Margaret (pling) wrote,

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The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

This week we watched the Bettany Hughes programme about Helen of Troy, and thus about the late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean civilisations - the Mycenaeans, the Trojans, the Hittites. Even a reference or two to Egypt. The structure of the programme was to tell the story of Helen as told by Homer (with references to other classical Greek poets versions) and look at what life was actually like in the late Bronze Age to see what the kernel of truth behind the stories might have been like. (That's a bit of a confused sentence, I hope my meaning is clear enough tho.)

One of the interesting things about the Iliad (the poem of Homer's which includes the story of Helen) is that it was written a few centuries after the events it supposedly describes - yet there are definite references in the text that match with the archaeological evidence about late Bronze Age Greece. For instance there's a description of someone's helmet that matches helmets that have been found in late Bronze Age burials, but were not still in use in the Iron Age when the Iliad was written down.* The poems seem to be based on already centuries old oral traditions by the time they were written down. And other classical Greek poets also told their own versions of the same stories, which have survived in more fragmentary form than the Iliad. It's a bit like the Arthurian legends in Britain I guess - there's a version(/set of versions) that we all know (Camelot, Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot) which probably has its basis in something that happened immediate post-Roman Empire Britain. Only the Iliad seems to've had a few more bits that tie it to an actual time and place.

So the programme showed us the ruins of Mycenaean era Sparta - the place where Helen was a princess then queen before she ran off to Troy with Paris. And talked about the life of the women of the Spartan aristocracy at that time - that women would have had more power than just being beautiful trophy-wives. It is clear from the bureaucratic documents that have survived from the time that women could be landholders and paid religious taxes so must have had wealth & incomes to be taxed on. Women were also heavily involved in the religion as priestesses - this time period was after the Mycenaeans had conquered/otherwise taken over the Minoans and absorbed their pantheon of mostly female goddesses into the Mycenaean religion.** So both the contest over winning her as wife (which Menelaus won) and the later war over Paris's abduction of her (the Trojan War) were not just about Helen-the-beautiful-woman but about the wealth and property that she possessed.

And then over on the Trojan side we were shown the ruins of Troy itself, and a bit of a market in modern Istanbul to show what sort of place Troy would've been - a bustling trading city in the perfect place to link many different cultures and get rich from the proceeds. She also showed us some of the Hittite Empire - Troy was right on the western edge of this empire and there are surviving documents & correspondence from the Hittites with Troy and even with Mycenaean Greece (as I remember it) over some unpleasantness to do with conflict at Troy - quite possibly a reference to the actual event the stories are based on. There are also records of the Hittites getting involved in making peace between two (non-Greek/Trojan) kingdoms who were gearing up to go to war over the behaviour of a princess (sent from one kingdom to marry the prince of the other, but she instead had an affair with someone else and was sent home in disgrace) - so this is a scenario that actually could happen, not a fairytale.

There was also a great sequence showing us how chariot-based combat would have worked, using reconstructed chariots & weapons from that time period. Based partly on reliefs in Egypt depicting Ramesses II's conflict with the Hittites. This was not just interesting from a "look at the cool stuff" perspective, but also because it highlighted a way in which the Homerian poem was a product of its own (Iron Age) time not the time of the story. The Iliad basically has the chariots functioning as taxis taking the combatants to the battleground and dropping them off to fight on foot as would be the case in Iron Age Greece, but in the late Bronze Age the chariot was the super weapon of war, you fought in them both with spears and bows.

It was an interesting programme - I'm really enjoying this series (season, whatever), the films in general seem high on factual content and very clear about the distinction between what we know/have evidence for and what is pure speculation. Which I'm very keen on, I feel it's intellectually dishonest when a programme has a chain of "logic" like: if X is the case then Y happened, so now we know Y happened so Z is my favourite theory as the outcome. Now we've proved Z happened, then A, B & C must also be true. That's just sloppy and treats your audience like they're stupid. But I don't get that vibe from Bettany Hughes at all. While I was watching it I was sort of wishing they'd not made it all about the legend of Helen but in retrospect I think it did give it a nice coherent structure and allowed her to tell us about a variety of different bits of this area of the world in the late Bronze Age. Giving an overall feel for it, without devolving into little bits & pieces of information.

*And I've just discovered from skim-reading wikipedia to check the name & spelling of the Iliad that Homer himself is quite possible fictional - whilst the classical Greeks were fairly sure he was a historic individual they were never very definite about when and where he lived. And modern scholars are apparently skeptical.

**I'd somehow never thought of it before - but whilst the Mycenaeans had some deities in common with the later classical Greeks (like Zeus or Hera) they also had a whole batch of others that weren't worshipped later and other "Greek" gods weren't worshipped by the early Greeks. I know (should know anyway) but clearly don't remember very often that the classical Greek civilisation was not continuous with earlier Greek civilisation like the Mycenaeans - there was a collapse and a subsequent dark age, so obviously the details of the religion etc will not be the same.
Tags: greece, history, mycenae, troy, tv
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