Watch The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes

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Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan loom large in the popular consciousness as two of history’s most fearsome warrior-leaders. Yet few people today are aware of their place in a succession of nomadic warriors who emerged from the Eurasian steppes to seize control of civilizations. Get startling new insights on how the world was shaped and discover cultures and empires you’ve likely never encountered.

The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is a series that is currently running and has 1 seasons (35 episodes). The series first aired on January 13, 2014.

The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes is available for streaming on the The Great Courses Signature Collection website, both individual episodes and full seasons. You can also watch The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes on demand at Amazon Prime, Amazon online.

The Great Courses Signature Collection
1 Season, 35 Episodes
January 13, 2014
Cast: Kenneth W. Harl
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The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes Full Episode Guide

  • Conclude by considering why, by the 16th and 17th centuries, the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes ceased to play the decisive role they had for nearly 6,000 years. Then tie together what you've learned with a review of the course and a discussion of what this legacy means to us today.

  • With a reign of India that endured until the arrival of the British, the Mughals are remembered as great rulers by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Here, look at the life and legacy of the man who, as a descendent of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, would become the last great conqueror of the steppes.

  • Between 1381 and his death in 1405, Tamerlane waged seven major campaigns on his extraordinary career of conquest, defeating the Mamluk and Ottoman armies, crushing the armies of the Sultan of Delhi, and overthrowing the Golden Horde. Trace his brutality-filled path and learn why his empire was ultimately short lived.

  • By Kublai Khan's death in 1294, the Mongolians ruled four ulus, or domains, each of which ultimately crumbled: Kublai Khan's homeland region, including Tibet and China; the central steppes of the Chagatai; the Ilkhans' Persia and Transoxiana; and the western forest zones of the Golden Horde. Understand how each fell away from the Mongol imperial legacy.

  • What were the costs and benefits of the Mongol conquests? Is it accurate to say that a pax Mongolica - a Mongol peace - was imposed in the sedentary civilizations that came under their control? Analyze these consequences, looking at the toll of Mongol destruction and the transformative cultural exchange and prosperity that arose.

  • At his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had achieved most of what he desired territorially. Why, then, did Kublai Khan and Möngke invade Song China? Investigate this conquest, which some scholars call the greatest of the Mongol's military achievements, including the logistical challenges that Kublai Klan overcame by inventing a new army.

  • Return to where the course began, with the campaigns of Hulagu. First, witness the political struggle to elect the next great khan. Then delve into campaigns including the sack of Baghdad, seen as the height of Mongol atrocities, and the battle that ended Mongol power in the Islamic world.

  • Why did Genghis Khan have his third son, Ögedei, succeed him rather than his oldest, Jochi? Find out as you embark on the Mongols' vast westward expansion. Witness Ögedei's efforts to transition from a tributary-based empire to a tax-based one; then follow Batu's invasion of Russia and Christian Europe, where he encounters an unexpected obstacle: fortified masonry castles.

  • Pick up with Temujin's new status as the great khan, and follow his nomadic army's path of violent conquest - aided by skilled mapmakers and Chinese engineers - from the small kingdom of the Xi Xia to the Jin Empire to his most important campaign, the invasion of the Islamic world.

  • Genghis Khan's rivals saw him as the embodiment of the steppe barbarian. But who was this man who united the Mongol tribes and set his sights on world conquest? Discover Temujin - as Genghis Khan was originally known - and who the Mongols were at the time of his birth.

  • Begin your understanding of why the Mongols emerged and had such a dramatic impact on the 13th century by studying the interaction of the restored Song Empire and three nomadic groups who entered northern China in the 10th and 11th centuries when the Great Wall collapsed - the Khitans, the Jurchens, and the Xi Xia.

  • How well did the Seljuk Turks use their victory? How did the sultans in Konya, the new center of Muslim Turkish civilization, forge a wider unity? What caused the region's Christian population to convert? Explore how a new Turkish civilization in Asia Minor developed largely through religious architecture and the allure of Sufi mystics.

  • Elaborate on implications of the previous two lectures, including the rise of a slave trade, as you trace a series of Turkish migrations that lead to new powers on the steppes. Focus on three states: the Karakhanids, the sultans of Ghazni, and the Seljuk Turks, who represent the greatest of these new political organizations.

  • After the Battle of Talas, Islamic expansion halted for 300 years. Explore Baghdad's emergence as an intellectual and economic center of the Islamic world as well as the religion's cultural achievements during this period, particularly in architecture. Then, learn why Turkish merchants converted to Sunni Islam - or their version of it - starting in the 8th century.

  • Examine the initial contact between Islamic civilization and the Turkish nomads in detail by looking at the wars waged between the early caliphs and Turkish tribes. Conclude with the Battle of Talas, fought between the armies of the Abbasid caliphate and the Tang emperor, which represents a turning point for the Karluk Turks and Islam.

