Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Spin the Globe - BBC Radio 4

We are just coming to the end of a new project for BBC Radio 4, which will air starting next Tuesday 12th November at 4pm.

It's a new departure for me in many ways. Firstly, because its radio - and I've found it a fascinating experience to work with the Radio documentaries unit at the BBC because I had never realised the extent to which radio requires you to work and think in different ways from television. It has been a joy and privilege to learn from the great Doc producers I have been working with here at the BBC - Philip Sellars, Tom Alban, Sarah Taylor, Mohini Patel and Georgia Catt.

Secondly its a new departure because very little of this series is about ancient history. Instead it focuses on dates from throughout history that I think we all have in our heads thanks to generations of school history lessons, books and commemorations: dates like 1066, 1914, 1605. Revisiting some of these moments with experts in these periods to discover what is the latest thinking has been a fruitful and thought-provoking experience.

But this series is also a new departure because it offers a new way of telling history. Rather than simply focusing on the key dates because of one event that happened in one part of the world on that date, we use that event as a jumping off point from which to spin the globe and find out what else was happening around the world at the time. I believe this offers a very useful way of thinking about our past, which we often miss out in the 'greatest hits' - or 'spot-lit' approach to learning history which is often practiced. What we get when we spin the globe is a sense of the parallel developments of different parts of the world and different civilisations, of conscious and unconscious global connections between events, ideas and characters and a more connected sense of human history.

As a result we all have a chance to learn about periods and places outside our own specialisations. That has been the real joy for me in the journey of making this series: finding and questioning experts from the British Library, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Universities and Institutes across the UK, as well as academics from across the globe currently working in Straasbourg, New York, Washington, Harvard, and Paris, not to mention backstage at Strictly Come Dancing studios! Not only is this series about global history, it feels like it is a global investigation as well, bringing experts together who are often hampered from talking to one another by departmental, geographical, national and cultural boundaries.

To hear a clip from the series:

Ep 1: Tuesday 12th November 4pm: 1605 and the Gunpowder plot
EP 2: Tuesday 19th November 4pm: 1066 and the Battle of Hastings
Ep 3: Tuesday 26th November 4pm: 1914 and the outbreak of WW1
Ep 4: Tuesday 2nd December 4pm: 4/3 BC and the life of Jesus

Len Goodman and I in his dressing room at Strictly studios; Frances Wood and I looking at manuscript copies of Sima Guang's history of China in the British Library

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth - BBC 4

The BBC have decided to show earlier than expected my new series on the origins and development of drama in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds: ANCIENT GREECE: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.

We filmed this series last August/September with a fantastic team: Keith Schofield on Camera, Rob Leveritt on sound, produced by Catherine Abbot and directed by David Wilson, along with the unswerving support of Argie and Thanasi on location in Greece, and of Maria in Italy.  Here's the team:

We filmed all across Greece, in Southern Italy and Sicily as well as in the UK. Episode 1: Democrats airs on Tuesday 27th August (9pm); Episode 2: Kings on Tuesday 3rd September (9pm); Episode 3: Kings on Tuesday 10th September (9pm).

What I am proud about above all on this series is the number of people who have contributed to making it. Above all, it was made in conjunction with the Open University, who will be using the series as part of their teaching courses in years to come: .

But equally, over the three episodes, you will see contributions from Dr Ed Bispham of Oxford Uni and the British School at Rome, Professor Oliver Taplin, Professor Edith Hall, Professor Robin Osborne, Professor Paul Cartledge, Dr Ian Ruffell, Professor Tim Whitmarsh, Professor Gesine Manuwald, Professor Mathew Leigh, Dr Rosie Wyles, Dr Soi Agelidis of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, Alessandra Zanobi and Kostas Georgospoulos. And along side all the amazing sites, we also get to work and film in my home away from home in Greece: the British School at Athens (

What you get as a result is not just access to some of latest thinking about the role and place of drama in ancient Greek and Roman society, but also a great sense of the variety of opinion and debate about how we should understand ancient drama as well as its relation to us today. Enjoy!

More info on the series available on my website:

and on the BBC:

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Mystery of Rome's X Tombs - BBC 2 Sunday 28th July 9pm

My new documentary for BBC 2 'The Mystery of Rome's X Tombs' airs this Sunday night at 9pm. 

