The History of Ancient Greece in 18 Minutes: A Brisk Primer Narrated by Brian Cox

Ancient Greece nev­er exist­ed. Before you click away, fear­ing a tru­ly brazen attempt at his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism, let’s put that state­ment in con­text. Ancient Greece “was no state with an estab­lished bor­der or cap­i­tal, but rather a mul­ti­tude of dis­tinct and com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent cities.” So says the video above, “Ancient Greece in 18 Min­utes,” which makes his­tor­i­cal cor­rec­tions — and often humor­ous ones — to that and a vari­ety of oth­er com­mon mis­per­cep­tions about per­haps the main civ­i­liza­tions to give rise to West­ern cul­ture as we know it.

“We might think we already know every­thing about Ancient Greece,” says the video’s nar­ra­tor, actor Bri­an Cox. “The Parthenon, the 300 Spar­tans, and blind Home­r’s Ili­ad and Odyssey are famil­iar to all, yet there were far more than 300 Spar­tans, the Parthenon was actu­al­ly built as a kind of cen­tral bank, and no such uni­fied state as ancient Greece, with Athens as its cap­i­tal, ever exist­ed.”

Some of our unwar­rant­ed intel­lec­tu­al con­fi­dence about Ancient Greece sure­ly comes from the movies that draw on its his­to­ry and its sto­ries, such as the com­ic-book Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae drama­ti­za­tion 300 or, a cou­ple years ear­li­er, Troy, which deliv­ered Home­r’s Ili­ad in true Hol­ly­wood fash­ion — with Cox him­self as Agamem­non, com­man­der of the unit­ed Greek forces in the Tro­jan War.

That nine-year long siege, of course, fig­ures into “Ancient Greece in 18 Min­utes” as one of its most impor­tant episodes. The oth­er chap­ters cov­er the Cre­to-Myce­naean era that pre­ced­ed Ancient Greece, the bar­bar­ian attacks that plunged the region into a 400-year dark age, the Archa­ic Peri­od that saw the begin­ning of Greece’s far-flung agri­cul­ture-dri­ven col­o­niza­tion, the rise of the famous Athens and Spar­ta, the Grae­co-Per­sian Wars (as seen, in a sense, in 300), the Gold­en Age of Athens (the age of the con­struc­tion of the Parthenon, with­out which “the Greek clas­sics would­n’t have exist­ed at all: no sculp­ture, dra­ma, phi­los­o­phy”), the Pelo­pon­nesian War, and the time of Alexan­der the Great.

Alexan­der the Great died young in 323 BC, and Ancient Greece as we con­ceive of it today is thought not to have sur­vived him. But in anoth­er sense, it not only sur­vived but thrived: the Romans con­quered Greece in 146 BC, but “Greek cul­ture was vic­to­ri­ous even here: spread by the Romans, it final­ly con­quered the world. Romans began to read The Ili­ad and Odyssey in Greek, fol­lowed by the Greek New Tes­ta­ment.” (You can find out much more about the Romans in the same cre­ators’ video “Ancient Rome in 20 Min­utes.”) When in 330 the Roman emper­or Con­stan­tine built his new cap­i­tal on the site of the Greek colony of Byzan­tium, he start­ed the Byzan­tine Empire, “which extend­ed the life of Greek cul­ture anoth­er thou­sand years.” This left a for­mi­da­ble cul­tur­al lega­cy of its own — includ­ing, as this Russ­ian-made video makes a spe­cial point of telling us, “the weird Russ­ian alpha­bet.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­to­ry: A Free Online Course from Yale

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

Ancient Greek Pun­ish­ments: The Retro Video Game

Con­cepts of the Hero in Greek Civ­i­liza­tion (A Free Har­vard Course)

The Gold­en Age of Ancient Greece Gets Faith­ful­ly Recre­at­ed in the New Video Game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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