Classics and pop culture / Discussion / Reviews

Rome’s Lost Empire, BBC 1, Sunday 9th December 2012

Growing up I always thought archaeology was cool. Then I discovered space and decided that was even cooler. Consequently, a ‘space archaeologist’ might just be the coolest thing on TV since a Roman spaceship with an invisibility cloak.  Alternatively it might be a terrible gimmick. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I tuned in to Dan Snow’s latest BBC documentary Rome’s Lost Empire on Sunday evening. I like Snow – he’s certainly one of the best presenters of history on TV at the moment – and I’ve enjoyed his previous documentaries. I really wanted to enjoy Rome’s Lost Empire, I just wasn’t sure that I would. On reflection, I’m not sure I did.


The basic concept of the show was straightforward: Snow travelled around the Roman Empire in the company of the aforementioned space archaeologist, Sarah Parcak (incidentally a Cambridge grad and football Blue), on the hunt for hidden structures which might shed light on how the Romans controlled their empire. Along the way, the pair encountered a series of historians, all of whom were faced with a particular problem and in desperate need of assistance. Think Heracles, or a late-90s videogame. At this juncture Parcak would deploy her special power, space archaeology. This, it turns out, is utilising satellite imagery to identify structures buried beneath the ground, enabling archaeologists to map terrain and target excavations more effectively. Parcak had successfully used this technology in Egypt for a previous BBC documentary and she was not disappointed in her attempts to utilise the technology in the Roman Empire.

The show explored the outer limits of the empire – Dacia, Arabia, and North Africa – but returned at regular intervals to Rome itself. In a sense, this was a nice juxtaposition of centre and periphery, emphasising the relationship between the two, but this was more an accidental by-product of an attempt to create a narrative to Parcak’s exploration of Rome. Thus, we began with Parcak struggling to find anything of interest in Rome due to the urban setting, then we moved to Dacia so we could see a positive result, then returned to Rome to discover something minor, then moved on to Arabia, and so on.

This mundane narrative development was a tiresome aspect of the programme. At the outset, Parcak was set the challenge by Professor Simon Keay to find out how the harbour at Portus operated. He also mentioned a great lighthouse, which people have been attempting to locate for centuries. Finding that, he alleged, was “too much to ask”: there are no prizes for guessing how the programme finishes.

In a sense this is a forgivable attempt to create a headline discovery and maintain a hold on the audience, but it contributed to the strange ‘feel’ of the programme; it became a triumphant procession towards a defining find. Indeed, the historians featured seemed to have been told to fawn over the new technology, which produced cringe-worthy moments where scholars pretended to be surprised by pictures they had clearly seen before. This seemed too much for Keaywho regularly muttered “well done Sarah” through gritted teeth. In that sense, the programme was just a little too self-congratulatory. Not, I hasten to add, the presenters, but the overall tone that the structuring of the show created. “Let there be light” they declared, and, lo, there was light.

At the very beginning of the programme there is a reference to Parcak working all night without finding any results. She said on twitter earlier this week that ‘late nights under fluorescent lights [are] not Telly-worthy’, but I wonder whether a little more emphasis on the problems of deploying the technology might have helped combat this flaw. Admittedly, the satellites couldn’t be used in Dacia due to the wooded landscapes, but a plane was immediately on-hand, equipped with the latest military reconnaissance technology and results were quickly forthcoming. Furthermore, beyond a brief line at the opening of the show and a short animation whilst the pair on in Dacia, there is very little information about how this technology works. How, for instance, could she tell which hidden buildings were Roman?

My second major gripe with the programme was that I’m not convinced by the overarching argument that Snow attempted to make. He claimed to be interested in how the Romans maintained control of their territory. As such, a ditch in Dacia and a fort in North Africa provided evidence of a greater military presence than had previously been expected, whilst some buildings in Arabia indicated prosperity. This latter point was used, somewhat unconvincingly, to argue that the locals willingly traded their sovereignty for the prosperity they could enjoy under Rome. Perhaps there is further evidence for this, but the structure of the programme meant that there was too little time to delve beyond the surface implications of the archaeological discoveries. Thus, we learnt that a wall in North Africa was a clear sign that the Romans aimed to control migration rather than keep people out full stop. I don’t doubt that this is true, but time-pressure produced a clear jump in logic; surely a gateway would have been a better visual indicator of this policy?

