This six part series started slowly with quite a dry first episode, which might put you off watching the following five hours. It really is worth persevering because the pace picks up dramatically with the second programme and, overall, this is a fascinating, insightful and entertaining series.
The host is historian and archaeologist Richard Miles, an expert on the ancient world of the Mediterranean which is where much of the story takes place. The series explores what holds the modern world together - civilisation - by examining its roots some 6000 years ago, and tracing the development of cities and human integration through the ancient worlds to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire - when `modern' historians can take over!
Miles is a good storyteller who talks directly to the viewer as he visits sites all over the Middle East and Mediterranean. He works from a polished script, giving a lot of emphasis to key one-liners. This isn't a rambling old duffer elaborating upon his specialised subject in meandering fashion; it's a discourse with a purpose, with Miles hitting home his point that people in 3000 BC were much the same then as we are now - and they organised themselves in the same ways. Religion, politics, war, diplomacy, technology, trade, art and culture all play a part in the development of civilisation, and we are shown how each come to the fore at different points in the timeline.
The story starts in Uruk, considered to be the 'mother of all cities', in southern Iraq, then explores Syria, Egypt, Anatolia and Greece to find the very first Bronze Age cities. Little written evidence remains from this time - and other archaeological remains are fragmentary - so this history blurs into myth and supposition at times. However, it was interesting to see how we can trace the movement of cultural influence across a continent by digging up common forms of pottery! The few precious letters from rulers and chieftains of this period were fascinating, too; especially the one where a petulant princeling complains that his relative can't think very much of him because he hasn't been sent any ostriches!
That first episode was the weakest, probably because of the paucity of evidence from the period, but once we get into the collapse of the Bronze Age society thanks to the invasion of the Sea People, and then the rise of Iron Age culture, it really kicks off. I was fascinated by the letters from one ruler, calling for help in fighting off the Sea People, who described in painful details the collapse of his city's infrastructure.
Then we find out how the Phoenicians got their name (from a purple dye; their major trade asset), and learn about the rise of the fearsome Assyrian army. One Assyrian king was on the throne for a massive 35 years and he waged war for 31 of those years - astonishing. The Assyrian empire commanded countless vassal states, and laid waste to the northern state of Israel -- which allowed the southern land of Judea to flourish. That's one of the first moments when we can clearly see a connecting thread of history, running straight from the Iron Age through to the modern world.
Miles then follows the development of civilisation through its Greek period, which also has direct influences on how modern societies are organised, including both democracy and totalitarian forms of government. There's insight into the lives of the Spartans - and much more thereafter. The Romans are fairly crammed in, however; we get an overview of their society and its different forms of government, not an in-depth examination.
So if you enjoy history, political or cultural investigations then you'll be rewarded by watching these six, one-hour programmes. They showcase a huge variety of ancient artefacts and fascinating documents, drawing on the expertise of the presenter to highlight revealing single lines of script and draw parallels with the modern situation. It's also a relief to be given a big dollop of history without it being infested by ridiculous `recreations' or dramatisations of `what might have happened'. Listening to an enthusiastic expert in the subject beats watching actors clanging fake swords, any day!
(Although it would have been nice to see some CGI recreations of some of the ancient cities, now and then; it can be hard to visualise an entire city from a mound on the horizon, or from the bare, rocky foundations which remain today).
I also found some of the presenter's pronunciation a little odd; he has a habit of inserting syllables where none exist (so 'assembly' becomes ass-em-ber-ley) and leaving out other quite crucial ones (so 'regularly' becomes 'regly', and so on). It's not a major point, but seems a little at odds with the otherwise scrupulous attention to detail.
Overall, excellent documentary television.
on 1 December 2010
I read the first reviewer's comment about part 1 being dry, but I can't agree with that. Yes, the first 2 minutes are not exactly scene stealers - it's him, on a ferry somewhere on a river in Istanbul, talking quietly and seriously to you, the viewer, or gazing out at the river. In other words, "nothing to see here" and I wasn't at all sure I would continue watching the full hour. Then it all changes.....about 2 minutes in he is standing at the perfect spot to get one of the most incredible and lovely views of an ancient Syrian ruin called Apamea. He talks to the camera and ends with "...it's like that when you look down into the well of history, it gets dark so quickly. But then just sometimes, you catch a glimpse of something at the bottom, alive and moving. Then suddenly you realize that it's your own reflection, looking back at you. That's the story that I want to tell to you now. It's not the story of ancient worlds long past, it's the story of us, then." He walks away, down this immense and magnificent ancient road, and YOU want to follow him, you want to hear more, you want to see where he's going to take you next.
Not long after that he goes to Tel Brak, tells you a little about the people there and starts excavating a bowl from high wall. You feel that you there digging alongside him, somehow holding the ladder or handing him the trowel and brush.
He takes us to ruins, modern cities, and museums that most of us would not otherwise have an opportunity to experience, and many of which I had never seen before, like the beautiful remains of Apamea.
