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Rome - Engineering an Empire

Reviewed by Ursus

Some have said Rome's greatness was achieved by the spade as much as by the sword. Certainly the empire would have lacked much of its grandeur without its famed engineering feats. The History Channel produced one of its better outings in this DVD which explores Rome's architectural triumphs from the early Republic to the reign of Caracalla. A copy of the DVD is also included with every "Caesar IV" game, the latest in the series of Ancient Roman city building simulations. I was struck by how much the DVD seemed to be an audio-visual parallel to the Nigel's Rodgers "Roman Architecture" as the two productions cover much the same ground. For those too lazy to read Rodger's great book, the History Channel's DVD is an educational and enjoyable exposition.

The DVD attempts to place Rome's engineering prowess within a relevant politico-military context. Roads, monuments, forts and temples were all ultimately projections of Roman power. Quite often they were also directly tied to the personalities and agendas of the leading politicians at the time. The political and military narrative is necessarily brief and bare-boned, as the focus must lay on the actual engineering projects. Nonetheless the background context fleshes out the withers and wherefores of the brick and marble creations subsequently lain out before the viewer.

The format of the DVD can be divided into four areas: camera shots of the modern day ruins of the edifices under study; computer graphics and animations detailing the construction of the projects and reconstructions of how they looked in their prime; actors hired to reenact the leading Roman personalities (the actors have no dialogue and are only meant to look good in costumes); and numerous experts from America and Europe lending their commentary.

As to the last, The History Channel assembled a menagerie of talking heads to proffer insightful analysis. The names include Mary Boatwright of Duke University; Peter Weller of Syracuse University; Eric Nelson of Pacific Lutheran University; Michael Peachin of New York University; Scott Steedman, a UK engineering consultant; Carlos Norena of Yale University; Scott Schlimgen and Darius Arya of the American Institue of Roman Culture; Kim Hartswick of George Washington University; Jan Gadeyne of the American University at Rome; and Christiani Ranieri, an Italian archaeologist. I did not have time to research their respective resumes, but they all seem qualified experts on the subject areas. These academics explain the engineering and archaeological significance of a given relic, as well as elucidating the political background. I was most impressed with Syracuse University's Peter Weller, who presents the entire documentary; his obvious enthusiasm and knowledge of Roman history earns him my respect more than his acting credential".

The DVD's prologue concerns Caesar's campaigns. Caesar's legions constructed a mighty bridge in a mere 8 days to cross the Rhine river. The Germanic natives were suitably frightened by this heretofore unthinkable feat and offered Caesar no resistance as he explored uncharted territory. With engineering as a projection of Rome's political and military might and the ambitions of its leaders, the tone of the rest of the DVD is set.

We then backtrack to the legendary founding of Rome. The supposed openness of Roman culture, a city of refugees, encouraged a confluence of neighboring ideas. Among these were the engineering feats of Greeks, Latins and Etruscans. The early Romans capitalized on this knowledge base by building the Cloaca Maxima, a sewer that functions to this day. With the marshy lands drained by the sewer, a Forum was lain. The villages along the Tiber quickly aggregated to become the leading Latin city. Rome's remarkable road network then facilitated conquest and cultural acclimation across Italy and beyond. By the time of Augustus, Roman roads snaked like tentacles across the known world, and with them came Roman style cities in the provinces.

Rome's engineering prowess rested in large measure of its manipulation of concrete. With this durable building material, Romans were able to build larger and better designs than their neighbors. For instance, the arch and vault revolutionized architecture. The waterproof nature of concrete made such things as aqueducts possible.

Aquaducts in turn made possible the growth of large cities, as well as such amenities as running water and public baths. As Peter Weller notes, the Roman access to running water was something the poor wretches of the later Middle Ages would never know. As one other commentator observed, the Roman took pride in being cleaner than their neighbors. The Emperor Claudis in particular was renowned for two great aqueducts feeding the city, providing over 200 million gallons a day to a million thirsty inhabitants from mountain springs over 12 miles away.

The rest of the DVD then follows the pet building projects of the more memorable (sometimes infamous) emperors. Succulent chapters are devoted to each of the following: Nero's Golden House; Flavian's Amphitheatre; Trajan's Forum; Hadrian's Wall and the Pantheon; and Caracalla's baths. Each chapter is quite illuminating in its engineering detail and the social context behind it.

The Romans performed engineering feats unmatched till modern times, and using non-mechanized means at that. On the other hand, they did have a resource the Modern West does not: a cheap and ultimately disposable labor force in the form of slaves. Colleges of skilled labor operated the technical details, but servile wretches performed the heavy labor. Captured Jewish slaves built Flavian's amphitheatre, and Roman slaves worked around the clock to cut out a hillside for Trajan's market. Roman slaves worked beneath Caracalla's baths while the opulent leisured above them. It is perhaps sobering to realize the eternal monuments of Roman grandeur were built with the labor of the unwilling.

The DVD is not without its flaws. Some of the political narrative is less than accurate. Julius Caesar is referred to as an emperor as one point. In another instance , the narrator bemoans the emergence of the loss of the Republic and its "elected Senators and Consuls." Since when were Senators elected? The ending also suggests Rome fell because its own ambitions were matched by its own vices. This sort of moralizing is pointless and out of place.

Nonetheless, I would recommend "Rome: Engineering an Empire" for a sweeping visual survey of architectural majesty.

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Rome: Engineering an Empire - Related Topic: Roman Architecture


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