It would have been nice if this series had spent more time on the origins of the Roman Empire and perhaps given us a more comprehensive historical structure. What happened to the Etruscans? What happened to Romulus and Remus? Here we are, still early in the series, and it's already the mid-2nd century and Marcus Aurelius, the last of the good emperors, is dead and the Barbarians are worse than ever and the empire is already falling apart. It might as easily have been called "Rome: The Fall of an Empire." In this episode, those Barbarian tribes with the strange names are continually noodging Rome at its northern border, which is now Germany or Austria. And they're causing troubles elsewhere too, like Egypt. Some of the names ring bells, the Parthians, and some sound a kind of tinkle in the memory, like the Teutoni, but one tribal name to an untutored ear sounds like "the Macaronians." The price the viewer pays for ignorance, I guess.
Anyway, it's about 150 AD. The empire has never been more powerful. But rebellions in the Middle East draw legions away from the northern borders, leaving them only thinly defended. And, having brutally put down the Egyptians and Parthians, the Romans take home with them a terrible disease, possibly bubonic plague, which wipes out a quarter of the population. (Curiously, the same thing happened in the walled-up city of Athens during the Peloponnesian wars.) On top of that, the emperor dies and leaves his elder son in charge. He dies too, and Marcus Aurelius takes over. Now, Marcus Aurelius was a famous philosopher -- still is -- and there's no doubt about it, but he wasn't such a hot martial leader. That he was successful at all was a miracle. And when HE died, perhaps because of the plague, he left affairs in charge of his son, Commodus, which was a bad idea if you've ever seen the movie "Gladiator." As in the other two or three episodes I've seen, there are a lot of battle scenes. The same extras wearing the same garb seem to be always hacking away at each other. The same stunt men probably do the back flips when hit by projectiles or blades.
It isn't that the battle scenes are boring or even so much that they're repetitive -- but isn't an empire made up of more than an army and its generals? Two thousand years from now, will people (if there are any left) be thinking, "Oh, yes, the United States of America. It's leaders were George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Colin Powell." There is more to Rome than just its battles. There's even more to a single Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, than his skill in combat. He was a thoughtful man and a philosophical Stoic. We remember him not only because he fought the Germanic tribes but because he left us his "Meditations," which are still in print. Will we get to hear the names of Vitruvius or Galen? Or Terence and Plautus? Is it too much to hope that we'll see something of the innovations in Roman architecture? This series -- so far -- is turning into as detailed a description as most of us could want, of Rome's battles against the Barbarian tribes of Europe. I'm not complaining. Most of us know little about these wars. Certainly I didn't. And they did eventually lead to Rome's downfall, along with other causal factors.
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