Review: Rome's Lost Empire

Once upon a time, archaeology meant large bearded men and women in ill-fitting anoraks scrabbling around in the dirt and presenting worn, miniscule bits of pottery up to Tony Robinson on day three of the dig. How times have changed. The insignificant-looking ceramic debris is still knocking about, but the astonishing technology displayed in Rome's Lost Empire sets the discipline in a whole new light. Using satellites, some expensive looking computer graphics and a camera team that clearly has aspiration to work on the next Avatar, Dan Snow sets out to clear up the unanswered questions of how Rome controlled her vast empire.

Presenters Dan Snow and Sarah Parcak attempt to uncover Rome's mysteries with high tech satellites. ©BBC1; Image credit: BBC1

In terms of urban myth and QI style ‘unbelievable truths’, the Romans are a rich topic. It doesn’t take much to impress upon you the immensity of their architectural, political and military achievements – just glance at a photo of the Coliseum, read some Cicero or scan a map of their extensive territory. To be honest with you, I’d say the public are pretty familiar with the “grandeur” of Ancient Rome. Unfortunately, no one has informed the creators of Rome’s Lost Empire of this fact. The documentary starts with a very lengthy Introduction which attempts to impress the viewer with Roman awesomeness (for lack of a better word). Which we could maybe swallow if it wasn’t for the fact that it is all delivered in the vaguest terms possible. The language is epic, but there’s no detail – it’s empty bluster. And the same goes for the figuration of the programme’s topics of exploration. We’re told that this will unveil every remaining mystery surrounding the Romans – it’s a monumental break-through, Nobel prizes all round! But when it comes down to what they’re actually going to deliver us by way of FACTS, the yield is somewhat disappointing.

So, in a nutshell, this documentary is actually about how a very science-y archaeologist from Birmingham, Alabama is using satellites to take super hi-tech photographs from space that will reveal the locations of as of yet unknown Roman sites. During the programme, Sarah Parcak finds a canal, a Roman rampart, a series of settlements in Arabia, a fort, an amphitheatre and a lighthouse. I’ll admit, it’s a heck of a lot better than Time Team ever managed.

Their findings are really important for the development of historian’s understanding of the Roman Empire, there’s no doubt about that. And Dan Snow’s fascinating argument about using imposing architecture, military might and the culture of gladiatorial shows as propaganda to control the population of the empire (and those on its borders) certainly gave the offered the context of the archaeology in an interesting way. But the show’s ‘epic’ styling still let it down. It wasn’t just the script, but the filming (beautiful, really gorgeous, but more suited to a sword-and-sandals film than a factual TV show) and structuring, which returned repeatedly to Portus, the harbour of Rome, but without garnering real excitement about what could be uncovered there, too.

Considering the cash and effort that clearly went into making such a visually stunning documentary, it is a shame that the styling and content just did not seem to mix. Had Snow’s commentary not raised our expectations so high at the start, the incongruity would not have been nearly as obvious. In the end, it just goes to show that fancy toys are no match for good, honest enthusiasm.

Rome's Lost Empire is now available on BBC IPlayer.

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