Skip to content

The Ancient Worlds with Bettany Hughes: #4/7 – Helen of Troy

15/02/2021

Docuwiki

The Ancient Worlds with Bettany Hughes

Historian Bettany Hughes gives her personal take on the diverse cultures of the ancient world in this 2010 documentary series on Channel 4. The series begins with an examination of Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC to become the world’s first global centre of culture. The programme explores Alexandria’s role as a powerhouse of science and learning, and focuses on the female mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia, the subject of the feature film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz.

The series also offers a chance to catch Hughes’s previous ancient history titles, including the 2004 documentary The Minoans, and the 2005 film Helen of Troy, in which Hughes explores the true story of the woman whose face “launched a thousand ships”. Other programmes in the series are Engineering Ancient Egypt, the three-part documentary The Spartans (which inspired the Hollywood movie 300), Athens: The Truth about Democracy, and When the Moors Ruled in Europe, Hughes’s survey of Islamic rule in Spain and Portugal.

Bettany Hughes studied History at Oxford and is currently a research fellow at King’s College London. She has produced a series of critically acclaimed history documentaries for Channel 4 and PBS in America, and her 2005 book Helen of Troy was voted a book of the year by the Independent on Sunday. She makes regular appearances on radio and contributed the film The Daughters of Eve, about the female characters of The Bible.

Helen of Troy

She is ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’; the woman blamed for the Trojan War – a conflict that caused countless deaths – but who was the real Helen of Troy? Bettany Hughes travels across the eastern Mediterranean to disentangle myth from reality and find the truth about the most beautiful woman on earth. Helen’s story is a dark and very human drama, interweaving pleasure and pain, sex and violence, love and hate: a tale that started with a messy love affair and ended with a bloody and disastrous conflict. Hughes argues that many images of the mythic Helen, from Hollywood movies to romantic paintings, have got her all wrong: Helen was the original sex goddess. And the film reveals just how a pre-historic princess in Bronze Age Greece – a real Helen – would have looked. The feature-length documentary takes in some of the most beautiful scenery of the ancient world, from the magnificent citadel at Mycenae and the spectacular shrine to Helen in Sparta, to the archaeological site in modern Turkey that will be forever linked with the war fought in Helen’s name: Troy.

Bettany Hughes chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most extreme civilisations the world has ever seen, one founded on discipline, sacrifice and frugality where the onus was on the collective and the goal was to create the perfect state and the perfect warrior. Hughes reveals the secrets and complexities of everyday Spartan life; homosexuality was compulsory, money was outlawed, equality was enforced, weak boys were put to death and women enjoyed a level of social and sexual freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. It was a nation of fearsome fighters where a glorious death was treasured. This is aptly demonstrated by the kamikaze last stand at Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his warriors fought with swords, hands and teeth to fend off the Persians. But there was bitter rivalry between Sparta and Athens, two cities with totally opposed views of the ‘good life’. When war finally came, it raged for decades and split the Greek world until, in a brutal and bloody climax, Sparta finally emerged victorious as the most powerful city-state in Greece. But under King Agesilaus, the dreams of the Spartan utopia come crashing down. By setting out to create a perfect society protected by perfect warriors, Sparta made an enemy of change. A collapsing birth rate, too few warriors, rebellious slaves and outdated attitudes to weaponry and warfare combined to sow the seeds of Sparta’s destruction, until eventually the once great warrior state was reduced to being a destination for Roman tourists who came to view bizarre sado-masochistic rituals.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: