Thursday, 19 January 2017

Sicily - melting pot of the Mediterranean - BBC TWO 31st Jan 2017 9pm

Following hot on the heels of Italy's Invisible Cities on BBC One, my new series on BBC Two starts on Tuesday 31st Jan 9pm. Sicily: wonder of the Mediterranean.

The subject of this two part series is the island of Sicily.  From treading grapes in an ancient wine press, scrambling across a 20ft Lava wall on mount Etna, reciting Shakespeare in an ancient Greek theatre, excavating child bones from a possible human sacrifice, salt mining old-fashioned style, having a cut throat shave from an 80 year local barber, trying my hand at Sicilian martial art of stick-fighting, making puppets and chocolate and exploring the underground Arab aqueducts of Palermo, we travel across the length and breadth of this extraordinary island.

We look at its history from the Neolithic through to the present day, and along the way ask two key questions. First what does it mean to be Sicilian - especially to the people we meet along the way. And second what can we learn from Sicily in the 21st century?

The answer to the first question is so fascinating because Sicily - probably more than any other part of Europe - has been subject to so many invasions and waves of migration over the centuries. From the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, to finally becoming part of Italy only with the unification of Italy in 1860. As such its people feel themselves a real melting pot of cultures. Everywhere you turn in Sicily you see remnants of each of these different cultures - from the Greek temples and theatres across the island to the Arab Balaro markets in Palermo to the Norman Palatine chapel to the jail cells of the Spanish inquisition.

And even more interestingly, you also see the more unique creations of the interactions of all these different worlds - like the Duomo in Syracuse which is still today part Greek temple, part Church, and was once an Arab mosque. Or in the food which today screams 'Sicily' - like granita (Sicilian ice-cream) introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in the 9-10th centuries.

And we also explore the extraordinary spaces possible it seems only in sicily - like the Capucin catacombs, where hundreds of mummified bodies are displayed proudly. Every Sicilian we spoke to feels proud of this mix of cultures in their blood and in their island, but at the same time every Sicilian feels differently about what being Sicilian really means.

And what can we learn from Sicily in the 21st century? In 2016, the British Museum, the Ashmolean museum hosted exhibitions on Sicily - and the BBC commissioned a series on it. Sicily seems to speak to us right now. And it's not hard to see why. Given Europe is facing its biggest migration 'crisis' since World War II, Sicily is the island with the most experience of living with migration over the centuries and an ideal place in which to think about and examine its effects. Especially since Sicily is once again at the forefront of this current migration movement - with its coast guard operating daily to rescue migrants from the sea fleeing the coast of Libya and bringing them back for processing to Lampedusa and Sicily. So what is Sicily's answer, given its long experience? We spoke to Leoluca Orlando - mayor of Palermo - who argued that Sicily, more than ever, was offering its arms open and welcome. "Welcome" as he put it "was the best guarantee of safety" especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks in London, Paris and Brussels.

Of course Sicily has not always been the safest place. Think Sicily and we think the Mafia - particularly the Godfather. There are 'godfather tour' buses around Sicily taking in the sights used in the famous trilogy film. We visited Bar Vitelli - which still keeps the exact same look as in the film to speak to its current owners about what the Mafia means in Sicily today.

It still clearly exists, and has power, but it has lost its sheen of 'honour' that once cloaked its activities in a form of macho Mediterranean respectability. We spoke to those who have lost family members in Mafia killings and who now dedicate their lives to ensuring the Mafia don't ever claim the same kind of power again. Sicily is not done with the Mafia. But it is beginning to link its attitude to its internal problems with its attitude to the outside world. As the Mayor of Palermo put it - a 'closed' Sicily is one in which the Mafia flourished - and could again. An 'open' one helps continue their transition to be 'ordinary' criminals.

I have been fascinated by this journey through Sicily - from the warmth of the people and the way in which we have been welcomed, to the kaleidoscopic amounts of history and culture that is crammed into this island (the largest in the Mediterranean). It's often said that Sicilians have a sadness about that - that comes from the centuries of invasions and conquests. But we did not find that - we found an optimism about what Sicily has achieved and can achieve in the future. And that makes it a great example for Europe and the world in the 21st century. 

