The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World : The Great Courses: Ancient History

  • by The Great Courses, Robert Garland
  • Narrated by Professor Robert Garland
  • Series: The Great Courses: Ancient History
  • 24 hrs and 28 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

Look beyond the abstract dates and figures, kings and queens, and battles and wars that make up so many historical accounts. Over the course of 48 richly detailed lectures, Professor Garland covers the breadth and depth of human history from the perspective of the so-called ordinary people, from its earliest beginnings through the Middle Ages.
The past truly comes alive as you take a series of imaginative leaps into the world of history's anonymous citizens, people such as a Greek soldier marching into battle in the front row of a phalanx; an Egyptian woman putting on makeup before attending an evening party with her husband; a Greek citizen relaxing at a drinking party with the likes of Socrates; a Roman slave captured in war and sent to work in the mines; and a Celtic monk scurrying away with the Book of Kells during a Viking invasion.
Put yourself in the sandals of ordinary people and discover what it was like to be among history's 99%. What did these everyday people do for a living? What was their home like? What did they eat? What did they wear? What did they do to relax? What were their beliefs about marriage? Religion? The afterlife?
This extraordinary journey takes you across space and time in an effort to be another person - someone with whom you might not think you have anything at all in common - and come away with an incredible sense of interconnectedness. You'll see the range of possibilities of what it means to be human, making this a journey very much worth taking.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Tantalizing time trip

This lecture series spans 24 hours of listening time, covering thousands of years of human history and prehistory. Although it is a lecture series, it isn’t at all stuffy or boring. In fact it is an enthralling, gripping and moving story of how our ancestors used to live their daily lives. The author focuses on what he calls the ‘other side’ of history, looking at the way ordinary people, rather than the ruling classes, lived their lives. He paints vivid pictures of the daily challenges facing early humans, Neanderthals, hunter-gatherers, the first farmers, the first citizens of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. He then moves to Britain to describe the Roman occupation, and the Anglo-Saxon period, finishing with the Norman invasion and the mediaeval era.

Themes that arise and recur many times across this immense span of history and prehistory include: the prevalence of slavery; the low social status of women and the hazardous nature of childbirth; the ever-present threat of violent death and appalling injury; short life expectancy; the constant discomfort caused by lice, worms, tooth decay, arthritis and gastroenteritis, and the smell of bad breath, body odour and faeces which would have filled the air in most of these societies most of the time. The immense power of religion was another force controlling the lives our ancestors to a depressing extent.

For each period of history the narrator focuses on a few different roles within the society in question. For example, in the Roman period you would learn what it was like to go into battle as a legionary, or to be a criminal facing the hideous ordeal of crucifixion, or an elderly man who can’t afford to retire and must work until he drops, living on the top floor of a rickety high rise Roman apartment block, with no sanitation and the constant risk of being burned alive in a fire.

I was never bored for a moment as the narrator transported me back through history and into the shoes, or sandals, of my ancestors. I wholeheartedly recommend this talking book.
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- Mark "I love listening to books when cycling, paddleboarding, etc but I press pause when I need to concentrate. Its safer & I don't lose the plot!"

Erudition, Elegance, Entertainment

Other than about five merely 4-star minutes on what medieval knights wore in one of the later lectures, I can find little to fault with this Great Course. Robert Garland makes the past come alive in colorful, carefully chosen, elegant prose. One shouldn't let oneself be fooled by a posh British accent, but let's face it - it doesn't hurt. Nor does Garland's dry humor. He describes the ancient Egyptians, for example, as wearing a lot of "bling", and notes that while the Norman invasion brought to the English language words for cooked cow and pig, i.e. "beef" and "pork", the frenchified Norsemen neglected to teach the Brits how to cook and left them to eat appalling food for another thousand years.

Surrounding these lighter moments is endlessly fascinating information about how people lived, such as that Rome was full of five-story apartment buildings. Who knew? And that the ancient Egyptians were such a conservative society that only experts can tell the age of paintings they made 500 years apart -- so little did their art change over time. I also came away with a rather different impression of Ancient Greece than I went into the course with, thanks to Garland's detailed descriptions of the separation of the sexes and the way slavery worked. In many ways Ancient Greece reminded me more, in the end, of the Arab world where I have lived, than of modern Western democracies.

Some might bristle a bit at the slight academic leftist bent to some of the lectures, with their focus on the poor, the slaves, women, the everyman. This is, however, the point of the course, after all, and once you get past the occasional sense that someone's been hanging out a bit too long with the sociology department the information conveyed is all fascinating, not least the nuanced descriptions of how slavery worked in the ancient world (also reminiscent of how slavery still works in remote areas of the Sahel and Maghreb).

One insight I found provocative was that there was what Garland calls a lack of a social conscience in the ancient world. It occurred to no one, apparently, that slavery was in any way wrong, or that the sexes or even all men were deserving of equal rights. Given the many modern-seeming sentiments -- about love, virtue, self-discipline, ambition, etc.-- that Garland describes among the ancients, it's surprising that none of the many great thinkers of these early civilizations came up with at least the idea that no kinds of humans were, deep down, better than any others, or deserving of the status of chattel. (Of course then Jesus came along and had these ideas to some extent, and he was a product of that world.)

Another thing I liked about this course was that just when you were thinking, "Really? How can we know that?" about one or another factoid, Garland would explain the source of the information, without every burdening the lecture with too much referencing. And again, just when you would start thinking, "Really? Did they really say that or think that? Am I supposed to just take your word for it?" he would pull out the perfect quotation from an ancient source, giving credence yet again to the sense he delivers so elegantly throughout, that these people really were not so different, in the end, from ourselves.
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- Becky Popenoe "Say something about yourself!"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-08-2013
  • Publisher: The Great Courses