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Customer Review

55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Broad-reaching and interesting, April 4, 2008
This review is from: Engineering an Empire: The Complete Series (History Channel) (DVD)
The best thing about this series is that some of the episodes go beyond the typical fare for historical documentary subject matter. Rome, Egypt, and Europe have been done to death, but this series features episodes on Carthage, Persia, and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empires--which all recieve MUCH less attention than the deserve. The series also covers Native American empires--the Aztecs and Maya--, so there's a fair amount of diversity. There's also some diversity in time period, with episodes on the rennesiance-era Italian city-states, pre-industrial Russia, colonial Britain, and Napoleonic France in addition to the ancient civilizations. There is also an episode on China, and 2 on Greece during both the Helenistic and classical periods.

I appreciate the breadth of subject matter in terms of geography and time period. This is the first documentary I think I've ever seen to focus exclusively on Persia or Carthage and not on the roles they played in Western contexts (the Greco-Persian and Punic Wars respectively). Never-the-less, these events come up and get significant attention and discussion. It would have been nice to focus on "fresh" (less-well known) facts. But this is only a small complaint. Another small complaint is that the series did not take this idea further. I could have done without France, Britain, and 2 whole episodes on Greece, and instead seen something on India or the forgotten empires of Africa (Nubia, Ethiopia, Tim Buktu, etc). The Khmer, the Celts, the Islamic Caliphates, or any of the Mesopotamian empires that tend to never get documentary coverage (like the Assyrians or the Hittites, or even Sumeria or Babylon) would have been nice as well since one so rarely if ever is made aware of their existence while watching History Channel (plenty on Greece, Rome, and WW2 however!). But I do give them credit for being as broad as they were. It's nice to see that more history than just that of the West or China is finally getting some TV attention.

The only other complaint one could give is that the episodes are so general commercialized. They're still pretty informative and enjoyable for those interested in the subject, but it's legitimate to criticize the series for a lack of real depth and meat. They do manage to touch the big points and the bigger picture, however, so this flaw is by no means fatal--the series is just not as "professional" or "scholarly" as it could have been. For those perturbed by this, I would recommend the series Lost Treasures of the Ancient World, which packs much more information into half the time.

A final criticism might be the content in comparison to the title. The series really does not focus solely on Architectual subjects. I, for one, appreciated the parallel between "building" an empire and building great monuments that reflected the power and prestige of that empire. But some will undoubtedly feel there should have been more emphasis on the engineering aspects, such as actually including engineers for comment, which the series does not do. Others, however, might feel the general history was so weakly portrayed as to be of little value, and that more time should have been given to the empire's history itself. But the series really seeks to balance these two topics, and thus one can endlessly debate on what ratio of attention would have been best. One could also argue that the series should not have tried to cover both, because it just watered down both issues. I, however, feel that the balance was fair enough between the focuses, and I also feel that focusing exclusively on the engineering would be meaningless without a historical narrative to give these feats contexts, while to focus just on the historical narrative would have not have been true to the title and it would have been a completely different series (although perhaps an even more compelling one).

In the end, this is one of the better series produced by the History Channel in recent years and I think it's well worth checking out if you haven't seen it and well worth owning if you've seen and enjoyed a few of the episodes on TV.
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