Athens: The Truth about Democracy

Athens: The Truth about Democracy

2007, History  -    -  Playlist 25 Comments
Ratings: 7.80/10 from 59 users.

Athens: The Truth about DemocracyWe choose to forget that in the name of democracy, Athens followed a policy of aggressive overseas expansion and persecuted some of its leading intellectuals. Despite its recent popularity in the West, democracy in ancient Athens did not flourish but quickly died.

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.

The film 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.

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9 years ago

Did not do it for me, NEXT!

Sam Chafe
9 years ago

respect to the ubiquitous and 'highly respected historian' Bethany Hughes, I
long for her absence from any further programs dealing with history ... or
anything for that matter. My goodness, doesn't she love to present herself and
covet stardom in anything she does? She is more than a touch narcissistic and,
as we say in Australia, has tickets on herself. Time for a well deserved sojourn
in oblivion.

10 years ago

Contrast ancient Athens with other forms of democracy. 1500 years before Athens, Minoan Cretan civilization endured far longer---longer, in fact, than Rome---without kings or oppressive aristocrats and without any major "war culture." How? The "Damos" was the network of ancient Minoan families (i.e., their citizens) to whom their elites had to answer; and, like later "Dark Age" Crete, they used a calendar-based system and laws dictating alternation of individuals in office to put constitutional limits around positions of power. No one was allowed to get entrenched. Many Native Americans, too, chose their Sachems under highly conditional terms, contingent upon the will of their land-holding women and upon careful evaluations of their results. In short, it appears by comparison that Athens' democracy was a carefully camouflaged imperial oligarchy that was most of all exclusive, elitist, and virtually fascist. No thanks!

10 years ago

A very interesting documentary and she is easy on the eye in the close-ups.

10 years ago

Athens was the 1.0 beta release of democracy. Naturally there were flaws.

Lets also not choose to forget that thousands of years later, the American democratic republic denied the vote to women, kept blacks enslaved and waged ruthless wars of aggression on the native people.

Ch H
11 years ago

Sheesh, people, let's give Bettany Hughes a break. Consider how difficult it is for us as women to gauge that perfect balance between sex goddess and cow that will win us a neutral hearing.

11 years ago

Anybody know where I can find a transcript of this program?

12 years ago

This was, generally speaking, an excellent documentary with a few minor issues which I can't help but highlighting:
- Although in general most was very well documented and argued, there was one assumption stated which was totally unjustified. It is mentioned at one point that archaeologists have discovered many artifacts similar to voodoo dolls which people involved in lawsuits offered to the gods for their opponents to have this fate as an outcome. Bettany interprets this as "religious prejudice tightly integrated in the Athenian judicial system". Totally unjustified assumption to say the least. Nobody can argue that there was a lot of superstition in the people -isn't there today?- but the Athenian democratic judicial system is an achievement we should envy today (the documentary does not give to it the credit it deserves) and the people consciously acknowledged that politics was a matter of the humans and the gods had nothing to do with it. When a decision was taken in the assembly and made into law it always began with the words "Edokse ti vouli kai to dimo" which refers only to the people as the source of power and decisions and nobody else, god, extra-societal law or anything else.
- The story of Diagoras is mentioned, but it fails to mention that political motives were the true reason behind his prosecution.
- Some minor issues which relate to the usual issue of seeing a historical period of the antiquity through modern eyes. For example mentioning Alkiviades as "a bright politician". The concept "politician" didn't exist in the ancient Athenians. Politics was for everybody and was not regarded a science but a duty for every member of the society. The notion of politicians was introduced later by Plato, fierce enemy of democracy, and the first theoretic who attempted to ground oligarchy in philosophical terms.

And a few personal remarks:
- Sometimes democracy is presented as mob rule in the documentary. Mob rule is what democracy can become when the people seize to follow its rules and institutions (note: for any system to work well the participants must follow its rules). It was what happened in Athens during the worst years of the Peloponesian war with the Spartans (war as the ultimate corrupter is not mentioned in the documentary which was a bit disappointing). The system was very sophisticated and featured many checks, as for example the law that no law which didn't agree with the previous laws could be voted and if something like this happened then the people who instigated it in the assembly would be tracked and prosecuted. They also had laws like the modern "habeas corpus", that you couldn't be convicted without going through trial first where you had to be present. Of course during the worst era of the war many of the laws were violated by the assembly.
- The final conclusions are unsatisfying. While on the one hand the doc demonstrates very well the virtues of democracy and all the goods that come with it, as well as its shortcomings and it also recognizes that today we don't have democracies anywhere in the world but republics -which is a very different system, oligarchic in nature-, no optimistic view is given such as that today we could re-experiment with democracy and expect much better results having learned from history and also having conquered ideas such as Human Rights etc. Bettany fails to see this and the reason is typical. It views antiquity through the eyes of modernity and she doesn't see clearly things such as that war at that time was considered a very natural occupation and not an evil we should avoid in all costs. Well, not today...
In my mind the Athenian democracy failed because it failed to expand so to include the total of the society and also to express its ideals in its foreign policy. The Athenians were arrogant and racists and they also believed -as everybody did back then- in war and that the powerful rules. They -rightly- believed that true justice can be only between equals but the stance they took on this idea with regards to slaves, women and foreign people was that "well we are more powerful so we can do whatever we want on you" and not that of "ok, lets see how we can create a true egalitarian society and world". But this attitude was rooted deep in their belief system. Today things have changed and we would expect better outcomes from a new democratic experiment (if it ever happens because it would require a revolution).

