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In Our Time: History

Historical themes, events and key individuals from Akhenaten to Xenophon.

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The Mexican-American War

Melvyn and guests discuss the 1846-48 conflict after which the United States of Mexico lost half its territory to the United States of America. The US gained land covered by the states of Texas, Utah, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and part of Colorado. The outcome had a profound impact on Native Americans and led to civil war in defeated Mexico. It also raised the question of whether slavery would be legal in this acquired territory - something that would only be resolved in the US Civil War, which this victory hastened.With Frank CoglianoProfessor of American History at the University of EdinburghJacqueline Fear-SegalProfessor of American and Indigenous Histories at the University of East AngliaAndThomas RathLecturer in Latin American History at University College LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson.

49mins

28 Jun 2018

Rank #1

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Bismarck

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the original Iron Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck. One of Europe's leading statesmen in the 19th Century he is credited with unifying Germany under the military might of his home state of Prussia. An enthusiastic expansionist, Bismarck undertook a war against Denmark that has become a by-word for incomprehensible conflict. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, said: “The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”After vanquishing Austria and France, Bismark led the new industrialising Germany, managing to remain in power for a further two decades. Bismarck said: “The art of statesmanship is to steer a course on the stream of time” and he founded one of Europe's first welfare states but he was also known for his ruthless tactics, ignoring democratic institutions, dabbling in dirty politics, leaking to the press and bribing journalists. Was the unification of Germany a carefully planned campaign or a series of unpredictable events that Bismarck made the most of? Did his encouragement of militaristic nationalism bear fruit in Nazi Germany, and what is his legacy today in contemporary Germany?With Richard J Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge; Christopher Clark, Reader in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge; and Katharine Lerman, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at London Metropolitan University

28mins

22 Mar 2007

Rank #2

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Nero

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life of Nero (37-68 AD) who became Emperor at the age of 16. At first he was largely praised for his generosity yet became known for his debauched lifestyle, with allegations he started the Fire of Rome, watching the flames as he played the lyre. Christians saw him as their persecutor, an anti-Christ, and the number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation was thought to indicate Nero. He had confidence in his own artistry, took up acting (which then had a very low status) and, as revolts in the empire grew, killed himself after the Senate condemned him to die as a slave, on a cross. With Maria WykeProfessor of Latin at University College LondonMatthew NichollsFellow and Senior Tutor at St John’s College, University of OxfordAnd Shushma MalikLecturer in Classics at the University of RoehamptonProducer: Simon Tillotson

51mins

25 Apr 2019

Rank #3

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Picasso's Guernica

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the context and impact of Pablo Picasso's iconic work, created soon after the bombing on 26th April 1937 that obliterated much of the Basque town of Guernica, and its people. The attack was carried out by warplanes of the German Condor Legion, joined by the Italian air force, on behalf of Franco's Nationalists. At first the Nationalists denied responsibility, blaming their opponents for creating the destruction themselves for propaganda purposes, but the accounts of journalists such as George Steer, and the prominence of Picasso's work, kept the events of that day under close scrutiny. Picasso's painting has gone on to become a symbol warning against the devastation of war.With Mary VincentProfessor of Modern European History at the University of SheffieldGijs van HensbergenHistorian of Spanish Art and Fellow of the LSE Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies andDacia Viejo RoseLecturer in Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of CambridgeFellow of Selwyn CollegeProducer: Simon Tillotson.

54mins

2 Nov 2017

Rank #4

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The Black Death

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how the Black Death influenced the structure and ideas of Medieval Europe. In October 1347, a Genoese trading ship arrived at the busy port of Messina in Sicily and docked among many similar ships doing similar things. But this ship was special because this ship had rats and the rats had fleas and the fleas had plague. This was the Black Death and its terrible progress was captured by the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio who declared “in those years a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat”. In the long and unsanitary history of Europe there have been many plagues but only one Black Death. It killed over a third of Europe’s population in 4 years – young and old, rich and poor, in the town and in the country. When it stopped in 1351 it left a continent ravaged but transformed – the poor found their labour to be valuable, religion was both reinforced and undercut, medicine progressed, art changed and the continent awash with guilt and memorialisation. With Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London; Samuel Cohn, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow; Paul Binski, Professor of the History of Medieval Art at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge

42mins

22 May 2008

Rank #5

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The Inca

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how the people of Cusco, in modern Peru, established an empire along the Andes down to the Pacific under their supreme leader Pachacuti. Before him, their control grew slowly from C13th and was at its peak after him when Pizarro arrived with his Conquistadors and captured their empire for Spain in 1533. The image, above, is of Machu Picchu which was built for emperor Pachacuti as an estate in C15th. With Frank MeddensVisiting Scholar at the University of ReadingHelen CowieSenior Lecturer in History at the University of YorkAndBill SillarSenior Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson

52mins

13 Jun 2019

Rank #6

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The Spanish Civil War

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Spanish Civil War which was a defining war of the twentieth century. It was a brutal conflict that polarised Spain, pitting the Left against the Right, the anti-clericals against the Church, the unions against the landed classes and the Republicans against the Monarchists. It was a bloody war which saw, in the space of just three years, the murder and execution of 350,000 people. It was also a conflict which soon became internationalised, becoming a battleground for the forces of Fascism and Communism as Europe itself geared up for war.But what were the roots of the Spanish Civil War? To what extent did Franco prosecute the war as a religious crusade? How did Franco institutionalise his victory after the war? And has Spain fully come to terms with its past?With Paul Preston, Principe de Asturias Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics; Helen Graham, Professor of Spanish History at Royal Holloway, University of London; Dr Mary Vincent, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Sheffield University.

