The first segment tells the story of the troubled birth of the world's first democracy, ancient Athens, through the life of an Athenian nobleman, Cleisthenes.
During the reign of Amenhotep III, Egypt was the center for culture and learning in the ancient world. Egypt had reached dizzying heights, but it stood on the brink of a devastating fall.
Egypt was occupied by foreigners except for a narrow strip of land around a town called Thebes. The capital and its royal family had fallen on hard times. But one local family was determined to revive it--the king of Thebes and his two young sons Ahmose and Kamose, who became freedom fighters, liberators of Egypt.
By 1690, Japan is a nation completely isolated from the outside world, except for a small community of Dutch traders. Among them is German Doctor Englebert Kaempfer, whose writings provide valuable insights on daily life in Japan. Culture and commerce flourish. But ruling daimyo warlords and their samurai armies continue to grow restless. The Shogun Tsunayoshi is a product of both classes. Under his rule, art and education excel, and "Laws of Compassion" are introduced. Samurai, geisha, courtesans, merchants, writers and actors are attracted to Edo, and the classes begin to mix. Japanese interest in Western science increases, making the policy of isolation more difficult. In 1853, Mathew C. Perry sails American ships into Edo Bay, and demands a formal opening of the nation. Realizing that resistance is futile, the Japanese negotiate treaties with the U.S. and other nations in the West. Ten years later, the samurai class is disbanded and the Tokugawa Shogunate ends. After 265 years of isolation, the modern era of Japan has begun.
With Ieyasu in control, peace descends on Japan, and a new society based on the samurai ethics of obedience and loyalty is established. In 1600, William Adams becomes the first Englishman to set foot in Japan. Impressed by European trading vessels, Ieyasu asks Adams to help him build his own fleet. Aware that the English have no interest in converting the Japanese to Christianity, Ieyasu decides to expel the Portuguese and Spanish, who too often combine missionary work with trade. When he dies at 72, Ieyasu's vision of a strictly controlled class system based on the rule of the samurai is a reality. But his grandson, Iemitsu, will rule more harshly. With no wars to fight, Iemitsu tightens control over the power and movement of the daimyo and their restless samurai armies. Though foreign missionaries have been expelled, Iemitsu still fears the influence of Christianity. In 1637, impoverished peasants and persecuted Christians explode in anger in the Shimabara Rebellion, and thousands die. In order to prevent further dissention resulting from foreign influence, Iemitsu closes Japan to the western world. It will be more than 200 years before the nation will open its doors again.
In the early 16th century, Japan is a warlike society ruled by samurai and their daimyo warlords. When Portuguese merchants arrive in 1543, they are the first Europeans to set foot in Japan. Missionaries quickly set out to convert the nation to Christianity. In the same year, a samurai boy named Tokugawa Ieyasu is born to a low ranking daimyo family. To prove his family's loyalty to their ruling warlord, Ieyasu is given as a hostage where he remains for most of his childhood. When he is finally freed, he reclaims his family's domain and allies himself with the most powerful rulers in Japan: Oda Nobunaga, and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi awards him a small fishing village named Edo, later to be known as Tokyo, and provides him with a vast area to rule. But Hideyoshi and Ieyasu are uneasy allies. On his deathbed, Hideyoshi, places Ieyasu in command until Hideyoshi's true heir--his young son, Hideyori--will rule. When daimyo rebels challenge Ieyasu's control, Tokugawa Ieyasu's samurai armies defeat them at the Battle of Sekigahara. The victory brings to Ieyasu the title of shogun. Ieyasu's only remaining obstacle for total control of Japan is Hideyori. In 1614, Ieyasu renounces his allegiance to Hideyori and attacks Osaka Castle, slaughtering more than 100,000. It is the beginning of a dynasty that will endure for more than 250 years.
Florence, 1537: Alessandro de'Medici the Duke of Florence, lies murdered in his bed. His cousin is plucked from obscurity to lead Florence. He is just 17. His rivals think he's a puppet, but despite his youth, Cosimo de'Medici, the new Duke of Florence, is ambitious.
Florence, 1501: 26-year-old Michelangelo carves a giant masterpiece which will come to symbolize his struggle against a family he once adored. Raised from a young age alongside the Medici heirs he watched as they were cast into exile with a price on their heads. Now they are searching for a path back to power.
Florence, August 1466: Lorenzo de'Medici, the 17-year-old heir to the dynasty, foils a murderous plot against his father and saves his family from a coup d'etat. The Medici still dominate Florence, but now take extra precautions, picking a useful bride for Lorenzo. Clarice Orsini, a baron's daughter and cardinal's niece, brings connections, class, and military muscle to the Medici dynasty.
