The Battle for Civilization

In 1969 the art historian Kenneth Clark presented TV audiences with his vision of Civilisation. In scope and ambition this documentary that explored the story of mankind from it’s prehistoric origins to the present day, was revolutionary.

As a total documentary junkie myself the idea that the BBC was remaking Civilisation made me jump with glee. Yes, I really am that boring…

The modern remake Civilisations is a nine-part series that involves three historians: Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Like the original it is a massively ambitious project, beginning with our prehistoric ancestors and finishing in the modern era.  Yet, just as Kenneth Clark’s version did Civilisations has caused controversy.

The BBC’s Will Gompertz bashed the series for not being ambitious enough. He lays into the series for not presenting viewers with a new polemic. This is true, there is little in this series to appease the modern progressive crowd. Even the episodes presented by David Olusoga, an unabashedly left-wing academic does not follow the standard Europe= bad spiel that we have become so used to hearing.

Moreover, The Guardian’s Mark Lawson criticises Civilisations for its lack of diversity. Of the nine episodes, five are presented by Schama (a white man of all things) leaving only two each for Beard and Olusoga.  Well, I suppose you can’t please everyone.

There has also been criticism from the other end. The Spectator’s Ed West lamented that Civilisations was far too relativist for his liking. Claiming that it is a silly façade for us to pretend that the Olmecs were on a cultural Parr with the ancient Greeks.

There are some issues with Civilisations to be sure. Sadly, this is not the historical equivalent of Blue PlanetThe lack of a grand overarching narrative or unified approach makes the series feel discombobulated and pieced together rather than a unified project. It also must be said that Schama, Beard and Olusega all have copious amounts of progressive left-leaning credentials. It is doubtful the BBC would have commissioned the remake of this famous TV series starring Niall Ferguson. Lastly, many have derided Civilisations for not being daring enough. There is some logic in this, apart from the gorgeous camera work it is certainly not a revolution in programming.

It is often said that we live in a time of decay where our best years are behind us. Apparently, we are abandoning our principles and forging ever forward into the abyss of cultural nihilism. Yet watching Civilisations reminds us that while the supposed ‘great man’ narrative of history, so familiar to Kenneth Clark has suffered a vicious assault. Not everything is up for debate.

It is indeed impossible to tell a coherent story about civilisation without paying homage to The Greeks, Christianity and the ruptures of the Industrial Revolution. In an age characterised by identity politics, it is nice to be reminded of that important enlightenment maxim- that we do have a shared humanity.

It should also be mentioned that Civilisations is visually stunning. The whole series feels like one part documentary,  one part travel programme. At times, like when Schama visits the Mexican jungle I felt like saying “the BBC is just showing off now”.

In the opening scenes of Civilisations Schama in all his bombast states that we instantly know what civilisation is when faced with its opposite; barbarism in all its terrible forms. Implying that barbarism does in fact exist. The whole series stands opposed to the cultural relativism that we have become so used to and this is something to be celebrated.


  1. Mary Beard’s recent programme about Julius Caesar did not even mention that he was the kinsman of Marius – and that his rise to power depended on the professional army that Marius created. Instead there was a lot of stuff about (you guessed it) Donald Trump – if Professor Beard really thinks that Donald Trump is some sort of dictator she must be even more stupid than most academics.

    Simon Schama is a self described socialist historian – he did seem to be taking a more independent line some years ago, but then his ideological chains were pulled and he got back into line supporting “Social Reform” and so on.

    David Olusega I have never heard of, so I will just have to take your word that he is a third leftist.

    I will not be rushing to watch this series – I think it would be better to just watch the original series of “Civilisation” again. Kenneth Clark was disarmingly honest about what he did not know – I remember him saying “I will not be discussing economics – because I do not understand it”.

    Kenneth Clark was a cultural historian (full disclosure – in my reading and thought I am more of a military historian), and a very good one – ideal for the series.

    I think a modern series should put more stress on the Hellenistic Age – it was not just a gap between the Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire, it was a period of great philosophical, cultural and scientific (yes scientific) investigation and development – which was rather stifled in the military dictatorship that was the Roman Empire.

    In some ways the Hellenistic Age reminds me of the enlightened monarchies of the 18th century – as an unrepentant “Old Whig” I most certainly do NOT support unlimited monarchy, but the 18th century was a period of high (perhaps the highest) cultural civilisation – before the horrors of 1789 and what followed up to 1815.

    For all the, very real, cultural achievements of the Victorian Age there is an undercurrent (just an undercurrent – perhaps it is a matter of hide sight) of decay, bad (false) ideas were slowly creeping. Although there was resistance in the arts up to the 2nd World War – after which resistance to cultural decline (whilst not non existent) was very much in retreat.



    1. Yes, the original by Kenneth Clark is indeed very good. And I also share your enthusiasm or the Hellenistic age, it is a tragically underexplored part of the past.

      The idea that many different places can take Hellenic culture, adapt to it and transform it to fit their cultural context reminds me of the present day- simply replace Hellenic for Western.

      I also watch Mary Beard’s programme about Julius Ceaser and was deeply disappointed. She should have called it ‘Why I don’t like Donald Trump’ and be done with it.



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