  • How did Muslim civilization emerge? Why did it burst upon the scene so dramatically? And how did it come to play such a significant role among Turkish-speaking nomads? Get background on the caliphate and its divisions, the teachings of Muhammad, and how a Muslim capital at Baghdad and associated cities spread Islam through trade connections.

  • The Byzantines failed with the Khazars - but did they successfully absorb or convert any other nomads to orthodox Christianity and Byzantine civilization? Find out in this final lecture on their relationship with the peoples of the Pontic-Caspian steppes by looking at the Magyars, Pechenegs, and Cumans, as well as the Viking Rus.

  • Why did the Khazars convert to Judaism rather than orthodox Christianity? Why did the Byzantines, despite dealings with the Khazars across centuries, fail to win them over to their commonwealth? Get answers as you delve into the important role the Khazars played in Byzantine foreign policy and the controversy created by their conversion.

  • Think of the Middle Ages and you'll likely conjure images of western Europe. But at the time of the Avars, Gök Turks, and Uighurs, Constantinople represented the great urban, Christian civilization bordering the Eurasian steppes. Begin the first of three lectures on the relationship between Byzantine civilization and the peoples of the steppes.

  • Delve into the interaction of the Turks and Chinese, starting with a look at China since the Han dynasty's fragmentation; then investigate the nomads who settled in China. Conclude with a discussion of unification under the Sui and Tang emperors, including their relationship with the Gök Turks and Uighurs.

  • Progress into the early Middle Ages, a period defined by the Turks. Start your exploration of this group by focusing on three major khaganates or confederations - the Avar Khaghans, the Gök Turks, and the Uighurs - which developed between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D., and would have major implications for the Islamic world.

  • To understand the history of the Hephthalites or "White Huns" and the Gök Turks in context, look at the Sassanid Empire - the contemporary rival to the late Roman world - from the monarchy's aspirations to the way its Neo-Persian shahs came into conflict with Rome and these nomadic peoples.

  • Considered both a great leader and a merciless conqueror, Attila the Hun has captured the popular imagination for centuries. Conclude your examination of the Huns with the story of Attila, from his rise to power to his death, including the royal marriage proposal that ultimately led to the ravaging of western Europe.

  • Turn to the Huns, who employed tactics similar to the Xiongnu and were viewed as both a major threat and militarily advantageous by the divided Roman Empire. Explore their conquests and the dual strategies eastern Rome used to manage the Hun threat - one of which faltered when Attila rose to power.

  • Continue exploring the importance of the Silk Road, but progress to a discussion of religions spread and practiced along the route. Learn why Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and above all, Buddhism, were appealing to nomadic populations, and the impact these faiths had on these people and their caravan cities.

  • Between the 2nd century B.C. and 2nd century A.D., the Silk Road brought about a virtual global economy. Shift your focus from discussion of specific groups to an exploration of this legendary route and its trade connections, including the types of goods moved, the people involved, and why these arrangements benefited all parties.

  • Through control of key trade routes and market participation, the Sarmatians amassed great wealth, which they used to strengthen their military ability. Prized as mercenaries, their military prowess influenced Roman tactics. Explore why, despite these advantages, no great Sarmatian leader emerged, and what effect this experience had on the Romans.

  • Examine the Sacae and Kushans, two steppe peoples forced west into the Middle East and India by the Xiongnu confederacy. Learn the key role both groups played in developing trade along the Silk Road and how Kushan ruler Kujula Kadphises and his successors carved out an Indian empire while creating conditions for Buddhism to flourish.

  • Look closely at the rise to power and achievements of the nomadic steppe peoples known as the Parthians who, despite clashes with the Romans, successfully ruled Iran and the wider Middle East from horseback for 400 years, creating the first nomadic empire in the Near East.

  • Move from the eastern steppes to the western and central steppes in this exploration of the Scythians, Iranian-speaking nomads with great military prowess, who established a symbiotic relationship with the Greeks based on trade. Investigate this contact, as well as attempts to conquer the Scythians by the Persians and, later, Alexander the Great.

  • Han emperors found the tribute system granted Modu chanyu or "five baits" - by which the Xiongnu were promised Chinese brides, among other gifts - humiliating and unacceptable. Look closely at the relationship between the Han Empire of China and the nomadic confederacy of the Xiongnu, including Han attempts to eliminate the Xiongnu threat through war.

  • As you shift focus from the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans on the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Mongolia, examine how Iranian and Tocharian nomads came into contact with China, their interaction, and the repercussions this contact had across the central and western steppes, and the great bordering civilizations.

  • Learn about the earliest known nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppes, beginning with the origins of the Indo-European languages. See how innovations including the raising of livestock, the domestication of the horse, and the invention of the spoked wheel - and ultimately, the light chariot - transformed steppe life and led to migrations across Eurasia.