I first heard of these tombs when researching for a chapter on Roman burials in my recent book with Cambridge University Press (Space and Society in the Greek and Roman worlds).

Named 'X' because they fall within the 'X' mapping quadrant of the Vatican's mapping system for Rome's Catacombs, they are nothing short of a real mystery.

Discovered only in 2003 following emergency salvage works in the Catacombs of St Marcellinus and St Peter in the suburbs of Rome, the Vatican called in French archaeologists specializing in mass graves. There are now about 2500 skeletons and counting!

What struck me about this investigation was its inter-disciplinary nature: archaeologists, scientists specialising in isotopic analysis of bones and teeth, carbon 14 dating and ancient DNA, as well as historians from France, Germany and Italy had come together to solve the mystery of who these people were, how they died and why they were buried in the way they were (which included the liberal use of powdered amber as well as wrapping some of the bodies up in plaster and linen a bit like an Egyptian mummy).

If you want to follow up more on the publications of the international team leading the investigation, have a look at the following:
Philippe Blanchard & Dominique Castex et al. 'A Mass Grave from the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome, second-third century AD Antiquity 81 (2007) 989-998.

There are no signs of trauma wounds on the bodies, so the best hypothesis for their death is disease. Despite the fact that ancient Rome often looks like a place of shining marble, Rome was in fact a city struggling to not sink in its own filth. It had gigantic drains (you could drive a large wagon down the biggest one), and a great system supplying water to the city, but at the same time most places were not connected directly to the drains. Everything got shoved in the street and then water was used to wash it into the drains. And when you think that at its height Rome's citizens were producing something like 50,000 kg of excrement a day......

To find out more about this aspect of living in Rome, try G. Aldrete Daily Life in the Roman City 2004

The result of this was that Rome was the perfect breeding ground for disease - have a look at Walter Scheidel Disease and Death in the Ancient City of Rome 2009.

But it was not only Rome - the Roman empire was so well connected, so cosmopolitan that it often suffered from epidemics that swept along its perfectly straight roads, the most famous of which was the Antonine Plague in the 2nd century AD. Some of the people in the X Tombs may well have died from this epidemic, which at its height was killing 2000 people a day in Rome. For more on the Antonine Plague have a look at R P Duncan-Jones 'The Impact of the Antonine Plague' Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996) 108-136.

Jerry Toner recently wrote an excellent book called Roman Disaster (2013). In it, he argued that the best way to understand a culture is to look at it when the chips are down, to examine how it responds to the disasters that befall it. What emerges from his examination of the Roman response to disasters is first how prevelant they were, but also the extent to which they were seen as an opportunity to change things. That change may have come too late for the people of the X Tombs, but it was part of the essential spirit that made the Roman world so powerful for so long. 

I'll be live tweeting during the transmission of the programme to answer your questions and comments - use #XTombs or tweet to @drmichaelcscott The film was directed and produced by Dr Paul Olding - also on twitter @drpaulolding

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Its T-3 hours to the TX of episode 1 of WHO WERE THE GREEKS on BBC 2

I've written a number of blogs to accompany the show tonight, that you can read by following the links below: :

Warwick University insite:

Warwick University knowledge centre:

But here, I wanted to offer some thoughts in the count down to the TX on my favourite moments from the series.

Without doubt, one of the greatest moment for me was working with Giovanni Verri, at the British Museum, who is using infra-red imaging technology to see the remains of coloured paint (particularly Egyptian blue) on the sculptures of the Parthenon. You can see when we conduct the test in episode 2 (to be shown next week on Thursday 4th July BBC 2 9pm) what an amazing revelation his results are. I have looked at these sculptures countless time and - there - thanks to cutting edge technology, I was seeing something that had been hidden from us for 2500 thousand years. The remains of bright Egyptian blue paint shimmering like stars in the sky.

But I also hugely enjoyed meeting and talking with Prof Stefanos Geroulanos in Athens. He is a respected professor of medicine based in Greece and Germany, but also has a passion for the ancient world and particularly for ancient medicine. I found his approach to thinking through how ancient healing sanctuaries like at Epidauros worked so refreshing.

