Koch Vision // 2006 // 205 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // January 31st, 2008
So You Think You Know Everything About The Romans?
What does it mean to be a "barbarian"? What does it mean to be "civilized"? How much can we trust historical documents? How much should we admire empires? These are the questions tackled by Terry Jones (Monty Python And The Holy Grail) in this entertaining and thought-provoking series. Without a doubt, it will make you reconsider what you were taught about the Roman Empire during your high school history classes. The four episode series, written and hosted by Jones, is presented on two discs.
Episode 1: "The Primitive Celts"
Why did Julius Caesar invade Gaul (now France) in 58 BC? According to Caesar, it was to bring peace to the area by ending wars between the "uncivilized" tribes living there. Is the truth? Or were the true motivations Caesar's political ambitions, his large debts, and the approximately 400 gold mines situated on Celtic lands. More importantly, how "barbaric" were the Celts? How "barbaric" are a people that possessed a relatively progressive legal system and a vast transportation network stretching from Ireland to West Germany to conduct trade?
Episode 2: "The Savage Goths"
The Romans considered Germans to be loyal and dependable, allowing them to serve in the Roman Army and as bodyguards for the emperor. However, the Germans grew to resent oppressive Roman rule. This episode focuses on the Germanic rejection of Roman rule at the Battle of the Teutoborg Forest in 9 AD. The Germans, led by the Arminius (a German who served as a commander in the Roman Army), slaughtered three Roman legions (20,000 soldiers) in a well designed trap. Not bad for an unorganized group of "barbarians," eh?
Episode 3: "The Brainy Barbarians"
This episode compares the Romans to the Greeks and Persians, who the Romans considered to be decadent and effete, focusing on two campaigns. First, the siege of Syracuse (213-212 BC) and the murder of the brilliant mathematician and engineer Archimedes (212 BC) by the Romans are examined. Second, the disastrous attempts by Rome to conquer the Parthian (Persian) Empire are recounted. In both cases, the Romans have enormous manpower advantages, but are outwitted and outmaneuvered (temporarily in the case of Syracuse and decisively in the case of Parthia). Wait a second! Weren't the Romans supposed to have a highly trained and technologically advanced army? Curious.
Episode 4: "The End Of The World":
The final episode looks at the demise of the Roman Empire (and rise of the Catholic Church) under the twin threats of the Huns and the Vandals. In both cases, the armies of these so-called "barbarian" peoples reached the gates of Rome and have an opportunity to lay waste to the city. Strangely, both decided to spare Rome rather than burn it to the ground. That doesn't sound very "barbaric," does it?
The primary messages that Jones presents in this series are: (1) The Barbarians were not as backwards as most of us believe; (2) The Romans were not as civilized or intellectually superior as most of us believe; (3) No matter how many glorious and beautiful monuments are constructed, ultimately, empires are built on violence and the destruction; and, (4) Most of what we are taught about this period of history is based on a very biased view. Jones performs a valuable service by reminding us that there is more than one side to historical events, even if only one side shows up in the textbook. Whether Jones intends the viewer to find contemporary relevancy in this history lesson is left unsaid, but it does not take many steps to make connections modern day occurrences.
Some viewers may find Jones to be more anti-Roman (and in episode 4, anti-Catholic Church) than pro-barbarian. After all, each of the groups examined are guilty of multiple acts of brutality. And it may very well be that Jones overplays "barbarian" accomplishments and Roman misdeeds in his attempt to rebalance the historical record. But this is a minor quibble.
There are no extras.
The video and audio get the job done, but are not particularly impressive.
Overall, this series is compelling, enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Jones keeps things light and moving at a breezy pace, presenting a lot of information without getting bogged down in minutiae.
If only history class was this fun.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 205 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated