May 31, 2015



It is not always that I watch a three hour long documentary twice; after all, there are so many good documentaries to watch out there. However, I just could not resist myself from watching BBC Four's three part documentary - Rome: A History of the Eternal City for the second time this week. Of course, I have a special liking for the Roman Empire in general and the city of Rome in particular. But it is the content and the manner in which it has been presented in this series that makes it a must watch for all history buffs.

While there have been many documentaries and docu-dramas in the past that have focused on the city from the perspective of it being the epicenter of one of the world's greatest empires, there is fairly less content available on reel that explores Rome's role as one of the world's most important cities and the part that its association with religion has played in it over the years. This is precisely the biggest USP for the series. The music is catchy, though at times, it is not always relevant or required. Another thing that works in the favor of this documentary is the cinematography of the beautiful city of Rome; the documentary makers have gone much beyond the usual places that are shown in other documentaries and it is a treat to the eyes even as the narrator descends into the sewers of the city.

Narrated by historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore, the series sees the 2,700 year old history of Rome from its establishment as a city in 7th century BC to the present day as the centre of the Catholic faith, albeit the focus is not on the emperors, the wars that they fought or scientific advancements of these people but on the religion and the manner in which shaped and reshaped the city, its population and their fortunes over these three millennia.

In the first installment City of the Sacred, Montfiore explores Rome's pagan past at a time when the Romans, like so many other people in contemporary world worshiped the Gods of Thunder, Rain, Learning, War and so on. As the city fortunes and its empire grew, mighty temples were raised in the honor of these Gods who were looked upon as the protectors of the city and its people, the rituals in their became more elaborate and they even assimilated deities from foreign lands during tough times. Over a period of time as Rome transformed from a republic into an empire, the Emperors too were added to the ever-increasing Pantheon of Roman Gods.

In the second episode - The Divine Gamble, Montifiore talks about how Christianity begins to spread across the Holy City after the martyrdom of Saint Peter and how the early Christians are persecuted by the Pagan Roman Emperors. In fourth century, Emperor Constantine embraces Christianity, a move that changes not only the history of the city but also that of the entire Western World as we know it today. In the coming centuries although the Empire has faded into history, the power and the influence of the Popes of Rome rises with the Christianization of Europe, making them one of the most influential power players in the continent and thereby helping Rome stay relevant. At the end of the first millennium AD, the power struggle between the Popes and kings of various European kingdoms as well as the corruption that has engulfed Roman Catholic Church diminish the Papal authority to some extent.

In the last episode - The Rebirth of God's City, the author starts with the return of the Papacy to Rome from Avignon and how the Church saw off the threat posed by the Western Schism. During the Renaissance, fabulous churches are erected across the length and breadth of the eternal city and embellished with fabulous art works that focus both on Christian traditions as well as the pagan mythology. However, with the increase in the excesses of the Pope and the Roman Church as a whole, Martin Luther launches Protestantism which shakes the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church and forces it to reform. In the nineteenth century, Italian nationalism grows and the Papal states are annexed by the new state of Italy. Mussolini ends the stalemate as Vatican City recognized as a separate country with the Pope as its head.