In Our Time: Sappho

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she’s best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey – both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would’ve sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music – accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was “The Poetess” in the same was that Homer was “The Poet”. A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts – later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect – I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a “Complete Works of Shakespeare” after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered – Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery – e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it’s not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it’s not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it’s not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho’s poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women’s symposiums running in parallel to the men’s ones. Men’s symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be “a Greek man”. There are no records of women’s symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women’s lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho’s time and place were different, and women’s voices survive so rarely from this era (I’m not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho’s poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn’t a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho’s work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women’s movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it’s relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it’s also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the “roots of civilisation”. As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you’re putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it’s good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself – as there is so very little that’s actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme “Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford”, which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person – although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

In Our Time: Thucydides

Thucydides was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th Century BC, and is regarded as a “Father of History” alongside Herodotus – although I confess that before I listened to the In Our Time programme about him I had never heard of him. I think he’s been seen as more of a “historian’s historian”, whereas Herodotus is more of a “popular historian”. The programme also told me that Thucydides’s work is still important in the field of international relations. The experts who discussed him were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Katherine Harloe (University of Reading) and Neville Morley (University of Bristol).

Thucydides was born around 460BC and a citizen of Athens, not much is known about his life. In fact the only details known about him at all are those found in his book on the Peleponnesian War – which includes that he was a general at a particular early point during the war, and he at least lived through the war. This gives a feel for his age as he must’ve been a mature adult at the beginning of the war yet still young enough to survive till the end. The Peleponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta, and their allies, which lasted for 27 years at the end of the 5th Century BC. Thucydides’s book clearly contains passages written after the end of the war (as he mentions who won – Sparta), but it was never finished. It also doesn’t really mention the role that the Persians played which was important later in the war, the experts speculated that if he’d finished the text he may’ve revised the existing parts to bring in that thread earlier.

Herodotus and Thucydides were writing very different sorts of history, with different purposes. I think they said that Thucydides was writing his history in reaction to the way that Herodotus wrote his – deliberating doing things the way he thought was “proper”. For instance Herodotus is the historian as a story-teller. He doesn’t necessarily believe all the stories he writes down, but he tells them because that’s what the people he’s writing about believe. Thucydides in his introductory section says that he is intending to set down the objective truth about what actually happened. This means that he also rejects supernatural explanations of events. Herodotus is also outward looking – partly by the circumstances of recent history but also because of his interests. The big war that Herodotus talks about is the Greek/Persian war of the early 5th Century BC, and his history is of the world outside Greece. By contrast Thucydides is interested in an intra-Greek conflict and in the history of the Greek world. Even, potentially, to the extent of ignoring the Persian role in the Peloponnesian War (although as I said above he may’ve revised that later if he’d finished the book).

Of course Thucydides isn’t as objective as he would like to present himself, and doesn’t stick strictly to the known facts either. In contrast to modern historians he doesn’t present his evidence, merely says he examined it and has come to the conclusion that what he writes is what happened. So his biases aren’t always clear, but in some cases they are obvious. In particular he generally approves of Pericles, and frequently editorialises about his greatness. He also editorialises about the poor decisions by “the mob” who vote for courses of action that Thucydides feels were wrong. There are also sections of the text that are clearly made up to show how something might have happened. The speeches are a good example of this – as well as Thucydides’s chronological dicussions of events there are also sections purporting to be speeches given by various people. Pericles is given many of these. In style they sound like Thucydides rather than different individuals, so they definitely aren’t accurate representations of actual speeches. Some might be paraphrases of things that Thucydides witnessed, but others are clearly invented out of whole cloth – accounts of secret meetings on the Spartan side for instance that Thucydides was obviously not present for.

In terms of his legacy and his status as a Father of History Thucydides has had a large impact in the past on how historians approach research and objectivity. But all three experts were in agreement that he wouldn’t quite fit in in a modern historical department. Modern history also has commonalities with Herodotus’s approach – looking at the history of a people as that people see it is an important aspect of approaching history. However in the field of internal relations and of war theory Thucydides is still hugely influential, and his work is still used in teaching at military academies like West Point. Which seems appropriate as that was his primary interest – how different states (cities, nations etc) interact, and what are the causes that lead to conflict between them. Not the causes they use to justify aggression but the underlying conflicts and tensions that get the relationship to the point where aggression is a next step.

