STUDIO: A&E Home Video
RUNNING TIME: 376 minutes
History channel’s usual fare with focus on all the favorites such as rape, murder, and incest.
Cast: Darius Arya PhD, David Mallott MD, MIke Ibeji PhD
Narrator: Tom McCamus
Ancients Behaving Badly is a History channel series examining eight of histories more famous sometimes killers. Ranging from the ambition driven killing of Julius Caesar to the pleasure driven murders of Caligula (a range they show on a psychologically based graphic display). What is analyzed is some of the most famous moments of mores flaunting excess, whether that is based in military endeavors or crimes of passion.
I’ve watched my share of History channel specials. I’m just as sure that there are plenty of you out there that share my soft spot for history shows. ‘Tell me a story’ is my usual stance on these things. Having a passion for history seems to have a correlation with loving to tell a good story. Being a geek myself, it is nice to see historians get to tell you about their passion. Geeks understand geek. In addition to being a good story I also want them to give me a basis in reality and background. To me the most successful of these specials contain a mixture of storytelling, detail, and passion for the subject. Does this one live up to that?
This isn’t the usual untold stories of history series, instead what we have with this one is an examination of some of the most well told stories of some of the most well known rulers of the ancient world analyzed for psychological profiles. Although unfocused at times, it is entertaining seeing a fresh take on well documented moments in the myths of these figures. Where do these figures fit in a modern understanding of psychology. This wasn’t always the focus but it was the main thrust of the analysis.
Given special notice is exactly where any of these accounts were taken from. This is done to judge where any exaggerations may have occurred and what the motivations for those characterizations may have been. In the case of Hannibal, it is Scipio Africanus’ personal publicist that was responsible for much of what we know of Hannibal. It was to Scipio’s advantage for people to think of Hannibal as a brilliant strategist, since it was Scipio that eventually defeated Hannibal. Knowing this, we get a more realistic version of moments that sometimes border on superhuman.
It is a shame that some of these are forced into a 42 minute television hour. There is more than enough material in some of these to have supported twice that size. In this way I felt that these episodes were a bit lacking. Of course not all are lacking, Nero’s episode is interesting but without much in the way of large scale military campaigns it feels a bit thin. In the same way, it seems that much of the lives of Hannibal and Julius Caesar are glossed over in favor of hitting the big moments.
This may have been personal preference, but I did enjoy the asides that highlighted some of the military strategies of the given subject. It may not have lent any evidence to the intended thesis, but it was fun to learn about the advantages of items like the Mongolian bow or Alexander’s 18 foot spear lines (phallic much?). This was part of the reason I might criticize it for being a bit unfocused, but it was a nice bit of information and helped break up the monotony of the stories.
Psychologist David Mallott is consulted on each episode and gives evidence to support his take on the psychological drive of each of these powerful leaders. It’s obvious where someone like Caligula and alternately Julius Caesar would fall in a range of ambitious versus psychopathic, but I did find it surprising to learn how Cleopatra was diagnosed. After determining this they then compare them to other leaders in history who they compare on several dimensions. This is meant to be the main reason for the scientific takes on analysis, but I found that in a few cases this felt a little tacked on.
Instead of the usual recreations done by a group of models and actors this series presents historic moments in a minimal animated graphic novel style. It’s change of pace from some of the recent History channel recreations and current trend of turning all historical battles into a 300 clone. It wasn’t quite as engaging, but it has some extra gruesomeness and eschewed some of the goofiness of other series (sorry Battles BC). The animation is a welcome change of pace but doesn’t necessarily do enough to differentiate in any meaningful way.
In the end, I really enjoyed what they offered up in this series. I don’t know if it was always successful and a couple of episodes were a bit dryer than others. I learned new things and was entertained in the process. To me this is a good measure for success on an educational/informational series. While meant to be a more lurid take on the scandalous moments of many of histories great or insane figure, it really ends up being mostly similar to many of the History channels other series.
The DVD is about as bare bones as it comes. Chapters are included for each episode and there is a menu, but not much else.