For more than a century, the Greeks of Athens had it all -- power, prestige, wealth. Then, just as quickly, they lost it all, leaving the world one essential legacy -- the democratic principles upon which much of modern civilization is based.
"The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization" focuses on a roughly 200-year period, from the birth of Cleisthenes in 570 B.C. to the death of Socrates in 399 B.C. While that represents only a portion of ancient Greek history -- the Olympics, for example, date back to 776 B.C. -- there's no disputing that the events of the period would change the course of world history.
What emerges tonight is a story with all the earmarks of Greek tragedy, a story of wise and powerful men who didn't know when to stop. It's a story that never wants for drama and, save for some cheesy re-enactments that we could do without, does justice to its subject.
For two centuries, what began as the tiny city-state of Athens ruled as the dominant power of the eastern Mediterranean. But, like many great powers, Athens' reach eventually exceeded its grasp. Persuaded by its leaders to make one more lunge for power, Athens was badly defeated.
But in its defeat, "The Greeks" tells us, Athens found ultimate victory, transforming itself into a society where thought and reflection were valued more than muscle and force.
The story of the greatness of Athens begins with Cleisthenes, a member of the nobility who, after having once been knocked from power, reappears in 508 B.C. with an intriguing notion: Let ordinary citizens have a say in how they are governed. The first third of "The Greeks" tells us his story.
The second third deals with Themistocles, a great military general who realized that the surest way to power for Athens was the building of a great navy. The citizenry agreed, and the result was a vast fleet that was able to defeat the powerful Persians. This led to the rule of Pericles, a charismatic leader who ordered the building of the Parthenon and led Athens to its glory days.
The final third of "The Greeks" tells of Pericles' downfall. Perhaps convinced of his infallibility, he led Athens in a war against Sparta, with disastrous results. But, thanks to the wisdom of Socrates, who championed the rule of reason and loved nothing better than to question authority (a predilection that would lead to his eventual execution), the legacy of Athens would involve far more than military battles won and lost.
Of course, the storytellers responsible for tonight's program have a problem: how to tell this tale in a way that keeps the average person (who may very well find Socrates the only recognizable name in tonight's narrative) interested. There are no photographs to display and no war veterans -- or even descendants of war veterans -- to interview. Even the buildings that remain from the period are in ruin.
The method they use to tell the story is a mixture of narration (from Liam Neeson), occasional readings of eyewitness accounts (mostly from the Greek historian Herodotus), period artwork and talking heads (mostly university professors).
Even if the result doesn't rank with the great PBS ancient history series, it makes a convincing argument for Athens' position as the crucible of democracy -- and as the precursor of every democratic society since, including our own.
It started with ...
What: "The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization"
When: 8-10: 30 tonight
Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67
In brief: Lively history, but about those re-enactments ...