12 years ago

429 B.C.: medicine

Plague kills at least one-third the population of Athens. The entire city indulges in drunkenness, gluttony, and licentiousness as the citizens lose their fear of the gods and respect for law. "As for the first," the historian Thucydides will write, "they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and as for the latter, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses."

Spared by the plague is the physician Hippocrates the Great (as distinguished from one previous and five future Greek physicians named Hippocrates). He is the first to say that no disease is entirely miraculous or adventitious in origin and that disease is not sent as punishment by the gods. He uses dissection and vivisection of animals to study anatomy and physiology, but he often applies the results of his experiments to human bodies without further evidence. Hippocrates adds to medical terminology Greek words that will be translated into such English words as chronic, crisis, convalescence, exacerbate, paroxysm, relapse, and resolution. Fever expresses the struggle of the body to cure itself, he says; health results from the harmony and mutual sympathy of the humors (see Empedocles, 431 B.C.; Fu Xi, 2700 B.C.). Hippocrates's cult of Aesculapius is named after a physician who may have lived in about 1250 B.C.; it marks the beginning of scientific medicine.

12 years ago

Great documentary. Bettany Hughes does a fabulous job as usual. Its funny how people react to challenging ides or views that might might not show the shiny side of the story that makes us feel good about our selves. some of my favorite history quotes seem to fit this film really well.
"those that don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it", and "the only thing we learn from history, is that we don't learn from history".

12 years ago

History is what is written down not what it was.So, out there is history what might be false and history what might be true.Either way ,history is what is written down and documented

Nigel from New Zealand
12 years ago

well said Jo......

They accomplish with one hand and kill with the other.
No one great civilization has arisen yet that deserves credit for anything!

........that is a very discerning observation, very wise indeed.

12 years ago

(Jo WROTE= Oh and stop harping on about Greece being part of European civilization. In those times Greece was as European as a Kebab!)

When we had poetry you lot were living in the stone age. If you don't think Greeks are Europeans then please give back to us all the knowledge we gave you and 30% of the English language that is of Greek origin.


12 years ago

Bettany Hughes is always a pleasure to watch thanks Vlatko, She has another doc on here "When the Moors ruled Europe" is also excellent.

12 years ago

Yavanna thanks for the link.

12 years ago

Bettany Hughs is beautiful and intelligent to boot. I am hooked. I love her, I want to be her slave, I... Oh, are you guys still here. Could I be alone with Bettany for awhile, Thankyou.

Seriously though, she is great and I am looking forward to watching this when I get out of class later tonight. I think they are having a water balloon fight in the hall right now, if I get soaked before class you guys will be hearing about another tragic school shooting in Alabama. Maybe I will ask some of the guys to come back and watch this with me tonight, none of them know who I am talking about when I say Bettany hughs is fine.

Reasons Voice
12 years ago

I'm not that impressed with her. Just a moderately pretty face attached to a rehash of the same old.

12 years ago

Hey you guys, leave my Bettany alone. If she needs to be disciplined I'll take care of it. Phwoaar!!!

12 years ago

History is what it is. Civilizations either learn form it or perish from ignorance and not heeding History's lessons.

The lovely little progressive does however fail to reveal what the final blow to that Democracy was. Today we call it Entitlements for which they all democratically voted.

12 years ago

I don't like that women, she's kinda stupid and petty. :/
No one "whitewashed" greek history, we just acknowlege that in the historic context greece was astounding, of course if you choose to equate it with modern ethics...well surprise they don't pass our challenge. We ARE however all aware that they did kill & conquer and yes they did persecute people, so what. That woman seems to intentionally depict ancient european times as despicible, then again thats just from our point of view. Easy to criticise the past, instead of highlighting the achievments.

I just HATE that she solely concentrates on the negative aspects, the only good points are anecdotel. Disgusting.

12 years ago

Oh no... not another Bettany Hughes soft porn ancient history documentary.

Bettany gets the viewer excited with the promise of an orgasmic shower of ancient knowledge only to provide a tepid squirt of interesting tit-bits.

Bettany provides the promise of sex and delivers a fast and fleeting, fuzzy feeling that lacks in passion and content.

Pre-pubescent-pornographic-powder-puff aside - 7 out of 10

Yes I am a horrible man for associate porn with the lovely Ms Hughes:)