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You Should Be Watching: 'The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes'

If you yearn to see sumptuous sites while learning about ancient civilizations, then join Bettany Hughes as she explores the “Ancient World.” Hughes’ intelligence and enthusiasm enliven these beautifully filmed documentaries.

Title: “The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes”

Year it began: 2002

Where it can be seen: Amazon; Channel4.com; DVD

Who’s in it: Bettany Hughes

Typical episode length: 120 minutes

Number of episodes: 7

Brief plot description: Traveling across present locations, historian Bettany Hughes explores the cultural and political past of ancient peoples, including the Greeks, Minoans, and Egyptians.

Why it’s worth watching: With her vibrant presence and excellent scripts, Bettany Hughes offers thrillingly illuminating tours of ancient cultures. Grouped as a single series in Britain, but released as individual PBS documentaries in the USA, Hughes’ big-budgeted documentaries feature gorgeous filming locations, as Hughes narrates history while traveling (sometimes by moped or train) to breathtaking archaeological sites and treasure-filled museums. Hughes, a classicist, is especially strong in presenting ancient Greece. In her three-part “The Spartans,” Hughes gives a gripping account of that most disciplined and militaristic Greek culture. While taking us to majestic locations where Spartans trained children to thrive in a brutal world, Hughes thoroughly presents this intensely organized society’s everyday life. In “Athens: Dawn of Democracy,” Hughes paints a complete portrait of Athens—both as the glorious cradle of art and philosophy, and as a dark imperial power fueled by slavery and divided by bitter factions. Hughes’ uncanny ability to generate as much excitement about everyday details as about major historical events is on full display in “Helen of Troy.” Even as she shows us key Mediterranean sites linked with the Trojan War, Hughes compellingly speculates about Helen’s domestic life, offering insights into her upbringing, her clothing, and her make-up rituals. Hughes leaves Greece to study marvels in “Engineering Ancient Egypt,” and explores the sophisticated Islamic culture of early-medieval Spain in “When the Moors Ruled in Egypt.” Hughes is in top form in “The Minotaur’s Island.” After an opening descent into a dark space embodying the mystery of those Minoans whose monster once occupied the Labyrinth, Hughes proceeds to engagingly display the vivid art and dynamic life of ancient Crete. Inviting us along for an amazing ride, Hughes shows us stunning natural scenes and glorious ruins, while wonderfully telling the story of a civilization’s glorious rise and fall.

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