May 20th, 2010

never there

The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

This week we watched the Bettany Hughes programme about Athens - probably just as well we didn't watch it immediately after the Sparta one as it inevitably covered some of the same ground being Greece during the same time period. Classical Athens - of the 5th Century BC - is mythologised in Western society as a sort of perfect society of the past where democracy, philosophy, art and all good things were born. Of course the reality isn't quite like this, as well as the "good things" we remember it for it was also a warlike, slave owning society which believed women were possessed of demonic spirits & should be kept out of sight for the sake of society.

The programme started with the birth of the democratic system - pretty much an accident. Squabbling between the powerful aristocracy after the overthrow of a tyrant led to one man getting the people, the mob or demos, on his side, promising them power over their own lives. And once this side "won" it proved to be harder to go back to the old order than anticipated - once the people had power, they kept it. Athens was a direct democracy - everyone voted on everything - not the sort of indirect democracy we're used to now (where we vote for someone to represent us and vote on our behalf). They invented elaborate systems to ensure it was fair and that everyone had their say & vote. The person who chaired the meetings was chosen by lot every month, the people in the committee who set the agenda for the meetings were chosen by lot (also every month I think), the jury in trials were chosen by lot, everyone was expected to turn up for votes - they were only legal if 6000 people had voted. Voting at meetings was by show of hands, but voting by the jury in trials was by secret ballot with specially designed tokens where it was easy to hide which way you were voting, so no-one need feel coerced into voting the same way as everyone else.

Of course, I'm saying "people" and "everyone" but actually it was only men who could vote and serve in government - and only Athenian citizens at that. And you didn't just have to be born in Athens to count, your mother and father both had to have been born in Athens. So a very limited franchise by the standards of our time & democracy.

The programme also looked at the flowering of scientific & philosophical thought, and of art - the other things we remember Classical Greece for. Including a segment with one chap who thought that the Greek bronzes were so lifelike because they were cast from live models - ie plaster of paris round a chap, then this used to make wax moulds. Something to do with the way the toes were sculpted, showing them bearing weight. But we were left wondering if this was "the reason" for the lifelike bronzes, how did he explain the stone sculptures? Were they lifelike because they copied the bronzes, and if so, why couldn't everything be lifelike because it copied life?

The bits about thought - both scientific & philosophical - were better, I thought. Particularly the part about Socrates, whose habit of questioning things people just accepted and forcing them to think about it was both the thing that made him such a great thinker, teacher and philosopher, and his downfall when the city was looking for scapegoats in the aftermath of their defeat in Sicily.

As well as looking at this good side the programme did touch on the less pleasant and ideal side of Athens - though less, I thought, than the introduction to it had promised. She touched on the treatment of women (bad - they were expected to be not seen, and not heard) and the slave owning. There was also mention of the warlike nature of Athenian society - there were apparently not two years in a row where the people did not vote to go to war against somebody. They had naval superiority - courtesy of a visionary early in the time of democracy, who persuaded the people to vote to use new-found wealth (a rich seam of silver-containing lead) to build a fleet of triremes. This fleet was instrumental in driving off the Persian Empire when it attempted to conquer Greece, and was what made Athens the predominant partner in the alliance of Greek city-states. And what gave them the power to convert this alliance of partners into an empire of their own - a protection racket, really. (J and I were giggling away saying "Nice city you've got there, shame if anything were to .... happen to it" during this bit of the programme.)

Still interesting, but a weaker programme than some of the others in the season I think.