Monday, 2 January 2017

Italy's Invisible Cities - Naples, Venice, Florence - BBC 1 starting 4th Jan 2017

Xander Armstrong and I are back on BBC 1 starting this Wednesday 4th January with a new series: Italy's Invisible Cities. Together we are exploring Naples (4th Jan 9pm), Venice (11th Jan 9pm) and Florence (1st Feb 9pm).

These are cities close to my heart: Naples is a place I have been too many times as a gateway to the wonderful archaeology and ancient history of the region. Venice I have family in and so am a frequent visitor. And Florence - well I lived in Florence for a while when I was 18-19 and it was where I first learnt Italian - so the place is full of memories for me.

But in each case in making these programmes, I felt I was discovering these cities afresh. Naples perhaps was the most startling - a place people often pass through rather than spend time in, it is filled with an infectious energy that sweeps you up and carries you along. That energy comes from, I think, the fact that the people of Naples are long used to living on a geothermal hotplate (the Campei Flegrei - the Burning Fields) and so are very used to the mentality that each day could be their last (the motto of the region is Carpe Diem - seize the day!) Wherever you go in Naples beauty and danger are two sides of the same coin and it is a beguiling combination! It also led to some very bizarre experiences: like coming across this 1930s taxi (see pic below) - buried in the Bourbon tunnels underneath Naples having been confiscated by the Fascists! And equally a chance for me to scuba dive and discover the remains of a beautiful Roman villa floor mosaic (see pic too!)

Venice on the other hand is a testament to humanity ingenuity and ability to survive and thrive in unlikely locations. The photo at the top of this post is of Xander and I standing in the mud of a Venetian lagoon island that has not yet been built on - this IS Venice (or at least how the first settlers in the 6th century found it). And from that has arisen the unique city of Venice today - thanks to a number of invisible magic tricks we uncover in the series. The picture below is me scuba diving in a venetian canal in search of one of them... as you can see, visibility was an issue as we hunted in the murky depths for the secret of Venice's success and survival!

They called the city 'la Serenissima' - the 'Most Serene' But there was nothing serene about Venetian power and naval might in the 11th-16th centuries. Venice was THE gateway from Europe to the East and reveled in the trade and plunder that it got involved in - you only need to look at the front of St Marks to see how Venice liked to show off the wares it has brought back to the city.

Florence is also a serene looking city. When I was living there, it was a delight to wonder its streets, gaze along the Arno river and let time slip away sitting in a cafe. But what we discovered on this trip below was the frantic competition and rivalry that flowed underneath its serene countenance - competition that was on-going at every level of Florentine society.

For me the big revelation was seeing the tiny traces of this street level competition still present in the Florentine landscape - e.g. small markers on building in squares denoting the territory of rival gangs, and the plaques with the titles that the leaders of these gangs gave themselves. Titles like 'Royal King' - and they took other gang leaders to court if they tried to use the same title! From this, through to the 'calcio storico' - a football/rugby combo with no rules (bar dont kick the other person in the face) that is played between the different sectors of the city (see the photo below of the players after the match - they had all been wearing tops at the beginning but they got ripped to sheds in the wrestling tackles); to the dark power politics of the city's leadership - particularly the Medici family who executed 80 people following a conspiracy against them.

Throughout the programmes, we were working with the scanning team ScanLabs who were mapping the cities in 3D laser scans, as well as underwater scanning. Awesome work from them meant we - and you - are able to experience these cities in Virtual Reality. Here's Xander and I with the team in Florence overlooking the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio

Hope you enjoy the series - and don't forget to let me know your thoughts by completing a quick 2 min questionaire at  - many thanks! M

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ancient Worlds - An Epic History of East and West - Out This Week!

My new book Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West is published this week Friday 1st July with Penguin Random House. To order a copy on Amazon, click here:

I will be giving talks about the book at Literary Festivals around the country over Summer and Autumn 2016. For the list see my website here:

Over the past decade working on the cultures of Greece and Rome, I have been constantly struck by how much these communities owed to interaction with those outside the Mediterranean. Often extremely far outside the Mediterranean. And in turn by how far Greeks and Romans got in their exploration of the much wider ancient world.

And yet its clear that such inter-connections between cultures are rarely the focus of study within Classics departments, and certainly not within school curricula. The way our world of research, study and learning is set up actively indeed inhibits it: we learn things in departments, subjects, isolated pools of knowledge.

