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Athens: The Truth About Democracy

Bettany 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.


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?


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