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DVD Review: Legacy: The Origins Of Civilization

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Can the past teach us anything about the present? That is the question that Legacy: The Origins Of Civilization will attempt to answer. Historian Michael Wood travels the globe in order to trace the origins of six ancient cultures to try and put new perspectives on the question "What purpose does society serve?"

In this 1991 documentary from the U.K., you will travel to Iraq, India, China, Egypt, Central America, and Europe in search of the answer. Legacy: The Origins Of Civilization is a three-DVD featuring six episodes, running a total of 304 minutes.

Iraq formed from an area with ready water and rich soil around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this culture brought us, along with astronomy, mathematics, and literature, the concept of monotheism – one creator. In Episode 1, "Iraq: Cradle of Civilization," you will explore how Bagdad was a center of learning until the Mongols destroyed it in 1258.

Episode 2, "India: Empire of the Spirit," explores the culture of this South Asian country, which renounced the material world and cultivated a tradition of non-violence to focus on the human inner life. Throughout history, Indian rulers have sought to blend compassion, truthfulness, right conduct, and tolerance for all faiths. In this episode you will see how these ideas survive today with the vestiges of Western colonialism.

Episode 3, "China: The Mandate of Heaven," looks at thinkers like Confucius and Laozi and how they conceived of civilization as reflecting cosmic harmony. It explores how Taoism provides a parallel to Confucianism, and how Buddhism introduced the concept of eternity and importance of inner life to Chinese culture.

Episode 4, "Egypt: The Habit of Civilization," explores the world's first great nation and how the annual flooding of the Nile conferred not only fertility, but a respect for social and cosmic stability. It also examines the Egyptian viewpoint of resurrection of the dead and the hope for eternal life.

Episode 5, "Central America: The Burden of Time," examines how, independent of other civilizations, the Maya and the Aztecs created their own cultures in which bloody sacrifices were needed for renewal of the cosmos. Here you will see that although they arose independently, these civilizations had parallels with those in Asia including advances in mathematics, astronomy, writing, and construction of pyramids.

Episode 6, "Europe: The Barbarian West," traces the roots of European ideals such as individualism and property. European culture has its beginnings in Christianity, Greco-Roman humanism, and Germanic social values. In this episode you will see how in this culture, humans are the measure of all things and the individual's potential is the goal of civilization.

Legacy: The Origins Of Civilization comes on three standard definition DVDs and is shot in full-screen 4×3 aspect ratio. It is shot in both film and video with Dolby Digital stereo sound and comes with subtitles. It comes in a slip-case that contains three DVD hard covers. There is also an 18-page booklet highlighting each episode and providing a series of questions to ponder. There are also a reading list for further study and a listing of inventions from each of the civilizations.

The extras are slim (one of them is the 18-page booklet). The other is an on-disk, brief set of stills, accompanied by a discussion of the great thinkers and philosophers existing during the Axial Age (around the sixth century BC), including Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Homer, and more.

While I found this series interesting, I also found it somewhat narrow in scope and with an anti-western civilization opinion. You have to look no farther than the subtitles ("Empire of the Spirit" for India and "The Mandate of Heaven" for China, and then "The Barbarian West" for Europe) to note this. Throughout, the narrator criticizes the way civilization has developed as he fawns over the east.

The series is also somewhat simplistic in its approach to history, isolating each segment as though each civilization developed in a vacuum. For example, when talking about Iraq, there is no mention of Iran's importance in the development of the region.

I think that Legacy: The Origins Of Civilization is an important video to watch because it does present history through an unusual point of view. Unfortunately it does so without an open mind. What Michael Wood does is essentially what all historians do to one degree or another: present their subjective take on the facts. If you are up to the challenge of finding out the rest of the story, then I can recommend this video.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.