When Richard Miles is not onscreen, but narrating from the sidelines, you feel like you're listening to a really great lecturer. For someone like me, who once had a dream of going to university to study ancient history, this is a real treat.
I'm an American, but I prefer BBC history series to History Channel series for precisely the same reason the first reviewer does, all that fake clanging of swords by people dressed in period costumes, too much CGI and too much supposition and speculation for my taste. They also have a nasty habit of using dramatic voice narration from someone who remains site unseen. All of it coming across as a little too loud and little too forced.
Richard Miles doesn't make you WANT to be there, he makes you believe you ARE there, and I can't say the same about very many other presenters these days, including Michael Wood, who frankly leaves me a little cold.
I give a lot of credit to the wonderful camera crew too, they made you feel an intimacy with the presenter and with the places you were visiting.
By episode 2 I was eager for the next week to go by so I could see episode 3, and I can't wait to see the entire series(as of this writing part 4 hasn't been shown yet).
I saw the first episode of this series on the BBC, and it is one of the best Ancient History programmes to have come out of the TV for years. I took an Ancient History degree, am a History teacher, and have travelled to many of the places referenced in the programme, and I could find not one single fault in the entire piece.
What is perhaps so excellent about the programme is the seamless way that the presenter links the growth and development of civilisation in different areas, showing exactly how the city states of Mesopotamia grew and interacted with their neighbours ... which led to a (brief) examination of Egypt; and showing how trade broadened people's horizons, leading to an investigation of different civilisations around Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Any programme which manages to incorporate the Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, Egyptians, Mycenaeans, and Ugarites, so perfectly, has to be good in my book.
I am writing this review before the DVD has been released, as the TV series has not yet ended. I have put the DVD straight into my wish-list, hoping that someone will see it and get it for me in time for Christmas!
on 15 December 2010
I will not repeat or supplement comments made already regarding just how good this series is. Suffice it to say - I loved it.
Perhaps I could just provide three vignettes, to offer something of the flavour of how Richard Miles captured & retained your attention from beginning to end.
1. As he surfaces from diving to see the submerged rubble from the Great Lighthouse (Pharos) at Alexandria, Miles is clearly deeply affected & very excited. When you see a professional exhibiting genuine emotion like that, it is really quite moving.
2. In the closing sequence of the episode on Alexander, Miles compares the merits of a 'big man' against a 'big idea' & how the idea wins every time. What a perfect way to introduce Rome into the series.
3. On a lighter note, the idea of the Roman world equating to membership of an exclusive club with rights & demanding responsibilities, as opposed to the Carthaginian trading fraternity, which was more like holding a loyalty card, was priceless & a welcome relief from the sinister reality of the Punic Wars & their bloody outcome.
There is so much more to the series than these anecdotes could possibly convey & I would strongly recommend it to anybody with an interest in ancient & classical history.
on 16 December 2010
Presenter Richard Miles examines the formation of civilisation itself by exploring the first examples of humans coming together in urban settlements, the first cities. He takes us to the first cities both from Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the Bronze Age collapse and the re-emergence of civilisation, and culminates with in depth examinations of the rise and fall of first Greece and then Rome.
Where to start? This is a thoroughly good programme, well-executed, coherent and beautifully filmed, not to mention informative and interesting. Like another reviewer, I've got degrees and employment in exactly this field, ancient history, and I enjoyed the series immensely. Richard Miles is a coherent presenter who, crucially, is able to explain clearly how and why events happened and link together cultures and ideas across time. Even better, his style of presentation is very accessible and open to everyone. For me, the series was overwhelmingly familiar, and felt like the bread and butter of my undergraduate degree presented in manageable one-hour chunks of engaging programming. Even though from my point of view the series didn't bring too much new information to my table, this won't be the case for most viewers, and I loved the detailing.
We're whisked away to a plethora of ancient sites from which Miles presents to us in person, taking us right down to ground zero of events, the visual vistas alone are worth a second look and Miles visits a wealth of important sites. In addition the programme gets special access to museums across the world and is able to bring us wonderful close ups of key artefacts, Miles explaining their significance all the while. This is punctuated by snippets of modern footage and the odd modern turn of phrase from Miles, which really brings it home how similar these people are to us today. The selective use of the actual voices of ancient people through surviving documents brings all the history to life and is a neat, very personal insight into the bigger sweeping changes that Miles presents. Richard Miles certainly covers all the basics and indeed all the bases too.
There were one or two things that I disagreed with Miles about - largely on matters of interpretation of the history - and a previous reviewer is correct in pointing out that here and there Miles has a slightly odd pronunciation, but frankly these are niggles. The reason I don't give the series 5 stars is because I didn't find it earth-shatteringly, mind-blowingly amazing, but don't mistake me - the series is very, very good and in my book it scored a commanding 8 out of 10. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient history, and it would be absolutely ideal for a young enthusiast just beginning more in-depth study, as this series covers all the essential points and does so saliently and intelligently, and more importantly does it engagingly. Great work from Richard Miles and the BBC team who made this one.
on 16 March 2011
This is a very good piece of TV history. It suffers only lightly from trying to cover such a broad period.
