Channel 4’s digital channel More4 has kicked off a juicy seven-week series of documentaries fronted by historian Bettany Hughes. The Ancient World began on Wednesday 24 March with a new film about Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Hughes travelled to Egypt in search of the city’s ancient origins, delved beneath the streets and explored the sunken ruins that are all that remain of what was once the largest city in the world.
Alexandria is one of the world’s greatest ancient cities. It’s a hugely fascinating place and a topic ripe for exploration. For centuries it was a centre of science and learning. Its lighthouse was once one of the SevenWonders of the World (see if you can pinpoint where the others are in this fun online game), and was even taller than the Great Pyramid.
As Hughes explains in her film, Alexandrian scientists were the first to accurately chart the movements of the planets and suggest that the Earth travelled around the sun. They measured the circumference of the Earth using nothing more than pure mathematical theory and a bunch of sticks, and developed the astrolabe, which interpreted the movements of the stars for navigation.
The cast of characters in the documentary reads like a whos who of the ancient world, from famous figures such as Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, to the Greek general Ptolemy and the female mathematician and philosopher Hypatia played by Rachel Weisz in the upcoming feature film Agora, which also charts the rise of St Cyril and the eventual downfall of Alexandria, culminating in the destruction of its legendary library.
Bettany Hughes – The Face of TV History
Channel 4/More4 excel at these types of documentaries and Bettany Hughes has emerged in recent years as the face of ancient world programming. Previous credits include The Seven Ages of Britain, which screened on Channel 4 in 2003.
Oxford-educated Hughes is currently a research fellow at Kings College London. Her enthusiastic and thoughtful presenting style makes her an ideal tour guide to the ancient world (her brother, incidentally, is TV cricket pundit Simon Hughes who brings a similarly insightful perspective to his field of interest).
The Ancient World is more a season, rather than a series. If you havent caught Bettany Hughess programmes before, it helpfully brings them together for the first time. The run includes her 2004 series The Minoans, charting the history of Bronze Age society on Crete, and her 2005 film Helen of Troy, which accompanied her critically acclaimed book of the same name.
Fans of the bloody sword-and-sandals caper 300, starring Gerard Butler, might also want to check out Hughess three-part film The Spartans. Director Zack Snyder has cited this documentary as a key inspiration for 300, and Hughes was interviewed for the making of feature on the 300 DVD.
Other programmes in the Ancient World Season include Athens: The Truth about Democracy and When the Moors Ruled in Europe, covering Islamic rule in Spain and Portugal.
In total, the seven-week season spans around 3,000 years of history no mean feat for one historian and constitutes pretty much required viewed for anyone with a passing interest in the ancient world. Which, if youre reading this, is probably you…
The Ancient World Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
- 24 March – Alexandria: The Greatest City
- 31 March – Engineering Ancient Egypt
- 7 April – The Minoans
- 14 April – Helen of Troy
- 21 April – The Spartans (three-part series)
- 28 April – Athens: The Truth About Democracy (two-part series)
- 5 May – When the Moors Ruled in Europe
Let us know in the comment box below what you think of the series as it progresses, and check our publications section for more books and DVDs about the ancient world. If you’d like to review these programmes or any books or films for us, contact us and let us know.