He puts - I think rightly - a huge emphasis on the way the whole experience of visiting one of these places from beginning to end was orchestrated to put you in a positive, hopeful state of mind, as well as combining the medical skills of the priests and doctors with the strong belief in the healing powers of the gods.

My thanks go out to all those who contributed to these programmes - your enthusiasm and knowledge has been a real joy to witness!

I very much hope you all enjoy the programmes as well. I will be live tweeting during the programme, so do get in touch with your questions and comments #WWTG @drmichaelcscott.

One final thought: One of the huge benefits of my job is that I get to learn something new every day. One of the most interesting came about through the recent post-graduate colloquium organised at Warwick University by the Department of Classics' post-grad students. One of the papers was about Petrarch - the 14th Italian Humanist scholar, who was extremely important in kick-starting the study of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. And yet - as this paper demonstrated - he had been relentlessly interrogated by his family circle about the point and value of studying the ancient world! It seems that from the very beginning of this subject as a subject of study, that it has gone hand in hand with a questioning of its worth.

Many today see that as a threat. But it occurred to me that perhaps this is one of Classics' real strengths. Embedded in the study of the subject is a relentless sense of demonstrating its worth and importance, of explaining why it matters. That is a tradition that I would be very proud to think 'Who Were the Greeks?' stood within and contributed to.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Boiotia - the dancing floor of Ares!

Last week I spoke in a conference organised by a colleague Dr Sam Gartland at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The conference was focused on Boiotia in the Fourth Century BC. Professor Robin Osborne from Cambridge, my PhD supervisor, was charged with giving a response to the day's papers. In typical devil's advocate style, he challenged us to think harder about what really - if anything - made Boiotia special and different, and particularly a Boiotia of the 4th century BC.

What was Boiotia you may well ask? It was the lush and fertile central area of mainland Greece, stuck between Attica (the territory of Athens) on the one hand and the territory of Thessaly to the north. Its centrality was crucial to its history: within its territory took place many of the key battles that defined Greek history: Plataea, Tanagra, Leuctra, Chaironea (see the pic below for Chaironea battlefield today) to name but a few. Its not for nothing that it was labelled 'the dancing floor of Ares - the god of war' in the ancient sources.

But it was also a curious political animal. Made up - like much of Greece - of independent city-states (poleis) it also - in the 5th and particularly 4th centuries BC - experimented with a number of types of 'koinon' - community identity and alliance. That ranged from just the elites of each city joining together to one city (Thebes) ruling the roost to a truely democratic almost federal union of all the city-states.

And it produced some interesting characters - particularly in the 4th century. Outstanding generals like Pelopidas and  Epaminondas (whose statue is in modern Thebes' town square - see the pic), famed prostitutes like Phyrne of the city of Thespiai, as well as feared fighting units like the Sacred Band supposedly composed of 150 homosexual couples. But what were Boiotians like? Some sources talk of their gluttony. Some poke fun at the fact that they like to talk endlessly in their public meetings. Modern scholars highlight their complex sense of identity: they were from a family, but also from a city and also - depending on the state of the 'koinon' - from a wider community.

Where can you go today to come face to face with ancient Boiotians? Its notoriously difficult. One modern guidebook says Thebes is only for the 'veteran traveler'. Little has survived in comparison with Athens. But for my money, one of the best places to go is the little visited museum of Thebes - its collections are extra-ordinary, a good part of them unpublished and some not viewable anywhere except the museum. My favourite published piece is the little terracotta figure of a 'cheese-graterer' - see the pic (bit fuzzy though!)

Well worth a look if you find yourself traveling through the dancing floor of Ares. And watch this space for the published version of the conference in due course - we are slowly getting to know what made Boiotia special.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Ancient world frozen in time

We recently completed the abroad filming on my new BBC 2 series Who Were the Greeks (couple of UK filming days to come in British Museum/ Ashmolean and at the University of Warwick).

The final day's filming was in Sicily in and around Segesta and Selinus. It brought home to me what a fantastic place Sicily is to see and understand Greek art and architecture. The theatres and temples not only have often survived in much better condition - see the photos of the temple and theatre at Segesta below - but are so much bigger than what you find in Greece. Greek architecture on steroids as one passer by put it (see the photo of temple G at Selinous below)!