Personally I should have liked more focus on the Near East and period before Alexander the Great, but that's because I already know plenty about the Romans. All periods are reasonably well-covered and time isn't wasted by covering all the usual Julius Caesar, Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra stuff which most people already know about.
One thing I really liked about it was the total lack of pointless "re-enactment" filler scenes with cheap actors in roman costume, like you get on all the tedious History Channel productions. Ancient Worlds sticks to modern footage, of artefacts or general modern day scenes. Doing so makes it both different and serves to make it seem more relevant to our own civilization today.
I liked Richard Miles as a presenter; my girlfriend didn't - she found him a bit long-winded and tedious (but then she's not a native English speaker.) It isn't quite as exciting as some TV history can be (Miles is certainly no David Starkey) but otherwise very watchable, informative and some great nuggets in there (for example when he reads from contemporary sources.)
By the way, whoever did the subtitles should be fired! Who are the "Mysonians" (Myceneans) and who was the Emperor "Demition" (Domitian). Terrible! (But doesn't detract from the series.)
on 9 December 2010
Yep one for the Blu-Ray collection this one, Richard Miles has done an outstanding job here.
Not really about archeology or culture even, but more about the political aspects of civilisation with enough verbal references to present day language to make the whole series almost topical!!.
It explores the ancient 'big men' and kings approach to civilisation; Putin, Berlesconi, Gadaffi anyone. Ancient democracies dependant on compliant slave labour for their economic viability; recent mass migration to Europe is a good parallel here!, and how mixed systems like the roman republic were brought low by the actions of greedy oligarchs: merchant bankers take note!!.
Ultimately the series makes the point that although there have been vast strides in science, medicine, and culture the basic organisation of human civilisation hasn't changed a jot in 3000 years.!
on 21 February 2011
This is a rare beast in the world of modern documentaries, rare because of the depth of knowledge portrayed and because it treats its viewers with respect. The series takes as its theme the subject of Civilisation, focusing on the development of the city from its Near Eastern beginnings through to Rome. There are many things to admire in this series, firstly in drawing in Near Eastern history, the series treads relatively fresh ground in TV Documentary territory, which has traditionally focused on Greek and Roman Civic developments, this is refreshing and ties in with recent trends in scholarship to rehabilitate the history of the Near East and Europe and see them as connected rather than separate fields of enquiry (Miles has written an excellent book on Carthage trying to remove the bias of Roman Historical Perspective). I also enjoyed the bronze-age episode for similar reasons.
Hopefully this series represents a sea change in what we are going to see in history documentaries, which have become increasingly light weight and rather poorly supported, Miles frequently provides the viewer with access to primary source material and walks around relevant sites rather than the more common montages that have become the norm in other documentaries.
If there are any gripes about the series, it is really down to a question of interpretation, on a personal level I felt that on the episode focused on the Athenians, that Miles was perhaps to kind to Cleisthenes and Athenian Democracy (very little mention of the extent of its Slave Ownership vis a vis Sparta), and a little harsh on Solon, whilst in his episode on Alexander the Great he was a little harsh to only see Alexander the Destroyer when he died so young. However these are preferences and perhaps exist only because of the depth of subject treatment in the series. I also think he missed a chance to do some overlooked history a favour, on his Greek Thing episode it would have been nice to look at the federal structures of Boeotia or the UN forerunner of the Delphic Amphiktiony as an alternative to Athenian Democracy or Spartan "Totalitarianism".
All in all a fantastic series and thoroughly recommended to anyone with a real interest in the Ancient World.
on 2 March 2013
This series constantly irritated me because of the insistence for highly detailed historical statements to be made while the presenter swaggers, struts and squints in front of any and all objects of interest, filmed by a director who focuses all too often on modern day inanities while our hero describes complex battles and death scenes. Not enough maps and not enough relics, and too much of richard miles having a jolly holiday in modern day wherever, looking at a truck which the camera avidly follows, while he talks about ancient transport systems. Drawing analogies is fine, but talking about an ancient society while showing us a modern day scene and strutting about in his latest shirt is all a bit too off-putting for me. I dont want to see this guy's face squinting close to the camera when he talks about Darius in Persepolis. I want to see persepolis as it is now and an image of Darius. Understand,BBC? The 2 stars are for going to the places. The lost stars are for wasting the journey by standing Richard Miles in front of every damn thing of interest.
on 11 January 2011
I found the BBC Ancient Worlds programme absolutely fascinating and the presenter's discourse totally enthralling. It is an amazing approach to explaining history of civilisations. I thought the information flow was excellent, without using any artificial puerile mechanism, presenter's attitude and tone were fresh, full of integrity and so inspiring, the music and images fantastic, beautifully supporting the narration and creating great atmosphere. I liked the unpretentious manner, alive and full of real depth, without any traces of dry intellectualism or boring pseudo-academical mannerisms. I would be so happy to see more material produced by the author in the future, possibly about Carthage or I could hope for my personal favourite, Byzantium.