The Week’s TV Including Greeks, Romans, the Indian Ocean, Apocalyptic Volcanoes & More

I’ve decided to change the way I’m writing about TV programmes, because we’ve increased the amount of TV we’re watching (to try not to run out of space on the PVR) and it’s been taking a lot of time to write long posts about each programme. So instead I’m going to do a post a week of mini-reviews of what we watched, and perhaps every now & then a longer post about something that particularly catches my attention.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb

This one off documentary was about a relatively recently discovered tomb in the catacombs under Rome. In 6 linked chambers there were the remains of about 2000 bodies, and at first the discoverers had no idea who they were, when they’d lived or what they’d died from. Michael Scott presented the work that’s been done in the last 10 years to try & find out some answers – it’s still a work in progress so he offered no “proof” or “solution” just the theories so far.

The bodies definitely weren’t all interred at the same time – not enough space in the chambers, carbon dating shows a range of dates & the few bits of jewellery & coins do too. So they seem to date from the 1st to 3rd Centuries AD, in several batches. There are no signs of violence, particularly not the sorts of trauma that end lives. Work has just started on trying to identify any pathogens from DNA traces left in teeth. Most of the bodies are young adults or teenagers, both men & women. They were buried in a high status fashion. The chambers are directly underneath what’s known to be the burial ground for an elite cavalry unit, and Scott speculated that these mass burials could’ve been members of this unit and their families & slaves who succumbed to plagues that swept through Rome in this era. He also speculated that these chambers might’ve been the nucleus of the later custom of burying people in catacombs under Rome.

Interesting, and also nice to watch a programme about a historical & archaeological mystery that didn’t “solve the mystery” but instead was willing to present the theories so far.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The BBC just recently re-showed an older Simon Reeve series about the Indian Ocean. The first episode covered the region from the tip of South Africa to the island of Zanzibar. As seems to be Reeve’s style we saw not just the beautiful scenery etc, but also the less savoury side of life round the coast. In South Africa and in Mozambique this was centered around trade in luxury foods to China – abalone in the former case & shark fins in the latter. The abalone trade is particularly unsavoury as it’s linked to the drug trade – both in that addicts poach the shellfish & sell it to the drug gangs to afford to buy drugs, and in that the drug gangs are involved in smuggling the abalone out as well as the drugs in. There was also foreshadowing for Somali pirates showing up in a later episode. But on a bit more of an optimistic note Reeve visited an old hotel in Mozambique which is now a refugee camp – the optimism comes from how it’s formed into a functional mini-state, with elected officials & rules, so the people have more stable lives than one might expect.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor

This programme doesn’t really belong in either fact or fiction so I’ll just include it here. The BBC announced who the next Doctor was going to be live on telly – we hadn’t really planned to watch it, but did anyway. The build up involved interviews with random celebrity fans (more than half of whom I failed to recognise), and also past Doctors & companions. I also didn’t recognise Peter Capaldi’s name, but J pointed out we saw him play one of the politician/civil servant people in the Torchwood Children of Earth series, so that’s why I vaguely recognised the way he looked.

I’m already tired of the “is he gonna swear as the Doctor *teehee*” meme based on whatever it is he’s famous for … the man’s an actor, I’m sure he can play different characters differently, he’d not be very good otherwise.

Ancient Apocalypse

Mystery of the Minoans

We’d watched the first episode of this series some time ago, possibly not long after it aired (in April last year, when I wasn’t writing up TV I’d watched). It was about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, hence why we watched it so quickly, but the other episodes are about other apocalypses. Mystery of the Minoans was about the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

The basic idea is one we’d seen before (in a Bettany Hughes programme we watched in 2010 (post on LJ)) – the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) is the remains of a volcano that erupted 3500 years ago, just a few decades before Minoan civilisation collapsed and was conquered by the Myceneans. The various experts in this programme showed us evidence of how massive the eruption was (possibly bigger than had previously been thought) and what effects that would’ve had both immediately & more long term. Immediate effects included wiping out the towns on Thera itself, which were an important part of the Minoan trade network. They also included devastating tsunami that hit Crete, and would’ve destroyed a lot of towns & infrastructure and killed a lot of people. Longer term there was a noticeable effect on the climate – for instance we were shown tree rings from preserved tree trunks in the Irish bogs which showed no or very little growth for 10 years after the eruption.

