Ah, this is proper old-fashioned history! Real “1066 and all that” stuff – big characters and big events. Eight days which Bettany Hughes deems to have been crucial in the development of the Roman Republic and Empire. So far, we’ve had Hannibal’s last stand, the Spartacus Revolt and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and we’ve still got, amongst other things, Boudicca’s uprising and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity to come. Hannibal, Spartacus, Caesar … names that everyone’s familiar with. The terms “Spartacist” (although I’m never entirely sure why so many Russian football teams have got “Spartak” in their names, even if Moscow is the Third Rome!), “crossing the Rubicon” and (to some extent) “delenda est Carthago” are still in use. You can’t really say that about the three field system or the daily lives of medieval monks or some of the other stuff that comes up in school history lessons. Not that fields and monks aren’t important, but start with the big names and the big events: they’re what get people interested.
And the way in which it’s been presented has been very impressive. Channel 5’s idea of historical drama-documentaries often leaves a lot to be desired, but this has been really good. The dramatisations have been convincing and not OTT, and Bettany Hughes has done a lot of dramatic striding around across hills and visiting archaeological sites, interviewing present day historians and reading from the works of Roman historians. It’s all been put together very well … except that the Romans are being made out to be the baddies in everything, and we haven’t even got to Boudicca yet
OK, the Romans did some rather nasty stuff. (Certain elements of Roma and Lazio’s support still do, but that’s beside the point.) “Nasty” is putting it mildly. Burying a vestal virgin alive to appease the gods after defeat by Carthage. Wrecking Carthage and selling the entire population into slavery. Crucifying thousands of rebel slaves. They don’t tell you any of this in the Cambridge Latin Course: I bet kids would pay a lot more attention in Latin lessons if they did :-). (Or do teachers think that it would it all be too much for snowflake types?!) But, come on, we do owe the Romans rather a lot! Give them some credit for the good things they did, as well as the bad. Is this just Bettany’s take on things, or is it some sort of PC anti-imperial thing? Either way, give the Romans a break!
But still, this is turning out to be a very enjoyable series. Roman history gets rather overlooked these days. May we have a series on the Greeks as well, please? And preferably one on the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians as well? Well done, Channel 5 – you don’t always get it right, but this time you definitely have done!