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Publisher's Summary

The history of human civilization is an astonishing story of migration, innovation, and social development. Now, the exciting new field of "big history" allows us to explore human civilizations in ways unavailable to historians of previous generations. Big history scholars take a multidisciplinary approach to study great spans of time, unlocking important themes, trends, and developments across time and space.

Unlike a traditional survey of history - with its focus on dates and events, kings and battles - The Big History of Civilizations is your chance to apply this cutting-edge historical approach to the epic story of humanity around the world. Taught by acclaimed Professor Craig G. Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, these 36 sweeping lectures trace the story of human civilizations from our emergence as a species, through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and into the future.

It only takes a few minutes of one lecture for you to discover that Big History is an amazing approach to history. Its grand vision will give you powerful new insights into human civilization, and it offers a profound analysis of some of our biggest questions: What makes us human? Where did we come from? And where are we going? There may be no easy answers, but Professor Benjamin takes you on a powerful journey to the limits of our understanding.

What differentiates big history from any other field is the way it combines divergent fields, from archaeology and anthropology to ecology and philosophy, and ties them together, allowing you to see patterns of our past, present - and even future. From the just-right "Goldilocks factors" that allow civilizations to emerge to different ways civilizations have emerged across time and around the word, this riveting approach to history offers a multidisciplinary toolkit to tell the story about what makes us human.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2016 The Great Courses (P)2016 The Teaching Company, LLC

What listeners say about The Big History of Civilizations

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    2 out of 5 stars

Horrible delivery, constant self-promotion.

What didn’t you like about Professor Craig G. Benjamin’s performance?

I don't know where to begin. He speaks in a mechanical, repetitive way--every sentence has the same delivery and intonation. He doesn't sound like he is talking naturally, more like he's reading a powerpoint presentation. But the worst part is that he is constantly interrupting his own lecture to promote his "Big History" brand of scholarship. It's more of an academic infomercial than a course. He can't seem to stay on any topic, because he keeps feeling the need to stress why his approach to history is so important. I understand that the whole idea is to make broad connections, but he jumps around so much that he starts sounding as though he has ADD. I love ancient history and can usually listen to lectures endlessly but I couldn't get through more than an hour of this before I turned it off in disgust.

26 people found this helpful

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Global vision

Brilliant outline of the rise and fall of civilizations over the last 10,000 years. (Is that all it's been?) Benjamin is an enthusiastic lecturer and manages to cram an amazing amount of information into each lesson. It ends with a vision of human possibilities a billion years into the future.

I would have wished for only one change, and even at that I'm not sure how it could fit in without breaking the delicate balance of the course's trajectory. The 19th and 20th centuries are well covered in a couple of powerhouse lessons; I wish they'd been matched by a single lesson (at least) on the earlier history of Europe. It gets short shrift here. But there's no fat in the course that could be trimmed to make room for this.

Ultimately I guess the intention was to represent more fully the civilizations that are often glossed over in "world histories." Benjamin's history is truly global.

One feature is the emphasis he places on environmental issues. The environment has played a far greater role in enabling the rise and fall of human societies than is usually recognized. And that in turn leads to the almost prophetic themes of the conclusion of the course. Humans as a species have dominated far more than their share of the planet's resources, and we have upset the apple cart to such an extent that our own survival is in question. It's the only planet we have. We need to act urgently to reduce our footprint.

24 people found this helpful

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Ambitious but Suceeds

Covering the history of civilizations on earth is an ambitious, almost impossible project. But WOW. Professor Benjamin pulled it off. And in 36 lectures instead of 48+.

This course presents an excellent historical trend analysis on the history of civilizations on earth at the macro level focusing on identifying the developments, inventions, and innovations and political, military, economic, cultural, and environmental history of all of the important cultures and agrarian civilizations of the ancient and modern world.

I held off from buying this course for too long because I thought Professor Christian's course "Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity" was so all-encompassing and stellar why would I want another course on Big History (especially since just about every civilization covered in this course is covered in detail in other courses)? Please do not fall into this trap. I am glad I gave it a shot to shine through on its own merit.

I gave Professor Benjamin's "Foundations of Eastern Civilization" course three stars because I thought it was too long and not enough analysis....a narrative of just one dynasty falling after another with not much analysis. But with time I have come to appreciate his work on that course much more. I am not making the mistake this time: this is a five star course (a standard I hold few to).

This course offered the best coverage of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the succession of civilizations that ruled over it than any course I've taken up to date.

Common themes that were fascinating to explore were the history of human migrations into new regions and the interactions and trade networks they fostered. These migrations (usually involving pastoral nomads) typically resulted in the origins of new sedentary kingdoms.

The only negatives I could find had less to do with the professor's delivery or content and more with him not being able to fit more in. He mentioned the Five Nations of Iroquois, the Nez Perce, Sioux, and Cherokee in lecture 27 (North America) but in-explicitly didn’t provide any time at all describing their society which is odd considering he generously covered just about every other civilization in the course in detail.

There also wasn’t much coverage of the European states that succeeded the Roman Empire nor a lot on the other civilizations of the modern world (1600 on). The Ottoman Empire wasn’t even referenced as far as I can recall.