It felt a little shallow, which was a problem with the first episode too if I remember correctly. Not dreadfully so, but more than once I’d’ve liked a little more detail on the data they were presenting – for example a brief explanation of how they had dated their tree trunks so precisely would’ve been nice. Or giving the date ranges for the various different bits of evidence so we could judge for ourselves how much it all added up. (Possibly I expect too much here 😉 )

The Maya Collapse

Sadly the third episode, about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was more shallow rather than less. The worst piece of padding was when we got a couple of minutes of jaunty mexican music while our hero archaeologist walked up a set of stairs and then back down. With the camera lingering on his cowboy boots because he was a Texan. But there were several other bits of fluff that could’ve been cut out as well and replaced with a bit more info about the subject of the programme.

It concentrated on the end of the Mayan civilisation which appears to have been rapid and comprehensive – about 1200 years ago there were Mayans, and then the cities & villages are abandoned with only a few people who survived. The archaeologist we followed (I’ve forgotten his name :/ ) was an ex-banker who’d become obsessed with the question of what happened & after his bank collapsed had gone back to university & got an archaeology degree so he could work on the question. He actually came across rather well, despite the attempts of the programme to shoehorn this into a “those academics were too hidebound it took an outsider to think of the answer” story.

The apocalypse in this case was drought. The Yucatan region has no rivers or lakes & so the people who live there both then & now are completely dependent on the rainy season to fill up man made reservoirs. If the rains fail, disaster strikes. The archaeologist looked at various different bits of evidence (ice cores, climate models, old records of past climate, mud cores and more) and discovered that around the time of the Mayan civilisation vanishing there was the worst drought in the last 7000 years. In addition to the lack of water directly killing off people there is some evidence that the priests were blamed for failing to get the gods to make it rain, and so were violently killed – and also for society in general descending into violence & unrest.

Who Were the Greeks?

This is a two part series about the Greeks presented by Michael Scott (the same one who presented the programme about a Roman tomb I wrote about above). He’s taking as his jumping off point the idea that we all think we know about the Ancient Greeks – they were philosophers, the first scientists, artists, inventors of democracy. And in this first episode at least he was telling us about how they were also a culture that seems completely alien to our modern eyes. So the first part of the programme was about the Greeks as warriors – not just Sparta (although he discussed Spartans at length) but also the other city states including Athens. He also talked about the Greek notions of sexuality, which are not the same as our modern ones at all. There wasn’t this distinction between straight and gay, instead there were differences due to a man’s age – a young unmarried man was expected to want to form a relationship with a young teenage boy. Then he was expected to grow out of this (in the same way he’d grown out of being the boy in such a relationship) and to marry by the time he was 35. There were also cultural rules about what sort of sex was appropriate with one’s wife and that was different to what was appropriate with one’s mistress or a prostitute.

Scott also discussed the blurring between what we’d consider the seperate domains of science & religion – no actual concept of religion as we know it in Greek culture at the time. Instead the gods & their involvement in the world were just a part of the way the world is, and you could both expect the gods to come to you in a dream to cure you of an illness whilst also seeing a physician who prescribe treatments more like what we’d recognise today. He also talked about slavery, and how even the democratic society of Athens was built on a slave-holding society – sure it was a democracy, but only male citizens had rights & a vote.

One of his other themes for the programme was the way Greek society put a high premium on perfection – both of the body & of the mind. Babies were exposed if they were imperfect & weren’t expected to live, men were expected to work on their physique, and were expected to display their education & ability to think. Life was lived mostly in public, and scrutinised by your peers.

Royal Institute Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last lecture in the series was mostly concerned with the social aspects of how our brains work. So there was some stuff about empathy & about how we develop a theory of the mind as we get older (I’m always surprised when I remember it kicks in as late as 3 or 4 years old). Both of which are a sort of mind-reading that lets one fit into groups better, by being able to work out what other people might be thinking or how they might react. And there was also a magician who did a few tricks during the lecture – using the way we instinctively follow someone’s gaze or look where they’re pointing to direct our attention away from where the substitutions & so on were being performed.

