3.) "The space that gives shape to the ideas." Later, #2 would be replace by "intelligence or spirit" and #3 with "soul". Already the physical world was seen as an imperfect reflection of reality. Those with "knowledge" could see beyond the physical world. The Jew Philo of Alexandria applied Plato to a monotheistic creed. The Roman stoics called the creator "Logos" (the word) who created logical order meaning that each person is born into a position in the divine plan and what happens in the physical world matters. Every person "contained a divine spark from the Logos" and had a capacity for divinization (i.e.: the Platonic "soul"). JEWS/CHRISTIANS: The Jews were 10% of the empire (L6) and useful because Roman armies used Palestine's geography. Though the Romans "trusted them" because their religion was ancient, they did NOT understand them. This would lead to bloody wars. From the Roman religious conservative POV, Christians got themselves in trouble because they radically denied what had been accepted for ages. "In Roman eyes…(L3) the Christians were atheists" and their religion was not accepted because it was new. Most baffling was that they never resorted to arms. Under Nero (L8), Christians would be found guilty of “hatred of the human race"…suggesting political use of the “hate” word has been around for a while. Emperor Trajan's refusal to persecute on innuendo or actively pursue legally stonewalled Pliny the Younger's “sacrifice (to the gods) test" for Christians temporarily. GROWTH OF THE CHURCH: Of the 3 leaders in the original apostolic church, those of the Jerusalem Church under James the Righteous would be destroyed in a rebellion (L7). Paul of Tarsus, with Peter's backing, allowed his converts to avoid the Torah. He was especially successful among the "Godfearers": pagans who knew Jewish monotheism through Jewish intermarriage. Heresies began with Montanus claiming new revelation through the Paraclete. Gnostics reinterpreted Christianity via pagan mythic allegories "…much like a Buddhist or Hindu teacher does". Spurious New Testaments occurred, and Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament. Until Origen mastered "Attic Greek" (L11) prose, no educated person bothered to read their arguments. In 325 Theophilus of Antioch identified the three persons of the Trinity with the three realities in Plato. He also proposed that, unlike Plato’s "preexisting matter”, the universe was created out of nothing - as science now reinforces (Great Course "Origin and Evolution of Earth_Hazen). L12-24 marvelously discusses the political players in Christianity’s triumph over paganism. SUMMARY: This 2012 view of paganism contrasts sharply with heathenism. Harl relates unexpected views of major players (Eusebius, Origen, Mani, Emperors, etc.) as well as failed historical analysts as Cumont, etc. COMMENT: Amusingly, the structure of the course suggests that the: current campus culture might not be secular but a new paganism where each self becomes a god to be worshiped. The twist from Roman paganism is that the new is to be worshiped not the ancient (L10). Harl repeatedly points to cyclical patterns of worship and to their direction being forced by leadership (L17, 20, 23) - so perhaps such a view is not madness.
Date published: 2022-09-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting topic, but delivery was lacking. Too wordy, using words of a professor. Most people don't understand verbiage used.
Date published: 2022-03-01
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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

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 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

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