41mins

3 Apr 2003

Rank #7

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The Roman Empire's Collapse in the 5th century

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon wrote of its decline, "While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol."But how far is the growth of Christianity implicated in the destruction of the great culture of Rome? How critical were the bawdy incursions of the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths and the Vandals to the fall of the Roman Empire? Should we even be talking in terms of blame and decline at all?St Augustine wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, Edward Gibbon famously tackled it in the eighteenth and it is a question that preoccupies us today.With Charlotte Roueché, historian of late antiquity at Kings College London; David Womersley, Fellow and Tutor at Jesus College, Oxford and editor of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Richard Alston, Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

28mins

5 Apr 2001

Rank #8

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The Aztecs

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Aztec Empire. According to legend, the origins of it lie on a mythical island called Aztlan - "place of the white herons" - in the north of Mexico. From there this nomadic group of Mesoamericans are said to have undertaken a pilgrimage south to the fertile valleys of Central America. In the space of just 200 years, they formed what has been called the largest, and arguably the most ruthless, pre-Hispanic empire in North America which, at its zenith, was to rule over approximately 500 small states, comprising by the 16th century some 6 million people. Was it military might and intimidation alone that helped the Aztecs extend their power? What part did their complex belief system play in their imperial reach? Their use of human sacrifice has been well documented, but how widespread actually was it? How easily were the Spanish conquistadors able to Christianise this empire? And what legacy did the Aztecs leave behind that lives on in our world today?With Alan Knight, Professor of the History of Latin America at Oxford University and author of Mexico: From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest; Adrian Locke, co-curator of the Aztecs exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts; Elizabeth Graham, Senior Lecturer in Mesoamerican Archaeology at University College London.

42mins

27 Feb 2003

Rank #9

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Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in September 1812, Napoleon captured Moscow and waited a month for the Russians to meet him, to surrender and why, to his dismay, no-one came. Soon his triumph was revealed as a great defeat; winter was coming, supplies were low; he ordered his Grande Armée of six hundred thousand to retreat and, by the time he crossed back over the border, desertion, disease, capture, Cossacks and cold had reduced that to twenty thousand. Napoleon had shown his weakness; his Prussian allies changed sides and, within eighteen months they, the Russians and Austrians had captured Paris and the Emperor was exiled to Elba.WithJanet HartleyProfessor Emeritus of International History, LSEMichael RoweReader in European History, King’s College LondonAndMichael RapportReader in Modern European History, University of GlasgowProducer: Simon Tillotson

54mins

19 Sep 2019

Rank #10

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Catherine the Great

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Catherine the Great. In Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery hangs perhaps the most well-known picture of Russia's most well-known ruler. Dimitri Levitsky's 1780 'Portrait of Catherine the Great in the Justice Temple' depicts Catherine in the temple burning poppies at an altar, symbolising her sacrifice of self-interest for Russia. Law books and the scales of justice are at her feet, highlighting her respectful promotion of the rule of law. But menacingly, in the background an eagle crouches, suggesting the means to use brutal power where necessary. For an obscure, small-town German princess Catharine’s ambition was large - the transformation of semi-barbaric Russia into a model of the ideals of the French 18th century Enlightenment. How far was Catherine able to lead her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe? Was she able to liberate the serfs? And should she be remembered as Russia's most civilised ruler or a megalomaniacal despot? With Janet Hartley, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics; Simon Dixon, Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds; Tony Lentin, Professor of History at the Open University.

28mins

23 Feb 2006

Rank #11

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The War of 1812

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the War of 1812, the conflict between America and the British Empire sometimes referred to as the second American War of Independence. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain, angered by the restrictions Britain had imposed on American trade, the Royal Navy's capture of American sailors and British support for Native Americans. After three years of largely inconclusive fighting, the conflict finally came to an end with the Treaty of Ghent which, among other things, helped to hasten the abolition of the global slave trade. Although the War of 1812 is often overlooked, historians say it had a profound effect on the USA and Canada's sense of national identity, confirming the USA as an independent country. America's national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner began life as a poem written after its author, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The war also led to Native Americans losing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in a programme of forced removal. With: Kathleen BurkProfessor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London Lawrence GoldmanFellow in Modern History at St Peter's College, University of Oxford Frank CoglianoProfessor of American History at the University of Edinburgh Producer: Victoria Brignell.

