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The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

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A new film about Alexandria provides the centrepiece of Bettany Hughes' definitive history of the ancient world and classical civilisation

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A new film about Alexandria provides the centrepiece of Bettany Hughes' definitive history of the ancient world and classical civilisation

  • Statue

    Alexandria: The Greatest City

    Three cities dominated the ancient world: Athens, Rome and a third, now almost forgotten. It lies hidden beneath the waters of the Mediterranean and a sprawling modern metropolis.

    Alexandria was a city built on a dream; a place with a very modern mindset, where - as with the worldwide web - one man had a vision that all knowledge on earth could be stored in one place.

    Bettany Hughes goes in search of this lost civilisation, revealing the story of a city founded out of the desert by Alexander the Great in 331 BC to become the world's first global centre of culture, into which wealth and knowledge poured from across the world.

    Until its decline in the fourth and fifth Centuries AD, Alexandria became a crucible of learning; Hughes uncovers the incredible discoveries and the technical achievements of this culture.

    The film's cast of characters reads like a list of the greatest figures of ancient times: political figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and intellectuals including female mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia, Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and Ptolemy.

    At last, after 1,500 years squashed under a modern metropolis, new clues are emerging from the earth to the real nature of this grand experiment in human civilisation.

  • Spartans

    The Spartans

    Bettany Hughes chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most extreme civilisations the world has ever seen, one founded on discipline, sacrifice and frugality where the onus was on the collective and the goal was to create the perfect state and the perfect warrior.

    Hughes reveals the secrets and complexities of everyday Spartan life; homosexuality was compulsory, money was outlawed, equality was enforced, weak boys were put to death and women enjoyed a level of social and sexual freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world.

    It was a nation of fearsome fighters where a glorious death was treasured. This is aptly demonstrated by the kamikaze last stand at Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his warriors fought with swords, hands and teeth to fend off the Persians.

    But there was bitter rivalry between Sparta and Athens, two cities with totally opposed views of the 'good life'. When war finally came, it raged for decades and split the Greek world until, in a brutal and bloody climax, Sparta finally emerged victorious as the most powerful city-state in Greece.

    But under King Agesilaus, the dreams of the Spartan utopia come crashing down. By setting out to create a perfect society protected by perfect warriors, Sparta made an enemy of change.

    A collapsing birth rate, too few warriors, rebellious slaves and outdated attitudes to weaponry and warfare combined to sow the seeds of Sparta's destruction, until eventually the once great warrior state was reduced to being a destination for Roman tourists who came to view bizarre sado-masochistic rituals.

  • Helen of Troy

    She is 'the face that launched a thousand ships'; the woman blamed for the Trojan War - a conflict that caused countless deaths - but who was the real Helen of Troy?

    Bettany Hughes travels across the eastern Mediterranean to disentangle myth from reality and find the truth about the most beautiful woman on earth.

    Helen's story is a dark and very human drama, interweaving pleasure and pain, sex and violence, love and hate: a tale that started with a messy love affair and ended with a bloody and disastrous conflict.

    Hughes argues that many images of the mythic Helen, from Hollywood movies to romantic paintings, have got her all wrong: Helen was the original sex goddess. And the film reveals just how a pre-historic princess in Bronze Age Greece - a real Helen - would have looked.

    The feature-length documentary takes in some of the most beautiful scenery of the ancient world, from the magnificent citadel at Mycenae and the spectacular shrine to Helen in Sparta, to the archaeological site in modern Turkey that will be forever linked with the war fought in Helen's name: Troy.

  • Engineering Ancient Egypt

    Engineering Ancient Egypt

    Through their superlative buildings, the legacy of the Egyptian empire continues to enthrall people to this day. Yet these incredible structures were made over 4,000 years ago.

    Historian Bettany Hughes explores what drove the people of this ancient civilisation to build on such a massive scale. The story is told through the reigns of two pharaohs - Khufu and Ramesses II.

    Separated by 1,200 years, they both ruled during periods of incredible architectural ambition. Under Khufu, the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed; while under Ramesses II the temples of Abu Simbel came into being.

