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Genius of The Ancient World

Programme Run: 3 x 60 minutes
Production: BBC
First Transmitted: 2015 HD available

Historian Bettany Hughes travels to India, Greece and China, on the trail of three giants of ancient philosophy: The Buddha, Socrates and Confucius. All three lived, between the 6th and 5th century BC, during a period of unprecedented intellectual development: 100 years that changed the way we see ourselves forever.​  

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These trailblazers embodied the shift, from a primarily supernatural worldview, to one where rational thought offered new, exciting possibilities.

In this first episode Bettany Hughes investigates the revolutionary ideas of the Buddha. In his 20s the Buddha abandoned his family and homeland in the foothills of the Himalayas to embark on an ambitious philosophical quest to find a solution to human suffering. On the Indian plains he experienced the challenging ideas and extreme methods of wandering 'truth seeks'. But it was only when he found his own middle way that he finally attained enlightenment - Nivana: a state of being where all delusion, desire and suffering were extinguished.

The Buddha's philosophy would inspire a diverse belief system which spread across the Far East and beyond, shaping the lives of hundreds f millions to this day. Drawing on archaeology and expert opinion, Bettany investigates this inspiring figure.


In this second Episode, Bettany investigates the revolutionary ideas of Socrates. Socrates was born in Athens during a creative, yet extremely tumultuous period of Greek history.

Athens had given birth to democracy, and become a hotbed of new philosophical ideas. Socrates would become, arguably, its most vocal and charismatic thinker.

He set about scrutinizing, and working through, the key moral issues of his day. His technique, a systematic form of question and answer 'the Socratic method', was delivered with such a dazzling irony, that he became a celebrity in his day.

Yet, by challenging tradition and convention, he also made enemies. Eventually he was put on trail, found guilty, and sentenced to drink deadly hemlock. 


In this 3rd episode, Bettany investigates the game-changing ideas of Confucius. Confucius is considered the first Chinese thinker to take a systematic, philosophical approach to the social, political and moral challenges of his world.

Born in a chaotic, violent age, he believed that harmony could be restored through the example of the sage rulers of history A great innovator, he commandeered rituals and traditions of the past, to form a compelling philosophical vision.

A pioneer in education, he attracted a loyal band of students, and tried to instil his principles of moral excellence and self-cultivation in China's rulers. He died without seeing his goal achieved.But eventually his philosophy became the bedrock of Chinese culture. Drawing on archaeology and expert opinion, Bettany investigates this inspiring figure.



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