Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A review of “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” (PBS Empires)

So I once read a book history of Ancient Greece, and I've even been learning the Ancient Greek language since 2013 (as some of you already know). I'm almost done reading my intro textbook on the subject, actually, and so I've spent many hours studying this topic over these past few years. Nonetheless, I actually learned a lot from this three-hour TV program on this topic; since it is well-researched, well-presented, and it interviews the experts. I've gotten pretty deep into their culture already through these language exploits, but I nonetheless learned much from this documentary, and not just because it shows pictures of the actual places and artifacts from the time. (Although it does do plenty of that, and supplements my reading with the visuals.)

Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

So how did I learn something from this, you might be asking? What was it that was so new to me that my textbooks hadn't shown me this information before? Why was it that I learned something from a medium that is usually brief, and occasionally superficial?

Greek statesman Cleisthenes

Part of it is that, like any good treatment of a complex topic in a short amount of time, they don't try to cover everything. Rather, they focus on a few things and run with them, going into depth with them as need be. It's nothing like a comprehensive history by any means, but it dedicated a substantial portion of its first episode to the statesman Cleisthenes, who is given only a few pages in the textbook I read about Ancient Greece. Or to give another example, it dedicated a substantial portion of its second episode to Themistocles, who is likewise given short coverage in the textbook I read about Ancient Greece. (Although the textbook does go into somewhat more detail on Pericles, who is the primary topic of the third - and final - episode. But even here, the documentary had some new things to say for me.)

Greek statesman Themistocles

Greek statesman Pericles

Thus it was that a 150-minute TV program gave me some information that a 368-page textbook didn't. This is a testament to the power of good television to give people information about history, when it's done right. There was a computer-animated naval battle, for example, which did a fantastic job at bringing this topic to life visually, in a way that no textbook could ever duplicate. (This is not to question the effectiveness of the textbooks, mind you, but I've always been a believer in the power of good visuals to bring something like history to life. The textbook I read beats PBS in comprehensiveness by far, I should acknowledge here; but what PBS does cover, it covers well, and that would seem enough for me as a history buff.)

Reconstruction of a Greek ship called a "trireme"

This documentary is mainly a political history, I should note here, which is focused on statesmen and battles - both on land and sea - that make for better television than ideas. (Although I am a big believer in discussing ideas as well, particularly the kind that the Ancient Greeks left us through their most distinguished philosophers.) The main exception to this program's focus on trade and foreign policy is its discussion of Socrates (the most famous Greek philosopher). This takes up a substantial part of an episode otherwise focused on Pericles (and I refer here to the last episode.) This is one part of Greek history that I already knew something about before watching this documentary. I've read the words of Socrates at his famous trial, and read the words he spoke in the last (and final) moments before his execution. PBS doesn't go into much depth on these events, but the visuals they give here helped to bring it to life in a way I hadn't seen before. They allowed me to see the marketplace where the trial took place, the location of the prison cell where Socrates was held after the verdict, and the place where he died by hemlock poison at the hands of his executioners. These were all things that I had imagined somewhat differently before this.

Greek philosopher Socrates

The Death of Socrates

The documentary's title may actually be somewhat misleading in a small way. It implies that the documentary covers Ancient Greece as a whole, when really, it is just focused on Athens. (Perhaps "The Athenians: Crucible of Civilization" would have been a better title.) I suppose that the term "Greeks," though, conjures up more public interest than the term "Athenians" - a more specific term that references Greek divisions into city-states at that time. These divisions would likely be mostly forgotten to the general public, I think, and thus (perhaps) incapable of generating much interest among them. The Greeks really were the crucible of Western Civilization, though, and the Athenians were definitely "Greek" in every sense of the word. Thus, the title is not entirely inaccurate. Besides that, it's possible that a more specific title would have been less inspiring to the average viewer, and so one can overlook what inaccuracy there is here in view of the documentary's many strengths. (It is, after all, one of the few TV programs to attempt to cover this history at all, which makes it somewhat unique in the world of television.)

Statue of the Greek goddess Athena, patron goddess of Athens

Since this program comes from the "PBS Empires" series, the topic it focuses on most is how the great empire of Athens was built, and the secrets of its astonishing success story. To do so necessarily involves a detailed look at Greek democracy, I think, which was the first popular government in the world. This is something that the documentary covers well, which is refreshing when you consider how much these achievements are overlooked today. The left has an aversion to what it perceives as too many "dead white guys" in the school curriculum, and so political correctness has often polluted our discussion of the Greeks & Romans. Fortunately, though, this program manages to minimize the political correctness as much as possible here; since this program does not ignore conservative scholars like Victor Davis Hanson, and even interviews him in this documentary alongside the liberal scholars. This is one of those happy times when PBS actually achieves the balance that it claims to have, which shows that it can be objective when it puts its collective mind to it.

The Parthenon, also known as the Temple of Athena (the patron goddess of Athens)

The narration of Liam Neeson is among the best I've heard, and is reminiscent of Charlton Heston at times (one of the best himself). These two actors are quite similar in many ways, I think, since they both seem to have the "face from another century" that makes them believable as larger-than-life figures. This "face from another century" makes them easy to identify with a topic like ancient history. Charlton Heston had a role in depicting ancient history more than once; with roles like Moses, El Cid, and Ben-Hur (perhaps his finest role). For Neeson, it's Star Wars, the Chronicles of Narnia, and programs like this one - which is up there with any of them in the grandeur of its topic.

Before this review gets much longer, let me close by saying that this is one of the most intriguing programs that PBS has come up with in recent years. As I mentioned earlier, it actually taught this three-year veteran of the Ancient Greek language some things he didn't yet know about Greek history, and gave breathtaking visual depictions of things that I already did know. I hope that this will bring Greek history to a new generation of the countries that are heirs of Western culture. As a group, this generation hasn't often heard these things in school the way they should have. (They would all benefit much, I think, from watching a documentary like this one.)

If you liked this post, you might also like:

History of Ancient Greece (book)

History of Ancient Rome (book)

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book

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