September 26, 2010

History 106B - The Roman Empire

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Available on iTunes or the UC Berkeley website

In between Professor Isabelle Pafford recording The Ancient Mediterranean World and History 110: Roman Republic, she recorded a lecture series from UC Berkeley in the Spring of 2008 on the Roman Empire. The series consists of 48 audio-only lectures, with most between 30 and 45 minutes in length (and around 10MB in size). The podcasts sometimes reference slides which are unavailable online.

The podcasts detail the Roman Empire from its origins in the civil wars of the 1st century BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire nearly 500 years later. There is a long introduction on the events leading up to the republic’s fall and the creation of an empire. The first half dozen lectures are essentially a recap of the end of the Roman Republic podcasts, starting with the story of Sulla and running through Julius Caesar to Octavian. Pafford points out that the empire only looks like destiny in retrospect, and at the time people were very unsure of the future. By comparison the end of the empire passes very quickly. The last hundred years of decline in the west after Julian the Apostate through the sack of Rome in 410AD to the last emperor Romulus Augustulus are covered in a single lecture. Little mention is made of the east’s transformation into the Byzantine Empire. Along the way we learn about the convoluted family history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the stabilising influence of the 5 good emperors, the near collapse of the 3rd century crisis, and the conversion to Christianity under Constantine.

There is a lot of history covered during the nearly 27 hours of this series, so I will not go through all the content. The lectures are largely in chronological order and detail history from the primary sources of the time. Thus they focus mainly on the emperors and palace history and there are many Roman emperors (especially during the 3rd century crisis). There is also an interesting and constant discussion on the reliability of primary sources. How bad were emperors like Caligua or Tiberius really? The sources (Suetonius and Tacitus) describe some incredible events, but at the same time the sources were known to be hostile to them. Presumably the sources couldn’t believably say too many bad things about the more popular emperors like Augustus or Claudius, but could safely exaggerate with the less well liked. As Proffessor Pafford says, the truth behind Tiberius’ time on Capri with crowds of young children may not be as lascivious as the sources imply, but she certainly wouldn’t send her kids to spend summer with Uncle Tiberius!

Interspersed within the chronological series of podcasts are the occasional side lecture. These include: the Roman city; slavery; the role of women in Roman society; and Roman religion. There is also a lecture on Roman art which unfortunately involves cases studies on artifacts shown to the original class, but unseen by the audio-only podcast listener. Despite this, these side lectures are among the best of the podcasts as they give an insight into general life in the Roman Empire and a break from the constant palace intrigue in the main lectures.

As with previous podcasts, the production quality of this series is not the best. However, for most lectures it is at an adequate level. The podcasts are recordings of actual university lectures, so there is some class discussion at the start of most lectures. One lecture starts with 10 minutes of talking about an assignment, including the class cajoling Professor Pafford to give them an extension on their assignment (which they got). There are no missing lectures. Apparently one wasn’t recorded so Professor Pafford rerecorded it (thank you!). The first few lectures are recorded at a low level and are hard to hear, but after that they get much better apart from a buzz in a couple of them.

Professor Pafford is an entertaining lecturer and the course is full of interesting detail. Most of the lectures have acceptable production values. One of the better podcast series available.


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