John Romer recreates the glory and history of Byzantium. From the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul to the looted treasures of the empire now located in St. Marks in Venice.

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John Romer ...
 Host / ... 4 episodes, 1997
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John Romer recreates the glory and history of Byzantium. From the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul to the looted treasures of the empire now located in St. Marks in Venice.

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A Rick Steves-Like Convoluted Exploration of Byzantium without Additional Scholarship and Lacks a Clear Focus -- Rather Frustrating
22 June 2009 | by (Oakland, CA) – See all my reviews

The lone commentator journeying around ancient cities begins to wear thin when you realize he or she does not bring in additional scholarship. In other words, all the perspective is from one angle similar to a Rick Steves exploration of a European tourist attraction. Despite an incredible subject, I felt that the reliance solely on John Romer's perspective and narration kept the documentary one dimensional which was frustrating if not rather boring. At several moments, my interest began to wane. The Gonzo-like journalism in which the viewer is not only supposed to be enthralled with the ancient sites but enthralled with John Romer's own fascination diminished the import of the subjects being discussed. Somehow, the narrator also playing sole commentator makes for a rather distracting experience. I prefer documentaries of this type in which the narrator and the commentator(s) are separate.

Aside from the Gonzo format, the other major problem is that the documentary lacks a clear thesis. What was Romer's goal aside from showing us interesting ruins? The documentary is mainly an exploration of ancient sites and a few artifacts with Romer standing in front of almost every ancient building. Romer then presents some history, but almost off-handedly. He would walk around a site and tell some stories about what happened there, but I wanted to hear the larger story, particularly about the reign of Emperor Constantine. As the documentary unfolds, I realized Romer never used to stills and did a poor job of explaining the chronology of events. Another frustration was Romer would bounce from city-to-city but he was not always clear as to where he was exploring. At one point he jumped from Istanbul (aka Constantinople) to Ravenna, Italy and back without clarifying that we had returned to Istanbul.

A far superior documentary on a similar subject is Secrets of the Dark Ages. The format is somewhat similar: a journalist-scholar goes on a quest of exploration to uncover the many mysteries of the Barbarians. However, in Dark Ages, the goal is very clear: to debunk previous prejudices about the so-called Barbarians. The host meets a plethora of scholars and experts that tell him (and us) about many of the unknown aspects of Barbarian culture which fit into his larger purpose. I would have loved to hear the perspective of local scholar-historians in Istanbul explain the historical implications of the Byzantine Empire but Romer decided to do it all himself. With the numerous scholars who have spent entire lifetimes studying this history, Romer really does not have much of an excuse for not using other scholars. If there was a larger point to the documentary Byzantium, I missed it, and maybe that's the other big problem.


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