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!)

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 6)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (Second Half)

This is the second half of the chapter on the Tang & Song dynasties & it covers the Song Dynasty and the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The time period covered is from 960AD through to approximately 1370AD.

Orientation Dates: Mostly English history for these, plus the dates of some of the Crusades. 1066AD is the Battle of Hastings. First Crusade was 1095AD to 1099AD. “The Anarchy” was between 1135AD & 1155AD (post). Third Crusade (Richard Lionheart & Saladin) was 1187AD to 1192AD. Gerald of Wales lived at the end of the 12th Century (post). Fourth Crusade (and sack of Constantinople) was 1202AD to 1204AD. Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215AD. Edward I conquered Wales between 1277AD & 1283AD. Hundred Years War started in 1337AD. Black Death arrived in England in 1348AD.

The Northern Song

Like many of the Chinese ruling dynasties the Song Dynasty is split into two parts – first the Northern Song, then the Southern Song. The Northern Song started by re-unifying most of the country, all but the most northern parts of what had been China under the Tang Dynasty. Unfortunately the book didn’t give me a map of this, so I had to resort to looking it up in another book. They (again like the immediately preceding dynasties) tried to change the military focus of the culture – during the reigns of the first two Emperors of this dynasty (about 40 years from 960AD to 997AD) the military was overhauled and put under the control of civilian officials at the top level. The Emperors also made the civil bureaucracy more important by presiding as the final examiners who appointed all the bureaucrats. This lead to problems later in the dynasty – by the end of the mid-Northern Song period (around 1085AD) the elite regarded themselves as co-rulers of the empire and bureaucratic factionalism weakened the power of the dynasty.

The threats from the north of China (see below) meant that despite backing away from military rule the Northern Song had to maintain a large army. This in turn meant that higher taxes were necessary to pay the military expenses (and to pay tribute to the northern peoples), and there were attempts to reform the tax system to make it more efficient. These reforms seem to have been poorly implemented and as they often went against Chinese tradition (for instance by trying to employ specialised bureaucrats rather than follow the Confucian ideal of generalists) they ultimately failed which wasn’t good for the long term prospects for the dynasty.

Despite all this the Northern Song dynasty was a time of economic growth, and of a cultural renaissance. The economic growth partly came from properly integrating the south of the country into the economy for the first time – farming with new crop varieties that grew well there, and by improving the Sui canal system to integrate the nearer south with the northern heartlands. Maritime trade was also a growth area, and was particularly important as the country was now cut off from the Silk Road due to losing their more western provinces. The increased maritime trade lead to better ship building, and better maps – which could be up to the standards of the 19th Century maps of the Western world. Some southern cities had large colonies of foreign merchants within them – from places such as India, Arabia and Persia. The book says that this was a time almost of an industrial revolution, again comparing to 19th Century in the West (in this case saying that coal production was on similar levels to 19th Century Britain).

And shortly after discussing the trade with outsiders the book says “China looked inward during the Song Dynasty, and so remained isolated from the rest of the world”. Which doesn’t seem to add up, to me. This is used to lead into discussing the art of the Song period – which was more focussed on realistic depictions of nature than was previously the case, although increased realism doesn’t mean that there weren’t also symbolic constraints on how you depicted things. This time period was also the time when Neo-Confucianism flourished.

The Khitan (Liao) and Jurchen (Jin)

So the Northern Song never managed to whole re-unify what had been Tang China. During this time (960AD through to 1125AD) the people in the north were ruled by the Khitan – who were a northern tribal group of pastoral nomads. They conquered some of the Chinese settlements in the north and became increasingly Sinified in their rule over them – although the majority of their society stayed nomadic. The rulers even took a dynastic name, the Liao dynasty, and attempted to conquer Song China. This failed, but the resulting peace treaty in 1005AD involved the Song paying the Liao tribute.

In 1125 the Liao rule of northern China was supplanted by a new wave of nomadic tribesmen from the north. These were the Jurchen, who first conquered the Liao and then before they were even finished doing that they started to invade Song China. In 1127 they succeeded in taking the Northern Song capital and pushing the Song rulers back into southern China – this was the end of the Northern Song and the start of the Southern Song.

The Jurchen rulers took the dynastic name Jin and ruled over the northern part of China for a bit over a hundred years, until the Mongols displaced them in 1234. At first they were the rulers of the territory via the same officials who had ruled the districts under the Liao or Song administrations. But the Jin encouraged the Jurchen people to move into their new territory, and gradually came to directly rule the region. Over time they became more Sinified – partly as a deliberate act of policy by the ruling Jin designed to reduce the importance of the traditional Jurchen elite. This was then reversed by later Jin Emperors, and the various competing reforms reduced the military power of the Jurchen people. The book makes it clear that this was another large & prosperous empire, on a par with the Southern Song – they were trading partners despite occasional conflict and neither could defeat the other.

