Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ancient Worlds - An Epic History of East and West - Out This Week!

My new book Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West is published this week Friday 1st July with Penguin Random House. To order a copy on Amazon, click here:

I will be giving talks about the book at Literary Festivals around the country over Summer and Autumn 2016. For the list see my website here:

Over the past decade working on the cultures of Greece and Rome, I have been constantly struck by how much these communities owed to interaction with those outside the Mediterranean. Often extremely far outside the Mediterranean. And in turn by how far Greeks and Romans got in their exploration of the much wider ancient world.

And yet its clear that such inter-connections between cultures are rarely the focus of study within Classics departments, and certainly not within school curricula. The way our world of research, study and learning is set up actively indeed inhibits it: we learn things in departments, subjects, isolated pools of knowledge.

During the 20th century, the global / world history has attempted to offer a home for those who want precisely to study the connections between cultures. Much of that study has focused on more modern eras, when communication and interaction between worlds happened on a regular basis (how many times do we hear the term "globalised world" today? ) But it can equally be usefully applied to the ancient world. Ivory from an Asian elephant has recently been found in a Neolithic workshop in Spain dating to 4500 years ago - connections between cultures is very old indeed...

My new book seeks to dovetail with Peter Frankopan's great recent book Silk Roads. In it, he discusses how these well known arteries of trade and interaction operated through to the present day. In Ancient Worlds, I look at how that era of continual connectivity came into being - what happened to make the Silk Roads possible. The book covers three main (and for me key) moments in that story. The first in the 6th century BCE, when revolutionary political thinking is unfolding in the Mediterranean in Athens and Rome, as well as in China. While China and the Med were not at this stage directly connected, this comparative approach shows how each society was dealing in many ways with similar challenges and searching for appropriate solutions - solutions which are still very much part of out political world today.

The second key moment is in the late 3rd century BCE, when from the Med to China, warfare was reshaping worlds, leading to the creation of the great Roman and Han empires in the east and the west, and forging the connections between their worlds in central Asia. Within a single lifetime, the first event to be recorded in both eastern and western histories occurred in central Asia: the invasion of Greco-Bactria by nomadic eastern migratory tribes. It was on the back of connections such as these that the trading Silk Roads were laid.

The third key moment is when these trading arteries in turn became transporters of ideas - particularly religious ideas. In the 4th century CE, Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, into Africa and into Asia. Buddhism spread out of India and central Asia to China to become an official accepted religion. And from the Med to China, ruling powers were all attempting to grapple with religion, and mold religious change, in order to help strengthen their rule.

For me, the story of gathering connectivity in the ancient world is an important one to be telling right now. We may have just voted to leave the EU, but we cannot deny the globalised nature of the world in which we live. From an educational standpoint, there has been much rhetoric in the UK in recent years of this as a threat ('the rest of the world is getting better than us'... 'thanks to the threat of the globalised world we have to improve our educational standards if we are to survive' etc). Much more positive I think is that offered by OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA seeks to measure how well 15 years olds are prepared to meet the challenges of today's societies. And in 2018, PISA will be asking member countries how well it prepares students to be "globally competent".

By that it means how well are students able to analyse global and intercultural issues, understand how difference affects perception, judgement and ideas and how well they are able to engage in open and effective interaction with others from different cultures.

That feels to me like a much more positive take on what being a global citizen in a globalised society should be about. And it is in that vein that I hope Ancient Worlds can be a useful tool. What it makes clear is how much we have always owed to interaction with one another, and how, both as a result of direct connection and as a result of the similarities in societal development, we more often than not face the same difficulties and issues as one another. And in the future, when the world is likely to be challenged by a number of issues that affect us all equally (climate change, disease etc), that shared respect for human dignity, interaction and at the most fundamental level, the human condition, seems to me to be essential.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Quizeum - coming soon to BBC4!

This great new Quiz show - hosted by Griff Rhys Jones - is coming soon to BBC4. Quizeum is a quiz in a museum - showcasing the incredible objects that are in our regional museums. Each show comes from a different museum and the panelists vary each week reflecting the nature of the museum's collection.

It was great fun to be part of the Ashmolean Museum episode, along with my team mate Janina Ramirez, and Lars Tharp and Kate Williams (our rivals for the glory of the Quizeum crown -boo, hiss!;))) We had a fantastic day hunting through the fabulous collections of the Ashmolean on treasure hunts with cryptic clues, having to come up with stories around some of the wierdest objects I have ever seen, and being treated to a snap shot of some of the Ashmolean's great treasures - some of which, as you will see, made most of the panel blush, cough, splutter and yes even we were lost for words!

This is not a programme simply about connoisseurship or the ability to identify objects from every period of history (now there's a scary thought)... rather it's a programme about the stories and ideas and thoughts that objects inspire among a group of people who between them have a huge range of collective experience in all periods of history - with a good dose of competition and team rivalry thrown in! And above all - a fun way to spend time in a museum and with the objects of our rich and varied human past.