During the 20th century, the global / world history has attempted to offer a home for those who want precisely to study the connections between cultures. Much of that study has focused on more modern eras, when communication and interaction between worlds happened on a regular basis (how many times do we hear the term "globalised world" today? ) But it can equally be usefully applied to the ancient world. Ivory from an Asian elephant has recently been found in a Neolithic workshop in Spain dating to 4500 years ago - connections between cultures is very old indeed...

My new book seeks to dovetail with Peter Frankopan's great recent book Silk Roads. In it, he discusses how these well known arteries of trade and interaction operated through to the present day. In Ancient Worlds, I look at how that era of continual connectivity came into being - what happened to make the Silk Roads possible. The book covers three main (and for me key) moments in that story. The first in the 6th century BCE, when revolutionary political thinking is unfolding in the Mediterranean in Athens and Rome, as well as in China. While China and the Med were not at this stage directly connected, this comparative approach shows how each society was dealing in many ways with similar challenges and searching for appropriate solutions - solutions which are still very much part of out political world today.

The second key moment is in the late 3rd century BCE, when from the Med to China, warfare was reshaping worlds, leading to the creation of the great Roman and Han empires in the east and the west, and forging the connections between their worlds in central Asia. Within a single lifetime, the first event to be recorded in both eastern and western histories occurred in central Asia: the invasion of Greco-Bactria by nomadic eastern migratory tribes. It was on the back of connections such as these that the trading Silk Roads were laid.

The third key moment is when these trading arteries in turn became transporters of ideas - particularly religious ideas. In the 4th century CE, Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, into Africa and into Asia. Buddhism spread out of India and central Asia to China to become an official accepted religion. And from the Med to China, ruling powers were all attempting to grapple with religion, and mold religious change, in order to help strengthen their rule.

For me, the story of gathering connectivity in the ancient world is an important one to be telling right now. We may have just voted to leave the EU, but we cannot deny the globalised nature of the world in which we live. From an educational standpoint, there has been much rhetoric in the UK in recent years of this as a threat ('the rest of the world is getting better than us'... 'thanks to the threat of the globalised world we have to improve our educational standards if we are to survive' etc). Much more positive I think is that offered by OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA seeks to measure how well 15 years olds are prepared to meet the challenges of today's societies. And in 2018, PISA will be asking member countries how well it prepares students to be "globally competent".

By that it means how well are students able to analyse global and intercultural issues, understand how difference affects perception, judgement and ideas and how well they are able to engage in open and effective interaction with others from different cultures.

That feels to me like a much more positive take on what being a global citizen in a globalised society should be about. And it is in that vein that I hope Ancient Worlds can be a useful tool. What it makes clear is how much we have always owed to interaction with one another, and how, both as a result of direct connection and as a result of the similarities in societal development, we more often than not face the same difficulties and issues as one another. And in the future, when the world is likely to be challenged by a number of issues that affect us all equally (climate change, disease etc), that shared respect for human dignity, interaction and at the most fundamental level, the human condition, seems to me to be essential.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Quizeum - coming soon to BBC4!

This great new Quiz show - hosted by Griff Rhys Jones - is coming soon to BBC4. Quizeum is a quiz in a museum - showcasing the incredible objects that are in our regional museums. Each show comes from a different museum and the panelists vary each week reflecting the nature of the museum's collection.

It was great fun to be part of the Ashmolean Museum episode, along with my team mate Janina Ramirez, and Lars Tharp and Kate Williams (our rivals for the glory of the Quizeum crown -boo, hiss!;))) We had a fantastic day hunting through the fabulous collections of the Ashmolean on treasure hunts with cryptic clues, having to come up with stories around some of the wierdest objects I have ever seen, and being treated to a snap shot of some of the Ashmolean's great treasures - some of which, as you will see, made most of the panel blush, cough, splutter and yes even we were lost for words!

This is not a programme simply about connoisseurship or the ability to identify objects from every period of history (now there's a scary thought)... rather it's a programme about the stories and ideas and thoughts that objects inspire among a group of people who between them have a huge range of collective experience in all periods of history - with a good dose of competition and team rivalry thrown in! And above all - a fun way to spend time in a museum and with the objects of our rich and varied human past.

Watch the trailer here:

Coming soon to BBC4! 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Invisible Rome - like you have never seen it before! Coming soon to BBC 1.

