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'

Monday, 24 March 2014

DELPHI - a history of the centre of the ancient world - OUT NOW!

My new book with Princeton University Press is officially published next week: DELPHI: A HISTORY OF THE CENTRE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD. See here:

I will be talking about the book at a number of literary festivals across the UK this summer. For dates, times and tickets, keep an eye on my public lectures page:

I have been working on the ancient site of Delphi for a long time, since I began my PhD in 2004. Indeed my interest in Delphi goes even further back, to when I first visited the site on a school trip to Greece in 1997 (it was an eventful trip, not least because the airline lost my luggage completely on the way out which meant I was in the same clothes for a week!).

I have written about the archaeology of the sanctuary (and its main comparison/competitor in ancient Greece, the site of Olympia) before:  And in 2010, I presented a documentary about Delphi on BBC 4:

So why write again? For three main reasons. The first is that most people who talk about Delphi talk about its oracle (with good reason - it's incredibly interesting). But the oracle was but one of the many activities going on at Delphi. As such, I argue that we can only understand Delphi - and its on-going success as a place of importance for over 1000 years in the ancient world - if we examine all those activities together and particularly the way they interacted with and impacted upon one another.

Second, because, despite the fact that Delphi was the proclaimed centre of the ancient world for over 1000 years, most books on Delphi have focused exclusively on a small portion of that - the archaic and classical periods (its so-called 'golden age'). But I argue that not is this missing out on a large part of Delphi's story, it is missing out on the fact that many of the sources we rely on for telling us about this golden age, and more generally how Delphi worked and operated come from outside that period. The Roman-age writers for instance were particularly interested in how the oracle worked.

Third, because focus on Delphi has often been on its oracle, the sources used to study Delphi have often been literary. Equally, the excavation of the site - led by the French since Delphi's first major excavation in the 1890s - has obviously focused on its archaeological and inscriptional story. But I argue we need to put all these sources together if we are to study Delphi in the round and see it as the ancients saw it. At the same time, in doing so, this book brings into English, often for the first time, evidence, ideas and discussions that have hereto been conducted mainly in French scholarship.

As such, this book has as its goal to explain why Delphi was such a great success for so long, and why it continues to mean so much to us today, by examining all the types of evidence for all Delphi's activities throughout its history.  In doing so, it seeks to put the reader in the shoes of those 1000 or so citizens who lived at Delphi 2000+ years ago, and understand how they saw their privileged position at the centre of the world. I hope you enjoy!

To read a sample chapter, see here: