Watch The Big History of Civilizations

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Apply a cutting-edge historical approach to the epic story of humanity across time and around the world. Taught by acclaimed Professor Craig G. Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, these 36 sweeping lectures trace the grand story of human civilizations from our emergence as a species, through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and into the future.

The Big History of Civilizations is a series that is currently running and has 1 seasons (36 episodes). The series first aired on December 9, 2016.

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

The Great Courses Signature Collection
1 Season, 36 Episodes
December 9, 2016
Cast: Craig G. Benjamin
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The Big History of Civilizations Full Episode Guide

  • We can envision scenarios for the year 2100, but what about 2600? Or 3100? Reflect on the possibilities, drawing from the imaginative work of futurists and science fiction writers. See where human civilization might go - and what might happen to us along the way - on this planet, or in the universe, as Homo sapiens, or even as some future species.

  • Historians traditionally focus solely on the past, but here you have the chance to apply what you've learned about Big History to see what might be in store for us in the near future. Will we run out of oil? How will we adapt to a changing climate? How will population growth affect energy consumption? Consider a variety of scenarios for the year 2100.

  • Welcome to the Anthropocene! The 20th and 21st centuries are merely an eye blink on the scale of Big History, yet these years have wrought astonishing changes in the history of human civilization - and the story of our planet as a whole. Take a look at how nationalism, global capitalism, technological advancements, and rapid population growth have transformed our world.

  • Zoom in on an obscure corner of Europe in the 18th century, where the burning of coal served as the necessary spark to launch the world into modernity. Find out why Britain was in such a good position to become a global powerhouse during the Industrial Revolution, and watch as the railroads altered the landscape of countries around the world.

  • In this lecture, Professor Benjamin surveys the "Malthusian Cycle" of expansion from 500 to 1750 C.E., when favorable climate, global population growth, expanding exchange networks, and rapid innovation all paved the way for modernity. Reflect on European mercantilism, global exploration, and the period's great scientific achievements.

  • The Pacific islands represent perhaps the last great chapter in humanity's colonization of the globe. The vast Pacific made migration slow until comparatively recently, yet seafaring technologies allowed many Polynesian societies to flourish. Study the aboriginal people of Australia and New Zealand, and then learn about chiefdoms in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, and more.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa has often been overlooked by outside historians who are considering the rise of human civilization, yet nations such as Mali and Ghana and the Bantu and Swahili civilizations all have a rich and fascinating history. Survey the story of Africa with a special focus on sub-Saharan geography, people, and civilizations.

  • Round out your study of the Americas with a journey down the Andean spine and up the Amazon River to discover the many civilizations of South America, including the Nazcans, the Mochicans, and the Incas. Tour archaeological sites, and then step back to consider the Big History of the Americas compared to Afro-Eurasia.

  • The unique geography of Mesoamerica - the long isthmus that runs from the present-day Panama Canal through Mexico - has driven the region's history over the millennia. Review the geologic formations and plate tectonics that created Mesoamerica, and then turn to its many cultures, including the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.

  • Shift your attention to the Americas, which developed on an alternate path from Afro-Eurasia. This first lecture traces the settlement of North America and investigates societies across different regions, from the southwestern deserts to the eastern woodlands. Learn about tribes such as the Iroquois nations, the Hopewell people, Pueblos, Chinooks, and more.

  • In the early 13th century, Mongol horsemen swept out of their homeland in the steppes to conquer the known world, and they would go on to create the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Enter Mongol culture and look at the violent conquests that led to a little-known Pax Mongolia before the Mongols returned to obscurity.

  • The expansion of the Islamic civilization between the 8th and 10th centuries played a major role in the history of Afro-Eurasian states and cultures. Survey the story of Islam from the life of Mohammed to the Sunni-Shia split to the Islamic Golden Age. Review the pillars of the faith and the culture's impact on the world.

  • Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, Afro-Eurasian civilization experienced a crisis with the collapse of the Han Dynasty in the east and the end of Roman administration in the west, leading to near-universal economic contraction. Employ Big History analysis to understand the different outcomes to these events - and their influence on future history.

  • The Era of Agrarian Civilizations was one of fluid borders and nomadic activity, which eventually led to dynamic trade routes between east and west. Here, Professor Benjamin transports you into the Han Dynasty's world of luxurious silks and spices. And see how the less tangible exports like ideas, arts, religion, and more were transmitted along the Silk Roads.

  • Rome began as an unremarkable city-state with a monarchy, but once the city established itself as a republic, Roman conquests spread dramatically across the Mediterranean. Here, review some of Rome's great leaders from its beginning through the assassination of Julius Caesar and the reign of Octavian, Caesar Augustus.