The Southern Song

As so often with this book, a map would’ve helped at this point. The Southern Song was a period when Chinese power was confined to the south of the country. The retreat, and loss of power, did nothing to stop the factionalism within the court. One minister, Han Tuozhou, even went so far as to start a war with the Jin, to discredit his opponents in the “peace” faction. This didn’t work out well for him – the Jin demanded his head (literally). And despite the fact that treating a minister like this was unprecedented for Song China they did indeed send his head off in a box, as requested.

During this era Confucianism was again reinvented to suit the current time. Neo-Confuciansim of the Northern Song period was forward looking & encouraged people to think for themselves. But during the Southern Song period a philosopher called Zhu Xi reinterpreted Confucianism with an emphasis on the authority of the teacher, and the authority of the old texts. Effectively doing what you were told became more important than thinking about what you were doing. During this time the exams for civil servants became the only way to become a part of the government (in contrast to previous eras when they were one path of many). And they became a test of moral orthodoxy as much as a test of talent.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty

The Mongol tribes were united in 1206AD by Temujin – better known as Genghis Khan, the Great Khan. The Mongol armies then swept across large parts of Eurasia bringing them under Mongol control. This continued even after Temujin’s death in 1227AD and included the Jin territory in the north of China who were finally conquered in 1234AD. During the last part of their resistance they appealed to the Southern Song for help, but were refused. The inevitable conquest of the Southern Song was then delayed by internal Mongol politics, but completed in 1279AD by Kublai Khan’s forces. China was now fully re-unified for the first time in several hundred years – under the first Emperor of the new Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan.

The book concentrated on Kublai Khan and his dynasty in China, but also pointed out that he wasn’t just an Emperor of China. In fact a lot of his regime was tangential to China, he was trying to re-unify the Mongols and maintained a presence in Mongolia, Turkistan & Mongol Iran. And he was also keen on trying to conquer the other territories around China – like Korea, Japan, Burma & Java. To his Chinese subjects he was never anything other than a foreigner, as with his successors. And ultimately the Yuan efforts to conquer and control more territory weakened their rule in China.

Mongol ruled China was more religiously & cultural diverse than previous regimes had been. The Mongol elite brought other customs to the Chinese court, and patronised different religions to their Chinese predecessors. Tibetan Buddhism was one of these that rose to greater prominence during Kublai Khan’s reign. Art and literature were influenced by styles from other parts of Mongol ruled territory, and in turn Chinese styles influenced other parts of the world. During this time period blue & white porcelain became the first international art craze, prized across a large part of Eurasia, including parts of the West. Other cultural exchanges included the sciences – medicine & astronomy for instance – and even food. I was particularly struck by an aside about the food – when we go to eat at Mizu in town we often have gyoza as a side dish. These apparently derive from a Russian dish – piroshky – which entered Chinese culture during the Yuan dynasty period. I’d always thought of them as oriental. Trade occurred across the whole of Mongol territory, and beyond, which boosted the Chinese economy. Trade in the Jin and Southern Song territories had been mostly internal or between the two empires, so this greater market for their goods (and to buy goods from) revitalised the economy.

This is the time period when Marco Polo visited China. If he existed and actually visited China, that is. This book is firmly on the side of him being legit, but I’m sure we listened to an In Our Time on Marco Polo (which I don’t appear to’ve written up, must’ve been a while ago). And the experts on that programme were more inclined to think that he might’ve been a useful fiction to make a description of China more readable. Anyway, if he went, it’s Kublai Khan’s court he went to. And if he didn’t go, someone still described (reasonably accurately, it seems) the court & land. There are other Western visitors to the Mongol court described – some of them in both Chinese & Western records, for instance a papal envoy called John of Marignolli. The papacy sent quite a few envoys, and missionaries, to China and other Mongol states at this time. This was the time of the Crusades, and they were hoping for allies against the Islamic countries.

The Yuan ruled China for about a century – Kublai Khan was the most successful Emperor and after him and his immediate successor there were a series of short-lived Emperors. The Mongol state discriminated against the descendent of the Southern Song region in particular, and Mongol citizens had more rights under the law than Chinese. Eventually after those short-lived, weak and ineffectual Emperors there was increasing rebellion in the south (called “banditry” by the regime but more political than that word implies). And the Yuan Dynasty came to an end in 1368AD.

Tangents to follow up on: Mongols, and the whole history of that northern region – it’s interesting how the history of China seems to involve a lot of “barbarians” sweeping in from the north & conquering or re-uniting China.