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The Great Courses: Two Titles for Italy Buffs

We have recently discovered "The Great Courses," and have found some gems. We are currently enjoying (to put it mildly) the series "Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon."

Don't let the title put you off. This is an absolutely delightful and accessible survey of the engineering marvels of Classical Greece and Rome. We have the DVD version, which consists of 24 30-minute "lectures" on four disks. The presenter is professor emeritus at West Point, and is great. He not only describes and explains the various technologies, he lights up when he says "Let's build a model!" Seeing how the Colosseum was built, what steps went into building Roman roads, or how temples evolved over time, truly aids our understanding. He even makes a barrel vault with homemade concrete, and demonstrates the simple surveying tools used to lay out Greek and Roman towns.

He pays homage to Greece, but most of the focus is on the wonders of Roman technology and engineering. He acknowledges that most of the ideas came from Greece, but were improved upon and expanded by Rome.

More importantly (but less fun), he puts these technological developments in a social and historical context, showing how the discoveries and inventions of 2000 or more years ago have impacted more recent history, and even our daily lives.

Another series we can recommend is "The Guide to Essential Italy." This is a sweeping survey of Italy, with emphases on art and architecture, again showing how the past affects the present. The presenter in this case is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. This one has 36 30-minutes lectures on 6 disks. Again, don't be put off by the idea of "lectures." You will see an incredible number of images of artworks, maps, architectural designs, and more. We enjoyed this set last year, and are planning to review much of it for our upcoming trip to Italy.

We were especially impressed with the Roman part of the series. We always do a lot of homework before we travel, and I was amazed at the places Professor Bartlett covers that we had never even heard of.

About 1/3 of the lectures focus on Rome, almost another 1/3 on Florence and vicinity, and most of the rest on Venice. There are also brief sections on well-known places in Tuscany and Umbria. Pompeii is covered in the Roman section as is the Vatican.

Both of these are well worth checking out. Their website is, but I warn you, if you order anything from them your inbox will never be lonely again. Do shop for bargains, though; they are constantly running sales and promotions. The courses are also available as downloads.

Posted by
170 posts

I bought the "The Guide to Essential Italy" in anticipation of our RS tours of Italy in the fall. We're about 1/3 of the way through the series and have learned a lot about Rome. I also recommend the series and think it will enhance our understanding of Italy and our enjoyment of the tours.

Posted by
15765 posts

We received an advertising brochure in the mail from them, with deep discounts on selected courses. Is the usual retail price really around $400 per course? Or are there always discounts? (I guess I could look at the website and see for myself, but I am curious about your personal experience with them).

Posted by
170 posts

I bought the "Essential Italy" course for $25. It was on sale.

Posted by
6985 posts

I bought two of their courses several years ago before going to France. I have the one on Impressionism: From Monet to Van Gogh and also the one on Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre. They are wonderful.

Just a note if you don't want to buy them, many of them are available at my local library (I have borrowed several other courses) so check your library.

Posted by
1318 posts

There’s also a streaming service for $10 per month. Well worth it, in my opinion for general learning. Most classes are around the level of a college freshman.

The retail prices are what they’d use to sell to libraries so that’s why they’re so high

I haven’t spent too much time with the travel specific classes but the history classes are top notch as well as the art classes.

Posted by
292 posts

Anyone interested in the Great Courses may want to check with their local library to see if they have access to the streaming service called Kanopy. It provides free access to the Great Courses (along with a wealth of movies and documentaries). If your library participates, you can create an account and access unlimited Great Courses and 10 free streaming movies a month. Just another way public libraries are an absolute treasure!

Posted by
1029 posts

i first started borrowing the audio courses from the library to listen to in my car; might as well learn something. I've learned about history, philosophy, religion, science, etc. Sadly they no longer sell audio versions of their courses, instead you have to listen to them thru a subscription audio service. But I started watching their videos and they are uniformly excellent. One we enjoyed before a trip to the Amalfi coast was "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City", and the course already mentioned "Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon" is great too.

Their courses go on sale at least once a year, often more. If you sign up for their catalog you will receive plenty of catalogs and "special offers", most of which warn this is your last mail if you don't buy something (it isn't).

I've long thought that RS should have a partnership with them and offer the courses at a good discount to those signing up for a tour since many courses cover at least in part the sights and history covered on the tours

Posted by
3985 posts

I have been a customer of the Great Courses since the 90s. From a history of opera to a course covering the history of the Tudors and the Stuarts, this organization attracts brilliant faculty who clearly share their passion for their coursework on audio or video.

I always wait until the courses are on a huge discounted sale before I buy.

Posted by
15765 posts

Thanks to the above I was able to get access on Kanopy through my local library. But now I cannot find The Great Courses or The Guide to Essential Italy. Lots of other things show up when I type those in the Search field, but not what I want. Any clues?

Posted by
254 posts

I've watched both of these courses via online streaming and found them to be fascinating and informative. Both instructors were top notch. Well worth the time to view these! For those who were concerned about the pricing, if you go their website and sign up for their emails, you will quickly start getting emails (and in-the-mail options too) for deep discounts. I put courses I like into my cart or wishlist and then wait for a discount to come through - as a result, I haven't paid more than $50 for any course via electronic download (as opposed to DVDs). They have a wonderful series of courses on England and London too, for anyone interested in that part of the region as well.

The Great Courses has a slew of courses for all kinds of travelers. There are many on Italy - such as - Michelangelo, history of Italy, Romans, etc.. Bartlett does a nice job. But, there are others as well.
Thanks for posting this info. for other travelers.

Posted by
6183 posts

I just checked - we paid $30 for the Greek and Roman Technology set of 4 DVDs. I can't find the invoice for the Essential Italy, but I'm thinking it was something like $25 for the 6 disk set. That was on an introductory offer.

I can't imagine ever paying $$$ for these, even though the ones we have tried have been great. We have several more that we haven't looked at yet, on literature, history, and political philosophy.