  • Although Big History looks at the macro lens, sometimes one individual truly shapes the course of human history. Alexander of Macedon is one of those people. As you'll find out in this lecture, his conquests reshaped the ancient world, leading to tremendous economic expansion, flourishing cities, and monumental advancements in science and art.

  • Geography plays one of the most important roles in a civilization's development, and this holds true for the ancient Greeks. But it is the Greek experiments in government that drove much of their success. Tour the ancient Greek city-states of Athens, Sparta, and more to find out how they were governed, and how they dealt with conflicts.

  • Pastoral nomads weren't the only early settlers of Central Asia. The recently discovered Oxus civilization and the Persians reveal a number of key themes for Big History, including the role of climate and geography, intensified social complexity, innovations in warfare and farming, and more.

  • Go inside the steppe environment to learn about the role militarized pastoral nomads played in world history. As you see how these societies responded to climate pressures and influenced neighboring civilizations, you will also chart the rise of the horse, which played an important role in nomadic society.

  • In this second lecture on early East Asian civilization, follow the history from the Warring States Period through the Qin and Han dynasties. Along the way, examine many of Chinese culture's most important contributions to world history, including its legal codes, and the invention of paper and printing.

  • Although contemporaneous with civilizations emerging in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and South Asia, East Asia's geographic isolation allowed for the development of unique ideas about government, society, and the individual. Find out about East Asian culture by exploring the rise and fall of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

  • Continue your study of South Asia. Here, Professor Benjamin traces the rise of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions during the millennium between 1500 and 500 B.C.E. He then turns to the political and social organizations of the subcontinent, from the Indo-Aryan settlements through the Mauryan Empire.

  • While agrarian civilizations were flourishing in Egypt and the Mediterranean, the extraordinary Indus civilization was emerging in South Asia. Witness the development of one of the most advanced and intriguing civilizations of its time, and then tour two of its most important cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

  • The Mediterranean Sea played a key role in the development of the ancient world. Here, explore four smaller cultures that had an enormous influence on subsequent history, particularly trade and cultural exchange: the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans.

  • Shift your attention from Ancient Egyptian power to the society's fascinating social, economic, and cultural achievements. Investigate Egyptian urban life, its system of trade, hieroglyphics, and religion. Thanks to its important heritage and influence on subsequent civilizations, Ancient Egyptian society remains truly astonishing.

  • Dive into the world of Ancient Egypt during the time of the great pharaohs. In this sweeping lecture, Professor Benjamin shows you how environmental circumstances led to Egyptian power. Examine the work of modern-day geneticists, chemists, and other scientists who are shedding new light on this mythical civilization.

  • Wars and rumors of war abound in this next lecture on Mesopotamia. Survey the rise and fall of empires in the 1,000 years after the collapse of the Sumerians. See how laws and language barriers impacted the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and how the changing environment inevitably had the last word.

  • Gain new insights into civilization by looking at one of the first: the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Here, use techniques from linguistics, genetics, archeology, climatology, and more to see how this society unfolded - and what lessons it has to offer us today. The approach in this lecture is "Big History" at its most engaging.

  • The vast Era of Agrarian Civilizations stretches nearly 5,000 years, from 3,200 B.C.E. to 1750 C.E. and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Tease out the large-scale trends and patterns of this period to find out what led to the growth of agrarian civilizations as well as the key barriers these civilizations faced.

  • After the agricultural revolution, the next major transition in human history was the rise of cities. After introducing you to life in the early farm communities, Professor Benjamin investigates the origins of power and its relationship to the state. Discover several of the abiding features of the world's early cities.

  • Archaeologists continue to debate precisely why and how humanity transitioned from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago. Delve into the agricultural revolution to find out how some combination of climate change, population growth, and human ingenuity led to one of the most important revolutions in human history.

  • Although it is often skimmed over in the history books, the Paleolithic Era is the longest time in human history, ranging from 200,000 to 11,000 years ago. Understanding this period is crucial for understanding the human history that follows. See how family dynamics, migration patterns, climate change, and more affected life in this fascinating era.

  • Trace the origins of the human species from the emergence of proto-humans 2.5 million years ago to the rise of Homo sapiens from about 200,000 years ago. Professor Benjamin offers perspectives from biology, anthropology, archeology, and linguistics to show what makes the human species unique - and why we have been able to flourish.

  • Jericho and Anau are two of the world's oldest cities, and their stories have much to tell us about the scope of human history. Begin the course by examining what made these cities successful, and how they differed from each other. This starting point will introduce the concept and key themes of Big History.