Broad-reaching and interesting
Leo | ny | 04/04/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"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."
A Good Survey of World Engineering History
Diego Banducci | San Francisco, CA United States | 04/03/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"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. from that institution, later becoming an adjunct lecturer there in film), but over time I came to appreciate his enthusiasm and willingness to laugh at himself.
Programs on the first four disks include:
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 1: Greece, Age of Alexander, & The Aztecs [DVD] (141 min.)
I question the inclusion of the Aztec segment which generally talks about their use of pilings to build their city on a lake. In contrast the Mayan segment, which appears in Vol. 3, is fascinating -- truly an advanced civilization.
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 2: Carthage, China & Russia [DVD] (141 min.)
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 3: Britain-Blood & Steel, Persians, & Maya-Death Empire [DVD] (141 min.)
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 4: Napoleon-Steel Monster, Byzantines, & Da Vinci's World [DVD] (141 min.)
The segment on Da Vinci's world has nothing to do with Da Vinci, focusing instead on Brunelleschi's building of the Duomo and the rebuilding of Rome in the 1500s. A separate segment includes a Syracuse University architecture professor discussing Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel. I only wish it had lasted longer.
The final two disks, which appear to have been made before the first four, are the flagships of the series, each containing one long, high quality program:
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 5: Rome [DVD] (94 min.)
More dramatic than the others, this program provides a nice overview of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. If you're only going to buy one disk, this is the one. It features excellent CAD reconstructions of many of the most famous Roman engineering accomplishments.
Engineering An Empire, Vol. 6: Egypt [DVD] (92 min.)
Also of very high quality. Again, the CAD reconstructions are excellent. The experts, especially a woman professor from the American University in Cairo, are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject. There's also an interesting add-on featuring Peter Weller talking about how he got into this line of work and why he enjoys it so much.
As indicated above, I question the inclusion of the Aztecs in this series, especially since there are other culturs that would have been more interesting (e.g., Babylon, India and the Incas.)
I did not experience the screen format problems that other viewers complain about, perhaps because my TV allows me to switch between five different formats, so I can use the best-fitting one.
Almost Five Stars
Ishak Ivatar | 05/15/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I very much enjoyed this series, and consider it one of the best productions by the History Channel (which today, sadly, has become burdened with worthless, non-history-related shows like Sandhogs, Ax Men, and Ice Road Truckers). In fact, if I were to rate just about any of the episodes in this set individually, I would give it five stars. The episodes are visually appealing (unlike, say, PBS documentaries), informative and somewhat in-depth without belaboring any one thing too much, and well paced.
The only reason I don't give this series five stars is that I consider its selection of civilizations a tad unfortunate. Both the Mayans *and* Aztecs were covered (really, one *at most* would have sufficed, in my point of view). And the Greeks were covered in three separate episodes (granted, these were three distinct civilizations through time, but again, redundant in the way that covering both the Mayans and Aztecs was). I feel the price of this is that many important civilizations were left out entirely, such as that of Silla (ancient Korea), Japan, the Khmer civilization, the Indus valley civilizations, the list of important civilizations left out could go on. Frankly, I struggle to understand how Mesoamerica got more representation in this series than did East Asia (or, for that matter, Southeast and South Asia).
So, overall, a great series, but a few episodes were redundant, and the price of this was a lack of coverage of some of history's most fascinating civilizations."