Television Review: 8 Days That Made Rome
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 10/14/2019
Historian Bettany Hughes narrates this eight-night documentary made for and originally aired on Channel 5 in the UK in 2017. I finally caught it on the Smithsonian Channel, so I wanted to share it here with you all on Rome Reborn®. I’m going to talk about the episodes in the order that they were supposed to air on the Smithsonian Channel in the United States. However the series was made by October Films where the episodes are organized chronologically. I’ll get back to this layout at the end of this review because this is a concern for all historical series.
Rome’s First Emperor is supposed to offer a look at the day when Octavian decided to steal Julius Caesar’s will so that he could read it in public. Most of the episode looks at Octavian’s life between his return to Rome to claim his rights as Caesar’s heir and the resulting Civil War. The acting was weak and more salacious than factual. It causes confusion by veering from Octavian to Mark Antony and back over and over again. I loved that a variety of evidence was shown and discussed, and I applaud a brutally honest assessment of Octavian, but I consider this the second weakest of the eight episodes.
In contrast, Boudica’s Revenge doesn’t confine itself to a single day but presents a campaign of rebellion against Roman occupation of Britain in the first century CE. That revolt was ignited by the brutal rapes and murders of Boudica’s daughters before her eyes. Oddly, while the series doesn’t shy away from other violence, the violence here is merely narrated not shown, nor does it need to be shown to be powerful. The actor playing Boudica is amazing, she pulls on the audience’s emotions with her body language. Hughes again travels to the locations of the events and discusses a wide array of evidence with experts. Her explanation of the what happened and why should be easily understood by the audience.
Crossing the Rubicon looks at a particular “day” and event but quickly expands upon it. Hughes generally does a good job when she talks to experts but her explanations of how government worked in Rome is simplistic and misleading: it was not a democracy in our modern sense not only because of restrictions on who could vote (only adult male citizens) but also owing to how the votes were counted (the wealthier you were, the more weight given to your vote). Hughes also refers to earlier episodes in her explanations, but that only works if the channel showing this limited series follows the original schedule. Given the title of the episode, I think far more time should have been spent on the day of the crossing of the Rubicon and less on what came afterwards.
The episode The Rebirth of Rome has a confusing title. Consuls and emperors alike repeatedly claimed to have rebuilt and saved Rome, so what exactly is this “day” of rebirth? In this case, the episode looks at the life of the Emperor Constantine, but what is the specific “day” in his life? I think it was supposed to be his baptism, but this episode was simply confusing. It referenced many of the other episodes but more importantly it kept moving us back and forth in the timeline of Constantine’s life. Given that over two centuries of time separate this topic from any other in the series, this felt out of place. The acting was nearly absent. This was the weakest episode of the series.
The Spartacus Revolt exemplifies yet again an episode that is not a day. Why even call it 8 Days That Made Rome when most of the episodes aren’t focused on specific days? This one starts as Crossing the Rubicon did with a day—the day that Spartacus led other gladiators out of captivity and into rebellion. Slavery was one of the subjects I studied in ancient history and which I made certain to include in every Roman history class I taught because it affected every aspect of Roman society. The show does not pull punches about the number of slaves (possibly 20% of Rome’s city population) and the general (mis)treatment of them. Some of the historical details about slavery and society aren’t quite correct, lumping wealthiest households together with those that were simply average. This is one of two episodes in the series in which Hughes lets her emotions show. There are several different stories about Spartacus, but the show narrows in on Appian and Plutarch for reenactments and Hughes’ commentary. While the episode rightly talks about how the failed rebellion allowed the further decay of the Republic, it ignores how it impacted slavery itself. After Hughes’ obvious hatred of slavery, it came as a disappointment to me that Hughes missed the opportunity to discuss the re-enforcement of slavery and the end of large slave rebellions.
Hannibal’s Last Stand claims to be focused on one specific battle, that between Hannibal and Scipio at Zama. This episode is the best in the series because it balances discussing that day with what led up to it and its consequences. The episode could have easily spent too much time on Hannibal and his people, as it spent too much time on Antony and Cleopatra in Rome’s First Emperor. Instead, I think it could have spent a couple more minutes to give us a fuller understanding of the Carthaginians. (I know I’m being a bit of a carping critic here, first complaining that Hughes did too much and then too little. Well, that’s my job!) The acting is well done and Hughes’ discussions with experts well balanced between the reenactments. This episode tied for the best episode of the series.
The Colosseum’s Grand Opening episode is the one many of you who use the Rome Reborn® might find most interesting because of the recent release of the app which presents the amazing structure in its full glory and even shows the grisly events that typically occurred here. A good deal of time is spent looking at how the Colosseum was built, how it was used both during games and the rest of the time, and at the motivations of the Flavian dynasty to built it. Hughes again shows her hatred for slavery and violence, but she also tackles issues of social status and gender roles, which came as a pleasant surprise to me. The acting, discussions, and subjects make this a contender for best episode in the series. The only problem is that I do not believe Hughes proves this is, indeed, one of the 8 Days that Made Rome because little is said about how the Colosseum is used in later decades.
The Downfall of Nero feeds into my question mooted elsewhere about why this emperor seems to hold such fascination for audiences today. The “day” here is the day that Nero was compelled to commit suicide by proxy and thereby ended the first, Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty. This is the only episode of the series where some of the literary information is questioned as rumor, so it is a good episode to discuss with students when you want to introduce them to historical methods. A bit too much time is spent on the salacious details of Nero’s rule, but the final ten minutes do a good job of looking at how his reign helped show that the Republican form of government was truly dead for Romans as new emperors arose, for good or bad.
Chronology is important to history not just because events play out in time but also because we as individuals are historical beings. What happens to us one day impacts the options we have the following days and thus the choices we make. The same is true for groups, nations, and civilization. As I told my students when they asked what would be on an exam — “It’s all important, cutting up history into periods is a tool but every action and actor builds upon what came before.” The Internet Movie Database listed the order that The Smithsonian Channel showed this series the first time around, and I was shocked. The Smithsonian Channel’s decision to show the episodes out of chronological order is disservice to the layperson watching, who may not know much about the events covered, and it is also a disservice to Bettany Hughes.
To get the most from this series whether you are a layperson or a teacher, I strongly recommend that you watch the episodes in this order:
Hannibal’s Last Stand
The Spartacus Revolt
Crossing the Rubicon
Rome’s First Emperor
The Downfall of Nero
The Colosseum’s Grand Opening
The Rebirth of Rome
8 Days That Made Rome and then on the Smithsonian Channel available through many cable TV services in the USA. You can stream it on Amazon Prime or find it on Demand on some cable services.Join the discussion!