TV Review – ‘The Dark Ages’

This History Channel documentary is very similar in flavor to “Rome – Rise and Fall of an Empire” that I enjoyed enough to buy a copy, and I added this DVD to the package.  The history is presented by the narrator over live action vignettes interspersed with historians giving commentary to give context.

Since the Dark Ages span a longer period than the individual shows in “Rome”, coverage is restricted to a few isolated places and times over the span from 410 AD to 1080 AD or so, about the time of the Crusades. It was at this point that Europe again started to regain the ability to contact and trade and interact with the entire area that Rome once ruled.

The periods discussed are Alaric and the sack of Rome in 410, Clovis and the consolidation of France, Justinian and Theodora and the attempt to retake Italy in 530, Bede and St Benedict preserving knowledge, Charles Martel driving back the Muslims at Tours, Charlemagne, the Vikings and Alfred the Great, and then the problem with Knights up to the Crusades.   In many of the cases you can see a start at recovery that gets beaten back: Justinian’s conquests might have led to a new Empire in the Mediterranean, but plague so weakened the state that they could only make it a battleground for twenty years.  Charlemagne made a start as well, but the helplessness against the Vikings set them back again.  Once the Vikings were beaten back, the Knights needed to do so became problems of their own.

These days scholars want to try to downplay the “Dark” in these ages, but it was a bad time for Europe as a whole.  It isn’t all the fault of the people of the time, of course, but ignoring the loss of trade, technology, and peace and order of the centuries before is not the way to go.

It is a very informative and interesting show, if a bit ‘Dark’. If you find it too chipper, though, the disk also includes a bonus show on the Black Death.  Again, it is an instance of Europe doing very well right up until something intervenes to really mess things up.  And having a third to two-thirds of the population die pretty much qualifies.

There’s also a shorter ‘Making Of Dark Ages’ show that is pretty good viewing.

TV Review – Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire: Constantine

This series of documentaries is cycling though on TIVO and I caught this episode on the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The series picks several events in the life of the empire – some even before it starts, like Marius and Caesar.  The best part is that it actually has more coverage near the end – it has at least three episodes after 400 AD – one on Stilicho, Ricimer and Majorian, and one on Odoacer who puts and end to the Western Empire.

It is a good series, and it provides a lot of information while using reinactor skits for key battles and events to add some punch. You do start to recognize the foot soldiers as they reuse them, but the main characters are well cast.

The history is pretty accurate, although saying that Constantine’s rise to co-emperor was valid while Maxentius was a nasty usurper is a little forced.  The casting of Maxentius is great – he looks like that annoying guy in high school you always wanted to smack. He even looks a lot like the bust I saw on Wikipedia.

Aside from his initial nomination, the show doesn’t pull that many punches about Constantine’s ambition to be sole emperor and wiping out the others, and also his execution of his own son Crispus.

Worth watching for sure.

TV Review: Unearthing Ancient Secrets – The Death of Cleopatra

This is an episode of a series I have started TIVOing. In this episode they have a profiler, Pat Brown, look into what might be wrong with the story of Cleopatra and the asp. Who is Pat Brown? Well they give has her credential the profiling of the Washington DC Sniper. Given the hopelessly bungled investigation of that incident, this hardly seems like something to have confidence in.

The repudiation of the suicide story is pretty thin. The “evidence” is that Cleopatra was a ‘fighter’ or ‘survivor’. Given her situation, a prisoner of the man who was the sole ruler of the entire known world, supposedly destined for a humiliating triumph followed by execution, the supposition that she should fight on assuming something would ‘turn up’ is ludicrous. The argument that today’s suicides are sad and ineffectual hardly applies to the drives of a queen and demigod. Andi its notable that the suicide of Mark Anthony somehow escapes any sort of scrutiny.

Another other piece of counterargument is that Cleo was dead before her suicide note brought the guards. Since her handmaidens were not dead at the same time, its reasonable to think that Cleo made sure that she was dead before having her handmaidens send the note.

And the final nail, the “motive” is that Augustus had her killed, is pretty silly. For one thing, reportedly he wanted her to display in his triumph. If he did not, there’s no reason why he would feel constrained in ordering the execution of a foreign ruler that Rome had gone to war with. There would be no reason to conceal it because to Rome it wasn’t a crime!

The reason the story of Cleopatra’s suicide resonates through history is that by her death she defied the might of Rome one last time. They make the point that Octavian/Augustus was a master of spin and message control. This would not be the kind of message he would prefer to get out about the woman who he blamed for a huge war and whose son by Julius Caesar was a possible threat (if a remote one) to Octavian’s positon as the heir of Caesar.

There was a funny moment where they said that Augustus got his name from the month he conquered Egypt. Actually August got its name from him, not the reverse. This hardly requires much research to discover.

Most of the rest of these shows are much better done – even the one on the possible murder of King Tut presents the pros and cons of the theory to a much greater extent, even showing at the end some new evidence that casts some doubt on the murder theory – first by countering the X Ray evidence for a head injury, and second by showing a possible leg wound. Although they don’t emphasize this, a lingering wound and decline could lead to the succession crisis between the childless queen and dying king versus the viziers who need to set up a new government after his death, without the need for an actual act of murder.