The beauty of The History Channel is its ability to simplify many complex details of historical events and select the most important facts to form concise summaries. In relatively short running times, the channel’s programs provide surprisingly comprehensive and accessible historical examinations.
Hosted by Peter Weller and narrated by Michael Carroll, THC’s series Engineering An Empire analyzes the world’s major civilizations and recognizes the significant engineering achievements that led to each empire’s rise and lasting legacy on the modern world.
Naturally, each episode starts with a brief introduction to the beginning years, and follows with engineering contributions related to the empire’s growth and to its culture. Each episode also features interviews from historians and scholars who offer expertise on the modern context of those projects as well as significant events within the period.
In “Greece” and “Greece: Age of Alexander,” the famous Greek city-states and important rulers are highlighted for their individual contributions to Greece’s fame. Under constant threat from the Persian Empire, a few of the city-states helped establish the Delian League (a modern day NATO organization). The Parthenon, the theater, and the Lighthouse and Library of Alexandria are observed, as well as Alexander the Great’s reign.
In “The Aztecs,” the Aztec Empire was founded on the island Tenochtitlan, which forced them to establish an advanced aqueduct, a causeway and levee system, and an amazingly efficient agricultural structure. Weller offers an aside about the often overlooked Aztec innovations compared to their European counterparts: when Michelangelo was carving the David, the Aztecs were constructing a temple out of the side of a mountain. The episode concludes with Hernán Cortés’ famous destruction of Tenochtitlan, which lies underneath modern day Mexico City.
In “Carthage,” we see how the Carthaginians implemented the first unified plumbing system in the world (predating Rome) as well as an advanced harbor structure. Much of the episode is devoted to the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome over Sicily and rule over the Mediterranean Sea, featuring the advanced Carthaginian warship, Hannibal’s reign including his crossing of the Alps, and the Carthage’s eventual fall to Rome.
In “China,” the episode follows the unification of China with the Qin, Han, Sui, and Ming Dynasties, starting with hydrologic and metallurgic advancements. Famous projects like the Great Wall, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor with the thousands of Terra Cotta Army statues, the Grand Canal, and Zheng He’s great naval fleet are featured. It’s interesting how each subsequent dynasty after the Qin kept repeating the mistake of inflicting harsh rule over the peasant population leading to multiple uprisings. It’s also interesting to see how close China was to ruling the world before imperialism’s popularity.