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The History Channel Presents Engineering an Empire

4.4 out of 5 stars 146 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Hosted by Peter Weller, ENGINEERING AN EMPIRE examines the most magnificent and sophisticated civilizations in history through the lens of their astounding engineering feats. Walk through the narrow streets of ancient Greece and Carthage and follow the massive expansion of the Roman and Chinese Empires. Trace the rise of antiquity’s greatest leaders and discover the architectural marvels and urban planning accomplishments that altered the course of history. Learn about Byzantine architects driven to glory during the Dark Ages and witness the construction of the Tunnel of Samos, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Notre Dame.

Some of mankind's greatest achievements are explored and celebrated in Engineering an Empire, a sprawling, ambitious series produced by the History Channel and consisting of 12 episodes spread out over four discs. The scope is wide, both geographically (from China to Central America, from the cities of Western Europe to the plains of Siberia) and temporally (from thousands of years ago to the relatively recent past), but the focus is on specific engineering and architectural projects undertaken by the various civilizations under discussion--not just the what and the why, but more importantly, how some of these ingenious endeavors were accomplished.

A number of the structures and monuments examined here will certainly be familiar to viewers. The Great Wall of China, described as "the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken," was centuries in the making yet only partially successful as a means of defense. Paris' Notre Dame cathedral, that glorious celebration of the Gothic notions of height, light, and space, was made possible only by the innovative system of flying buttresses used to support its walls, while the Eiffel Tower, defying both the conventions of construction and the tastes of most Parisians, was built in less than two years. In Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi overcame many obstacles in order to complete a magnificent brick dome for the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, now better known simply as the Duomo; in Athens, 30,000 tons of marble was hauled for ten miles to make the Parthenon. Yet as fascinating as these tales are, just as absorbing are some of the more mundane and lesser-known feats, like the canals, tunnels, and aqueducts used for delivering water, the techniques created for rooting and stabilizing enormous structures, or the hoists and cranes devised to lift tons of building materials hundreds of feet into the air.

The execution is typical of the History Channel, including interviews with experts, decent reenactment footage, and computer-generated diagrams and drawings. The series strives for a balance of scholarship (actor Peter Weller, the on-screen host, is identified only as a lecturer at Syracuse University--apparently "star of RoboCop" was deemed undignified) and entertainment (the dramatic and portentous voiceover narration overrelies on words like "amazing," "incredible," and "unparalleled"). A good deal of genuinely informative historical context is also provided, recounting the rises and falls of kings and emperors, battle tactics used in various conflicts, and the effect of catastrophes like the Black Plague. A brief behind-the-scenes featurette is the sole bonus item. --Sam Graham

Special Features

  • 12 episodes on four discs: Greece, Greece: Age of Alexander, The Aztecs, Carthage, China, Russia, Britain: Blood and Steel, The Persians, The Maya: Death Empire, Napoleon: Steel Monster, The Byzantines, Da Vinci's World

Product Details

  • Actors: Peter Weller
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 4
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: A&E Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: February 27, 2007
  • Run Time: 564 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000KJU1FU
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,177 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "The History Channel Presents Engineering an Empire" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Logical Paradox VINE VOICE on April 4, 2008
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
I purchased this set because I am a fan of the series on the History Channel and wanted to own it on DVD. Sadly, I just realized that for only a few bucks more I could have gotten the Collector's Edition. THIS SET DOES NOT CONTAIN THE ENTIRE SERIES. It is missing the two original specials that spawned the series in the first place: Rome and Egypt. The Collector's Edition has 2 extra discs and featurs both of these award winning episodes--a total of 156 extra minutes of content (they each aired at 2 hours long with commercials compared to the 1 hour long season episodes). The Rome and Egypt episodes were also arguably the best of the series, in that they contained the most depth and the highest quality productions.

I highly recommend this series, but don't miss out by purchasing this set by accident. GO GET THE COLLECTOR'S EDITION for the most value and to experience ALL the content of the series.
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The History Channel's Engineering an Empire series, containing six DVDs, focuses on the engineering and architectural triumphs of great (and not so great) civilizations. Each of the programs attempts to feature a society's engineering accomplishments as a prism through which to view its history and culture. Because of the arbitrary selection of societies and engineering accomplishments and the limited length of each program, the series fails to achieve this grand goal, but it is still both entertaining and to a limited extent educational.

All too often, the engineering accomplishments of the civilizations covered are limited to aqueducts, the use of pilings to support buildings in marshes and over bodies of water, the discovery of the corbelled arch, and military inventions like the Greek triremes and the ubiquitous catapult in its various forms.

Although actors are used extensively, they look like you expect real people of the time would have looked, a major advantage that the History Channel has over PBS, where the actors are always English and good-looking. A History Channel Persian or Mayan looks like a Persian or Mayan.

One area in which the History Channel excels is that of Computer-Aided Design, which they use to "reconstruct" buildings that either lie in ruins or have disappeared. The results are remarkable.

On the negative side, while the experts who appear are clearly highly knowledgeable leaders in their field, that field is limited to history; relatively few professional engineers or architects appear.

The selection of Peter Weller (of RoboCop fame) as a host was initially off-putting to me (despite constant references to his links to Syracuse University, he apparently only received an M.A.
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This is a great set and includes the following titles on 4 discs: (Unfortunately it doesn't include the episode on Egypt. You will have to buy that one separately if you want all of them.)


GREECE: The cradle of Western civilization sustained remarkable technological advancement for over 1,000 years, including such masterpieces as the Tunnel of Samos and the Parthenon.

GREECE: AGE OF ALEXANDER: After a century of tremendous accomplishment, Greece's territorial ambitions were stymied by constant warfare - until Alexander ventured abroad and initiated the Hellenistic era.

THE AZTECS: The Aztecs became one of the greatest civilizations in history through brilliant military campaigns and technological mastery of their harsh environment.


CARTHAGE: Find out how Carthaginian engineers harnessed their extensive resources and manpower to develop some of the ancient world's most groundbreaking technology.

CHINA: Century after century, China's regal emperors mobilized immense peasant armies to accomplish unfathomable feats - including the most ambitious construction project ever accomplished.

RUSSIA: From the Moscow Kremlin to St. Petersburg to the Trans-Siberian railroad, examine the architecture and infrastructure that led to the rise and fall of the Russian Empire.


GREAT BRITAIN: Through the centuries, the British Empire used extraordinary engineering technology to become an industrial and military titan, giving rise to such inventions as the first locomotive.
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Format: 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).
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