Great Courses: War And World History: Part I, taught by Professor Jonathan P. Roth
Despite having a master’s degree in military history, the professor of this particular course is not one I am familiar with. After having listened to a quarter of his class or so, twelve lectures that take up six hours or so of listening time, I have to say that his approach is one I have mixed feelings about. There are definitely some advantages to listening to a military historian who has such a strong interest in the interaction between war and society and in the examination of similar social trends and the possibility of communication and influence between cultures that are often viewed in isolation. In particular, the author’s focus on a military core that extends across Eurasia divided by various lines based on different features on each side of the line, including horse archers and the use of coins and the view of the soul, is certainly a welcome one. Not always as welcome is the author’s evolutionary perspective, which tends to lead him to make some mistaken conclusions about religion and to view things in a slightly too tidy fashion. Those listeners looking for tactical or strategic aspects of war are likely to be a bit disappointed, but those who enjoy logistics and patterns are likely to find much to appreciate.
The twelve lectures in the first part of this course begin with a discussion of what war is, and the thorny issue of defining wars (1) in terms of both violence and organization. After that the author moves on to the equally thorny question of examining the historiography of war (2) and examining its changes based on shifting tastes over time. After that the author looks at the origins of war in the stone age (3) before moving to the complex relationship of peace and war at the dawn of human civilization (4). This leads to two lectures where the author looks at first the chariot (5) and then the sword (6) revolution to see how they dramatically shaped warfare from Egypt to China in the period of the middle to late bronze ages. After this the author examines the steppes, standing armies, and the importance of the silver trade (7) as well as the relationship between Greek piracy and the hoplite of classical Greek warfare (8). This moves on to a discussion of great empires throughout the Eurasian core (9) and the influence between war and the rise of various religions during the early 1st millennium (10). Finally, the professor closes this part of his course with a discussion of the Greek way of war (11) and the age of war that was felt along the core during the period of late antiquity (12).
Admittedly, this course and its approach may be a bit of a tough sell when it comes to those are fond of military history. The author represents a particular approach to military history that focuses on war and society, and this involves a look at various social and religious matters that many people who are interested in military history have little interest in. The author thinks himself to be a more tolerant and enlightened person than he really is–he is at least a methodological theist, though, in being able to concede the reality of people’s religious thinking to them, even as his systemic approach would appear to find enough order in violence to see a sort of design in it. The author’s interest in war and society as opposed to battles and dynasties and the biography of great men (and occasionally women) when it comes to warfare does mean, though, that he ignores precisely those elements of military history that most people are interested in. This course has the sort of approach that is popular among academics but not so much among the general public, but for those of us with an interest in military history, it is worthwhile to examine even that which is unpopular for such insights as it can provide.