October 17, 2013



Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire

Rising from the ashes of the erstwhile republic in the first century BC, the Roman Empire is considered to be of the greatest ever in the history of mankind. In the six centuries of its existence, this super power grew exponentially; with its epicenter in the eternal city of Rome in the Italian peninsula, it dominated most of Europe, besides colonizing some parts of Northern Africa and Eastern Asia. The famed Legions of Rome – a war machine based on perfect discipline and meticulous planning, led by fierce generals helped in conquering new lands and keeping the enemies at bay, both internal and external. Roman engineers came out with innovations in various streams of science and technology that made it the most advanced civilization that the world had ever seen. As the empire became stronger, art and literature flourished; emperors commissioned architectural marvels in honour of their gods or to commemorate their own legacy. However, in the fifth century, the empire which was by now a mere shadow of its former glory collapsed as internal politics weakened its very foundations, making it impossible for Rome to stand against the various barbaric hordes with which it had fought relentless wars over the ages for the control of the fertile Mediterranean basin. The History Channel documentary – Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire traces the journey of this mighty empire, from the last days of the republic to its ultimate collapse in 476 AD. Relying primarily on the accounts of ancient historians, the thirteen part series depicts the important stages that the Roman Empire went through in those 500 odd years in form of visual re-creation and opinions of experts in Roman studies from various universities.

For a person like me who’s knowledge of the Roman Empire was restricted to a few events like the crowing of Augustus following the brutal murder of his uncle Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, the burning of the imperial city during the days of Nero and the adoption of Christianity under the reign of Constantine, this documentary was a reservoir of information. In fact for anybody who enjoys history and who has time to spare, this series is a must watch. Each episode tells us about a particular period of the Empire, the prominent people including the emperors, powerful noblemen and enemy chiefs leading their savage tribesmen to plunder Roman territories; the intrigues and conspiracies in the royal court; the battles fought both at home and in the farthest corners of the empire as well as the socio-economic conditions prevalent in contemporary Rome. However, what goes against the series is the time; with each episode running for about 46 minutes, the total run time is close to 10 hours. Also, if you do not like political history, the series tends to get repetitive as it progresses. The best way to watch it and enjoy it, perhaps is to see one or at max two episodes per day. While the writers have done their homework very well, I do not understand how they missed out on the reign of Nero, especially the persecution of Christians and the martyrdom of St. Peter following the great fire. All in all, the whole documentary is great for any history buff and the learning at the end is worth all the effort. The episodes are as follows:

1. The First Barbarian War: In the early second century BC, as the republic struggles against the barbarian tribes in the north and the Numidians in the south, General Marius rises to the occasion, beating off the threats from all sides. As he is elected for seven consulship for an unprecedented seven terms, the foundations of dictatorship are laid. 

2. Spartacus: Seeing the pathetic conditions of the gladiators, Spartacus raises the banner of revolt as the republic plummets into a major civil war. While the slave army prevails in the beginning, threatening to march on to Rome, the consuls Crassus and Pompey see off this giant threat from within. 

3. Julius Caesar: An ambitious soldier, Caesar is the master mind of the Triumvirate that controls the political affairs in Rome. Appointed the governor of rich southern Gallic provinces, he captures the whole region in the next decade. Returning to the capital to reap the benefits of his military campaigns, he beats the conservatives led by his former ally - the great general Pompey, who see Caesar as a threat to democracy. As he declares himself the dictator for life, he is murdered and every stab that he takes also hastens the end of the republic. 

4. The Forest of Death: As the empire begins the process of Romanizing the tribes to the east of the Rhine, Armenius – a barbarian prince who rises to the position of a commander in the Roman army, rebels against Rome’s invasion into the lives of his people. He forms a coalition of tribes and ambushes the imperial army at Kal Kriese destroying three legions. Devastated at the loss, Emperor Augustus sends his general Germanicus to revenge this ignominious defeat and salvage the lost pride of Rome. Locked in a bitter war, Aremnius is killed by his fellow tribesmen whereas the Roman general dies of disease. 