It’s been a bit odd watching this – I remember when I was a kid the Christmas Lectures were awesome and I didn’t think they were very “child oriented”, but now it seems very much aimed at the kids. But still quite fun to watch the series.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

The Secret History of Genghis Khan was a programme we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while. It was a mixture of re-enactment with voice-over and a few talking heads. The narrative was based on a text written after Genghis Khan’s death by his adopted son, which was part hagiography & part teaching tool for his successors. It has survived only in a Chinese copy discovered some centuries after it was written. The programme as a whole felt a little too uncritical of it’s source to me. Yes, it did present a different (and more nuanced) view of Genghis Khan to the traditional Western memory of him as solely a brutal butcher. And they did mention that it was written for a purpose rather than necessarily accurate, but I think it would’ve been nice to have more of an attempt to point out which bits were backed up by other evidence or not (for instance). It was definitely entertaining to watch, tho – the live action re-enactment scenes had a vaguely Monty Python air to them. Like the scene with a priest blessing the Christian knights before they went into battle who suddenly turns round with wide, startled eyes to see the Mongol army riding at him right now.

(More than once they had shots of people playing big drums and the music had drumbeats that sounded like they should be from those drums … but visuals & noises didn’t match up. Didn’t bother me that much, but it was driving J bananas!)

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Caligula with Mary Beard; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last episode of She Wolves: England’s Early Queens covered the three Tudor Queens. Castor started by giving us a bit of context – when Henry VIII died his son Edward succeeded him, at the age of 9. Edward took ill & died at the age of only 15, before he’d had a chance to produce an heir. Which was a problem, as that meant there were no legitimate male heirs and England would have to be ruled by a Queen. Castor didn’t dwell on it, but I thought it was interesting that no man tried to seize power at this point – perhaps it wouldn’t be legitimate, but it’s not like Henry VII had a terribly good claim to the throne. Times had changed a bit from the more “might makes right” of previous centuries.

Henry VIII’s will had provided instruction for who was to succeed Edward VI if he died without heirs – first Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter, then Elizabeth. But for the staunchly Protestant Edward & his equally Protestant regency council this was a problem – Mary was very much a Catholic, and they felt that this Would Not Do. So even before he became ill Edward set about drafting a new order of succession if he was to die without heirs. He used the fact that Henry had declared both Mary & Elizabeth illegitimate to say that the next legitimate claimants were the descendants of Henry’s sister Mary. He skipped over his cousin Frances in favour of her three daughters, and his initial draft excluded women from ruling directly and was to leave the throne to the heirs male of the Grey sisters (in order, by age). However when it became clear he was dying the Grey girls were still too young to’ve had children (although Jane was married by this stage), so he altered this to leave the throne to “Jane Grey and her heirs male”. Castor pointed out that Edward’s council were also probably heavily involved in this – Jane’s father-in-law (the Duke of Northumberland) just happened to be the head of the council.

So Edward dies & Jane is summoned to meet her father-in-law & the rest of the council … much to her surprise she’s offered the throne. Castor said Jane tried to refuse it, because she believed Mary was the rightful heir, but she was “persuaded” to accept. After that Edward’s death & Jane’s ascension to the throne was announced to the country – met, Castor said, by somewhat confused silence by the general population who thought Mary was next in line. Jane moved to the tower to prepare for her coronation, but alas that was not to be – only 9 days later Mary had succeeded in rallying her allies and installing herself on the throne as the rightful Queen. Northumberland died a traitor’s death, but Jane was spared at first and remained in the tower as a prisoner. Even if Northumberland had succeeded in keeping Mary from the throne it seems unlikely that Jane would’ve been the obedient & docile pawn he’d’ve hoped for. Even in the 9 days she was Queen she’d started to show her Tudor heritage of strength of will & intelligence. Northumberland had assumed that his son would be crowned King when Jane was crowned Queen, but Jane was quite clear that she would make her husband a Duke but he would not be King.