Europe, 1400: A continent torn apart by war and plague is dominated by the authority of the Catholic Church. In the towns and cities live merchants and entrepreneurs who sense that their world is changing. With increasing trade and wealth an appetite for enlightenment develops.No longer neglected in the shadows of the Church, classical philosophy, poetry, art and sculpture begin to reach a new audience. This is especially true in cosmopolitan cities like Florence, home of Cosimo de'Medici.
With the destruction of the Temple, the Romans have destroyed the only place on earth, according to Biblical Law, where Jews can worship God. The Judaism of priests and sacrifices is lost forever, and rabbis struggle to reinvent the religion of Moses and David. They are forced to work during a period of incredible bloodshed and turmoil. In 132 A.D. Jewish zealots rise against Rome's legions in the Bar Kochba rebellion, forcing them to withdraw from the region. The Romans return with a vast army and slaughter nearly 600,000 Jews. They change the name of the region from Judea to Palestine and ban all Jews from Jerusalem. Desperate to start new lives, many Jews flee to distant lands, only to face another challenge - a breakaway form of Judaism called Christianity. As it rises to political power, Christianity becomes deeply anti-Semitic. But Judaism survives - and in doing so, preserves for all its unique gifts, including the rights of the individual and the rule of law - gifts that will change the Western world forever.
In 63 B.C., the Roman General Pompeii leads his legions into the land of Judea. It is the beginning of a clash of cultures between Rome and the Jews that would grow into one of the most brutal conflicts in history. It also pits Jew against Jew, as many of the different factions of Judaism, such as the Zealots and the Essenes, clash over the interpretation of the true will of God as revealed in the Bible. Terrorism, political assassination, starvation, and crucifixion dominate the landscape. The period ends with the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Out of the ashes will rise two new religions: rabbinical Judaism and Christianity.
In 458 B.C., a scribe named Ezra arrives in Jerusalem from Babylon. He gathers the mostly illiterate Judeans together in a square and reads the Bible to them. In the years that follow, the study of the Bible not only becomes an essential part of Jewish life, it prepares the Jews to face a mortal threat to their survival. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great sweeps into the Middle East. In his wake comes Greek culture, the allure of which convinces many to abandon their ancestral ways. But when the Greek king Antiochus the Madman forbids the practice of Judaism, Judah the Maccabee leads the Jews in an epic fight to defend their religious freedom. In 160 B.C, the Maccabees succeed in driving out the Greeks and establish what would prove to be the last independent Jewish kingdom.
In 586 B.C., the Babylonians lead almost all that remains of the tribe of Judah - the Israelites - to exile in Babylon. Only a few generations earlier, the northern tribes of the Israelites were taken into exile and vanished forever. Now the Judeans, too, seem destined to disappear. They fight back, however, by writing a book. Using Judean stories from the past to explain present disastrous situations, the book becomes the earliest edition of the most influential work in history: the Bible. This episode introduces the early and profoundly influential figures of Judaism: Abraham, who is the first to recognize the concept of one God; Moses, who receives the Ten Commandments from God; and David, whose sins teach the Israelites that no one is above the law of God.
Martin Luther is born into a world dominated by the Catholic Church. For the keenly spiritual Luther, the Church's promise of salvation is irresistible. Caught in a thunderstorm and terrified by the possibility of imminent death, he vows to become a monk. But after entering the monastery, Luther becomes increasingly doubtful that the Church can actually offer him salvation. His views crystallize further when he travels to Rome and finds the capital of Catholicism swamped in corruption. Wracked by despair, Luther finds release in the pages of the Bible, discovering that it is not the Church, but his own individual faith that will guarantee his salvation. With this revelation, he turns on the Church. He attacks its practice of selling Indulgences in his famous 95 Theses, putting himself on an irreversible path to conflict with the most powerful institution of the day. The Catholic Church uses all of its might to try to silence Luther, including accusations of heresy and excommunication. Protected by his local ruler, Frederick the Wise, Luther continues to write radical critiques of the Church. In the process, he develops a new system of faith that places the freedom of the individual believer above the rituals of the Church. Aided by the newly invented printing press, his ideas spread rapidly. He is called before the German imperial parliament in the city of Worms and told he must recant. Risking torture and execution, Luther refuses, proclaiming his inalienable right to believe what he wishes. His stand becomes a legend that inspires revolution across Europe, overturning the thousand-year old hegemony of the Church. But as the reformation expands into a movement for social freedom, Luther finds himself overwhelmed by the pace of change, and is left vainly protesting that his followers should be concerning themselves with God.
Giorgio Vasari writes a book to define the Renaissance; Galileo pursues his scientific studies with the support of the Medici family.