5. Invasion of Britain: As Claudius is unexpectedly crowned the emperor, he decides to invade the island of Britain – the land of the Druids to prove his worth to his army and his subjects. Caractacus, the prince of the Catuvellauni tribe and the master of guerrilla warfare leads a long drawn campaign against the Romans till he is captured by general Scapula and paraded through the streets of Rome in a procession where he is surprisingly granted pardon by the emperor. 

6. The Dacian Wars: In 96 AD, the unpopular emperor Domition who faced several disastrous defeats in Germania and Dacia is assassinated in a court conspiracy. Trajan, who had an illustrious military career in his early years, is chosen for the top job. He defeats the Dacian king Decebalus and captures his entire treasury with which he builds the famed Trajan’s column in Rome. In his later years, he leads a campaign into Parthia where he meets with partial success. 

7. Rebellion and Betrayal: The initial years of the reign of Marcus Aurelius as the sole emperor is marked by plague that destroys a tenth of Rome’s civilian population and a large portion of its army, besides barbarian invasions in the north. As he matures in his role, he wins a series of victories over the Germanic tribes, suppresses the revolt in Egypt and also defeats his rival to the throne and his former friend - Avidius

8. Wrath of the Gods: Believing that the many problems plaguing the Empire are due to the dissatisfaction of the Pagan Gods over the functioning of Rome and her institutions, Emperor Decius orders all citizens, irrespective of their religion to offer sacrifice to the ancient gods. His reign which is marked by the persecution of thousands of Christians ends when he is slaughtered on the battlefield by the savaging Goths. 

9. The Soldier’s Emperor: Aurelian ascends an empire which has lost its farthest corners to rebellious armies and is threatened by barbarian invasions into the Italian peninsula. However, the warrior king who makes regular sacrifices to Soul Invictus – the God of Victory, beats back the invading Alamannis, defeats the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia and puts down the revolt of Tetricus in Gaul, reuniting the once torn empire. 

10. Constantine the Great: Grateful to the Christian God for his victory at Meluvian Bridge, Constantine embarks upon a religious revolution granting equal rights to the Christians – a sect which has been persecuted for ages. His patronage to this new religion will make Rome the capital of Christendom in the coming centuries. By the time of his baptism, he has unified the empire and built the city of Constantinople, which will in the course of time became the capital of the Eastern Empire. 

11. The Barbarian General: Eastern Emperor Theodosius and his lieutenant the half Vandal, half Roman Stilicho re-unite the empire with the help of Visigothic king Alaric. After the former’s death, his young son Honorius ascends the throne in the West with the barbarian general as his guardian who enters into a treaty with the Visigoths to capture the rich province of Illyricum from the east. However as anti-barbarian sentiments spread across Italy and ethnic riots rock the cities, Honorius refuses to abide by the pact and has Stilicho executed. As the treaty falls, Alaric sacks Rome. 

12. The Puppet Master: In the middle of the fifth century AD, three generals – Majorian, Aegidius and the barbarian born Ricimer defeat the unpopular emperor. Lucimer who craves for absolute power has both his former friends assassinated and becomes the real authority. The Eastern Emperor Leo installs Anthemius in Rome and sponsors a campaign against Vandals. It is a failure thanks to sabotage by Lucimer who sees the new emperor as a threat. The latter leads an army from Milan to Rome and deposes the emperor. As there is no government in Rome, the barbarians savage the country. 

13. The Last Emperor: As Nepos marches to the West with the backing of the East, the presiding emperor surrenders. Orestes, a Roman and Odoacer,a barbarian rise to the highest positions in the new court. Sent to put down the Visigoths, Orestes befriends them, making his son the emperor, thereby sidelining his former friend. As he refuses to give the barbarian land he had promised, they join Odoacer. In the battle that follows, Odoacer's army defeats Orestes, making him the first barbarian king of Italy, marking an end to the Roman Empire.