    But what drove this ambition? This documentary attempts to get into the hearts and minds of these early Egyptians in their unstoppable pursuit of immortality via great feats of engineering.

  • Athens: The Truth about Democracy (Part 2 of 2)

    In the second part of her exploration of ancient Athens, Bettany Hughes examines how, as Athenian democracy progressed, it became embroiled in the clash of new and old ideas; so much so that Athens started to tear itself apart.

    During the fifth century Athens was constantly at war with the Spartans. The Peloponnesian war took conflict to new levels of bloody aggression and cruelty.

    Against this violent background Athens also cultivated great thinkers, artists and scientists.

    Bettany uncovers research showing how democracy fed new ideas and brought them into conflict with traditional beliefs. She reveals the astonishing burnt fragments of an ancient papyrus discovered on a tomb that is completely changing the way we view Athens.

    Beneath the surface Athens is a world of weird religion and hard science, of spin and sexual politics. The climax to the story asks how one of history's greatest questions: how could a society that worshipped freedom of speech democratically vote to execute its greatest thinker Socrates, simply for speaking his mind freely?

  • Athens: The Truth about Democracy (Part 1 of 2)

    Bettany Hughes searches for the truth about the 'Golden Age' of Ancient Athens, investigating how a barren rock wedged between the East and West became the first democracy 2,500 years ago.

    Democracy, liberty and the freedom of speech are trumpeted as the bedrock of western civilisation, but what was Athens really like?

    Bettany goes deep underground to explore a treasure trove of pre-historic bones and ancient artefacts. In silver mines and tombs she uncovers evidence for what this society was really like.

    This was a democratic city built on slave labour, manipulated by aristocrats, where women wore the veil and men pursued a bloody foreign policy, slaughtering thousands in the pursuit of the world's first democratic empire.

    The programme reveals amazing, sophisticated voting systems but also a society where smooth-talking politicians used spin, and where those who didn't vote were known as 'idiotes'.

    This first episode charts the epic story of Athens' victory in one of the greatest sea battles of the ancient world, when the Athenian triremes defeat Xerxes' mighty Persian fleet at Salamis, and reveals the real story of the building of the greatest monument of this first democracy - the Parthenon - as a symbol of Athenian power.

  • When the Moors Ruled in Europe

    Bettany Hughes traces the story of the mysterious and misunderstood Moors, the Islamic society that ruled in Spain for 700 years, but whose legacy was virtually erased from Western history.

    In 711 AD, a tribe of newly converted Muslims from North Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar and invaded Spain. Known as The Moors, they went on to build a rich and powerful society.

    Its capital, Cordoba, was the largest and most civilised city in Europe, with hospitals, libraries and a public infrastructure light years ahead of anything in England at the time.

    Amongst the many things that were introduced to Europe by Muslims at this time were: a huge body of classical Greek texts that had been lost to the rest of Europe for centuries (kick-starting the Renaissance); mathematics and the numbers we use today; advanced astronomy and medical practices; fine dining; the concept of romantic love; paper; deodorant; and even erection creams.

    This wasn't the rigid, fundamentalist Islam of some people's imaginations, but a progressive, sensuous and intellectually curious culture. But when the society collapsed, Spain was fanatically re-Christianised; almost every trace of seven centuries of Islamic rule was ruthlessly removed.

    It is only now, six centuries later, that The Moors' influences on European life and culture are finally beginning to be fully understood.

  • The Minoans

    Bettany Hughes visits Crete to recount the story one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever made.

    The tale of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth is perhaps the most compelling of all Greek myths. Just over 100 years ago, English archaeologist Arthur Evans went to the 'Minotaur's Island' to explore the roots of this myth and discovered instead a sophisticated Bronze Age civilisation that had been lost to history for thousands of years.

    He called them The Minoans, and the riches of their culture astonished the world, prompting Evans to proclaim them the first civilisation of the Western World.

    But was this view unduly romantic? Recent archaeological discoveries have added fascinating layers of complexity to the picture originally painted by Evans.

The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes synopsis

A new film about Alexandria provides the centrepiece of Bettany Hughes' definitive history of the ancient world and classical civilisation

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