Who Were The Greeks: Making sense of contradictions

Thursday 27 June 2013, 09:53

Dr Michael Scott Dr Michael Scott Historian

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Think of the ancient Greeks and we form a picture in our heads either of old bearded men talking philosophy or ripped warriors tearing their enemies to shreds.

Ancient Greece seems full of such contradictions. A place that invented democracy but also ran on slave labour, that idolised youth but left children to die through exposure.

The key question for me in Who Were The Greeks? – the two-part series I have written and presented for BBC Two – was how to make sense of those contradictions, how to understand what made ancient Greece tick.

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Ancient Greeks kept fit by practising Pankration, a combat sport that trained them for battle

What was really exciting about this challenge was bringing together traditional historical investigations with hard-core archaeology and science.

The use of infra-red imaging in the British Museum, for example, to see ancient coloured paint (Egyptian blue) never seen before on the Parthenon marbles.

For me, the most thought-provoking piece of evidence was the well in Athens containing the bodies of infants and dogs, which we examine in episode one.

It symbolised how different this world was. Why throw dogs into a well with dead babies?

But, in seeing the bones of these children, and in recognising the markings of killer childhood diseases like meningitis, or defects like cleft palate, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by sadness, grief and pity. 

The same human emotions I suspect that affected the mothers and fathers of these children 2,000 years or so before.

One regret: the high winds forced us to abandon our plans to travel to and film on Delos, an extraordinary island in the middle of the Aegean, that was a massive religious sanctuary for the ancient Greeks.

If you can get there – do, and look out for the weird and wonderful monument in honour of the god Dionysus, god of wine and revelry – which has a huge phallus on top of it, and the image of a cockerel with a phallus for a head on the side. I kid you not!

Monument honouring Dionysus Monument honouring Dionysus: Late 4th to early 3rd century BC near Sanctuary of Apollo, Delos

This same bizarre concoction was carried as a symbol in the religious procession that took place across the island in Dionysus' honour.

At its heart, the symbol meant fertility and power. But it also brought good luck.

Ancient Greeks would sometimes wear small models of the phallus as part of a necklace to ward off evil.

Look out in episode two for when we visit the quarries near Selinous in Sicily. This was the first time I had been able to visit them.

I was amazed by the vast stones cut out – by hand - of the bedrock, which were meant to serve as columns for the staggering temples of Sicily.

But they remain in the quarry because the site was abandoned overnight in the late 5th century BC because of invasion.

It doubled my respect for the thousands of workmen who toiled on this site – and many others like it – in the ancient Greek world. Their skill and hard work is nothing less than awesome to behold.

I will be live tweeting during these programmes from my personal Twitter account on Thursday, 27 June and Thursday, 4 July. Follow along using the hashtag #WWTG.

Dr Michael Scott is an assistant professor in classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick. He is also the presenter of Who Were The Greeks?

Who Were The Greeks? starts at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on Who Were The Greeks?
University of Warwick: Making 'Who Were The Greeks' by Dr Michael Scott

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am intrigues as to where/when/how your interest in the classics and ancient history started. Was there one thing that triggered it off? Or was it something that developed over time?

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    Comment number 2.

    Of course that should have said intrigued!!!

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    Comment number 3.

    Just watched it, it's amazingly interesting! Can't wait for the second episode! The only downside is, you can't help it, you pronounce all the names in English, but I'm Dutch... so I don't know how to pronounce the names in my language. But never mind that, keep up the good work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Early on in tonight's opening episode of Who Were The Greeks? you stand before a museum showcase full of greek warrior's helmets. Where was that? In your commentary you are talking about Olympia but somehow I think the museum is elsewhere. Could it have been the British Museum?

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    Comment number 5.

    having studied ancient greek and visited the sites ib Greece and Sicily, South Italy (Paestum) it is really great to get your take on this amazing time in our history. During my visit especially in Delphi and Olympus you still feel very strongly the spiritual presence of these peoples, Agrigento shows how they got the best out of the natural environment not to speak of the amazing acoustics they created in their amphitheatres. glad you are bringing the human aspects of their lives to the fore.
    Think I might get myself a protective pendant! Look forward to next week Thank you.Do you give any lectures?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I would love to say that BBC 2's "Who were the Greeks?" was awash with knowledge and insight. Alas, it was littered with wild speculation and inaccuracies, drowned in a distasteful dislike that your man Michael Scott obviously bears for the Greeks, both modern and ancient. He intended to lead both his interviewees and his audience astray. He masked his insults with ill-thought out and obviously insincere compliments. He was passive-aggressive and the programme was vicious. This article adds an acidic animosity. Does he hate the greeks? His prose might suggest so. Historian? I suppose he is, in the same sense that George Bush was a politician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I don't see the need to make such a fuss over the meal of pigs blood, pork meat, and barley, this is just Black Pudding!

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    Comment number 8.