Watch the trailer here:

Coming soon to BBC4! 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Invisible Rome - like you have never seen it before! Coming soon to BBC 1.

In this new documentary for BBC1 (and BBC Worldwide), I team up with ‘Pointless’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’ host Xander Armstrong to investigate the invisible world of underground Rome. 

Our mission was to find, access and investigate the spaces that were underground even in ancient Rome – through man hole covers in roads, hidden doorways, secret spiraling staircases –  abseiling down 20 metre tunnels, climbing down rickety old step ladders and scrambling on our hands and knees. With us as our guides were members of Rome’s Underground Archaeology Unit, whose job it is to find and investigate these hidden gems of ancient Rome. 

What kind of spaces did we find? Underground ancient Roman quarries that, when plotted on a map make Rome look like a Swiss Cheese. Underground aqueducts that carried up to a billion litres of water a day into Rome. The Cloaca Maxima ‘ the Great Drain’ of Rome that is still an operating sewer today, having been in use for roughly 2500 years. The myriad of catacombs for Rome’s dead, and the secret spaces of its underground religious cults, not to mention the underground labyrinth of tunnels and spaces that powered some of ancient Rome’s most important and famous monuments like the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracella.

Accompanying us was a team of 3D laser scanners (ScanLAB Projects), whose job it was to map these incredible and often confusing underground spaces in more detail than ever before using the latest cutting edge technology. The results of their work are absolutely stunning, allowing us to understand the relationship between spaces above and below ground, as well as to open us these very difficult to access places to fine-grain archaeological investigation by scholars based all over the world. 

This was a difficult programme to make, working in difficult and often dangerous spaces: I have never had to don so many layers of protective clothing, hard hats, and waterproofs for a programme before! We journey from the freezing crystal clear waters of Rome’s underground aqueducts to the foul smelling and excrement festooned environment of its sewers, via the claustrophobic worm-like tunnels of its underground tufo quarries to the rabbit-warren of catacomb tunnels in which you can get lost in an instant. 

What did we learn? For me, this programme offered more than an opportunity to see some of ancient Rome’s hidden secrets. It was a chance to get to grips with some of the unsung spaces, without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people, and without which it may never have grown to become such an extraordinary city at the centre of such a formidable empire. 

Join us – Xander on his vespa and me in my Lancia Flavia while we are above ground at least – for a journey of discovery into Rome’s arteries, veins, lungs and bowels – and in doing so understand why Rome was at the centre of a perfect storm: blessed with extraordinary natural and geological resources, armed with a spirit of invention and determination to push the boundaries of possibility, and ready to exploit its own human resources to the max to create a city which we still wonder at today, and which occupies an incredible place in our story board of human history.


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:

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Spin the Globe - BBC Radio 4

We are just coming to the end of a new project for BBC Radio 4, which will air starting next Tuesday 12th November at 4pm.

It's a new departure for me in many ways. Firstly, because its radio - and I've found it a fascinating experience to work with the Radio documentaries unit at the BBC because I had never realised the extent to which radio requires you to work and think in different ways from television. It has been a joy and privilege to learn from the great Doc producers I have been working with here at the BBC - Philip Sellars, Tom Alban, Sarah Taylor, Mohini Patel and Georgia Catt.

Secondly its a new departure because very little of this series is about ancient history. Instead it focuses on dates from throughout history that I think we all have in our heads thanks to generations of school history lessons, books and commemorations: dates like 1066, 1914, 1605. Revisiting some of these moments with experts in these periods to discover what is the latest thinking has been a fruitful and thought-provoking experience.

But this series is also a new departure because it offers a new way of telling history. Rather than simply focusing on the key dates because of one event that happened in one part of the world on that date, we use that event as a jumping off point from which to spin the globe and find out what else was happening around the world at the time. I believe this offers a very useful way of thinking about our past, which we often miss out in the 'greatest hits' - or 'spot-lit' approach to learning history which is often practiced. What we get when we spin the globe is a sense of the parallel developments of different parts of the world and different civilisations, of conscious and unconscious global connections between events, ideas and characters and a more connected sense of human history.

As a result we all have a chance to learn about periods and places outside our own specialisations. That has been the real joy for me in the journey of making this series: finding and questioning experts from the British Library, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Universities and Institutes across the UK, as well as academics from across the globe currently working in Straasbourg, New York, Washington, Harvard, and Paris, not to mention backstage at Strictly Come Dancing studios! Not only is this series about global history, it feels like it is a global investigation as well, bringing experts together who are often hampered from talking to one another by departmental, geographical, national and cultural boundaries.

To hear a clip from the series:

Ep 1: Tuesday 12th November 4pm: 1605 and the Gunpowder plot
EP 2: Tuesday 19th November 4pm: 1066 and the Battle of Hastings
Ep 3: Tuesday 26th November 4pm: 1914 and the outbreak of WW1
Ep 4: Tuesday 2nd December 4pm: 4/3 BC and the life of Jesus

Len Goodman and I in his dressing room at Strictly studios; Frances Wood and I looking at manuscript copies of Sima Guang's history of China in the British Library