By my analysis here is a list of the peoples that were covered in the course:
- Hunting and gathering bands in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras
- Sumerian cities of ancient Mesopotamia (including the first empire of Akkad)
- Elamites (Perisa/modern day Iran)
- Amorites/Babylonians (Mesopotamia)
- Hittites (Anatolia/modern day Turkey)
- Assyrians (Mesopotamia)
- Neo-Babylonian empire (Mesopotamia)
- Ancient Egypt (Mediterranean)
- Nubian Kush (Africa)
- Phoenicians (Mediterranean)
- Hebrews (Mediterranean)
- Minoans (Mediterranean)
- Mycenaeans (Mediterranean)
- Indus Valley (south Asia/modern day India)
- Indo-Aryan Vedic civilization (south Asia/modern day India)
- Mauryan Empire (south Asia/modern day India)
- Ancient Chinese civilizations (Yangshao and Longshan culture & the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties)
- Pastoral nomads of Eurasia (such as the Scythians and the Huns)
- Oxus (Perisa/modern day Iran)
- Persian Empire (modern day Iran)
- Ancient Greece (Mediterranean)
- Macedonia/Hellenistic empires
- Etruscans (Modern day Italy)
- Roman Republic and Empire
- Chinese civilizations in the “early middle ages” (Sui and Tang dynasties)
- Gupta Empire (south Asia/modern day India)
- Persian empires in the “early middle ages” (Parthian, Kushan, and Sasanian)
- Turks (originated in Mongolia/Central Asia and one branch would become the Ottoman Empire)
- Scandinavian Vikings
- Byzantine Empire (based out of Anatolia)
- Early Russian states (Rus and Slavs)
- Islamic Empires (originated in Arabia) including the Umayyads and Abbasids
- Mongols (Central Asia)
- Chinese civilizations in the “high middle ages” (Jin, Song, and Juan dynasties)
- Hopewell (Southern Ohio)
- Cahokia (Illinois)
- Puebloan peoples (American southwest)
- Olmec (Mesoamerica)
- Zapotec (Mesoamerica)
- Mayan (Mesoamerica)
- Aztec (Mesoamerica)
- Civilizations of Chavín de Huántar (South America) including Nazca and Mochica
- Wari (South America)
- Tiwanaku (South America)
- Inca (South America)
- Aksum (Africa)
- Nok (Nigeria)
- Ghana
- Mali (Ghana region)
- Songhai (Western Savanna)
- Swahili civilizations (East Africa) including Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, and Kongo
- Australian Aboriginals
- Lapita peoples (Pacific islands)
- Polynesians (Pacific islands)
- Global empires of the European powers Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and Britain
- Industrial powers Great Britain, Belgium, France, Prussia/Germany, United States, and Japan


If you have any interest in history I can't see why you wouldn't want to spend some time with this course. If you can afford both this and "Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity" I highly recommend both courses. I made the mistake of seeing it as an either or but it isn't.

A perfect mega-course would be melding lectures 1-21 of Professor Christian's course (history of planet earth prior to civilizations) with Professor Benjamin's course (for the civilization piece).

If you've listened to both courses and want more, another course you may want to check out is "A Brief History of the World". While it doesn't use all of disciplines of Big History (such as cosmology, geology, anthropology, and biology) and Professor Stearn's delivery can't hold a candle to Profs. Christian and Benjamin, it does offer some interesting and unique perspectives on humankind's history.

But please start here. This is a gold-standard course I can't recommend enough.


17 people found this helpful

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By lecture five I gave up

What disappointed you about The Big History of Civilizations?

The delivery was dull, and content was receptive and punctuated with constant references to "Big History". I am intrigued by patterns in history and thought this might interesting, however, by lecture five I had not learned one thing that I did not already know so I gave up.

Would you ever listen to anything by The Great Courses again?

Yes, I have listened to two excellent series, one was so good that I listened to it twice.

How could the performance have been better?

Less self promotion and more sophisticated content.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

Not really

Any additional comments?

No

17 people found this helpful

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political bias stayed within bounds

The presenter betrayed himself as a libertarian in an early lecture with a flippant statement about modern taxation. I don't know if this was intentional but it was useful in knowing his biases. He kept it all inbounds and remained reasonably objective throughout his analysis of the major themes in world history. This is an example of how an honest portrayal of our own biases can enhance a cogent argument rather than detract from it.

6 people found this helpful

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Except for the last

As commonly heard these days, in a largely professional piece, history well rendered, with a total lack of critical thinking concerning those issues yet unknown. An excellent story teller, but no sage.

