Rome: Engineering an Empire

The documentary Rome: Engineering an Empire (apparently the first in a doc series called Engineering an Empire on the History Channel) is mostly good, and not only because Robocop does the commentary. The history of Rome from Julius Caesar to Caracalla is highlighted through its engineering feats, beginning with Caesar’s temporary bridge across the Rhine (an artefact any evidence of which I wonder remains), although jumping back to tell us all about the Via Appia (a road) and the Cloaca Maxima (a sewer). Showcased are aqueducts, Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea), the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), the Forum of Trajan (including the Column), Hadrian’s Wall, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Caracalla.

I think something more may have been said on the subject of Claudius, but I was loading the laundry at that point.

The monuments are used to demonstrate something about the men who built them, a documentary conceit I quite like. The Domus Aurea reminds us of Nero’s egotism and reckless, profligate spending. Hadrian’s Wall reminds us of Hadrian’s task of demonstrating himself a great general while at the same time maintaining, not expanding, Rome’s borders. That sort of thing.

Each architectural piece is discussed from an engineering point of view, including CGI blueprints and cross-sections, which are very helpful in helping the uninitiated (i.e. me [I do history, not engineering]) understand what is being discussed.

I know this sort of thing is currently out of fashion in documentaries, but they also used computers to reconstruct ruined monuments, often superimposed over real footage of what they are like today — so Hadrian’s Wall is seen at (estimated) full height in Northumbria, or the glittering interior of the Domus Aurea is spliced in between shots of the building as it is right now. There are also costumed re-enactors, who have never bothered me, although as to why they are always using such wrinkly parchment instead of smooth papyrus — or even smooth parchment — is beyond me.

For those reasons alone, it is worth an hour and a half of your time, if you ask me.

Just watch out for usual American republicanisms, such as referring to the Senate as ‘elected’ or the Principate as ‘tyranny.’ And ignore the last few minutes about the Later Roman Empire entirely, where the whole period from Caracalla’s death in 217 up to the 500s is seen as Rome spiralling towards her own demise (a very slow spiral if it takes 300[?] years) and completely ignoring the architectural and engineering feats of the period, as well as the military strength and stability of the fourth century — and the cutting of the aqueducts by the Ostrogothic forces in their siege of Rome in 537 is referred to as being the action of ‘one tribal group.’ Right. The Ostrogoths were just a bunch of marauding savages in skins, I imagine. Certainly, that’s what their art tells us:

Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy

Anyway, I own a copy on DVD (a gift from my lovely parents), but it seems to be available on YouTube if you’re interested.

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