The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 7, 2013

Ancient History on TV

There's been a veritable spate of TV programmes on Ancient Rome lately. Just a week or so ago was Caligula by the lovely Mary Beard. This overlapped historically (and a little bit thematically) with Catharine Edwards' Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome. Three months ago was Margaret Mountford's Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, and that was an update on Mary Beard's programme on Pompeii (Life and Death in a Roman Town) from about two-and-a-half years earlier. Last year, we were treated to a series on the religions of Rome (pagan, Christian, Papish) by Simon Sebag Montefiore, as well as a search for its forgotten ruins (amphitheatres, canals, forts, lost cities) with Dan Snow. We've had a three-parter called Treasures of Ancient Rome hosted by Alastair Sooke, which shows us that the Romans may have been famed for murther and engineering, but that they were great artists as well. Mary Beard, too, has been extra busy, because her show on the lives of common Romans (Meet the Romans) was also shown last year.

There have been two programmes on Hadrian and his wall (in the Timewatch series of 2007, and by Dan Snow the following year). There have been several programmes on gladiators (Gladiator Graveyard), most recently in Timewatch again (2007), as well as one from 2003 titled The Colosseum: Rome's Arena of Death. Terry Jones explored the cultures of Rome's contemporaries - the people the Romans liked to call Barbarians (2006). More ambitious than all of these was a six-parter titled Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire also in 2006.

And these are just the BBC programmes. The other channels have not been negligent. Channel 5 has done its bit to promote the imperium (programmes on Julius Caesar and gladiators) as well as Channel 4 with its various Time Team digs uncovering Roman Britain.

You get the drift. Serious obsession with the Romans in these here British Isles. That's all right, it's all classical history and good fun.

So what do these programmes cover? Blood and sensation (peacetime and wartime) and some religion and art. Where are the stories of republican Rome? How did the Romans become a superpower? Where's Roman science? Engineering? Literary Rome? Mercantile Rome? 

Classical history, of course, includes the Greeks. Here too we have rich amounts of programming (although nowhere in the league of the Romans). There's the usual stuff - Troy, Sparta, Athens, the battles against the Persians. Luckily there's also been some delightful programmes on Greek science (Aristotle, the Antikythera mechanism), as well as a recent cultural round-up by Michael Scott. But, again, it appears we are fated to see the same tired topics repeated over and over.

Can't we have some coverage of the post-Alexandrian Hellenic world? It extended to north-west India and lasted for centuries, brilliant blends of local cultures with that of the Greeks. What about Ptolemaic Egypt? And, again, mercantile Greece? Or its amazing scientific achievements? True, some of its mathematics was covered by Marcus du Sautoy, and some of its optics by Simon Schaffer. But there's a  world of Greek thought just waiting to be shown on TV, surely.

There's more to Ancient Egypt than the Pyramids and King Tut, too. A nice recent programme was on the reconstruction of a boat supposedly sent by Queen Hatshepsut to Punt - although nobody really knows where Punt is. Another one was on the search for Rameses's lost city. (These searches for lost cities always seem to be high on a TV programmer's agenda.)

But there's far more to ancient history! The decipherment of ancient scripts? (You could do a nice programme of about an hour on the topic, using the epic of Gilgamesh as focus. Or an entire series, using a great text from each of the ancient civilisations. How about six parts - Sumer, Egypt, China, India, Maya, and the earliest alphabet (was it Phoenician?)) The hunt for the historical Hanging Garden of Babylon? Again, a stirring subject, with much controversy and any amount of to-ing and fro-ing amongst the historians. What about the spread of Hindu and Buddhist culture out of India? I don't think I've seen much about the Persians (although I recall there was some chatter when the British Museum organised its massive exhibition a few years ago). There could even be a kind of thematic coverage of great thinkers and philosophers - toss Confucius, Buddha, Mahavira, Zoroaster, and a couple of Greeks into the mix - and compare and contrast! I could go on and on.

I've been in this country for ten years, and I've found the quality of its public broadcasting superb, a true wonder. Now if only its coverage would widen.


Post a Comment