No wonder that schools are more and more often sending students to Sicily to help AS and A2 students get to grips with Classical Civilisation studies. I have started thinking about teaching a module at Warwick that would require a trip to Sicily... watch this space!

The gem though was the Cave di Cusa 10 km from Selinous. The Cusa Quarries - abandoned over night when the Carthaginians invaded the area in 409 BC. The workers literally dropped tools and never returned. They left a world frozen in time.

What you see as a result (see the linked photo) is gigantic columns cut out of the rock and ready for transportation to the building site to become part of a temple (see photo below), and columns already half on their way abandoned by the roadside.

The immediacy and emotion of the place is jaw dropping - something I will never forget. If you have a chance to go - don't miss out.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Filming Who Were the Greeks

Am currently on a new filming project for BBC 2 - entitled Who Were the Greeks. Its a 2 part series looking at what made the ancient Greek world tick. Am working with a great team

We are half way through the filming - and currently in Tripoli in the Peloponnese. Its been a whirlwind collection of filming days up to now (see my twitter account @drmichaelcscott for some daily updates). But what has struck me more than anything is the wondrous variety of research being carried out on ancient Greek society at the moment. We have been lucky enough to catch up with a range of contributors for the programme from Prof Sherry Fox at the American School of Classical Studies looking at what the bones of ancient Greeks can tell us; to Dr Paul Millett and Prof Paul Cartledge from Cambridge examining literary + archaeological approaches to slavery and philosophy in ancient Greece. In addition we have met with several groups involved either in practical archaeology projects looking to re-create some of the experiences and creations of this extra-ordinary society or with those still continuing the traditions of ancient Greece as part of modern society. Last week we met with the Koryvantes - an Association of Greek hoplites - and the modern Greek Pankration team, and this week with Gustav Deutsch, who has built a panoramic camera obscura on the island of Aegina, whose history of development traces back from the Italian Renaissance to the 9th century Arab world and from there to Aristotle and even further back to 5th century BC China.

What I find so fascinating is not only the incredible creativity of ancient Greek society and power of its legacy, but also the way in which ancient Greece fits into a wider picture of human discovery + progress in different societies across the world over time. Its something often missing from the way history is taught which tends to focus on particular 'moments' (often key dates) in world history rather than offering a wider picture of the relative development across different societies + the ways they connect together.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Filming Jesus Rise to Power in Tunisia

Hope you have all enjoyed Jesus Rise to Power. Here's another entry from my filming diary for 19th December 2011:

'We landed in Tunis with Tunis Air to applause from the airplane cabin – a good sign! I was hugely curious to see the country post–revolution and we arrived the day after they had unveiled a statue to the man who set himself on fire in protest at government corruption and sparked the Arab revolution. I had a little time to explore the capital Tunis – a colleague who works here often had told me there was a much more relaxed atmosphere here since the revolution, but also a sense of uncertainty as to whether Tunisia was yet on the right path – a real game of wait and see. I spent a little time in the souks of the Medina – the old part of the city, enjoying the narrowing winding streets, brightly painted doors and inventive lines from the store-holders tempting me to buy their goods. Our filming day began early as we headed in the rain to Oudana, ancient Roman Outhina – a fantastic, little-known Roman city site with amphitheatre, baths,  and capitol where we set a number of pieces surrounding Christian martyrdom. We were beset though by constant bursts of rain, forcing us to run and seek shelter on a regular basis in the lower vaults of the arena. From there, via enormous rain storms, mud-covered roads, our van sliding enough over the mud even to make the habituated Tunisian driver grip the wheel tight, a quick lunch at a shack schwarma (kebab) shop on the road site, to Dougga, another Roman city site, fantastically well preserved with theatre and capitol building still standing proud in amongst the ruins of an large civic settlement. It was the most freezing place I have been in a long time – standing tall on top of the highest view in a valley – it meant we faced the full force of the wind and the rain. We were under enormous time pressure before the sun went down to secure a dozen pieces to camera and, amid the continuing rain showers, we managed to do it just as the sun slipped below the horizon. Our hotel for the night was the only hotel in Dougga – with a welcoming open fire that the team spent most of the night huddled around.'