42mins

31 Jan 2013

Rank #12

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The Almoravid Empire

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Berber people who grew to dominate the western Maghreb, founded Marrakesh and took control of Al-Andalus. They were desert people, wearing veils over their faces to keep out the sand, and they wanted a simpler form of Islam. They called themselves the Murabitun, the people who gathered together to fight the holy war, and they were tough fighters; the Spanish knight El Cid fought them and lost, and the legend that built around him said the Almoravids were terrible and had to be resisted. They kept back the Christians of northern Spain, so helping extend Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, before they themselves were destroyed and replaced by their rivals, the Almohads, from the Atlas Mountains.The image above shows the interior of the cupola, Almoravid Koubba, Marrakesh (C11th)With Amira K BennisonProfessor in the History and Culture of the Maghreb at the University of CambridgeNicola ClarkeLecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle UniversityAnd Hugh KennedyProfessor of Arabic at SOAS, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson.

49mins

3 May 2018

Rank #13

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The Celts

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Celts. Around 400 BC a great swathe of Western Europe from Ireland to Southern Russia was dominated by one civilisation. Perched on the North Western fringe of this vast Iron Age culture were the British who shared many of the religious, artistic and social customs of their European neighbours. These customs were Celtic and this civilisation was the Celts.The Greek historians who studied and recorded the Celts' way of life deemed them to be one of the four great Barbarian peoples of the world. The Romans wrote vivid accounts of Celtic rituals including the practice of human sacrifice - presided over by Druids - and the tradition of decapitating their enemies and turning their heads into drinking vessels.But what were the Celts in Britain really like? Was their apparent lust for violence tempered by a love of poetry and beautiful art? How far should we trust the classical historians in their writings on the Celts? And what can we learn from the archaeological remains that have been discovered in this country? With Barry Cunliffe, Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University; Alistair Moffat, Historian and author of The Sea Kingdoms - The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland; Miranda Aldhouse Green, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Wales.

42mins

21 Feb 2002

Rank #14

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Roman Britain

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Romans in Britain. About 2000 years ago, Tacitus noted that “the climate is wretched”, Herodian said, “the atmosphere in the country is always gloomy”, Dio said “they live in tents unclothed and unshod, and share their women” and the historian Strabo said on no account should the Romans make it part of the Empire because it will never pay its way. But invade they did, and Britain became part of the Roman Empire for almost four hundred years.But what brought Romans to Britain and what made them stay? Did they prove the commentators wrong and make Britain amount to something in the Empire? Did the Romans come and go without much trace, or do those four centuries still colour our national life and character today?With Greg Woolf, Professor of Ancient History at St Andrews University; Mary Beard, Reader in Classics at Cambridge University; Catharine Edwards, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck College, London University.

28mins

1 May 2003

Rank #15

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Byzantium

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the culture, history and legacy of the eastern Byzantine Empire. In 453 with the Barbarians at the gate, through the gate and sacking the city of Rome “the wide arch of the ranged empire” finally began to fall...Or did it? In AD 395 the Emperor Theodosius had divided the vast Roman Empire between his two sons. The Northern and Western Europe provinces were governed from Rome, but the Eastern Empire became based on the Bosphorous in the city of Constantinople. And when Rome crumbled and the Dark Ages fell across Western Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire endured, with its ancient texts, its classical outlook and its Imperial society…for another one thousand years. How did the East survive when the West fell, were they really Romans and why do we know so little about one of the most successful and long lived Empires ever to straddle the globe? Did its scholars with their Greek manuscripts enable the Western Renaissance to take place? And why has it so often been sidelined and undermined by history and historians? With Charlotte Roueché, Reader in Classical and Byzantine Greek, Kings College London; John Julius Norwich, author of a three part history of Byzantium: The Early Centuries, The Apogee and Decline and Fall; Liz James, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art, University of Sussex.

42mins

19 Jul 2001

Rank #16

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The Valladolid Debate

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the debate in Valladolid, Spain in 1550, over Spanish rights to enslave the native peoples in the newly conquered lands. Bartolomé de Las Casas (pictured above), the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, was trying to end the encomienda system in which those who now owned the land could also take the people in forced labour. Juan Gines Sepulveda, a philosopher, argued for the colonists' property rights over people, asserting that some native Americans were 'natural slaves' as defined by Aristotle. Valladolid became seen as the first open attempt by European colonists to discuss the ethics of slavery, and Las Casas became known as 'Saviour of the Indians' and an advocate for human rights, although for some time he argued that African slaves be imported to do the work in place of the native people, before repenting.With Caroline Dodds PennockSenior Lecturer in International History at the University of SheffieldJohn EdwardsFaculty Fellow in Spanish at the University of OxfordAnd Julia McClureLecturer in Late Medieval and Early Modern Global History at the University of GlasgowProducer: Simon Tillotson

53mins

20 Feb 2020

Rank #17