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.
In “Russia,” the country began as separate areas and cities before the city of Moscow grew through the age of the tsars starting with Ivan the Great. He oversaw the construction of the Cathedral of the Assumption, and created an independent Russian state. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great followed to make Russia an empire. There are magnificent architectural masterpieces like Peterhof, the Winter Palace, and the Alexander Column, as well as building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to connect western and eastern Russia.
In “Britain: Blood And Steel,” THC examines the relatively young British Empire as it uses technology to power its thirst for conquest. The country used revolutionary naval design and weapons to conquer the seas and expand its influence all across the world, and advances in the steam engine to use the railroad to create a more connected mainland. A few projects highlighted are the rebuilt House of Parliament and Big Ben, the massive worldwide telegraph cable system, the largest sewer system in the world at the time (located in London), and the Tower Bridge.
In “The Persians,” the Persian Empire started by creating underground canals that predated the Roman aqueducts. It would be Cyrus the Great who would build Pasargadae to be the capital of Persia. Like Greece’s situation after Alexander the Great’s death, Cyrus’s death created internal chaos with many people vying for the crown. Darius takes the throne and begins many engineering projects, including his own personal capital in the grand city of Persepolis, a large stone road system (The Royal Road), and a 130-mile canal linking the Red and Mediterranean Seas.
In “The Maya: Death Empire,” the Mayan Empire lasted for centuries with similar building ambitions in the pyramid as their counterparts half a world away. But unlike their counterparts, the Mayan people felt obligated to serve their kings in building these pyramids and other projects. It’s interesting to note that the Mayans knew of the wheel and of metallurgy, yet didn’t use them in construction because they believed that physical labor contributed to the projects’ grandeur. The Mayans also mastered mathematics (especially the concept of zero, something that alluded the Romans), which they used in construction; were fascinated by astrology and developed a calendar system; as well as understood early concepts of water pressure, a prerequisite for modern plumbing.
In “Napoleon: Steel Monster,” the episode begins with the creation of Gothic architecture starting with the 200-year building of Notre Dame Cathedral, which represented new engineering techniques like scaffolding and the flying buttress. Louis XIV believed that major projects would help contribute to his personal grandeur and ordered the construction of the Palace of Versailles, as well as approved of the Canal du Midi, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea with the building of the largest dam and reservoir of its time. Napoleon’s reign is also discussed, in addition to the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.
In “The Byzantines,” Constantine inherited a share of the Roman Empire and decided to build Constantinople as the empire’s new capital. A major problem with large cities and large populations is maintaining a steady water supply, and this was solving with the building of the largest aqueduct system (400 miles) in the world, as well as a series of subterranean water tanks underneath the city. Two marvelous projects were built during Justinian’s sovereignty: the Hippodrome, which used every construction and engineering technique and took years to build; and the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), which represented the largest dome every constructed.
In “Da Vinci’s World,” Florence, Italy is highlighted as it experiences the Renaissance after the horrific Black Death decimates Europe. Florence was estimated to have lost 50-60% of its population, and many of the affluent survivors believed it was their duty to use their own money to fund projects that would benefit the public like the Duomo, the largest masonry dome in the world. Unfortunately, numerous projects lay unbuilt and unimagined when many of the architects and engineers were called to design city defenses instead of cathedrals.
The series’ obvious omission is the Roman Empire, but given the amount of documentation and material already available on Rome it’s understandable that it would be left out. Rome is mentioned often, though, considering it was so influential in historical events.
After watching Engineering An Empire, you come away with an understanding of a few interesting things that all empires must acquire in order to achieve superpower status: mastery of hydrology, mastery of mining, and loyalty and/or subjugation of the people. The latter is a must because huge projects couldn’t be built without a large labor force, but underestimating the resolve of the peasant/average citizen has also led to the overthrowing of many governments and to brief countrywide regressions.
The set’s only extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette of Weller at on-site locations of a few of the highlighted marvels, with many coming from the crew’s time in Turkey. He interviews local scholars to gain more professional insight, some of which weren’t included in the final cut. In one scene, Weller provides a casual take on the Great Wall of China while standing on it. He’s joking about his cheap producer while debunking the myth of being able to see the Wall from space.
You’ll also hear the line “the world has ever known (or seen)” more times than you’d like to, but there isn’t any doubt that these marvels and projects could only have been built by the enormous creativity and limitless imagination of a select group of dreamers, as well as the determination and pure willpower of millions of workers.