[Guest post by Ben Earley]
It seems in recent months that Rome has fallen for a second time. Not to the barbarians this time but to the Greeks. Where once our television schedules were filled with Mary Beard and Catharine Edwards admirably explaining different facets of Roman history and culture, now they have been invaded by a plethora of Hellenic-centric documentaries, all lead by Michael Scott. This is a welcome change. Rome is fascinating of course, but the general viewing public must no know more about the first centuries AD than any other point in history. It is high time the Greeks had their turn and they could not ask for a more engaging and knowledgeable spokesman than Scott.
However, this increase in interest in Greece should give the classicist and the ancient historian pause for thought. Although academically we lump Greece and Rome together they are far from being the same beast. Each civilization possessed different histories and they also offer different things to the contemporary world. Where Rome conquered, Greece beguiled. Where Rome taxed, Greece traded. I could go on for hours but I trust you get the picture. How then should the Greeks be communicated to the wider world? I believe this question splits into two constituent problems.
First, there is the problem of defining who were the Greeks and what was their relationship to their neighbours. In Roman documentaries, viewers are well acquainted with the idea that Rome both conquered the ‘known’ world but also had to assimilate and reach accommodations with vast swathes of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Programmes such as Time Team really bought home the fact that the Romans were not simply an ethnic of political description but a whole culture that changed dramatically as it came in contact with its neighbours. Digs across Britain demonstrated the sheer diversity of Roman life (within one of the remotest provinces) emphasizing processes of acculturation, resistance, and immigration.
Documentaries on Greece on the other hand tend to view the ancient Greeks as unproblematically homogenous. As far as I know, there has been no on screen discussion of Greek-Persian or Greek-Egyptian interaction, for example. When Michael Scott visited Sicily he gave the impression of a Greek colony transplanted overseas. Where were the discussions of the Carthaginians and the native populations, of cross cultural contact? The constant focus on what the Greeks gave to us (which I hardly need to repeat here) risks, I fear, claiming them as the progenitors of a specifically European culture. In truth, the Greeks bequeathed just as much to Muslim and Orthodox culture as they ever did to the Occident. This focus on a homogenised Greece is all the more infuriating because already in the popular print media journalists and the general public (note the number of comments) have been debating the ‘Easterness’ of Greek culture. I refer you this recent Guardian piece: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jul/11/ancient-greece-cultural-hybridisation-theory.
Second, there is the idea that the Greeks bequeathed theatre, democracy, science etc. to posterity. This is a good television hook. It informs the viewer why they should care the Greeks. It also plays to a popular culture truism – we all know that the Greeks invented nearly everything and subsequent generations have simply stood on the shoulders of giants. But is this really how we should communicate the influence (and sheer joy) of Greek culture? I am reminded of the fact that there is a whole corpus of medieval plays, the authors of whom had never even heard of Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides. Shakespeare probably never read any Greek drama, although he knew Seneca like the back of his hand. In what sense then has Greek drama influenced the theatres we have today? Well, it had to be rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That rediscovery is a very compelling story.
The problem as I see it then is this: is it enough to simply say the Greeks invented such and such (which most people already know), should we not also try and explain how these things were lost, preserved, and felt to be important over the ages? This might sound a little dry and academic but critics such as Brian Sewell have long been arguing that factual TV is dumbing down. Besides, engaging TV on cultural or intellectual traditions has been made before (e.g. Andrew Graham-Dixon on early Christian art). Is it not then high time classicists (Michael Scott?) jumped on this band wagon. I know I would watch a three part documentary on ancient medicine in (i) its original context (ii) the Muslim middle ages (iii) early modern Europe.