In this new documentary for BBC1 (and BBC Worldwide), I team up with ‘Pointless’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’ host Xander Armstrong to investigate the invisible world of underground Rome. 

Our mission was to find, access and investigate the spaces that were underground even in ancient Rome – through man hole covers in roads, hidden doorways, secret spiraling staircases –  abseiling down 20 metre tunnels, climbing down rickety old step ladders and scrambling on our hands and knees. With us as our guides were members of Rome’s Underground Archaeology Unit, whose job it is to find and investigate these hidden gems of ancient Rome. 

What kind of spaces did we find? Underground ancient Roman quarries that, when plotted on a map make Rome look like a Swiss Cheese. Underground aqueducts that carried up to a billion litres of water a day into Rome. The Cloaca Maxima ‘ the Great Drain’ of Rome that is still an operating sewer today, having been in use for roughly 2500 years. The myriad of catacombs for Rome’s dead, and the secret spaces of its underground religious cults, not to mention the underground labyrinth of tunnels and spaces that powered some of ancient Rome’s most important and famous monuments like the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracella.

Accompanying us was a team of 3D laser scanners (ScanLAB Projects), whose job it was to map these incredible and often confusing underground spaces in more detail than ever before using the latest cutting edge technology. The results of their work are absolutely stunning, allowing us to understand the relationship between spaces above and below ground, as well as to open us these very difficult to access places to fine-grain archaeological investigation by scholars based all over the world. 

This was a difficult programme to make, working in difficult and often dangerous spaces: I have never had to don so many layers of protective clothing, hard hats, and waterproofs for a programme before! We journey from the freezing crystal clear waters of Rome’s underground aqueducts to the foul smelling and excrement festooned environment of its sewers, via the claustrophobic worm-like tunnels of its underground tufo quarries to the rabbit-warren of catacomb tunnels in which you can get lost in an instant. 

What did we learn? For me, this programme offered more than an opportunity to see some of ancient Rome’s hidden secrets. It was a chance to get to grips with some of the unsung spaces, without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people, and without which it may never have grown to become such an extraordinary city at the centre of such a formidable empire. 

Join us – Xander on his vespa and me in my Lancia Flavia while we are above ground at least – for a journey of discovery into Rome’s arteries, veins, lungs and bowels – and in doing so understand why Rome was at the centre of a perfect storm: blessed with extraordinary natural and geological resources, armed with a spirit of invention and determination to push the boundaries of possibility, and ready to exploit its own human resources to the max to create a city which we still wonder at today, and which occupies an incredible place in our story board of human history.


Monday, 8 December 2014

Roman Britain from the Air on ITV - 23rd December 8pm!

As you settle in for Christmas (or if we were in ancient Rome, we would be enjoying the festival of Saturnalia!), I hope you can take a moment to watch my new programme on ITV co-presented with Christine Bleakley - Roman Britain From the Air - on 23rd December at 8pm.

Filmed this past summer, Christine and  I jumped into helicopters to zoom around the UK to see some of the most famous Roman landmarks here in Britain: in London, at Caerleon in Wales and along Hadrian's Wall. The key idea was to marry up the amazing sense of perspective and context you can get from a bird's eye view with some of the latest findings on the ground - and in the case of Hadrian's Wall and the nearby fort of Vindolanda with stuff only just emerging from the ground in the excavations going on as we were filming.

Over the course of the filming, we worked with a great team of archaeologists who have spent years working on their particular sites and what I loved was that, when we took them up with us in the helicopters, they too felt they had gained a new level of understanding about the sites they already knew so well.

What are my favourite memories from the filming? Finding parts of the wall of the Roman city of Londinium I never knew existed - especially in the NCP London Wall car park between bays 52 and 54, just sitting there in amongst the cars and motorbikes!

But also the stunning views when you walk a stretch of Hadrian's wall - and we were even honoured with a rainbow!

And of course the chance to excavate at Vindolanda with Andrew Birley - the current director of excavations. What we found was, for me, simply breathtaking - but you will have to watch the programme to find out more!

