Synopsis by Mike Cummings
This second episode of Greece: The Crucible of Civilization, directed and written by Cassian Harrison, opens in 490 B.C. when tiny Athens prepares to safeguard its growing economy and infant democracy against an invasion by Persian armies of Darius the Great. Like the previous episode, this episode, "Golden Age," features colorful maps, reenactments, paintings, and exquisite photography to tell its tale. When the Persians arrive for battle, the Greek courier Phidippides runs 140 miles to Sparta in two days to solicit help from its army, says narrator Liam Neeson, quoting the historian Herodotus. But Sparta, Athens' rival, refuses to participate. No matter. The outnumbered Athenians, fighting to uphold their life of freedom, defeat the Persians and send them in humiliation back to Asia. But one Athenian, Themistocles, realizes Athens has not seen the last of the proud Persians. He persuades city leaders to build a fleet of war ships. These ships, called triremes, are "floating missiles" with projecting bows designed specifically to ram enemy vessels. While the Athenians execute their plans, the Persian ruler Darius dies and his son Xerxes succeeds to the throne. Under pressure to take revenge against the Greeks, he assembles an army of two million men. When the terrified Greeks ask the Delphic Oracle for advice, she simply tells them to flee. But Themistocles refuses to panic. Instead, he again petitions the Delphic Oracle, and this time she predicts that a "wooden wall" will protect the Greeks. Neeson then tells how the wily Themistocles saves his city. First, he orders Athens abandoned, installs his fleet at the Aegean island of Salamis, and sends a "traitor" to the Persians to tell them that the Athenians are fleeing and are easy prey for the Persian fleet. When Persian ships move into the strait between Salamis and the Greek mainland, the triremes ram and sink 200 Persian vessels, and Athens wins the war. To protect Greece against future attacks, the Athenian leaders organize the Delian League, made up of 200 city-states. Feeling safe and secure, Athens then turns its attention back to its economy and to other domestic affairs. Soon, the democratic system unleashes the power of the human mind, and Greece enters a Golden Age in which every branch of learning advances and a new leader, Pericles, emerges to take Athens to the zenith of its power. As a fitting symbol of the now mighty city, he builds the aesthetically and architecturally perfect Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, and fosters development of education and the Greek theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.