sun 03/03/2024

Building the Ancient City: Athens, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Building the Ancient City: Athens, BBC Two

Building the Ancient City: Athens, BBC Two

Cogent narrative of the pioneering achievements of ancient Athens

A temple in the background: Professor Andrew Wallace-HadrillBBC/Brave New Media/Paul Elston

Heaven, or a lot of pagan gods at least, may know what was in the air 2500 years ago. Bettany Hughes has just finished her trilogy of philosophers from that millennium, and now we have Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill taking us genially around Athens, founded – you guessed – 2500 years ago and providing the template for cities ever since.

The televisual essay is now an integral part of popularising ancient history. And what could be more persuasive (and helpful to the tourist industry) than visits to two great ancient cities – Rome follows next week – with a pat on our heads to remind us of our own interpretations of democracy, invented there. We could not only enjoy the views, but feel that in some way they were positively good for us. And naturally our most pop classicist popped up too. Here was Boris with relatively subdued hair being argued with and got at in his own mayoral assembly (democracy in action), when not vaguely waving at views over London to indicate that in his view contemporary London is the great heir to the ideals of ancient Athens, including a positive view towards foreigners and immigration. Hmmm…

Athens even attempted, for the good of all, to tackle economic and social inequality 

Our passionate professorial guide – not even an outfit change in the whole programme – was often out of the picture doing a voice-over, before popping back to talk to other academics, from Cambridge, UCLA and elsewhere (Wallace-Hadrill with Dr Manolis Papagrigorakis, pictured below left), all of whom made their ideas seem relevant now. Namely that Athens was about open government, with everything run by the citizens from defence to waste disposal; everything was laid down, ruled by committee, and voted on by vast assemblies – exclusively free, white Athenian males - in the agora, the great open space at the city’s centre (reconstruction, pictured below). Streets were laid out in a grid pattern and even the size of the houses was ordained – and equal. Democratia, democracy, means people power, though this citizen body did not have quite the inclusiveness that the term would imply now: no women of course, and only those born in the region were free. Slaves were those from outside.

The city – the polity, polis, communities run by citizens – was also defined by other ingredients. Gymnasia, open public spaces, public buildings including theatres and libraries: shared city amenities. There would be a sanctuary too, and religious buildings. Not only were goods exchanged here, but ideas too.

There were heroes in this turbulent history. Aristotle no less wrote the constitution, and we were shown one surviving copy, seven foot of papyrus, discovered in Egypt in the 1870s and now in the British Library. The 7th century BC poet and reformist non-aristocrat Solon was a strategist who was victorious against the Persians, and who attempted to alleviate the stranglehold of inequality and class systems. In 493 BC Themistocles, military strategist, persuaded the citizens to turn their profits from the region’s silver mines not into distributed bonuses for themselves (is our City listening?) but to backing the Greek navy, the foundation of Athenian prosperity.

So we visited the reconstruction of a trireme, the 35-metre-long Athenian battleship, manned by 170 freemen. (We were told that as the oarsmen were free, not slaves, they rowed that much harder.) Even as freemen, their lives were probably not very enjoyable, but their skill was legendary. The relationship of the highly successful harbour of Piraeus, home of the navy and of trade, to the city itself six kilometres away was explained with judicious use of computer graphics, also deployed with helpful maps from Italy to Greece so we more or less knew where we were most of the time.

By the 5th century BC under Pericles, inspiration for the great buildings on the Acropolis, built by slaves and foreigners (each of whom was acknowledged by name in inscriptions on the site), Athens entered its golden age. Foreign goods flowed into the city, from figs and dates to almonds and carpets, as did immigrants. There was codification of weights and measures – and great attention paid to keeping the city clean, from water management to sewage. Ironically, new evidence shows that Athens was seriously weakened when it gathered its population together in defensive mode, leading to a typhoid epidemic. But the Macedonians loomed, and Philip II and his military genius of a son, Alexander, were to end the Athenian dominance of the Greek city states.

And then there was our Boris again, reminding us that at its democratic height, Athens was above all a city of tolerance; people could do their own thing as long as it did not harm others, and there was political freedom, freedom of trade and freedom of thought. The final Boris fix, embracing his view of London from the mayoral headquarters, underlined London’s assumed classical inheritance. So we could feel good while being reminded that the ancient Greeks had not only invented a form of democracy, their legacy of several millennia which has been continually both refined and threatened ever since, but even attempted for the good of all to tackle economic and social inequality.

But not even Boris could persuade us that we had quite got there yet, even if at times the programme lurched rather towards a party political broadcast for his tenancy as mayor. At least director Paul Elston’s enthusiastic and informative film, while cleverly simplifying a staggeringly complex history that is still being argued over by academic detectives, combined beautiful photography and cogent narrative to enjoyable – and dare I say it – educational ends.

On to Rome next week.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters