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Uploaded on Dec 27, 2010
As Athenian democracy progressed, it became embroiled in the clash of new ideas with old beliefs; Athens started to tear itself apart. The story culminates in one of history's greatest paradoxes: the trial of Socrates, who was democratically judged to be executed for speaking his mind.
Democracy grew against the backdrop of a brutal war between democratic Athens and authoritarian Sparta. Still, Athens attracted great thinkers and scientists. Art and culture thrived. At exactly the same time that democracy was emerging, a new, more realistic style of sculpture flourished.
Drama provided a structured way to express deep feelings and fears, as Athenians used the theater to debate their problems on stage. Outrageous story lines - sons and mothers making love, mothers eating their children - were presented and openly discussed. Theater at every level was a democratic institution; playwrights were chosen by the state and paid by the state.
When Sparta finally defeated Athens, the citizens looked for a scapegoat. Socrates had ridiculed the idea of government by non-experts and had coached many of the arrogant aristocrats who had failed in battle.
When Socrates was condemned for impiety and the corruption of youth, he refused to compromise in any way and rejected an offer of exile. He stood trial and was condemned to death by drinking poison.
Ultimately, Athenian democracy, despite its trumpeting of free speech, could not tolerate an attack on democracy itself. It was an extraordinary moment in history, but it was not strong enough to thrive and spread. The empire withered, eventually to be crushed by Alexander the Great. It would be another 2,000 years before society was once again able to tolerate the idea of democracy - rule by the people.
Program presenter Bettany Hughes, who won a scholarship to read ancient and modern history at Oxford University, lectures throughout the world. She has been invited to universities in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Turkey and Holland to speak on subjects as diverse as Helen of Troy and the origins of female "Sophia" to concepts of time in the Islamic world. She has written and presented a number of documentaries for television, including HELEN OF TROY and THE SPARTANS. Hughes is frequently asked to sit on academic and cultural jury panels, most recently the RTS and Grierson Documentary Awards. Hughes' Helen of Troy, the first serious and wide-ranging book to have been written about Helen, was published in 2005 to great critical and popular acclaim. Hughes is currently writing a book about Socrates.