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Richly detailed investigation of society's ancient origins
on 18 November 2010
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.