Mary’s most pressing concern after actually taking the throne was to have an heir – a proper Catholic one. So she needed to marry, and soon, because she was in her late 30s by this stage. She too had the problem that if she was Queen then was any husband of hers to be King, and she too was adamant that this would not be the case. Her solution (a bit to the dismay of her council) was to marry Philip of Spain – he was the son of her biggest ally (the Holy Roman Emperor) and was already ruler of Spain. She drew a distinction between herself as a woman (who was subordinate to her husband) and herself as a Queen (who ruled England) and marrying a foreigner of the same status as herself meant that she wasn’t subordinating herself to someone she also ruled. And there was a lot of diplomacy involved in making sure she did rule England, rather than Philip doing so, and to ensure that in the event of her death Philip had no claim on the throne.

Castor next ran through the sad story of Mary’s two phantom pregnancies, and the increasing crackdown on Protestants in the country. Castor presented the two things as sort of linked, in that as Mary became more convinced she wouldn’t have a Catholic heir she also became more keen to stamp out Protestantism so that Elizabeth couldn’t bring it back. It’s for her fanaticism that Mary is most remembered (as Bloody Mary), but Castor tried to spin that as being hyped up because Mary was a woman and this was unwomanly behaviour. It wasn’t an entirely convincing take on the reputation, although I do agree that Mary probably got worse things said about her than a King might’ve done for the same behaviour – just that condemnation for burning people at the stake seems perfectly fair to me.

After Mary’s death Elizabeth was next in line for the throne, and this transition went relatively smoothly. There was again the assumption that Elizabeth would marry promptly, and that her choice of husband would indicate the direction her rule would take the kingdom. But Elizabeth had other ideas – her solution to the “who is in charge” problem for a married Queen was not to marry. Castor pointed out that Elizabeth’s method of dealing with this – with prevarication & putting off decisions to a later time – was the method she used throughout her life to keep from being railroaded into decisions by her councillors. She also “failed” to choose either fanatical Protestantism or fanatical Catholicism, famously saying that she would “not make windows into men’s souls” – as far as she was concerned if you had the outward appearance of conformity to the Church of England then that was sufficient. (And she returned the Church of England to a not quite Protestant, not quite Catholic state after the pendulum swings of the previous two reigns).

Elizabeth was the last of the Queens that Castor was discussing so the end of the programme was wrapping up – a combination of “look how far we’ve come” and “look how little has changed”. While I’d agree with Castor that the political power in our country is still disproportionately held by men, I think I’m more optimistic about how far we’ve come than she is. I was also surprised that she drew a distinction between these Queens she talked about & later ones as the earlier ones ruled, and the later ones just reigned. And she postulated that’s why our current Queen, for instance, was accepted as Queen without any worries about her gender. My surprise was because I thought the myth of Good Queen Bess was also instrumental in changing attitudes – finally a precedent of the country not falling to pieces when a woman ruled.

Overall an interesting series, particularly as it told us about the history of some key players in England’s past that aren’t often given a lot of screen time. However, I’m not sure the evidence Castor presented always supported her thesis (that these women have bad reputations because of misogyny & they’d be better remembered if they’d been men doing the same things). But that could partly be due to streamlining the story for television, I should read the book and see what I think of that.

Caligula is one of the most notorious Roman Emperors – remembered for levels of debauchery & tyranny that were shocking even by the standards of the Romans. Mary Beard presented this programme about what we actually know about the man behind the myth. The answer is “surprisingly little” when it comes to his actions once he was Emperor.

Caligula was born Gaius Caesar Germanicus (sometimes he was refered to as Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus & I wasn’t entirely sure if that was him adding to his name once he was Emperor or if it was just a variant version of his name). He was the son of Germanicus, a popular Roman General who was the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius, and was thought likely to become Emperor. Caligula’s mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. So on both sides he’s descended from the rulers of Rome. He was brought up mostly in army camps in the north of the Empire, in modern Germany. He was a sort of military mascot – his mother dressed him up in a miniature legionary’s uniform. This is where he got his nickname from – “Caligula” is a diminutive which refers to the caligae, the boots, that a legionary wore. Beard said it was a bit like calling the boy “Bootikins”. Unsurprisingly the adult Caligula became did not like being called that – and would’ve been furious if he’d known that was how he would be remembered in the future.

