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Who Were The Greeks: Making sense of contradictions

Dr Michael Scott


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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.

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: 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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