Terry Ramsey reviews episode one of Who Were the Greeks?, a documentary series in which Classical historian Michael Scott examines how the culture of the ancient Greeks spread across the world.
By Terry Ramsey
Who Were the Greeks? (BBC Two) was one of those documentaries that flatters to deceive: it sounded serious and promised to inform and educate, and thanks to the telegenic smoothness of its presenter, Dr Michael Scott, it even left the impression it had done just that. Until the credits had rolled, when you were left to wonder: what exactly do I know about the Greeks?
That they had wars? Yep. That they invented the gym? Yep. That they enjoyed sex in its many varieties? Yep. That they had slaves? Yep. And didn't everyone know all this already? Er, yep.
Who Were the Greeks? was the first part of a new two-episode series in which Dr Scott sets out to tell us what Ancient Greece contributed to the world.
Of course they have given us a lot: language, literature, culture, philosophy, architecture and much more. Plenty of good stuff for Dr Scott to run at, you'd think. Except that he passed over these achievements and instead decided to give things a tabloid spin by telling us that beneath the veneer of culture, the Ancient Greeks indulged in "alien, unsettling and sometimes downright outrageous customs and beliefs". How fascinating. Tell us more.
Well, first he revealed that far from being philosophical souls, the Greeks actually loved a battle. Before we could protest that this was not a surprise (they controlled the Western world for centuries, and you don't do that just by wondering why the sun comes up each morning), he was sampling a revolting pigs' blood broth eaten by warriors.
But these tales of fighting and food were just curtain raisers for the stories about sex. By today's reckoning, the Greeks had wanton sex lives but, Dr Scott explained, there were strict rules to their wantonness. For example, Athens law said husbands had to have sex with their wives at least three times a month. But men also went to the ancient gym, where they all exercised naked, and it was permissible for older men to have liaisons with very young boys. The rules said these relationships had to end by the time the boy acquired "down on the chin" – which is pretty shocking by modern standards.
Dr Scott's day job is as a deputy professor at the University of Warwick, which is no surprise because with his casual style, black shirts, shoulder bag and hippy wristbands, he looks like Central Casting's vision of a trendy lecturer in a BBC Two drama. However, he comes across as genial, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, if a little bit too determined at times to be a heart-throb TV presenter (all those sincere looks into the camera get a bit wearing). This opener was a mixed bag that trotted lightly over its topics. But would I return for episode two? Only under the influence of one of the Greeks' other gifts to civilisation: ouzo.
Source: The Telegraph, 27 June 2013