High-tech breathes life into ancient Greece

Socrates, Pericles, Athens, Sparta, the Battle at Marathon. These names float deep in the collective consciousness of Western culture, but few outside academia think about their impact on modern times.

Now, thanks to the design team that re-created World War II in the Oscar-winning movie "Saving Private Ryan," Greek leaders of some 2,500 years ago seem as relevant and three-dimensional as any presidential contender in this election year.

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, An Empires Special (Wednesday, Feb. 9, PBS, check local listings), uses cutting-edge technology and special effects to put the viewer into key battles, in the private chambers of politicians, and beside the deathbed of philosopher Socrates after he drank his deadly hemlock potion. The point: to bring the foundations of democracy to life.

"There is something in this deep, deep past that is profoundly exciting and interesting and that matters," says Josh Ober, a professor of ancient history and chairman of the classics department at Princeton University in New Jersey. "We are the people we are today because of things that happened 2,500 years ago."

Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, against a backdrop of war and feudalism, the ancient Greeks developed democracy and built an empire that stretched across the Mediterranean from Asia to Spain. They laid the foundation of modern science, politics, warfare, and philosophy, and created a body of literature, drama, art, and architecture that still moves and inspires.

The key to penetrating to the reality of such a distant time was to get past stereotypical images that have come down through the years. "We always start with this image of this pure-white sculpture, of this idealized vision of a world that is dead and distant and yet all marble," Dr. Ober says. In this series, he adds, "you begin to imagine the Greeks as flesh and blood."

"We just sat down and said, 'What are the pivotal moments in Greece?' " says producer Anthony Geffen. Three moments were chosen: "at the very beginning, a moment in the middle, and a moment at the end" of that civilization.

But the key to making this ancient history interesting was to make the people come alive. "That's very difficult," Mr. Geffen says with a laugh, "because there isn't a lot written about individual [Greek] characters."

The 2-1/2 hour special tells its story through the lives of some of ancient Greece's most prominent citizens: Cleisthenes, who built the first society of equals; Themistocles, the general who protected the new freedom; Pericles, the genius leader of Athens at its height; and the philosopher Socrates.

The documentary, more than three years in the making, manages to produce new historical information about important figures, including the discovery of the site where Socrates was believed to have been held while awaiting execution and actual bottles that were used to deliver the deadly hemlock to condemned prisoners.

Narrated by actor Liam Neeson, the series uses state-of-the-art imaging to recreate the 40-foot statue of Athena in the heart of the Parthenon, the battle of Marathon, the burning of Athens, and the sea battles between the Athenian fleet and the navies of Sparta and Persia. Most extraordinary of all, the design team, fresh from staging World War II battles in "Private Ryan," uses a new technique dubbed "living portraiture" to show what the real figures probably looked like.

This intimate style of historical re-creation makes the ancient figures come alive. You have the sense that any one of them could show up in the next presidential primary, provided he could trade in his toga and sandals for some warmer garb.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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