In the UK: Fridays, 8pm, Channel 5. Starts Friday 24th October
Channel Five’s best kept secrets are its documentaries. Although the channel as a whole as a reputation for low quality programming - beyond a couple of decent imports and one original drama (Suspects) - its documentaries are actually really good.
So let's get the worst part of this out the way: the title. Rome wasn’t the world’s first superpower, since the Persian empire was not only a third bigger, it also had 44% of the world's population under its control at its height. And if you don't like that, there was also the Macedonian Empire under Alexander The Great.
Hyperbolic title aside, though, it's all very good. You might not think Larry Lamb from Gavin & Stacey and EastEnders would be the best person to present a documentary covering the history of Rome, from the city's foundation through its attainment of empire through to its collapse. Certainly, if you think back to Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey on ITV, you can see all the potential traps writ large of having an actor hosting what is potentially a lavish, content-free and even misleading travelogue.
But not only is Lamb engaging and passionate, he’s an amateur historian - he goes to Rome every year, he speaks Italian, and he's been studying Rome almost all his adult life. More so, as an actor he can re-enact readings from the works of Livy, for example, rather than merely having an actor blankly read the same in voiceover.
The show goes to pertinent locations in both Rome and Pompeii (and in later episodes to Tunisia, Sicily and France), to explore Roman history and archaeology. We get to see the sewer system under Rome, which dates back 2,500 years. Indeed, it’s the first time the oldest part has ever been shown on TV, making that a good enough reason for a classics-lover to watch the show.
Along the way, Lamb interviews historians and archaeologists, including Richard Miles, who’s presented documentaries for BBC2 and BBC4. Lamb’s an intelligent interviewer and asks some decent questions of the experts. He also puts his working class roots to the fore, focusing on areas that other shows don’t, such as the relationship between the plebeians and nobles, giving us choice lines such as "The Romans' noble ambitions were just that: the ambitions of nobles." He’s also happy to throw out a little Latin as needs be, such as Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR).
The show itself also looks good and there’s some knowing Spartacus qualities in the CGI and recreations of scenes, although that's mostly done with statues rather than actors, which is novel. Channel 5 may do good documentaries - but it doesn't quite have the budget of the BBC.
About the only thing that drew me up was when Lamb says that he's realising that the rape of the Sabine women was the 'kind of thing you have to do if you want to become a superpower' - which I can’t imagine Mary Beard or Bethany Hughes letting through on one of their shows. Otherwise, entirely recommended for anyone with an interest in history, particularly Roman history.