BBC4 Programme on the History of Theatre and Ancient Greece.

Taormina in Sicily

Taormina’s spectacular theatre  in Sicily

Michael Scott’s latest programme on Ancient Greece is a fascinating exploration of the twinned birth of democracy and the theatre in late 6th and early 5th century B.C. Greece. Don’t be put off by its title though. The Greatest Show on Earth is, happily, significantly better than that would suggest.

In the first of the three episodes, he explains how the birth of theatre came about for exactly the same reasons that the Athenians triumphed so unexpectedly at the battle of Marathon in 490. Because the democratic reforms in the Athenian constitution in the previous decades gave each of its citizens a sense of pride, of ownership and eventually entitlement.

Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

Crucially though the theatres that they now began building – having invented architecture as well – fulfilled two functions. It was where the conflict between the ethics of power and personal morality could be explored by tragedy’s  great triumvirate, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. But it was also, literally, the arena in which democracy physically took place. It was in these theatres that their political debates were staged.

The second episode then looked at the 4th century, after Athens had fallen, laid low by its disastrous expedition to Sicily. It explored the way in which theatre then came to be exported by Alexander with the spread of Hellenism, as Greek culture came to conquer the world. And how paradoxically, at least as far as its relationship to Athens was concerned, its theatre became ever so slightly impoverished. In that it ceased to address the concerns of Athens, and became instead a universal medium.

This is another of Scott’s superb programmes on Greece, after this summer’s Who Were The Greeks. And he managed to assemble a particularly impressive group of academics to help explore the topics raised. Notably Paul Cartledge, who is one of the movers behind the excellent series of webinars under the Reading Odyssey umbrella, here. And Robin Osborne, whose Greece in the Making 1200-479 is, quite rightly, the first book that any Classics’ student is pointed in the direction of.

Michael Scott.

Michael Scott.

Try not be put off by that incredibly irritating title though. The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t quite as annoying as the one he gave a previous programme on Alexander, the execrable Ancients Behaving Badly. Hopefully he’ll reign in his tendency to saddle his programmes with twee attempts at riding the popular Zeitgeist. Because titles aside, he’s fast establishing himself as the BBC’s most engaging and informative voice on Ancient Greece.

Episode 3 is on Tuesday next. And you can visit his website here.

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