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.”
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.