6 people found this helpful

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Good history polluted by overt leftist agenda

This course does communicate a lot of great history from a big picture perspective. That part I very much appreciated.
What is sad is that this series is used as a vehicle to promote the author's biases and leftist agenda.
For example:
1) I appreciate that many details are shared of the history of many of the world religions, However his bias against Judaism and Christianity comes shining through by spending relatively little time on those two, giving them little if any positive regards, while he describes most other religions in mostly positive terms. He also attributes many inventions and innovations to people who practiced other religions but does not attribute any to practicers of Judaism or Christianity, instead attributing those to the just the individuals and their countries. While I don't think it is necessary for innovations and inventions to be attributed to religions, I point this out to show the author's apparent contempt for Judaism and Christianity
2) All discussions of evolution are described as fact/reality instead of theory.
3) In his chapter near the end on civilization today and what have we learned and how we can avoid the same mistakes, he fixates on man-made climate change and how he believes it will cause our demise unless we eliminate fossil fuels, etc... and how we are stealing the future from our children But he makes little mention of what we have learned about how tyrannical governments abuse by overly taxing/taking tribute from the masses and how they always result in domination and killing of masses. He does not seem to care about runaway government taxing and spending that will indeed steal away the financial future from our children. He does make one mention that capitalism is indeed the best system to prosper civilization by, based on historical systems of government. But 95% of that chapter is left-wing blaming climate change on man. History has shown that climate indeed changes back and forth to extremes at both ends of warming and cooling at far greater temperatures than we are near, And this is mentioned many times in his lectures of past history. But in his conclusion due to his leftist he cannot bring himself to admit this bit of "big history" is really the big contributor to climate change.

5 people found this helpful

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It could have been great.

Professor Benjamin is very knowledgeable and passionate. Unfortunately he can't resist inserting his political views. Towards the end it became a sermon with very little history at all.

5 people found this helpful

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  • QM
  • 05-06-19

A fantastic comprehensive review. Less social commentary

The coverage was complete and educational, always good when taking a course.

I found the constant BCE and CE designations (in place of the ubiquitous BC and A.D. most of us over 40 grew up with). clunky and painfully politically correct.

There was also an excessive amount of time spent on global warming and environmental conjecture, regarding the fate of our current civilization. While possibly true, it seemed strained and out of place in this book about great historic civilizations.

Given that the entire history of mankind for the most part, was comprised of conquerors taking over and imposing their will over the conquered, I found the author’s bias singling out recent European colonialism as particularly negative, obvious and out of place. There is no doubt that history is blanketed with civilizations which behaved unethically, but judging them by current standards while not judging other past civilizations to the same current standards, and in some cases explaining away their behavior as acceptable given the historical context, is illogical, inconsistent and possibly a case of unconscious bias.

In summary, a good overview, but please lose the social commentary and bias. It made the lectures seem, “lecturing“.

4 people found this helpful

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A great understanding of humankind

If you could sum up The Big History of Civilizations in three words, what would they be?

Explanatory, Organized, Scary

What other book might you compare The Big History of Civilizations to and why?

Any other History of the World or development of civilizations. It is so comprehensive, there is nothing I can compare it to.

What about Professor Craig G. Benjamin’s performance did you like?

Very well organized and presented. So very much to cover. He backs up his facts with reason as well as proven discoveries. Interesting voice too.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

No emotional reaction except sympathy for those in the past. We have a scarier world now, but more comfortable. Sometimes, force of will kept me listening because it is a long lecture. You must appreciate history, evolution of society/civilization, humans innate desire to expand what they have or dominate, conquer, and use of ingenuity.

Any additional comments?

His ending was a bit pessimistic. Not that he is wrong in his assumptions based on past human events such as using up natural resources and polluting what is here. Because of awareness today and people willing to take action, we have a slight chance to make our world sustainable for next generations. Colonization of new planets a possibility, nations working together, new sources of energy that can be mined, extracted, or created are possibilities but far fetched. More likely we will succumb to nuclear holocaust so final chapters were a bit scary. Should be required reading for all high school and college students. We depend on them for action to save our planet.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Jay
  • 02-11-17

very interesting listen

a very informative set of lectures but will probably need to get updated in a decade or two as new discoveries and understanding occurs

2 people found this helpful

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  • Miss L C Way
  • 08-25-20

Fantastic

Great series of lectures, covered a massive amount of history very well given the constraint of 36 x 30 min lectures. Superb.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Andrew UK
  • 10-18-18

A fascinating context to history

Provides a framework for understanding the forces amd constraints that have led to the way history has turned out.

An enjoyable listen.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Name
  • 02-28-18

Enthralling

A wonderful journey through time. Informative and ultimately thought provoking. A must listen for all, especially our children.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Adam
  • 03-07-17

excellent

my only issue is that the lecturer, especially during the earlier lectures, switches between "before present" (BP) and "before common era" (BCE) when referring to the past, sometimes un the same sentence, which was a little confusing

2 people found this helpful

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  • Clio
  • 05-28-18

Great Overview of History

The chapters are quite concise and the narrative moves along at a good pace. I find that some chapters require a second listen through to glean all the details. Some sections are very interesting and then I like to look online for further information on a particular civilisation or person of note. These books are laid out in a lecture format as they are part of the 'great courses' series and I find them clearly laid out and easy to listen to.

1 person found this helpful

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  • chris
  • 04-26-17

Compehensive and Interesting

Any additional comments?

over all it was very good and quite engaging, the only downfall was the completely unnecessary habit of running the feminist yard stick over the tail end of most chapters, but this is near impossible to avoid in modern literature unfortunately...

1 person found this helpful

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