This documentary about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, which has been shown on the History Channel, is available on DVD. It is divided into thirteen episodes. Each episode, which runs for about 45 minutes, covers one person and/or one topic. Here is a brief overview:
1. "The First Barbarian War." Gajus Marius (born 157 BC, died 86 BC)
2. "Spartacus." The slave rebellion in Italy (73-71 BC)
3. "Julius Caesar." The military commander (born 100 BC, died 44 BC)
4. "The Forest of Death." The devastating Roman military defeat in a German Forest in the year AD 9.
5. "The Invasion of Britain." Emperor Claudius (41-54)
6. "The Dacian Wars." Emperor Trajan (98-117)
7. "Rebellion and Betrayal." Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
8. "Wrath of the Gods." Emperor Decius (249-251)
9. "The Soldiers' Emperor." Emperor Aurelian (270-275)
10. "Constantine the Great." Emperor Constantine (306-337)
11. "The Barbarian General." Emperor Theodosius (379-395)
12. "The Puppet Master." Ricimer (born 405, died 472)
13. "The Last Emperor." Emperor Romulus Augustulus (476)
Many scenes have been reconstructed with the help of modern actors, but they do not speak to us. While we watch them, a narrator brings the story forward, step by step. Sometimes he quotes an ancient source, for instance the historian Cassius Dio or Tacitus, which gives the documentary added credibility.
Several modern experts have been interviewed for the documentary. We meet them from time, always one at a time. They do not talk to each other, they talk to us. The panel of experts changes gradually, from one episode to the next, depending on the topic.
When we meet the experts, the reconstructions with modern actors are (partially) interrupted, which gives the documentary some variation.
This documentary covers a lot of ground: many persons and many topics are presented. But the problem is that the history of the Roman Empire is very long and cannot be covered in a book of a few hundred pages or a documentary of a few hours. Several important persons and topics are ignored, even though they are needed to give and to get a full and fair picture of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Let me explain my concerns:
(a) How and why was the Roman Empire established? This question is never addressed. We never hear anything about "the rise" of the Roman Empire. The earliest date we hear is 113 BC (in episode # 1). At that time the city of Rome was already more than 600 years old, and its empire was already well established. The first part of the title is simply misleading.
(b) The documentary has a very narrow focus: military and political history. All other aspects of Roman society - such as social or economic history, such as art and architecture - are virtually ignored. Obviously, the Roman army is an important factor in any account of the Roman world, but it is not the only relevant factor.
(c) Episode # 5, "The invasion of Britain," covers only the first few years of this operation, from the beginning in AD 43 to around 53. We never hear about the large-scale uprising in AD 60, during which Queen Boudica came very close to defeating the Roman forces in Britain.
(d) From episode # 6 with Trajan and the Dacian wars the documentary jumps to Marcus Aurelius. So Emperor Hadrian is ignored. In addition, the long and difficult conflict between the Romans and the Jews is ignored:
* The first round - the uprising in Jerusalem, 66-70
* The second round - the uprising in Cyrene, 115-117
* The third round - the uprising in Jerusalem, 132-135
(e) In episode # 7 we are told that Marcus Aurelius appointed his son Commodus as his heir. The experts explain that this was only "natural" - but this is not true. Since Nerva (96-98) there had been a new system in which the ruling emperor did not appoint his son as his heir, but instead the most promising candidate. Nerva adopted Trajan, who adopted Hadrian, who adopted Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. The period of the adoptive emperors is considered "a golden era" by many modern observers. Marcus Aurelius himself had been adopted, so there was nothing "natural" about it when he appointed his son as his heir. Indeed, many modern observers feel that Commodus was a most unfortunate choice.
(f) From episode # 7 with Marcus Aurelius the documentary jumps to Decius and the Gothic wars. We never hear about Emperor Septimius Severus (the first Roman Emperor who was born in Africa) and his dynasty. In 212, during the rule of his son Caracalla, all citizens of the empire were declared Roman citizens. This important event is ignored.
(g) Why did the Roman Empire fall? This question is (almost) never addressed (except for a few brief remarks at the end of the last episode). We follow the history of the (western) empire as it falls apart, step by step, but there is no systematic attempt to identify the factors which played (or may have played) a role here, and consequently no attempt to evaluate the importance and weight of each individual factor.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with this documentary is not so much what the producers have done, but what they have not done. The flaw is not so much an act of commission, but an act of omission.
Because of the narrow focus on military and political history, because of the omission of important persons and topics, I cannot give it four or five stars. On the other hand, it would not be fair to give it only one or two stars, because what the producers have done is not bad. Therefore my conclusion is that it deserves a rating of three stars.