Whilst a little irritating, these issues are at least explicable – more problematic was the desire to see the lighthouse at Portus as an embodiment of Rome’s approach to controlling her empire. No doubt this stems from the fact that finding the lighthouse doesn’t actually fit with the aims of the programme and the inclusion of this show-piece requires justification. Thus, the programme ends by tying the ideas of ‘prosperity’ and ‘security’ to the notion that Rome made a psychological impact, symbolised by the lighthouse, upon the subjects of the empire. For me, this is questionable and produces a solution which is too simplistic. Snow is much more familiar with his audience than I am, but it strikes me that the BBC viewers of the programme would be able to grasp the idea that, actually, there isn’t a single answer to the question ‘how did Rome control her empire?’ and that there was change through time and space. That said, at least the attempt to produce a unifying thesis is thought-provoking and creates debate.

Writing this review, I have found myself trying to start each paragraph with the phrase “the thing that most annoyed me was X”. This time I actually mean it. I know nothing about archaeology, I’ve never been on a dig, and all that I’ve gleaned about archaeological methods come from chance conversations or the TV. In comparison to Tony Robinson rooting around in a randomly located trench, space archaeology seems like an incredibly exciting and useful technology. But the tone of the programme was so irritating that the potentially revolutionary nature of the technology is obscured. I found myself almost hoping that the satellites wouldn’t work, and, instead, a man with a trowel would find some pottery and so change the world. This is incredibly frustrating and a real shame as the documentary itself is well worth a watch. It gives a real sense of the breadth of the Empire and the challenges that Rome faced in attempting to control such a widely varied territory. Clearly, some fascinating discoveries are made. It is interesting, engaging, potentially illuminating; it just isn’t enjoyable.

Rome’s Lost Empire is available on iplayer until 16th December.

9 thoughts on “Rome’s Lost Empire, BBC 1, Sunday 9th December 2012

  1. Fran and I thought it was the funniest thing we’d seen on tv for a long time, but not in a good way… I particularly liked the bit when they rode around on camels like Lawrence of Arabia and talked about how the Empire brought peace to the barbarians of the near east (cue shot of people in a souk).

  2. I agree with all this. I liked the line about it being like a late 90s videogame – my own comparison was a 90s superhero cartoon. It should have been shown episodically on Saturday mornings, with her solving a different conundrum each time. Every week it ends with a slightly patronising ‘Well done Sarah!’ before cutting to a tacked-on lesson about crossing the road or something, delivered to camera.

    I think this is basically the main issue with it – apart from the incoherence. They had this impressive new technology, but they didn’t seem to know how to structure a programme around it. So they just took all the cliches and stock sections of an archaeology documentary – Men in hats! Camels! 3D models! Satellite imagery! Globetrotting! – and just sort of threw them all in scattershot in the hope that something would stick. As usual, they tried to tie it into a Quest narrative with characters. Consequently, the whole thing was so structured around the Lone Maverick Archaeologist doing her thing that it made no attempt to show how the satellite technique could be integrated into standard archaeological practice. The normal archaeologists end up just looking like fools who’ve been trying the wrong thing all these years. The satellites provide the answers. Simple. Easy. End of story. I thought Dan Snow’s jokey sneering about the value of studying pottery was quite telling in that regard. The technology looks like it could produce some really impressive results. But I want to know how it works as a part of the archaeological tool-set, not as Sarah Parcak’s superpower. I don’t believe you can’t do that in the format of an engaging BBC 1 documentary.

  3. I think this review’s pretty fair – towards the end (like Hannah was saying) I found the whole thing slightly too ridiculous, but it did at least have some sort of thesis rather than just faffing around. I’m not sure the whole passive-and-active-rule bit sat particularly easily against ‘space archaeology saves the day’, but it did give the audience two clear things to chat about around the office. I liked the visual of the red goo spreading across the map to show the empire too – it let the viewer sort of experience the bigness instead of just looking at a flat, meaningless scale drawing.

    In terms of the style, though, I was reminded (strangely enough) of the session about lecturing Matt and I ended up at the other week. One of the lecturers in English was talking about different ways of using quotation in literature lectures, and that it’s one thing to start with your evidence and work out of it, but quite another (and often more engaging) to use quotations as something like ‘epiphany’ – where you’re talking about ideas generally and then (as if by magic) you come across something which completely illuminates what you’ve been discussing. This documentary reminded me a bit of that, which makes me wonder how it came across to people not in the know – because the moment they went anywhere near Dacia it was obvious we were going to end up at Trajan’s Column, so to me it all felt a bit back-to-front and uninspiring when they found out there had been a bloody massacre or whatever. But I’m not sure that would necessarily be the case if you bought into the narrative that this Quest was actually finding things.

    Having said that, not really any excuse for that line about the Empire bringing peace and prosperity to a Middle East riddled with conflict. Dan Snow and his historian’s scrolls(!) should have read some Tacitus: auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. She ends wankily with a sweeping, throwaway bit of stuff. (Wikiquote has some translations though.)

  4. Cheers for your comments folks, keep them coming! It seems like the consensus is that they totally failed to find an appropriate structure for the show. I have to say that parts of it worked really well – for instance, the fact that the showed 4 different locations in 80 minutes meant that people could see the application of the new technology right across the empire. But this decision meant that some of the historical analysis had huge leaps of logic, which may well see Snow reach a defensible position (I’m in no way competent to comment), but would require a full episode to explain. I think the real problem is that they took the decision that the new technology would only be appreciate by the wider public if a stunning discovery could be made (like the pyramids in Parcak’s previous documentary). As you say Philip, they could productively have explored how the new technology might change archaeology – with the legacy of Time Team etc, there is enough information in the public domain to prevent this becoming a “specialised” programme.

    Moreover, finding the lighthouse at Portus really didn’t help explain how the port worked, which is what they were asked to do initially. To then integrate that discovery into the programme in a uniform way, Snow had to explain every strategy as subservient to Rome’s desire to make a psychological impression on her subjects. This strikes me as a bit of an inane point, given that every government in any society attempts to make a psychological impact on subjects.

  5. Good review. Overall I was disappointed. The diving sequence was completely unnecessary and seemed only included to stroke Dan’s ego. In respect of the lighthouse I am sure that I heard Dan declare it one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and I am fairly certain that it wasn’t!

  6. Hi stephenharrison1000, great work on the review.

    I just found out about this movie, and I’m a Romanian from Romania. Boy am I pissed of on how he presents the Dacian, he’s a Roman lover and he does anything to put them in a good light.

    He is wrong in his statements about the Dacians, Dacians were proud and powerful people. They never attacked their neighbours, they only fought in defensive wars. Dacia was a very rich country, especially in gold, but it also had a rich culture. Romania and Dacia were constantly attacked in their history for it’s gold.

    Another thing worth mentioning, are the tablets from Tartaria, that are dated to be older with 1000 years than the Sumerian tablets that were considered the oldest writing. Please, write in google “oldest writing in the world”, see what’s coming up as the first result.

    It is recently speculated that Dacia was the place from where Romans and Greeks came.

    As proof, in “De bello dacico” written by Caius Iulius Caesar, Traian says “I will return to my ancestors homeland”. Now to what ancestors homeland could a Roman return too?

    Dan Snow, needs to do his homework on history before doing documentaries that other people see. Until now I had a good impression about BBC and Discovery Channel, but now I know never to trust what I see on TV.

  7. I loved this programme. Introducing the technology allowed the bigger perspective – and after all, the aim is to promote interest and entertain. Dan Snow created a spectacular view of history. Bring it on Dan!

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