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Cities of the Ancient World: Review

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I’m fascinated by ancient history, by the societies and political entities that existed before the Greek city-states. I’m not going to lie to you, most of my reading in history is Roman or medieval rather than ancient, however I have a great resource to feed my curiosity: the Great Courses series.

The latest of the Great Courses series in which I’ve indulged was Cities of the Ancient World, delivered by Dr. Steven L. Tuck. It was the perfect course for me because along with interest in ancient history, I’m very interested in urban societies, both in my fiction writing and also for my role-playing games.

The course looks at a collection of major urban sites up to and including Constantinople (was that Istanbul? No, Constantinople)*. Some of these are based only on archaeological evidence, but for many there are texts – be they the records of earlier oral histories, legends, myths, or other primary sources – to help fit all the pieces together.

And Dr. Tuck does a fantastic job of fitting together all those pieces. He gives us an idea of the physical layout of the city, how it formed, and how it evolved. He provides insights into the growth of urban planning, which was interesting, but not something for which I had hoped when I picked up the series.

I loved the discussion of life within the city. Dr. Tuck talks about class and social differences, as well as pointing out some of the industry that might take place in the city. For each site, he provides an analysis of the role of that particular city in history as well as within its own political entity. Many of these cities are capitals, but there are plenty that are not, and those that were not had some other importance that allowed them to grow and prosper.

This is a great addition to lecture series like Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations from Dr. Kenneth Harl and Great Battles of the Ancient World by Dr. Garret Fagan (both of which I own) to educate one and if one is working creatively, to inspire one.

The only real criticism – other than that, for me, time spent discussing urban planning would be better spent talking about the interaction of citizens, trade and contact with other societies – was that while Dr. Tuck is a good speaker, I don’t find him as engaging as Dr. Harl or Dr. Fagan. That’s not to deride his delivery, because he’s excellent, but he suffers by comparison.

I give Cities of the Ancient World 4.75 orthogonal plans out of 5. This is an amazing lecture series, but loses a few points for the urban planning inclusion and Dr. Tuck is not perfectly engaging.

*Obligatory They Might Be Giants reference.

You can find Cities of the Ancient World at the Great Courses.

You can find Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations at the Great Courses.

You can find Great Battles of the Ancient World at the Great Courses.