'Don't drag your dead enemy in the dust'

12th December 1997 at 00:00

BBC World Service 648Hz MW Tuesdays 3.30-3.45am; rpt 11.30-11.45am December 16 - March 24

Civilisation is one of those powerful ideas that often spell trouble for non-Europeans. When, in 1897, the British invaded the Nigerian kingdom of Benin, they were convinced that the indigenous people were "savages". After all, they found evidence of human sacrifices. But they also found the astonishingly beautiful Benin bronzes - and immediately looted them.

The West Africans, as the BBC World Service Civilization series points out, had ambiguous feelings about the invaders. On the one hand, they blamed them for ruining their society and forcing them to sacrifice humans to the gods; on the other hand, they wanted to have what the Europeans had, namely technical education. Each side thought that the other was barbarian.

Starting with the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, Civilization's 15 30-minute programmes trace the main moments in the long and bloody road that humanity took from the earliest times to the present. At every point the same paradox appears: cultural sophistication goes hand in hand with brutality. Whether in ancient Athens - where new ideas about democracy for the few rubbed shoulders with slavery for the many - to 20th-century Europe, which surpassed all previous ages in both knowledge and barbarism.

Written and presented by Michael Diamond, the series is full of striking incidents. In ancient Mesopotamia, mathematics was a nightmare; school children had to count not in decimals, but in units of 60.

At other times, there were moral inventions as well as mat-erial ones. The ancient Greeks, it is said, invented rules for warfare, such as: "Don't drag your dead enemy in the dust". But they also created the idea of the "barbarian", as an inverted image of themselves.

Although Michael Diamond says "I'm not going to define" civilisation, you soon get a picture of what human beings are like. Greedy, war-like and destructive, most societies have also been highly adaptive, imaginative and, occasionally, tolerant. If Diamond's comment is a cop-out, the series is a wonderfully stimulating account of world history, taking in Islam as well as the Renaissance, colonialism as well as the Enlightenment.

With plenty of material that secondary teachers could use, Civilization has all the virtues of the best of British broadcasting. It is clear, concise, unpretentious, keeps to the point, and refreshingly direct and jargon-free. The interviews with academic experts are full of information and the sound effects are mercifully sparse. A most civilised programme.

An 80-page illustrated booklet, written by Michael Diamond, is available for Pounds 5 (UK) and Pounds 7 (overseas) from Civilization, BBC Education, PO Box 16630, London N1 7WF

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