Baroque! – From St Peter’s to St Paul’s; Guilty Pleasures

Baroque! – From St Peter’s to St Paul’s was a three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about Baroque art and architecture. The three programmes moved in geography (covering Italy, Spain & the Netherlands, and Britain respectively) and forwards in time. He started off with the story of how baroque art has its roots in the Counter Reformation – basically intended to propagate the “right” Christian message via eye-catching art. In particular as a response to the more austere Protestant sensibility, a sort of “you say we have too much art? we’ll show you too much art!”. As the movement took off in Spain (via Naples – a Spanish colony) the religious subject matter became darker and more visceral. Baroque artists also became the court painters of the era. Januszczak was entertainingly dismissive of the Hapsburg rulers of Spain & the Spanish Netherlands (and to be fair, there’s a lot there to to be dismissive of) while extolling the virtues of their taste in art. The Spanish court paintings were one of the vectors that introduced baroque art & architecture to England – Charles I’s visit to Spain when he was hoping to marry a Spanish princess brought him into contact with the court culture and painting. This wasn’t to be the baroque movement’s first jump to a Protestant nation – that was the Netherlands. Once the baroque took a hold in England it was given extra space to grow because of the Great Fire of London – about half of the last episode of this series was about the various churches (including St Paul’s) which were rebuilt in a baroque style after that disaster.

I’ve found it hard to write about what was in the programmes, because a lot of the point was (unsurprisingly) the visuals – Januszczak showed us a lot of paintings and buildings both well known and not. The style of the programme was gloriously over the top, as befits the subject matter. Well worth watching 🙂

This week we also watched both parts of a series that we’ve had on the PVR for ages – Guilty Pleasures. This series was about how modern attitudes to luxury have been shaped by our cultural roots. It was presented by Michael Scott, who’s a classicist, so it’s no surprise that the first episode was about the influence of the Ancient Greeks; the second episode was about the influence of medieval Christianity. In Ancient Greece he followed three strands of Greek attitudes to luxury – the first of these was the Athenian democracy that spent time and legislation on trying to prevent ostentatious private luxuries by channeling the urge to consume into public luxuries. And tried to tie society together by having ritual communal luxuries – like sacrificing large numbers of cows which would then give every citizen some meat. The Spartans in some ways had their downfall through unsuccessfully navigating this tension between public & private luxury. As prominent Spartan citizens began to gather wealth to themselves rather than live in the spartan communal fashion their society began to decline. And the last society he touched on in that episode was the Macedonians who embrace luxury (for the ruler) much more than the Athenians or Spartans – they use their wealth as a propaganda tool and to enhance the division between the ruler and the ruled (unlike the more egalitarian principles of Athens or Sparta).

By the middle ages luxury has become a sin. Having contact with luxurious things is supposed to lead you into ever worse sin – fine foods, fine clothing is just a precursor to other indulgences. Scott also talked about how the Black Death actually led to increased luxury for the people who survived. People at the lower reaches of society in particular gained land and better pay because there was a lack of labour available. Which increased the feelings of guilt around luxury. Another factor was that the plague was seen as God’s punishment on people, and so at higher levels of society people took a second look at their lives and came to the conclusion that God was not pleased about their sinfulness (including their luxuries).

And Scott tied it together at the end by thinking a little about modern attitudes to luxury, in particular in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. The Greek influences can been seen in how we generally react to conspicuous consumption as divisive, and the medieval influences are most obvious in the very idea of a “guilty pleasure”.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of The Stuarts – a series about the Stuart Kings of England & Scotland, presented by Clare Jackson, and about how they shaped the United Kingdom and how they were shaped by it. Broadcast on the Scottish version of BBC2 only.

Episode 1 of Bible Hunters – series about the search for early texts of the Bible in Egypt.

Episode 1 of Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

New Secrets of the Terracotta Warriors – Channel 4 one-off programme about the terracotta army found buried near the Emperor Qin’s grave in China. Partly about the history of Qin era China (the first unification of the country in c.200BC, and partly about the techniques currently being used to learn more about the terracotta soldiers. A little shallow.

Episode 1 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Britain’s Most Fragile Treasure – Janina Ramirez programme about the East Window in York Cathedral. How it was made, who made it, how it’s being conserved, and what the various scenes and stories are.

In Our Time: Galen

Galen was a Greek doctor who lived in the 2nd Century AD and wrote an incredible amount about the practice of medicine. His works were still used as the standard medical texts in Europe & the Islamic world until the Renaissance era – and some parts even after that. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Vivian Nutton (University College London), Helen King (Open University) and Caroline Petit (University of Warwick).

