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DVD Review: Ultimate Ancient Civilizations DVD Set

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This is a set of sets from A&E/History Channel. The set consists of Rome: Engineering an Empire, Alexander the Great, The Aztec Empire, Lost City of the Incas, Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids, and Julius Caesar's Rome.

Rome: Engineering an Empire (100 minutes) — tells the story of engineering in Rome — both scientific and political. From Julius Caesar's bridge over the Rhine to the end of the Empire, scientific feats helped the Romans to expand their influence and increase their standard of living. Political engineering, though often less publicly beneficial, was no less important in the shaping of the legacy of the Roman Empire. No menu on this one, and no special features.

Alexander the Great (150 minutes) — (includes menu, scene selection, and a behind the scenes featurette). Relies on Plutarch's account of Alexander's early life. While many documentaries feature modern scholars giving their interpretations, this features actors playing the parts of ancient historians (Plutarch, Diodorus, etc.) along with contemporary scholars — an interesting decision, and one that, while jarring at first, grew on me. The video also makes a point of showing Alexander as a PR master as well as a military tactician, especially in his encounter with the Gordian knot (even though no mention is made of Plutarch's dispute with the commonly accepted legend). It is also amazing to the modern mind that Alexander's arrogance didn't lead to his defeat at the hands of Darius. And of course, there has to be the discussion of what killed him, which was a bit brief for my tastes, but did raise the question — had Alexander not died young, would he have been considered all that great? Would he have been able to rule the empire he conquered?

The Behind the Scenes featurette was very informative as well, and was a good addition to the video.

The Aztec Empire (50 minutes) — no special features — (only a menu and scene selection) — from the "In Search of History" episode on the Aztecs. Very good introduction to Aztec culture. Even-handed treatment of the Spanish invasion, which also showed how the Aztecs were feared and hated in the region. Unfortunately brief, partially because of the lack of information we have on the Aztec culture.

Lost City of the Incas (50 minutes) — no special features (only a menu and scene selection). Also from "In Search of History". Begins with the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham, but then goes on to discuss Inca civilization, since we know more about that then we do about Machu Picchu and why it was built (thankfully, they do not advance the "alien helpers" theory) and why it was later abandoned, so that even Pizzaro didn't find it.

Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids (200 minutes) — includes scene selection, "Making Of" featurette, closed captioning options. With Peter Woodward. Volume 1 starts off with "Mansions of the Spirits," which looks deep inside the temples in Egypt. This is a lot more meaningful when you realize that you can look at the architecture of a temple and see the beliefs of the people who built it (a fact that has been unfortunately lost in American evangelical Christianity today), and when you think about how important their religion was in the everyday life of the average Egyptian. The re-assembly of the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut in Karnak is an incredible story of a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Volume 1 ends with "The Great Pharaoh and His Lost Children," detailing the excavation of tomb KV5, a lost burial site in the Valley of the Kings. This excavation resulted in one of the greatest finds in modern archaeology, something that is still being examined and explored today. Ramses the Great fathered hundreds of children, at least fifty of them sons. Could KV5 be their final resting place?

Volume 2 starts off with a fascinating look at daily life in ancient Egypt. Most studies of Egypt tend to look more at the Pharaohs, or the mythology and religions of Egypt, so this part was especially interesting to me. The disc ends with a look at Egyptian burial practices, including some new discoveries. The best part of Egyptian studies is that even though there have been archaeologists and Egyptologists studying the country for centuries, there is always more to learn. I think Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids is the best part of this collection.

Julius Caesar's Rome (322 minutes) — includes a timeline of Roman emperors, and scene selection. It's telling that Rome gets the most attention of any 'ancient civilization' in this package — though I often wonder if Rome shouldn't be considered the first 'modern' civilization, rather than a truly ancient one. In any case, this two-volume set starts off with a well done biography of Julius Caesar, and the story of Antony and Cleopatra (on volume 1). Volume 2 of the set has an excellent discussion of the republic and the Empire. "Building an Empire" shows Rome's expansion from the time of Julius Caesar forward, and the final years of the empire are examined in "The Enduring Legacy."

My only disappointment with this set lies in what's not included. Everything in it is interesting and informative, but it's far from a complete look at ancient civilizations. Seven hours on Rome, three and a half on Egypt, only one hour each on the Aztec and Inca civilizations, and almost three hours just on Alexander (not much at all about the Macedonian civilization, unfortunately). Surely A&E/History Channel could have found an hour on the Mayas to go with the Incas and Aztecs, and an hour about the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. Something on far eastern civilizations also would have been appreciated. As it stands, it's an interesting survey of the more popular ancient civilizations that leaves out some of the more fascinating aspects of ancient history.

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