When Caligula is still relatively young his father dies – probably poisoned, certainly that’s what Germanicus said with his dying breath. There was a trial in Rome, but the accused man conveniently committed suicide early on in the proceedings so the trial became more of a public inquiry. Beard showed us one of the proclamations that were put up in all major cities afterwards – which basically say “the accused was acting on his own, nothing to do with Tiberius, no sir not at all”. After his father’s death Caligula lived with the Emperor Tiberius, Beard said it isn’t clear quite why – was he a hostage? did Tiberius like him? did Tiberius see him as heir & so want to make sure he was kept an eye on? However while he was living there most of his other relatives died – bumped off by Tiberius’s agents.

Succession to the position of Emperor wasn’t well defined – Beard laid this partly at the door of the Emperor Augustus. While Augustus had children, and Augustus’s wife Livia also had a children, they didn’t have any children with each other and so there wasn’t an obvious “legitimate” heir. So the succession tended to involve the removal either before or afterward of other potential candidates. And assassination of the ruling Emperor by the next-in-line was also common. It’s thought that Caligula smothered Tiberius, or instructed someone to smother Tiberius.

When Caligula became Emperor he was only 24, and in many ways he was trading on his boyhood status as military mascot to keep the army onside. He only reigned for a little under 4 years, and in the end he was to be assassinated by the army – Beard pointed out that’s a problem a lot of tyrants & despots face even today. If you use the army to gain power, the army can tear you back down again – the army has the real power.

A lot of the information we have about Caligula’s time as Emperor comes from Suetonius, and he wrote later and his biographies of the Emperors are full of salacious gossip. Tho even he couldn’t quite bring himself to say that Caligula did have an incestuous relationship with his favourite sister, just that “some men say that …”. There is some contemporary evidence for Caligula’s personality & actions as Emperor, though – Beard told us about an eye-witness account of a delegation from the Jews of Alexandria who went to meet Caligula. Instead of getting to business at their appointment, instead they had to trail round after Caligula as he decided how he was going to renovate a part of his palace. And then when he deigned to notice them he was more interested in why they didn’t eat pork rather than the business they wanted to discuss with him. As Beard pointed out this was a power display – they weren’t worth his time or attention, and he could humiliate them on a whim.

Beard also made the point that many of the tales of debauchery may also be tales about Caligula showing his power – stories of Caligula eyeing up the wives of important Romans at dinners, and then choosing one to take off & have sex with, only to return and make some remark about her not being much good in bed. That’s a display of power, and a humiliation for his target. Beard also talked about the story of Caligula making his horse a Consul, which is a later story she thought was likely to’ve derived from some petty humiliation by Caligula. That he was saying something like “you lot are all useless, my horse could do a better job than you, I should make him a Consul”. (She also said, imagine it as if the Queen has called one of her corgis “Prime Minister” – we’d all know what that would mean about the Queen’s opinion of her government.) And later writers turned that into a done deed, not a petty remark.

Caligula lived in a paranoid world where assassination could be just around any corner, and in the end it was. He only ruled for a little under 4 years, which surprised me to learn – I’d assumed he was in power for longer to’ve built up quite such a reputation. After his assassination there was some brief attempt to return to the Republic as a mode of government, but Claudius (Caligula’s uncle) was soon Emperor.

An interesting programme 🙂

The second lecture of the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures was called “Who’s In Charge Anyway?”. It felt a little more disjointed than the first one, with a bit less information & a bit more entertainment. It covered memory, learning & how the sum total of your memories shapes who you are. And also the frontal lobes & their role in personality & decision making. Again, not a lot I didn’t already know but still fun to watch. Things that particularly stuck in my mind were the demonstration of how poor eyewitness testimony can be (they had someone run off with a cuddly toy, then a later line-up of possible people & the audience mostly got it wrong). And also the “did you see that gorilla?” thing, which demonstrates how you can just not notice even quite strange things when you’re concentrating on something else.

