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The Ancient Worlds with Bettany Hughes: #6/7 – Athens the Truth about Democracy

17/02/2021

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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.

Athens the Truth about Democracy

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.

If contemporary views of ancient Athens, Greece emphasize the peaceful and harmonious nature of that polis’s democratic system, historian Bettany Hughes begs to differ. Hughes asserts that the West’s establishment of Athens as the platonic ideal of democracy is hugely ironic, for that classical society in fact employed rules, regulations and traditions deemed unthinkable, even barbaric, in our modern age – from the widespread practice of black magic; to the view of women as demonic, fourth or fifth-class citizens forced to wear public veils; to the proliferation of slavery. Most incredibly, Athens relied on inner bloodshed, tumult and strife to perpetuate its existence and strength, declaring war every two years or so. Such practices were commonplace, even as the community soared to new intellectual heights and created wondrous sociopolitical ideals for itself that it strove to live up to and that would later form the basis of contemporary political thought.

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