The History Channel's Engineering an Empire series, containing six DVDs, focuses on the engineering and architectural triumphs of great (and not so great) civilizations. Each of the programs attempts to feature a society's engineering accomplishments as a prism through which to view its history and culture. Because of the arbitrary selection of societies and engineering accomplishments and the limited length of each program, the series fails to achieve this grand goal, but it is still both entertaining and to a limited extent educational.
All too often, the engineering accomplishments of the civilizations covered are limited to aqueducts, the use of pilings to support buildings in marshes and over bodies of water, the discovery of the corbelled arch, and military inventions like the Greek triremes and the ubiquitous catapult in its various forms.
Although actors are used extensively, they look like you expect real people of the time would have looked, a major advantage that the History Channel has over PBS, where the actors are always English and good-looking. A History Channel Persian or Mayan looks like a Persian or Mayan.
One area in which the History Channel excels is that of Computer-Aided Design, which they use to "reconstruct" buildings that either lie in ruins or have disappeared. The results are remarkable.
On the negative side, while the experts who appear are clearly highly knowledgeable leaders in their field, that field is limited to history; relatively few professional engineers or architects appear.
The selection of Peter Weller (of RoboCop fame) as a host was initially off-putting to me (despite constant references to his links to Syracuse University, he apparently only received an M.A. from that institution, later becoming an adjunct lecturer there in film), but over time I came to appreciate his enthusiasm and willingness to laugh at himself.
Programs on the first four disks include:
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 1: Greece, Age of Alexander, & The Aztecs [DVD] (141 min.)
I question the inclusion of the Aztec segment which generally talks about their use of pilings to build their city on a lake. In contrast the Mayan segment, which appears in Vol. 3, is fascinating -- truly an advanced civilization.
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 2: Carthage, China & Russia [DVD] (141 min.)
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 3: Britain-Blood & Steel, Persians, & Maya-Death Empire [DVD] (141 min.)
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 4: Napoleon-Steel Monster, Byzantines, & Da Vinci's World [DVD] (141 min.)
The segment on Da Vinci's world has nothing to do with Da Vinci, focusing instead on Brunelleschi's building of the Duomo and the rebuilding of Rome in the 1500s. A separate segment includes a Syracuse University architecture professor discussing Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel. I only wish it had lasted longer.
The final two disks, which appear to have been made before the first four, are the flagships of the series, each containing one long, high quality program:
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 5: Rome [DVD] (94 min.)
More dramatic than the others, this program provides a nice overview of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. If you're only going to buy one disk, this is the one. It features excellent CAD reconstructions of many of the most famous Roman engineering accomplishments.
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 6: Egypt [DVD] (92 min.)
Also of very high quality. Again, the CAD reconstructions are excellent. The experts, especially a woman professor from the American University in Cairo, are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject. There's also an interesting add-on featuring Peter Weller talking about how he got into this line of work and why he enjoys it so much.
As indicated above, I question the inclusion of the Aztecs in this series, especially since there are other culturs that would have been more interesting (e.g., Babylon, India and the Incas.)
I did not experience the screen format problems that other viewers complain about, perhaps because my TV allows me to switch between five different formats, so I can use the best-fitting one.