Galen was born in Pergamon, Greece (the city of the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin) and was the son of an architect. At this time Pergamon was a rich city and was spending a lot of money on civic buildings, so Galen’s family were well off. Galen was bring brought up as an intellectual, but then when he was 17 his father had a dream where the god of medicine appeared to him and told him that Galen must become a doctor. His medical education began in Pergamon, and later he moved to Alexandria. There he learnt about anatomy, pharmacology and other areas of medical knowledge. Apparently he didn’t much enjoy his time there – Nutton said Galen wrote that he hated the country, he hated the people, he hated the weather, he hated the food. But nonetheless he stayed there for around 5 years, before returning to Pergamon at the age of around 28.

He began to practice medicine in his home town, where he became the doctor who looked after the gladiators. A couple of years later moved to Rome. It’s not known why he moved – maybe just for ambition, or maybe he had other reasons to wish to leave his home town. Once in Rome he gradually built up a reputation as an exceptional doctor. He did this in part by demonstrations, and in part by treating people who then spread the word about being cured by him. Eventually he rose to become the Emperor’s doctor.

Galen wrote a lot. He wrote primarily about medicine, but also about philosophy and about his own life. All three experts agreed that one of the problems with studying Galen is that the best and often only source for his life is himself – which obviously means that any exaggeration or shading of the truth is hard to detect. Galen’s medical texts were partly based on what he had learnt during his education, but they contained a lot of innovative ideas and were grounded in Galen’s own observations of diseases. One of Galen’s primary focuses was on prognosis (and one of his better known works is called On Prognosis) – he was interested in using his observations of the patient’s body and environment to predict what would happen next in the disease. He used a variety of techniques to treat disease – he followed the acknowledged path of the day to first try to cure via the diet of the patient, then use drugs (generally plant based) and then to try surgery. Unusually for an elite doctor of the time Galen did his own surgery, rather than regarding it as too “manual” for a person like himself.

Even by the end of Galen’s lifetime he was beginning to be regarded as the place to turn when learning about medicine. And this grew over the next few hundred years. His works were gradually streamlined into a canon, that weren’t necessarily the whole story, and then were translated via Arabic into Latin. Medieval doctors relied on the information in Galen in their medical education, even though complete texts were hard to come by. But in the Renaissance some of the fundamental underpinnings of Galen’s work were queried – Vesalius began to do dissections on humans and realised that much of Galen’s anatomical knowledge was derived from animals (a point I think they could’ve brought out more earlier in the programme). And Harvey’s work on circulation showed that the four humours theory of how the body works was clearly not the case. But even after this Galen’s pharmacology was still useful (and some parts still are today).

The programme seemed to run out of time a bit abruptly towards the end, so there wasn’t as much on Galen’s legacy as I might’ve liked to hear.

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about 🙂

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme 🙂

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me 😉 How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story 😉 One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

In Our Time: Epicureanism

Epicureanism is another Greek philosophy I’d heard of but didn’t really know more than the name. Even less than I knew about scepticism, where at least I was vaguely aware of the idea. The experts dicussing Epicureanism on In Our Time were Angie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), David Sedley (University of Cambridge) and James Warren (University of Cambridge).

Epicurus was a Greek who lived around the 4th Century BC, who wrote extensively on many subjects including physics, natural history, ethics & philosophy. Many of his writings survived – partly the way things always survive, by being copied again & again as people find them useful and also by being referred to by other people. But they’ve also survived in a more surprising way – a library in the house of a Roman living near Herculaneum was preserved via being carbonised (so they said, I assume carbonised in a readable form) and there are works of Epicurus that are only known from this library. There’s also a poem written by Lucretius extolling the virtues of Epicureanism that passed on much of the philosophy, Hobbs in particular waxed lyrical about this.

They spent a while discussing Epicurus’s understanding of physics, as that underpinned his philosophy. He wasn’t the first Greek philosopher to believe the world to be made out of atoms, but he did write about this extensively. He argued it starting from the idea that our senses tell us that the world is made up of bodies, and that there must therefore also be voids otherwise no movement would be possible. He then argued that the bodies we see (like a person, an animal, a plant, a rock, whatever) must be made up of smaller bodies because the ones we see are divisible and change. So these small indivisible (and invisible) bodies are atoms, and they exist in a void. He also argued that this void must be infinite, because if there is an end to it then what’s beyond the end? Logically it must be infinite and then this implies that the bodies (atoms) are infinite in number – if there was only a finite number then they’d be spread too thin to form the larger bodies.

Epicurus also needed to explain how come we can have free will if everything is made up of atoms that move in precisely predictable ways, and he did this by means of “the swerve”. This is saying that an atom as it moves in its straight line might deviate a small amount in its course, and this then means that not everything is predictable so there can still be free will. This idea came back again in the early 20th Century – as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle allowed philosophers who were worried how free will could fit into a universe ordered by Newtonian physics to say that the universe wasn’t predictable. But the experts were saying that it’s not clear how that actually works, mechanistically speaking, to give free will it just feels intuitive that you need some sort of unpredictability to the universe.

These ideas about the physical basis of the world put him in opposition to the Sceptics. Because his arguments are all based initially on “our senses tell us …” he can’t share the Sceptics’ views that one cannot trust one’s senses. So he argued against that. His theory about how our senses work was that there was some film emanated by a physical body that passed through the air to the ears or eyes or whatever. And when it entered our sense organs then the brain’s interpretation of that was always accurate – but it might have been changed between the object and one’s sense organs. So an example is an oar half in & half out of water looks bent but feels straight. The Sceptical way to look at this was that it was a contradiction between your two senses so how could you tell which one was accurate? Epicurus said that your perceptions were both accurate – it looks bent, it feels straight – and it’s that something happens between the object and your seeing of it that makes it look bent.

This model of the physical world is what lead to Epicurus’s philosophy of life. If everything is made up from these bodies, including the soul, including the gods, then there is no afterlife and the gods are not our creators. So the right and good way to live your life should be based on something in this world, and Epicurus said that this should be pleasure. When a baby is born, it already knows the difference between pain & pleasure it’s not something taught – so choosing pleasure as your guiding principle is going back to basics. This wasn’t a philosophy of sybaritic luxury, Epicurus believed that true pleasure was when you were free of pain and it didn’t get better by adding on more luxuries. So if you weren’t hungry, then that was the same amount of pleasure regardless of whether you’d had a simple, filling meal or a fancy feast. They talked about this quite a bit on the programme – there was something about two sorts of pleasures, and the static ones (like freedom from hunger) being the greater ones. Epicurus also counted freedom from fear as being a foundational form of pleasure, so to follow his philosophy you needed to work on not being afraid of death. When it came to physical pain his idea was that if it’s mild pain then you can use your mind to remember past pleasure or anticipate future pleasure and eventually the pain will pass. And if it’s severe pain then it won’t last long (they were saying on the programme that this was because if it was severe pain then you were probably going to die, and as there was no afterlife then it’d all be over).

They were saying that Epicureanism lasted well into Roman times as a philosophical school, but it’s in many ways the opposite of Christianity. So as Christianity rose Epicureanism fell out of favour. The works of Epicurus were rediscovered in Europe in the Renaissance, but they didn’t have much time on the programme to discuss this.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories – both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it … and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with “and also known as the Father of Lies” 😉 I did wonder what the Chinese might’ve had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don’t know but I rather suspect that they’ll’ve had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history – history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don’t know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China – he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England – both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one – the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you’d hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them …) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.

Vikings; Andrew Marr’s History of the World

We watched the third & last episode of Vikings last night. This one was split into two – firstly Oliver covered the Vikings’ exploration to the West and then in the second half he looked at how the Vikings stopped being Vikings. So the programme started off by looking at Viking ocean-going ships, and a bit of sailing & rowing in a replica, and talked about how you had to be a bit flexible in your destination given their navigational technology. And sometimes when you were heading for Shetland you might end up in Orkney, but that’s OK. And sometimes you might end up somewhere completely different – as happened when a boat blown off-course discovered Iceland. I think he was saying that Iceland was a complete accident, but after they found out there might be new lands out in the ocean they deliberately went looking for them. So they settled Greenland and even made it to the east coast of North America. The further flung colonies died off, but the Icelandic people are descended from those Viking colonisers and even some of their traditions lasted into modern times (like their government was a proto-democracy from as long ago as the Viking era). There was an amusing segment of Oliver having to eat various traditional Viking “delicacies” (in a restuarant in Iceland that has this as its theme), like “rotten shark” and various bits of a sheep one doesn’t normally eat (testicles, brains). Accompanied by descriptions from an Icelandic man who was dressed up like a Viking and very much in “torment the foreigner” mode 😉

The second half looked at how and why the Vikings stopped being what we think of as Vikings. Some of this came down to conversion to Christianity – while there’d been Christians in Denmark from fairly early on in the Viking era it wasn’t until the late 900s that Harald Bluetooth (the King of Denmark) converted and made Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. This was apparently largely for political reasons, as it made it less possible for the Holy Roman Emperor to add Denmark to his territories if that meant he was attacking a fellow Christian ruler rather than a godless heathen people. Other rulers in Scandinavia followed suit, and the differences between the old religion and the new changed the focus of the people. No longer was life all about heroic deeds and gaining enough glory so that when you died in battle you went to Valhalla. Now you should focus on living as good (and meek & mild) a life as possible to avoid eternal damnation in the hereafter.