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Jesus:Rise to Power

The upcoming premiere of Jesus:Rise to Power with National Geographic in the US on Holy Thursday and in the UK on Easter Sunday, made me think about the time we spent filming these programmes in November and December 2011. I remembered that I had written a travel diary for each day of filming with some thoughts about our locations and the people we were fortunate enough to meet.

This was my entry for the first day of filming:

"December 2nd 2011: Flew in from Egypt via Amman to Tel Aviv and arrived in Jerusalem late last night. Caught first sight of the stout walls of Jerusalem old town. This morning we headed first to the Wailing Wall – the section of surviving outer precinct wall of the Great Temple destroyed by the Roman in 70 AD. I came to it as an ancient historian expecting to be impressed by the historical importance of the monument, but could not but be overwhelmed by the emotion and sanctity of the place as well. Yet the heavy security presence reminded us of the constant tensions that went with that emotion.
Our next stop was a meeting and discussion with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. It was an extraordinary privilege to have a chance to meet and interview him. He in turn was a wonderful host and gave us free rein to film in his offices, providing superb views of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I asked the Patriarch what Jerusalem meant to him. He felt it was a city that was blessed and cursed as a city of many religions, but one that was crucial to people the world over as a place to come to find food for the soul.
Jerusalem is an extraordinary city, full of intoxicating smells and sounds, the hardness of its stone worn smooth by the generations of people who have worked, lived and died there. And yet, it does not feel like the history overwhelms it. There is still so much vibrant life here – this is a city of the present as much as the past.'

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Live with New Zealand

Have just completed a radio interview with Graeme Hill of Radio Live New Zealand for my upcoming National Geographic series Jesus: Rise to Power. Despite the oddity of talking to New Zealand at almost 10pm UK time while they were just starting their day, it gave me a good chance to think again about a lot of the issues the show throws us. One case in point: I had always thought the old phrase ' When in Rome, do as the Romans do' originated with the Classical Romans. But it turns out it was the reply of an early Christian bishop when asked by a confused member of the congregation about the wildly varying ways in which Christian worship was practiced in different parts of the Roman world and what they should do about it. The bishop's advice was to go with the flow: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.... - the implication being that variety was inherent to the early Christian church and there was nothing to do but follow the local practice.

Thursday, 28 February 2013


Am currently reviewing Jerry Toner's new book on Roman Disasters for BBC History Magazine. Wont reveal too much of the review content here - should be out in the Magazine in a couple of months - but reading it made me think of the series of Darwin Lectures I co-organised a couple of years ago with Dr Layla Skinns and Tony Cox on the subject of Risk. The Darwin Lecture series is a great inter-disciplinary institution in Cambridge, where a single theme, is, over eight lectures, approached from a variety of disciplines. In Risk in 2010, we had statistics, criminology, astronomy, governance, climate change and classics! Mary Beard took to the stage to think about Risk in the Roman world and about how the language of risk, and of betting, pervaded Roman culture.

The series resulted in a book of essays, which you can find here:

And you can still watch Mary's lecture here:

Look out for when I get hauled up on stage as an unsuspecting candidate in a consultation of the oracles of Astrampsychus! More on them here:

My blog at the time on the experience can be found here:

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Saying it with a few words....

Last week, this article flashed up on twitter:

Its well worth a read - a Professor in the States is putting forward the idea that all PhD candidates, alongside submitting their dissertations (in the UK normally 60-80,000 words but in the US can be much longer), should have to submit a very short (30, 60, 90 seconds) video laying out what their thesis is about.

The idea is to help students explain their own research quickly and succinctly. To me, it sounds like a great idea. Being able to explain what you are working on, your ideas, your arguments, neatly and clearly is a skill we all need in whatever work we do. In a world like academia where we spend long periods of time working on big projects, its perhaps even more important. But it's not just about helping people to explain what they are working on to others. As any one who has had to do this will know, having to explain something to someone else (especially in a concise form) means you have to understand it completely yourself. The very act of working out how to summarise a big project, I have always found, enables you to understand it better than you did before. Making PhD students think about these summaries throughout the course of their PhD, I would argue, could actually help them in their research and in producing a better final product.

On a lighter note, it would also help with the continuing problem when people ask academics what they are working on, and 10 minutes later as their eyes glaze over, rather wish they hadn't..... 'Would you like the 30, 60 or 90 second version' might now be the reply!