Judge Dylan Charles keeps watching Rome rise and fall like the tide.
"We should care because in Rome lay all of the wonderful aspects of humanity and all of the terrible aspects of humanity and if we study those we understand them. Perhaps we can repeat the good ones and not repeat the bad."—Kelly Devries
Rome has been and most likely always will be a popular subject. It's been featured in hundreds of movies (Spartacus is the best), miniseries, television shows, books, and that one episode of Star Trek with that planet with televised gladiator fights. It might even be asked, do we really need yet another documentary about Rome? What can Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire offer that we haven't seen a dozen times before?
Well, a lot actually.
Facts of the Case
Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire is 13 episodes long and spread across four discs. Each episode focuses on a single emperor or figure. While experts (both ancient and modern) tell the story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, elaborate reenactment scenes unfold. Serious moolah was spent making this miniseries, I'll wager, and it shows.
The History Channel has taken a different approach with this series than it has in other shows. Rather than focusing on say, ruins and archeological sites and models, there's a very strong focus on reenactments and historians sitting in comfortable chairs while talking. If I had to describe it, I'd say it was storytime with moving pictures—with lots of blood and swords and plague. There's a continuous stream of narration, either provided by the numerous historians or by the faceless narrator, and there's an almost equally continuous stream of reenactments. And no small reenactments either. There are plenty of guys running around in full armor and swinging swords and shooting arrows on large sets or on location in either the forest or the desert.
At times, the reenactments can be a bit ridiculous. The narrator will describe thousands of men clashing on a battlefield and the audience sees a total of twenty guys wailing on each other. It has a small effect on the impact of the whole thing. I noticed that barbarian destruction seemed focused on the overturning of multiple tables. It's just not a sacking if a table isn't overturned. And the Egyptians were awfully blond. And I'd also like to debate the prevalence of so many crosses in the early Christian church, seeing as that was a pretty major point of contention in those days.
Aside from that, the reenactments help the audience develop more of an attachment to the people the historians are talking about. Most of the episodes pick one or two people from a small frame of history. They go for the more well-known emperors (Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Marcus Aurelius), but also cover the lesser-known ones (Diocletian, Aurelian, Julius Nepos) and paint a broad picture of the Roman Empire. With such a strong focus on the reenactments, it becomes more possible to become emotionally involved with what's on screen. It makes history easier to relate to than if people just watched a couple of marble busts parade across the screen.
The historians are as entertaining, if not more so, than the visuals, painting a vivid picture of the Roman Empire at its height and fall. They use contemporary examples to help the audience better visualize a culture that is almost alien to our own; comparing a eunuch as consul to a porn star as president especially stuck in my mind.
The History Channel also lets ancient Roman historians speak for their own people, with folks like Tacitus chiming in from time to time. That's good, even if the Romans often have a biased view of themselves and seem to have little qualms about painting whatever picture they like about their friends and enemies.
The History Channel, as usual, has done a great job with this DVD release. I'm not sure why, but the History Channel always goes the extra mile with its packages. UFO Hunters even got a Steelbook box. Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire looks and sounds great, a suitable treatment for their almost cinematic quality reenactments. There is only one extra, which is actually an episode from the series Modern Marvels. It focuses on barbarian technology from the time of the Romans and gives the enemies of the Romans a little more screen time. It's a good way to round out the already substantial amount of information the series provides.
Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire is an entertaining and informative look at, well, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Despite the huge swath of history covered, the show manages to stay on target and not get lost in the details, delivering a broad overview of one of the most fascinating eras in Western history.
History has judged Rome and, along with Judge Dylan Charles, found it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Modern Marvels: Barbarian Battle Tech
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