The History of Macedonia


The award-winning writer and presenter Michael Wood is currently on another journey of discovery in his latest BBC series, In The Footsteps of Alexander The Great, an innovative four part documentary revealing the truth behind the myth!

Michael Wood live on beeb

beeb_: "Michael Wood has arrived! And here is the first question... "

Linda Ashford asks: "I would like to know how you decide on a topic to cover and the kind of research and length of time it must take to put into force?"

Michael Wood: "I've always been driven by personal curiosity in the subjects I've chosen to do on TV and the story of Alexander the Great is one of those enigmatic tales in history. It's also a great biography and a great journey and I was interested in trying to mix history with travel and adventure. It took 2 years to make from start to finish... about 6 months of which was on the road."

Marcus Saul asks: "Between which two greats of the modern historical (video) age would you class yourself as: Kenneth Clarke (not ex-chancellor) or Indiana Jones?"

Michael Wood: "(laughing...)Well actually, hopefully, someone smack dab in the middle which is in the area between Kenneth Clarke's scholarship and restraint and Indiana Jones' gung-ho.."

Michael Wood: "To add to the that, the point about doing these kind of films is that there's a world of scholarhsip which doesn't touch most of the public and by presenting these ideas in a popular form on TV you can be the bridge between the scholars and the people and maybe inspire them to want to know more."

Michael Wood: "Personally I'm a great fan of Indiana Jones.. and the reason why those three films are in the top 10 Hollywood hits of all time is precisely beacuse there is this magic to archeology--people are fascinated by adventure, the search for lost civilisations and myths and legends."

Mark Willcox asks: "How do you develop such empathy with a historical character who lived so long ago and in such a different culture?"

Michael Wood: "It's much easier to empathise with historical characters from your own culture, I think. Looking at say, the ancient Greeks you almost have to think of them as aliens in order to get at their difference."

Michael Wood: "A famous classical scholar once said that making figures from the past come alive was like the act of sacrifice in ancient times, you give blood for the ghosts and when you see them come alive again you mustn't forget that it's your blood, your imagination which has given them life once more."

Keith Dumble asks: "Does it make you sad when researching a subject such as Alexander's campaign in Persia, that the human race does not seem to have progressed all that far since those days?"

Michael Wood: "Gosh... I think in some ways obviously human kind has progressed, in technology for example, but when you think of the wars and genocide for example in Europe in our own century you can't say that the essential character of humanity has progressed."

Michael Wood: "The thing which does make me feel a kind of sadness on such a journey is when we make contact with, as we so often did, some minority cultures and peoples whose individuality will not last much longer in the face of globalisation."

Michael Wood: "And yet to spend time in these cultures you find yourself in touch with rich and wonderful ways of seeing the world, just as fascinating as any other. I think the course of modern history is in part the scrubbing away of all these local and regional identities which make the world such a wonderful place."

Mike Ashton asks: "When you are faced with a number of possibilities regarding the exact site of a particular event, how much of your final decision is based on recorded fact and how much comes from having a true empathy with the subject?"

Michael Wood: "We were very lucky in the making of these films to have the chance to explore some of these questions ind detail ont he ground, something which most ofhe scholars had never been able to do. Obviously the Greek text leads you to the place. Then place names and landmarks and clues within that text give you further hints about where to go and how to look. In the end of course it comes down to a hunch; you think you know by now how this person is going to act in certain circumstances."

Michael Wood: "But what was great about this process was the number of times when an apparently meaningless text came completely to life when you stood on the spot. Obviously that wasn't always the case and there were one or two famous Alexander riddles, like the mountain in central Asia called the Sogdian Rock where we drew a blank after going through hell!"

David Calcutt asks: "How important was it to you to follow as closely as possible in "Alexander's footsteps"?"

Michael Wood: "There's a great modern literary biographer called Richard Holmes who wrote a book on the poet Shelley. Holmes has this idea that by tracking someone closely, by standing in the place where he or she stood, by finding the very house in which they lived, the garden in which they sat with their kids, the road on which they journeyed, you come to understand something more about why they did the things they did."

Michael Wood: "I think that premise is a really good one for making a TV film even about someone who lived so long ago. To me that was the key idea. We weren't trying to tell the story of Macedonian politics or Greek imperialism, we were trying to follow in his footsteps."

jane: "There seems to be a lot of information on Alexander's conquests, is there very much information about his personal life?"

Michael Wood: "There's a great deal of material on Alexander's personal life contained in the writings of classical historians. Unfortunately most of it was written centuries after his death and there's very little which can be assumed to be first-hand. Even his intimate relationship with his friend Hephaistion is very sketchy in the sources. We know he had children by two different women but in the society of that time that gives us no clue for example to his sexual orientation. The fact is he remains an enigma."

Simon: "Do you personally consider Alexander the Great’s conquests to be of strong principle and honest intent, to bring civilisation to the masses or are they simply the actions of an Empire building tyrant?"

Michael Wood: "It used to be believed that Alexander's conquests were motivated by an ideal to unite the world under some kind of benign rule. No one believes that today. The conquests were brutal, vast numbers of people were killed or enslaved. The story is only told from the Greek side. What makes it so important in history is the aftermath, the spread of Greek culture across Asia."

Caroline Sellberg asks: "Did you encounter much difficulty in planning the trip?"

Michael Wood: "(laughs..) How does one begin?? Almost every one of the 16 countries we filmed in had its own particular problems. Obviously trying to walk through Afghanistan during a war was the most dodgy to organise in advance because we had to cross through the territories of several warlords. As it turned out though, our march over the Hindu Kush was one of the most exhilirating - and smoothest - parts of the journey."

Caroline Sellberg asks: "How did local people react to your making the film? People seemed so willing to tell on camera tales handed down for hundreds of years."

Michael Wood: "One of the most amazing parts of the story to me was the survival of the legend, especially from Iran onwards, in the countrey districts and in the mountains we met people every day who has tales, songs and legends about Alexander. Surprisingly it's in the Muslim world that the legend is most strongly preserved today. Hence even when we were walking through a war nobody thought it was in the least bit crazy that we were there to follow a 2000 year old story."

Agamemnon: "Michael, if Alexander had lived longer what do you think he would have done"

Michael Wood: "There's a great "what-if?" written by the historian Arnold Toynbee. Using what we know of Alexander's last plans he has Alexander surviving his illness in Babylon, conquering the Mediterranean and Western Europe, then going back to India and taking that, and finally bursting in on the warring states of China in about 315 BC. And now, in 1998, we are living in the reign of Alenander the 36th under a happy and united Hellenic world order!!"

anne pedley asks: "What happened to Alexander's funeral cortege. Did he really lie among spices in a golden coffin with that famous Trojan shield. If Augustus gazed upon his body 300 years later, where did it go!"

Michael Wood: "Although there's been a big fuss about this recently, with the alleged discovery of his tomb as Siwa in Egypt, there is absolutely no doubt that his body was taken to Alexandria and was buried close to the ancient crossroads in the centre of the city. That's where the later royal tombs were built and that's where in the 1920's an Italian archaeologist found a fragment of a gorgeous marble vestibule to a Macedonian tomb. The Siwa story which was on TV a year or so ago was a complete hoax."

Marcus Saul asks: "Would you consider the fact that history needs both visual and oral means of communication in order to relay the true depth of the human experience?"

Michael Wood: "Wow! I work in a visual medium. TV thrives on pictures or it's dead. It also is much better at telling stories than analysis. To be quite frank, TV is not a very good medium for dealing with history. What we do is try to use the sources both words and pictures, in the present day, and in the present day landscape to try to evoke the past. In one sense of course that is true to the nature of history in that history is only ever here and now, ie what we make of it."

Smith: "Do you think that with the abundance of resources being produced in our own century, that historiography in the future will be obsolete?"

Michael Wood: "Yeah the mass production of sources for our own century is going to present - and is already presenting -historians with a massive problem. It is impossible now for a single historian to write the kind of works done in the past by the likes of Gibbon or Ibn Khaldun."

Michael Wood: "But of course the whole of history tells us that there is no guarantee that all this vast accumulation of source material will not be destroyed in some future war or cataclysm. So don't bet on the end of history yet!"

Paul Ford asks: "Michael have you discovered a secret elixir, when I first saw In Search Of, I was in short trousers. I now look haggard... you have not aged... How do you do it? Confess, you recorded all your programmes at the same time and the Beeb are panning them out!"

beeb says: "Laughter from everybody. We're all having a taste of that elixir!!!"

Michael Wood: "Thank you very much! If there's any secret it's staying curious about the world, I suppose. And also having young kids."

Andy: "How do you balance the demands of family life with embarking on year-long expeditions for the BBC, and is it true that you’ve promised your children this is indeed your last trot across the globe?"

Michael Wood: "No, that's not true! After our kids were born I did stop doing this sort of thing for quite a while, apart from a Human Rights film I made about the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq (a place I have a particular affection for). I had a delightful year or two puttering in the library, looking after the kids and writing an obscure book about a tiny little town in south India."

Michael Wood: "When the chance to do Alexander came up we all weighed it up as a family and decided that if I dropped out any longer I might never get back in! We decided also to break up the journey into about six main sections which meant that I was never away for more than one month at a time, and obviously during that period I'd send the kids faxed drawings and stories from whereever I could - even including the Red Cross bunker in Kabul."

