I've been watching the BBC's Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire on VCD. US Amazon has the book of the TV series, but the DVD is as yet only availabe from UK Amazon. With Mary Beard as one of its historical advisors, we can be reasonably certain that the programmes at least get the basic facts right.
The series is supposed to take us from the defeat of Carthage to Alaric's capture of Rome in 6 50-minute episodes but are not in chronological order. The order is: Nero, Julius Caesar, Tiberius Gracchus, the Jewish revolt and Vespasian and Titus, Constantine, and Alaric's siege and sack of Rome. Since the series does not assume much knowledge on the part of viewers, I can't help but wonder whether this chronological hopping about might not confuse them.
I couldn't quite work out why the first episode was on Nero -- was it a bit of name recognition to get the punters in right at the start? The programme started with the great fire of 64 (it is made clear that Nero was not to blame) and then took us rapidly through Nero's rebuilding programme and efforts to raise money for it, the Pisonian conspiracy, his stage performances, his murder of Poppaea, his tour of Greece and eventual return to Rome, Vindex's rebellion, the Senate's declaration of Nero as a public enemy and his death. There was plenty of blood, torture and sexuality on the way.
The programme strove to give the impression that the fire was the key event of Nero's reign and that the taxation to fund the rebuilding programme was what lead to the Pisonian conspiracy, and Nero becoming more and more unhinged due to his efforts being thwarted. Although a 50-minute programme obviously has to be selective, I did find it curious that Nero's matricide and his use of Christians as living torches were omitted. Are these now doubted by historians?
The subject of the second programme was Julius Caesar. The main focus of the progamme was Julius Caesar the general. We started with an extended section on the battle of Alesia, and then via the efforts of Cato and Marcellus to persuade Pompey to lead the Senate's forces we moved on swiftly to the Civil War, culminating in another extended section on the battle of Pharsalus, with Julius Caesar's assassination more or less as an epilogue.
Julius Caesar's addresses to his troops assured us that he was fighting for the people against a corrupt aristocracy -- and the visual elements bore that out by showing sleek, fat Senators on the one side and young soldiers and grizzled centurions on the other. Nothing was said about what Julius Caesar actually did for the people, or indeed anything at all about what he did with his power once he'd got it.
The third programme took Tiberius Gracchus as its subject. A prologue showed the funeral of his father. Unfortunately the dancers wearing the ancestral masks reminded me irresistibly of the dirge scene from the film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. James D'Arcy, the actor who played the adult Tiberius, seemed to spend most of the episode looking scared about one thing or another, starting from the destruction of Carthage, to being trapped with the army in Spain, to his tribunate. The story of his tribunate was set firmly in terms of people (good) v. senate (bad), with no indication that anyone in the Senate apart from Tiberius' father-in-law Claudius might have supported him. And no mention of Gaius at all. I must admit I was disappointed in Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, not very impressive at all. What was good in this episode was the scenes from every day life: funerals, weddings, reasonably sedate parties, the filth in the streets, and so on.
The fourth progamme was focussed on Josephus and the Jewish revolt, and incidentally how the Flavians came to power. We saw lots of siege weapons and there was plenty of gore.
The subject of the fifth programme was Constantine, focussing on the period from just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge to the final defeat and later murder of Licinius, and within that period we mainly saw battles and some of Lactantius's efforts to convert Constantine and the resistance to the new religion from the senate. Constantia's wedding came as something of a relief. Constantine's sign in the heavens was portrayed as a dust cloud raised by a meteorite strike. There was no indication that Licinius was anything other than an innocent victim of Constantine's hypocrisy (his murder was interleaved with Constantine closing the Council of Nicaea by reciting the creed), while Fausta's death is briefly mentioned as believed by some to have been ordered by Constantine -- no reason was given but the flashbacks to her appearances in the programme led one to believe that it was because she was an anti-Christian sexpot. No mention of Constantinople.
Most of the sixth and last programme was taken up by a flashback as Alaric was about to lead his men into the sack of Rome. The flashback showed how events led to this point though it was not something either Alaric or the Emperor Honorius wanted. Right at the end, the programmme summed up what happened next to the characters, telling us that Athaulf, Alaric's brother-in-law, married Gallia Placida, with no mention of who she was. I don't even remember seeing any women who might have been her in the programme, so that would have been a bit baffling for someone who knew nothing or very little about the period. She must have been in there somewhere, though, because she was in the credits.
Taking the series as a whole, I enjoyed the re-creations of life in Rome, and the awareness that in a period of some 550 years which the series covered things would have changed, that people wore different clothes and had different props at different times. Although more Rome on TV is always welcome, I'm not sure who this series was aimed at. The chronological hopping about would be confusing for those who knew little to start with, while those who do know something would probably find much to criticise in the over-simplification of political life and emphasis on battle scenes. Of course, I realise there is only so much one can get across in six 50-minute programmes. Although the justification for such programmes is that they will inspire people to find out more for themselves, I do wonder if that is actually true.
I haven't seen the book that goes with the series and it may be that it might help sort out some confusions and show more of the complexity of what we know and what we don't know and how different and yet how similar the Romans were to us, which is of course what makes them so interesting.
For another view, see Lindsey Davis's review from The Times.