What I took away from the programme was an enhanced understanding of a crucial aspect of the Roman interaction with Britain. We think about them marching all over the place, conquering, killing and forcing locals to live under their control. But time and again on our journey around Roman Britain we found that the story was much more complicated and interesting than that. Take Roman London - which began life not as a Roman military fort, but as the natural organic choice of traders and merchants as a fantastic base from which to do business. Or the town of Caerwent in Wales, built by the Romans for the local Welsh tribes to live in following the initial conquest, with its mix of Roman and British architecture, and new mixed Romano-British gods worshiped in its temples. Or take Vindolanda on Hadrian's wall with its pan-European population of Roman auxiliary troops, local tribes living nearby and benefiting from plenty of trading north and south of the wall itself. We used to talk about the 'Romanisation of Britain' - and of course the Romans did bring many of their own ways of doing things to our shores (including introducing cabbage - my least favourite veg - thanks Romans!) - but they also adapted and adopted numerous local British ideas and traditions; and the people living in Britain over the 4 centuries or so of Roman 'rule' created their own new dynamic Roman-British culture, which many clung to long after the Romans no longer considered Britain part of their Empire, and which still influences our country so much today.

For more info on the programme, see the ITV Press centre:

And on my website:

Friday, 7 November 2014

Spin the Globe returns to Radio 4!

The second series of Spin the Globe - my BBC Radio 4 history series - returns to the airwaves next Tuesday 11th November at 4pm (and on Tuesday 18th November and 25th November at the same time).

The concept of the series is simple. We all learn about famous dates in history - they are drummed into our heads from school onwards. But have you ever stopped to wonder what else was happening in different parts of the world at the same time? Spin the Globe does exactly that. It takes famous dates as its starting point from which to spin the globe and find out what was going on elsewhere.

For me, this is a wonderful series to make. I am an ancient historian, and though I too have had famous dates from throughout history banged into my head, I have little idea what was going on elsewhere at those times. Making the series is thus for me a journey of discovery. And in doing so, the production team and I get to speak with academics from around the world who can tell us what was happening in their particular area of specialisation at any one time. By bringing these people together, we can construct a story of the world at any one given moment, and watch as themes and ideas emerge from taking such a global perspective.

In this series, we are focusing on three dates. First up is 1485 - made famous by the death of King Richard III of England on the battlefield at Bosworth - the last English King to die in Battle. We speak to Philipa Langley, who headed up the Looking for Richard project responsible for finding his body in Leicester so spectacularly buried underneath a county council car park. But we also spin the globe to find out what was happening in Muscovite Russia in 1485 - when Ivan III - Ivan the Great - was on the war path, and and in Aztec Mexico where the Aztec Kings were being accused by Spanish explorers of practicing mass human sacrifice. 1485 was also around about the time that Leonardo da Vinci was coming up with the designs for his flying machines!

In programme 2, we turn to 1929 and the Wall Street Crash. This - as we can easily imagine - had global ramifications, often causing a deepening of independent crises ongoing in other countries - like the Rothbury miners' strike in Australia. But some countries like China were fairly insulated from the crash. And yet others were deeply embroiled in problems of their own, like Palestine where, in 1929, there was a massacre across several cities as religious tensions between Jews and Arab Muslims ignited as part of their - still very much on-going - dispute for land. And in admist all the difficulties, 1929 was the year of Hollywood's first academy awards - and the year in which the first all black cast Hollywood film was released. We went to the British Film Institute to review the promotional material published for the film (also one of the first 'talking pictures').

In programme 3, we turn to my world - the world of ancient history, and to 323 BC, the date in which King Alexander the Great died in Bablyon (in modern day Iraq), having conquered an empire that spanned from Greece to the shores of India. His interaction with India sheds light on the birth of a new empire in India at this time - the Mauryans, whereas in China, we are still in the grip of the Warring States Period in which communities were fighting for their survival, a process to end eventually about 100 years later with the emergence of one state as the ruler and unifier of China. In the west, the brave explorer Pytheas set out from Marseilles to discover Britain, whereas in sub-saharan Africa, we have a misty view of communities engaging with one another over great distances.

Spinning the Globe not only connects up disparate parts of the world at particular times, but also reminds us both of how much similarity there is in the difficulties and challenges we face as a human race, and of how much difference there is in the pace and style different communities chose to react. It also reminds us constantly of the way in which the story of history itself is always in flux: so often re-written and re-articulated by those in the past and those in our present. As George Orwell said in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four - 'who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past'