Michael Crouch asks: "If you were given carte blanche to initiate any changes to the way history is dealt with in schools, and making it relevant to younger people, what would you do?"

Michael Wood: "All I would say is that along with parenting, teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society. I'm not a great believer in rigid curricula - the most important single thing is to enthuse young people with a love of the world, history, people, life etc!"

Adele Greves asks: "What do you think has been the most informative event in history so far and what did you personally learn from it?"

Michael Wood: "If we're talking strictly about information then obviously the invention of writing, printing and computers, leading up to what we are communicating on at this moment. These are the three most informative. But as for what are the most important that's another matter."

Michael Wood: "Personally I'm intrigued by the transition to life in cities after the invention of agriculture. That to me is the key change in human history."

Mike Ashton asks: "On your next trip, why not have a web site which you can update daily and show the world how your programmes are made - a sort of internet diary on the making the show. The technology already exists and I'm sure it would create a lot of interest."

Michael Wood: "That's a terrific idea. I always said to everybody that the business of making the Alexander films was a great story in itself. And of course what you see on the screen is only a twentieth of what you shoot. I shall certainly be lookng at that idea."

Jean Lock asks: "Where would you recommend the ordinary traveller to visit to feel closest to the spirit of Alexander?"

Michael Wood: "I would recommend anybody to go to Siwa in Egypt, the sight of the Oracle where he was proclaimed son of god: that's one of the most fantastic places on the journey. But most of all I'd recommend a journey to Iran which is the key to the whole tale. Iran is a country with an astonishingly rich and ancient culture."

cheryl asks: "I am puzzled by your visually apparent enthusiasm for Alexander which were contradicted by your words. Little credit was given for the good and original ways he had of behaving, whilst emphasis was placed on the so-called 'mis-deeds'. Why?"

Michael Wood: "I'd say that Alexander's character and deeds have come under intense scrutiny in recent years and the new scholarhship really departs from the old-fasioned idealising of his character. However, I think in our films you do get a sense of the contradictions and in many places we highlighted the incredible nerve and bravery he possessed as a leader. Also and more importantly, in the sequence in Alexandria we discussed at some length his civilising mission, and this recurs in next week's episode in central asia."

Smith: "Which of the two biographers that you focus on during the series do you think was the most accurate?"

Michael Wood: "The two key sources are Arrian and Curtius Rufus. Both of them wrote over 300 years after Alexander's death though they used contemporaries. You can get them both in paperback translation."

Michael Wood: "My feeling was that Arrian was the most reliable, but that Curtius does preserve some genuine alternative traditions. There are a number of other sources: I've put reference to these in my book."

Roy: "How many languages can you actually speak or are you simply fluent in the international language of mime?"

Michael Wood: "You have to be fluent in mime on TV! I speak French & rusty German and bits of several other languages, but generally only enough to ask for a cup of tea and a bed for the night. Unfortunately not Arabic or Farsi."

Helen: "How do you react to being something of a sex symbol?"

Michael Wood: "I think your memory is very long or you're reading very old press cuttings! As Marlowe said: "that was in another country and besides the wench is dead"!"

Dave P asks: "If you could have dated any women in history who would it be?"

Michael Wood: "Oh Cleopatra, it would have to be. Who could resist her? She spoke Greek but she was the first Greek ruler of Egypt who spoke Egyptian. Unfortuately as a Northern Barbarian I wouldn't have got a look in!"

Adele Ladkin asks: "If you accept the fundamental belief that an understanding of the past has continuing relevance for the present, what do you feel we can learn from the story of Alexander the Great?"

Michael Wood: "I think that we should be wary of all people like him and never idealise such conquerors. However, war can unleash creative energies in history and what happened after him changed the world often to the good."

beeb_: "Just time for one more question..."

Nima: "What will you be doing next?"

Michael Wood: "A series of journeys about the European conquest of the Americas and secondly a project I've nursed for many years, a historical documentary life of William Shakespeare to fulfill my seven year old daughter's request to find a subject nearer to home!"

beeb_: "That's it I'm afraid. Here's Michael with a final word..."

Michael Wood: "I've enjoyed this experience very much. I'm sorry it's not possible to answer some of these very interesting questions at greater length. Maybe next time. I'll try and arrange the live link-up from the Peruvian jungle!"

Michael Wood: "My choice for the three most imaginative questions posed today win a signed copy of the BBC book In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. Marcos Saul for his Indiana Jones question, Paul Ford for his elixir question and Mike Aston for his tip on the website diary."

beeb_: "Please contact us at with your details and we will get your copy of the book sent off to you."

beeb_: "Thank you Michael! Don't forget you can see the next instalment of In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, on Tuesday 28th July, at 9.30, on BBC2. There is also a BBC book to accompany the series available now."

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