Learning Ancient History for Free

For lifelong learners, courses on Ancient Greece and Rome always remain in steady demand. While these courses are poorly represented in undergraduate programs (at least in the States), they seem be to making a comeback in continuing education programs designed for older students. Eventually, it seems, many come to the conclusion that you can’t skip over the foundations and still make sense of it all. And so they go back to basics.

The Teaching Company, a commercial provider of courses for lifelong learners, has recognized this demand and built a surprisingly rich collection of lectures dedicated to the Ancients. (See full catalogue here.) These courses are polished and well put together. But they cost money. If that’s a concern, then you should know about some of the free alternatives. Thanks to the “open course” movement, you can now find a series of free courses online, including some from top-ranked universities. Let me give you a quick overview of your options:

Last fall, Yale University introduced a new round of open courses that included Donald Kagan’s Introduction to Ancient Greek History (YouTubeiTunes AudioiTunes VideoDownload Course). A leading figure in the field, Kagan takes students from the Greek Dark Ages, through the rise of Sparta and Athens, The Peloponnesian War, and beyond. You’ll cover more than a millennium in 24 lectures. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Yale’s courses are high touch. And what’s particularly nice is that the course can be downloaded in one of five formats (text, audio, flash video, low bandwidth quicktime video, and high bandwidth quicktime video). Simply choose the format that works for you, and you’re good to go.

When you’ve completed the arc of Greek history, you can move next to the UC Berkeley course, The Roman Empire. The course taught by Isabelle Pafford moves from Julius Caesar to Constantine (roughly 40 BC to 300 AD) in 42 lectures. And the audio comes straight from the classroom, which means that you’ll get solid information but you’ll also have to endure some extraneous talk about homework assignments and exams. (It’s free, so don’t complain.) You can download this course in one of three ways: iTunes, streamed audio, or via rss feed. Lastly, I should note that Pafford has taught another related course at Berkeley – The Ancient Mediterranean World (iTunesFeed - MP3s).

Once you have the big survey courses under your belt, you can switch to some more focused courses coming out of Stanford. Let’s start with Patrick Hunt’s course Hannibal (iTunes). As I’ve noted in a previous post, this podcasted course takes you inside the life and adventures of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian military tactician who maneuvered his way across the Alps and stunned Roman armies in 218 BC. The course also gives you glimpses into cutting-edge trends in modern archaeology. Because Hannibal still remains a figure of intense historical interest, it’s not surprising that this course has ranked as one of the more popular courses on iTunesU.

Another short course worth your time is Virgil’s Aeneid: Anatomy of a Classic. Presented by Susanna Braund (a Stanford classics professor at the time), the course teases apart the epic poem that was an instant when it was written 29-19 BC), and still endures today. Divided into 5 installments, each running about two hours, this podcast offers a good introduction to one of the central texts in the Latin tradition.

Finally, let me throw in a quick bonus course. The Historical Jesus, another Stanford course taught by Thomas Sheehan, looks inside the historical/Roman world of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a history course, not a religion course, and it uses the best literary and historical evidence to answer the questions: “Who was the historical Jesus of Nazareth? What did he actually say and do…? What did the man Jesus actually think of himself and of his mission…? In short, what are the differences — and continuities — between the Jesus who lived and died in history and the Christ who lives on in believers’ faith?

UPDATE: Thanks to a reader, I was reminded of another related course: 12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire (iTunesFeedSite). These podcasts cover the legacy of the Roman Empire that emerged in the East (after it had collapsed in the West). You can read more about this course in one of my early blog posts.

All of these courses can be found in the History Section of our larger collection of Free Courses. There you will find 200 high quality online courses that you can listen to anytime, anywhere.

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  1. Carol A says . . . | January 13, 2009 / 8:39 pm

    As someone who continues to study Classics at university I have listened to all of these except the new Donald Kagan series. They are all excellent and will give you that in-depth information to really understand the era. Also many thanks to the universities who make this material available.

  2. Amazonia says . . . | January 15, 2009 / 7:05 pm


    This is brilliant stuff for the daily commute.:)

  3. » OLDaily por Stephen Downes, enero 14, 2009 TIC, E/A, PER…: says . . . | February 9, 2009 / 1:44 pm

    [...] información complementaria sobre educación abierta. Dan Coleman describe en un buen artículo la antigua historia del aprendizaje gratuitamente. Sara Joy Pond ofrece una visión vivida y colorida de la historia de OERs [...]

  4. Mahbub Ullah Khan Masum says . . . | February 28, 2009 / 5:17 am

    I’m glad about lecture.Thanks the lecturure.I’m Masum, Dept.of Politic and Public Administration.
    Islamic University

  5. Nelson Alexander says . . . | June 18, 2009 / 9:48 am

    The university courses are a wonderful public asset, and I hope the collection will grow. However, there is a big difference in quality. The Yale lectures I have found to be quite good, but the Berkeley series less so, which is too bad. Many of the Berkeley professors tend to spend a great deal of time discussing classroom business or the nature of the course itself or reviewing what they said last week and previewing what they will say this time. And the recording quality is not very good. Berkeley should get high praise for the effort, but a little planning and editing would have made these lectures far more valuable to the interested public. I should note that I have only tried four or five.

  6. Maria Lumens says . . . | July 23, 2009 / 7:34 pm

    Donald Kagan is a national treasure! so thrilled we can get to know him!

  7. Introduction to Ancient Greece | Open Culture says . . . | September 30, 2009 / 9:44 pm

    [...] you, and you’re good to go. For more free courses on the Ancients, please see our page called: Learning Ancient History for Free. Share and [...]

  8. Ancient Ruins of Pompeii Now on Google Street View | Open Culture says . . . | December 4, 2009 / 9:16 am

    [...] to dig deeper into ancient history, I’d recommend looking through our previous post, Learning Ancient History for Free Courses. This will point you to some of the best free courses available on the [...]

  9. leonidas says . . . | December 26, 2009 / 10:26 pm

    make it to be sudable

  10. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: Free Translations by Literary Greats | Open Culture says . . . | January 20, 2011 / 1:50 pm

    [...] Learning Ancient History for Free Share: [...]

  11. Dr. Loran Carrier says . . . | January 21, 2011 / 7:38 am

    What a wonderful thing it is to have this at our fingertips, literally. If only this had been available when my silver glow wasn’t so obvious. Thank you and good luck. Dr. Loran Carrier

  12. thorne wright says . . . | September 4, 2011 / 7:21 am

    I believe we live history everyday. However, the ancient world has always held a special interest to me

  13. life long learning,lifelong learning says . . . | January 1, 2012 / 4:24 am

    life long learning,lifelong learning…

    [...]Learning Ancient History for Free | Open Culture[...]…

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