Horizon: What Makes Us Human?; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

What Makes Us Human? was a recent episode of Horizon, presented by Alice Roberts while she was pregnant with her second child. So the frame was lots of gooey shots of little babies or shots of Roberts looking pregnant, and the meat of the programme was about some of the things that do or don’t set us apart from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom (chimpanzees, of course!).

One obvious difference between people & chimps is that we’re more intelligent than them. But actually the differences appear to be more subtle than one might expect. Roberts visited some researchers who look at co-operation in chimps & humans. Chimps will co-operate to get a reward, but if the reward is uneven – one gets more or one gets the reward before the other – then the chimps don’t care. Well, the one that loses out does, but not in a way that gets them their “fair” share. But if you do similar experiments with young children (toddler age) then an unequal reward gets shared out. Importantly this only happens if they had to work together to get the reward – co-operating means sharing.

Another difference is the helplessness of a human baby when it arrives on the scene. This is something that has had an “answer” for decades, but recent research has suggested the “answer” isn’t the whole story. Babies are born at the point where they only just fit through their mother’s pelvis, and it has been assumed that there are two selection pressures on the width of the birth canal – one is that wider makes it easier to have bigger headed babies, and the other is that narrower makes walking more energy efficient. So the theory is that women’s pelvises are at the sweet spot between easier childbirth with more developed babies and walking efficiently. But new research is suggesting that women’s walking (and running) is no less energy efficient than men’s despite a difference in gait because of the different shape of pelvis. So that may not be the explanation, you’d think if walking efficiency was the important factor then women’s hips could be wider. The new theory is that women’s metabolisms can’t continue to improve to keep up with the demands of their unborn child – babies are born at the point where their mother can no longer supply all their energy needs. Something about this segment left me with questions about whether there was more data than was explained, because it felt a bit pat & a bit too much jumping to conclusions.

When you look at a human brain & human nerve cells they show more connections (and dendrites) than other animals. Humans have more duplicates of a particular gene to do with dendrites than chimps & if you duplicate this gene in mice then you get more dendrites & connections – in the right proportion to explain the difference between humans & chimps. In this segment Roberts also talked to a scientist who is starting to map, to visually image, actual brains – at the moment he’s just doing mouse brains (very slowly) as they’re small. But eventually the plan is to be able to investigate a human brain this way. They end up with a colour coded three dimensional diagram of all the nerve cells in a brain with connections mapped etc. This looked cool, but I’m not sure how much it actually tells us in the long run – as I understand it brains are all unique in detail, even if similar in general. And does “neuron A connected with neurons B, C, D & E” tell us much about what any of these do?

(And am I cynical about Horizon’s presentation of science because I go in thinking it’ll be shallow, or do I go in thinking it’ll be shallow coz it often leaves me with questions?)

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a series of lectures aimed at children and broadcast on the BBC. I used to watch them every year when I was a kid. We recorded the series in 2011, and have only just got round to watching them – that year they were about brains and the lectures were given by Bruce Hood. The first lecture in the series was titled What’s In Your Head? and covered the basics of what a brain is, how nerves work and the sort of modelling brains do to make sense of the world.

As it’s aimed at children I don’t think it covered anything I didn’t already know, but it did it with style and involved a lot of demonstrations – some of which were rather neat. For instance Hood & another scientist showed that brains work on electricity by disrupting the ability of the other scientist to move his hands properly using in electromagnet against the head. So the chap was clapping and then they switched on the moving magnetic field & he could no longer co-ordinate bringing his hands together. There was also a little bit about MRI scanners to look at brain activity – with a striking visual demonstration of how powerful the magnets involved are: a nurse went into the room with a spanner on a string and then the machine was switched on and the spanner swung up and pulled towards the machine.

Another bit was about how the brain sets up patterns as it learns about the world and how that can lead to being disconcerted by new experiences – like if you eat grapes then your brain learns that round, green, sweet is a pattern associated with grapes. The first time you meet a green olive, you see round and green and then your brain fills in “sweet” because that’s the learnt pattern. So when you eat it you get a nasty surprise. This example particularly stuck in mine & J’s heads coz until recently neither of us ate olives (I’ve somehow acquired a taste for them over the last couple of years) – so the “yack!” reaction he was talking about amused us 🙂