Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes. Photograph by Sophia Roberts. By kind permission.

We talk Socrates and ancient civilisations with eminent historian, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes: why history is rich, vibrant, exciting and relevant; and where you can go to explore it for yourself. . .

TBU: Hi Bettany. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I’ve just finished reading your book The Hemlock Cup, and what struck me is that although we like to think the world has developed and become more sophisticated since Socrates’ Athens of the 5th century BC, when you strip away the veneer of science and technology we’re all so fond of, actually what makes people tick hasn’t really changed that much: we still have this tension between our ideals of freedom, equality, and altruism on one hand, and our tendencies for acquisition, avarice and empire building on the other?

BH: I think that’s what so rewarding about reading Plato’s work or trying to get under the skin of Socrates a bit. There’s a danger you can be too simplistic of course and under-emphasise the primitively superstitious nature of society back then. There’s a temptation to think they were just us in chitons and hoplite armour. But as you say what is so fascinating about Socrates is that much of what he says via Plato; for instance that actually persuasion is the critical thing in a democracy unfortunately; and that ultimately he is convicted not by his actions but by how he is judged on his actions; by slander and gossip and whispering in back rooms, is of course completely relevant to us today.

I also often remember him, and I’m sure you have done the same, when you send an email and you’re sure you have conveyed the tone and tenor and meaning of what you wanted to say, but it gets completely misinterpreted; and Socrates of course understood the dangers of that, when he is quoted as saying for example that the problem with writing is that it is always an orphan, it doesn’t have its father (author) standing by it to defend it, to say ‘no that’s not actually what I meant at all’. I think that’s why it’s so easy to feel connected to him: because he had these flashes of insight into human nature which, as you say, are unchanged over two and a half thousand years.

TBU: I can imagine if he was alive today he would feel compelled to question society in much the same way he did 2500 years ago; and might indeed ultimately incur the same reactions, of apathy, ire and if not condemnation then at least vilification?

BH: Yes exactly; and if you think back before the financial crash for example, you can imagine him going around to the homes of bankers and saying ‘this (acquisition) is all very well, but does it really make you happy?’ And then after the crash when he’d been proved right (in his scepticism), it becomes even more annoying, which of course is why he ends up in that court room defending his life.

TBU: I know you do a lot of work to promote the teaching of particularly ancient history and the classics in schools. What would you say to somebody who perhaps isn’t interested in history; perhaps never engaged with it because of the dry way it may have been taught to them at school; or just doesn’t see the relevance of this forensically archaeological investigation of the past? How do you convince them it’s a good use of time and resources?

BH: Well I think the question is not so much how is it relevant, but how could it possibly not be relevant? History is the story of us, and the fact that much of the history of the ancient world takes place in the ‘hot-spots’ of our contemporary world; the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans; this is where the ancient world operates, so obviously we need to understand that world and how the boundaries were drawn in order to appreciate the geo-political environment and landscape we have inherited.

I think it has a philosophical relevance in terms of helping to understand what it is to be human; and there’s something about reading the texts and poetry of people who lived two and a half thousand years ago, in recognising emotions and problems and ways of dealing with life, which somehow, because there’s such a distance, allows you to connect with them in a very pure and clear way. If you’re dealing with somebody from the twentieth century by comparison, we know that period so well that we have a lot of historical baggage we carry with us which colours our views. It’s almost better to have it filtered through an even greater distance, and then it’s even more striking. As you were saying there are certain aspects of human nature which can be dealt with in exactly the same way as the ancients dealt with them.

And even just from a ‘life-enhancing’ point of view, it’s very beautiful some of this stuff; if you don’t learn any lesson from it, if you spend half an hour reading Homer that’s half an hour extremely well spent. So you’ve got that benefit, but also the more immediate benefit of understanding politically why we’ve ended up living in the world that we inhabit today; because you understand those geographical places, and for instance the trouble with the birth of democracy; the fact that it wasn’t all plain sailing because perhaps it is a flawed system, rather than it being this magic word that we all trot out as if it’s going to solve all our problems. We have to very honestly appreciate on the one hand this extraordinarily hopeful message democracy has for humankind; but also the potential pitfalls and limitations it has sometimes.

TBU: So really the argument makes itself: even from a very practical and pragmatic point of view, you’re hamstrung if you try and look at the current geo-political situation without the benefit of this huge amount of potential hindsight; you’re taking a very short and incomplete view of the world indeed?

BH: Yes exactly, and whilst it’s important of course that we don’t live in the past, we must acknowledge that we do live with it; and ancient history provides an incredible foundation from which to understand the rest of the human story.

TBU: In terms of your work, is it easy to find a balance between the various aspects of research, writing, presenting etc?

BH: It’s interesting because they’re two very different creatures aren’t they? Writing a book and making a television programme; and in some ways academia and television shouldn’t be good bedfellows because they have such different grammar and different ways of doing things. But I have this very basic principle that there’s no point in learning something or discovering something unless you communicate it to your fellow mankind, and obviously television is a very effective way of doing that. It seems to me that if you come up with new ideas or new evidence you’re kind of duty bound to share that with as wide an audience as possible.

When I was finishing my academic work, it was before history on television had become cool again; before Simon Schama’s History of Britain and David Starkey, and it seemed to me that there were all these really incredible human stories; really exciting narratives, classic locations, from which we could learn a lot about our own lives and they just weren’t getting the proper airing on television. So I fought very hard to get those programmes on. Everybody said no at first: ‘You must be joking’, ‘who cares about the Spartans’, ‘it’s not really relevant’, ‘it’ll be really dull’; but then people seem to appreciate them when they’re out there. But it’s still never easy trying to get a programme commissioned. You feel like you have to re-invent the wheel every time.

I think as long as it’s honestly done and you’re as diligent and accurate as it’s humanly possible to be, then you’ve done your job. But a television programme is never the be all and end all; it’s intended to be a starting point for a historical journey. The great thing is people can watch a programme then they can immediately go online and look up the sources you’ve been using, or follow links to an archaeological site; so it seems like a very valuable starting point.

TBU: It would seem that way to me; because the alternative is that you may produce a brilliant academic paper for example but then it may never get an audience outside the academic community in which you’re operating, which would be a great shame in a lot of ways?

BH: Yes – that’s right. Of course pure academia absolutely has a place, where people are focussed on research and it’s very, very important that that happens and is properly supported. We’re hitting a period in our own history when the humanities seem to be taking a real bashing and to me that seems incredibly short-sighted; because although you may not (through humanities) immediately understand looking at a graph how something equates to dollars, pounds, shillings and pence coming into the economy, of course if you have people who are educated and sympathetic and excited about being part of the world that has to translate to a benefit to the countries who produce them. So I think it’s very short-sighted the way people perceive the humanities currently; I’m a great supporter of what the academy does and, especially where we’re talking about publicly funded posts, I think it’s important to share information with the public whenever possible.

TBU: Absolutely. So in terms of your day to day workload is it easy to transition between being locked away in a room working on something like The Hemlock Cup to being out on location presenting to camera with a documentary film crew?

BH: Well you might have picked up from the book; and the other reason why I started to do television, is that I can not understand history unless I actually go to the place where it happened. I find it very, very hard to have a clear and honest understanding of something unless I’m physically standing in the field or on top of the bank or the shoreline or the cliff or whatever it is where it happened; so I always used to travel to these places. So in a way, television is just doing the same thing, but with a camera crew behind you!

It certainly is very, very hard work: I’m up at 6am every morning doing a couple of hours work before the kids go to school; the computer is rarely off before 1am; it’s very full on. Sometimes I fantasise about sitting and having a cup of tea and not thinking about anything for five minutes but that never happens; but then I think how lucky am I to be doing this; to be doing what I love and especially as it wasn’t always easy and I’ve had to fight a lot of resistance and prejudice over the years to make it happen. So I’m just so glad that I can do it now.

TBU: If people actually want to get out and explore the remnants of these ancient civilisations themselves, which sites would you particularly recommend; perhaps those for the less experienced and also the more independent or adventurous traveller?

BH: Well very few people go to Sparta, and it’s really worthwhile going to Sparta; and in particular going to the Menelaion, which sits on the hill just outside the city and is where Helen of Troy was worshipped for over 700 years, along with Menelaos. It’s a very important sacred site there. It’s very beautiful and if you climb up to it you may well be the only people there. There’s a Bronze Age palace there too, and let’s face it the Greeks need all the support they can get right now through tourism or whatever. Also the island of Milos I think is very exciting; oddly not so much in terms of grand architecture, but it was always used as a sort of stopping off point and a production centre in the ancient world, so you feel very close to the ordinary people of the ancient world there. Of course it is where the Venus de Milo came from as well. Also I would recommend Santorini; though I have heard that the volcano’s rumbling a bit, so I’d definitely check with a seismologist or the local travel reports before you set out!

TBU: What’s next for you? What are you working on currently?

BH: I’m working on a series called ‘Divine Women’ – a three part series for BBC2 about the relationship between women and religion through history. I can’t really say too much more about it just now. Watch this space!

TBU: Thanks Bettany. We’ll look forward to it.

Divine Women has now premiered on the BBC. For further scheduling information, availability on itunes, and more on Bettany’s work visit:

Read our full review of The Hemlock Cup here.

For more on Bettany’s recommended travel destinations click here.

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