    I don't understand Dominic's problem: I thought Dr. Scott's documentary was excellent - he explained the unusual features of Classical Greek society very clearly, and seems to be a born communicator, expressing his own enthusiasms at a level that the non-specialist can understand. I also admired the way that - like Dr Michael Mosley - he was prepared to put his own body under stress to illuminate a point: the throws in Prankation can't have been easy. I'm looking forward very much to next week's programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    As usual with these programmes, a very male-eyed view of the world. All very interesting, but if the Greeks invented democracy, did women really have a vote? According to the presenter "people" were allowed to vote so I assume that means women as well otherwise he would have used the word "men" so I would have liked to know more. And what were women's lives like behind closed doors while the men were at the gym and fighting wars? Can we have a more balanced, and therefore more informative, programme next time please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I have to object to the sensationalism and inaccuracy of the term 'paedophilia' in this programme and the repeated use of the phrase 'young boys' when referring to the objects of older men's affections in ancient Greece. James Davidson in his book The Greeks and Greek Love has pretty conclusively demonstrated that these 'boys' were in their late teens while their lovers were only a few years older, and were probably, in Athens, not even allowed to talk to them until they were eighteen. Unfortunately the paedophile myth has now been disseminated to 2 million viewers instead.

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    Comment number 11.

    A very accessible wide ranging programme. My sixth form classicists were set to watch it as homework and all were full of praise for Dr Scott. Can't wait for the next instalment

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    Comment number 12.

    I personally thought it was great! I visited Athens two years ago, it was beautiful…I only wish there was a program so informative around when I went, I would have enjoyed it more.

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    Comment number 13.

    I have to say. There are some wonderful historical games concerning the classical times lovingly made by an online modding community for the total war series, such as in Rome total war Surrectum. Here the modding community have allowed for full scale economic and military control of an ancient world. Everything from the kingdoms of Syracuse and Bithynia, the Archean league and the complexities of establishing Spartan training systems, the tin road to north Western Europe, the silk and spice roads and much much more are lovingly included with detailed descriptions. As a learning tool for the classical world it is unbeatable. As a game it is wholly addictive. A true hidden gem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Also Clara, Women are seen throughout classic society in interesting lights, namely as babymakers but specifically in myths and legends women hold a dominant position as villains. The brutishness of Hera, the hideousness of Medusa, the Titaness power of Gai. and the warrior Amazonian women. I would go as far to say classical greek society as a whole disliked and mistrusted women. When a man spends his entire life around other men, taught the harshest logic and the greatest freindship with man, women lose their role altogether. Oddly they become the greatest enemies of the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    That was Nietzsche's main question in the Birth of Tragedy -- and throughout his life. Too bad most philosophers don't know this and even more lamentable is that classical historians don't read Nietzsche -- they'd make better consultants if they did.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 17.

    Slightly disappointed in this programme by Dr Scott as previous have been very good indeed. Disagreed his flippant use of the term paedophilia, in fact,very inaccurate.
    A pity he hadn't waited on the storms abating and included Delos in the programme ; visited there in 1981 and well worth an afternoon absorbing the ancient past.

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    Comment number 18.

    The problem with documentaries of this kind is not the amount of knowledge that the presenter or the researchers possess, but the perspective of their own time and culture. As heirs to a once great empire that based its excellence on military prowess and a consistent appropriation of other cultures’ wealth, eventually setting the basis for modern capitalism, the British aspire to those aspects of the ancient Greek world that remind them of their own past glories, or offer an excuse for their current politics. The first episode was full of references to war and military/monetary dominance, the importance of slaves, the superiority of the elite, and the suppression of women. There was even a reference to a slave that rose above his circumstances to become a powerful banker (a myth still perpetuated today to convince us that we can all become millionaires, regardless of family wealth/connections etc.) I strongly agree with earlier comments alluding to the fact that comparing paedophilia with the cultural process that brought together young men with teenagers as an invaluable didactic experience, is at best misleading, if not dangerous. Extreme simplifications, i.e. that there was no connection between a well-developed body and the inside, the soul or mind of a person, or that women were locked away and men were together, therefore they were all homosexuals for a while, seem to come out of public-school boys’ experiences, or to offer excuses for today’s gym-muscle worship. The fact that the Greeks gave a lot to us, (and that is a great understatement) should not be used as an excuse to perpetuate, glorify, or excuse systems of values that a) are based in misunderstood and misinterpreted prototypes and models, and b) consist the very route of what is inexcusably wrong with our own culture today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Hey all - many thanks for all your comments and thoughts! I'll reply to them below:

    How did I get interested in classics? I didnt really like Latin at school but was very lucky in my teachers who offered Greek - was always fascinated by it. Went to Greece when I was 17 and spent my birthday at the archaeological site of Olympia. Could not resist studying Classics at uni and went to the British School of Rome for their summer undergraduate course - and have never looked back since!

    The helmets at the beginning of episode 1 are in the museum at Olympia

    Dutch - sorry! But my book From Democrats to Kings is available in Dutch with publishers Prometheus - more info at michaelscottweb.com You can find all details of my upcoming public lecture on the website - but also on my twitter account @drmichaelcscott

    Yes - spartan broth is kind of black pudding - but I know lots of people who dont like black pudding!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Really important point brought up by several discussants about nature of male/male relationships and the appropriateness of the term paedophilia. This is really important and we thought about this a lot in making the programme.

    What I said in the programme was this "an activity which today would be labelled as pederasty, or perhaps even paedophilia".

    You are absolutely right that technically the correct term is pederasty. Paedophilia technically refers to encounters with children younger than was the norm in ancient Greece, and also has a number of other connotations which don't really apply to the ancient Greek practice. But - as many of the production team pointed out - in journalism today, it is unlikely that such technical definitions would be respected and if a newspaper article were covering this, they would likely use the term paedophilia. Hence my statement that it should be known as pederasty, but 'perhaps even paedophilia'. But I personally agree with everyone who believes paedophilia to be technically incorrect. The correct term to use should always be pederasty.


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