May 17, 2015



Please don't go by the name. This three part documentary with a total run time of over 150 minutes, published by PBS as a part of its 'Empire series' in 1999 chronicles the rise and the eventually fall of the Athenian Empire during the 5th and 4th century BC. While it is true that this city state was the epicenter of the great Greek civilization, one cannot afford to ignore the contribution made by the likes of Argos, Corinth, Macedonia and of course - Sparta (whose popularity has soared post the release of the hit Hollywood movie '300' and its sequel) in the development of this unique culture. If you can overlook this minor thing, something that I strongly recommend you to, I can guarantee you that by the end of it, you will be left spellbound. Not only the content, in fact the manner in which the documentary has been presented is something that is unique and enchanting at the same time.

Each part of the series narrates a phase of Athenian history through the stories of the personalities who played an integral role during that time. It is through the lives of these men that the viewer is given a broad socio-political perspective of ancient Athens and made aware of how this rather nondescript coastal town became the 'crowning glory' of contemporary Mediterranean, carved an empire of its own and finally fell following a disastrous war with its rival - Sparta, all within the span of few decades. Though the Athenian domination of the region might have been short-lived, it continues to be one of the few places wherein the every foundation of modern Western Civilization was laid; in fact, it is the crucible from which a large number of modern policies and belief emerged.

Titled 'The Revolution', the first episode recounts the story of how Democracy - Athens' greatest gift to mankind was established in the city state following the rule of several tyrants and the uprising of the masses against the aristocratic class that had been dominating the society. It was Cleisthenes - the aristocrat who sided with the common people and laid the foundation of an experiment that would make the city, the greatest power in the whole of Greece and usher in an unprecedented growth in trade, arts, craft and learning.

In the next episode - Golden Age, as the Persians under Darius the Great mount an invasion of Greece to destroy the fledgling economy of Athens, the nascent democracy stands tall and beats back the invaders even as the Spartans refuse to come to their rescue. Themistocles, a by-product of the Athenian democracy convinces his citizens to build a strong navy that hands the Persians a disastrous defeat in the naval battle in the Strait of Salamis a decade later. It is on account of their naval supremacy that Athens manage to build a mighty empire in the Mediterranean region and prosper. Pericles who is elected as the leader of Athens sometime later begins the construction of Parthenon in honour of the city's patron Goddess Athena, which serves till date as the very symbol of ancient Greece.

In the final episode titled Empire of Mind, Pericles engulfs Athens in a do or die war against Sparta to become the preeminent power in contemporary Greece that ends in complete failure and destroys the very empire that the city had built in the last century. It is during the time of this 30 year conflict that Socrates, arguably the world's first and greatest philosopher moves around in Athens questioning the very tenets that Greek thought, society and religion were based upon. At the end of the war, as Athenians are looking for some scapegoat to put the blame of their defeat, Socrates is condemned to death and executed. However, his refusal to budge even in face of death makes him a role model; though Athens loses its political prestige to Sparta, Corinth and Macedonia in the coming years, it retains its position as the city of learning for centuries.

The whole series has been narrated by the actor Liam Neeson who essayed the main role in the movie Schindler's List and he has done a very good job. The cinematography of Greek monuments, the shoreline and the countryside in general is beautiful. The script is solid, especially the last 15 minutes of the final episode when Neeson explains how in spite of losing its political dominance Athens became the seat of thought and learning in the Greek world is fantastic and how his death changed the notion of Greek heroes forever. It makes one look upon Socrates as a 'martyr' who changed the very dimensions of contemporary thinking by questioning and criticizing existing beliefs and traditions. Though I had read a little about Socrates earlier, the final episode made me realize how great a man he truly was and why he is considered as the father of 'Free Modern Thinking'. Perhaps, the best thing that this series gave me personally was a new hero to look upon: SOCRATES