And it finished up by looking at the re-conquest of England by Canute (grandson of Harald Bluetooth), and how his empire of most of Scandinavia and England gave him social status within Europe to a degree where the son of the Holy Roman Emperor married Canute’s daughter. I was vaguely entertained by them spelling Canute like that, as I thought we spelt it “Cnut” these days … perhaps that’s easily mis-read? 😉

A good series overall 🙂 I think it’s a shame it was done in three episodes, it made some of it feel quite shallow. In particular I think this episode could have been split into two and filled out an hour for each very easily. I’d’ve liked to hear more about the Greenland and Newfoundland colonies in the first half, and seen some of the evidence for them. And I’d’ve liked a bit more about the legacy of the Vikings in the second half – a particular thing I felt was missing was that the Normans are descended from Vikings (if I remember correctly) and this wasn’t even mentioned.

The second episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World covered “the Age of Empires”, starting with the Assyrians and stopping just short of the Romans … which seemed an odd choice of stopping point given the title, but I guess we cover the Romans next time. As well as the Assyrians it covered the Persians, Alexander the Great, Athens & their democracy, and a very well juxtaposed series of segments on the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates. The primary theme was how this era was defined largely by war and brutal conflicts between peoples, and how this wasn’t unmitigatedly bad for society. Teachings & innovations that are still followed today grew out of people dealing with this violence.

So he looked at how both the Persians and later Alexander the Great tried to integrate their empires of disparate peoples, which could be viewed as the first attempts at a multicultural society (after the violence & slaughter that lead to the empires). Obviously the democracy of Athens was held up as the birth of the government type most in use throughout the West – but he didn’t shy away from pointing out how it wasn’t quite what we think of as democracy, and in many ways only worked because those who could vote had free time to do so because their slaves were doing the work. And Marr also highlighted the accidental nature of history here – if the Persians had conquered Athens like they tried to do then perhaps we’d have a different form of government now, at the very least it wouldn’t be called democracy. Another accident of this sort is that the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and this had a large impact on the development of Judaism. Were Cyrus not to have conquered Babylon, or not to’ve sent the Jews home, then again the world might be very different today.

The pieces about the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates looked at how these men had such different impacts on their societies but started in many ways from similar places. All were a reaction of sorts to the violent world around them. The Buddha went out from his privileged life, and sought answers to what the meaning of life was and how one should best live. He reached Enlightenment and taught and promoted a peaceful inward looking religion with no hierarchy or restrictions on who could follow it. Confucious also went out from a privileged life to walk and teach among the people, but his message was about creating a peaceful well-ordered society by conforming to the rules for appropriate behaviour. Heavy on respect and outward appearances, focused on the good of the whole people rather than the salvation of a single person. Socrates wasn’t leaving a life of privilege but he was reacting to the violent and uncertain world around him – Athens and in particular its democratic form of government felt under threat. But he didn’t react by conforming, or by retreating from the world to seek inner peace, he reacted by questioning and pushing at the boundaries of what was proper or traditional. Trying to shape a better world by never being satisfied with the easy answers. And then this lead to his death, executed as a traitor in a situation which no society since has had answers to either – if you allow free speech, at what point do the needs of the society outweigh this? What should society do when someone’s right to question runs into the society as a whole’s needs?

While I enjoyed most of the episode, and also found it thought provoking in places, there was one bit that made me roll my eyes a bit. There was a segment on the development of the alphabet, which managed to make it seem like the Phoenicians were the first (and only) people ever to connect what was written down with the sounds that were made. So it ignored completely the evidence of syllabic writing systems (like Linear B where every sign is a particular consonant+vowel combination), which can also be read back by sounding out the symbols. The difference with the alphabet as we use it is the flexibility it gives, where you can phonetically write down languages not constructed in the same way as the language the alphabet was originally designed for (this is harder to do with syllabic systems if the syllables are not the same across the languages – think about Linear B and then think of how English isn’t always consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). I guess that segment was just very simplified, but it was almost to the point of being wrong.

The dramatic reconstructions continue to amuse me with their irreverence and melodrama. Croesus about to be burnt to death was particularly amusingly done. I’m really not normally a fan of playacting bits in history programmes, so I feel the need to mention again how entertaining they are 🙂