Rome: Engineering an Empire Review

The History Channel's Special on Engineering Feats of the Roman Empire

Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
Sunrise at the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy. Getty Images/joe daniel price

Rome: Engineering an Empire tells the story of the expansion of the Roman Empire by means of amazing engineering feats. One of the more impressive anecdotes of this History Channel production is that the Roman aqueducts procured more water for the city of Rome during the Empire than New York City could supply its inhabitants in 1985.

The production is sleek, seamlessly flowing from historical period to engineering accomplishment to imperial biography, using on-site photography, drawings, and actors to recreate interpersonal relations.

Roman Accomplishments in Construction

Chronologically, the first engineering accomplishment featured in Rome: Engineering an Empire is the creation of a great sewer system, the cloaca maxima, which allowed the hilltop villages to consolidate, but the story presented by Rome: Engineering an Empire begins with the end of the Republic and Julius Caesar, whose engineering marvel was the building of a 1000-foot wooden bridge over the Rhine River in 10 days for Caesar's legions to cross. Military needs also dictated the construction of the famous roads of the Roman Empire. These roads weren't straight just for the sake of speed, but because the Romans lacked surveying tools that would allow them to make curves. Roman aqueducts, based on simple physical principles, were also straight line constructions, tunnels through mountains, and bridges over valleys, with the famous Roman arch construction, used to limit the amount of material needed.

Emperors and an Empire

Although Claudius wasn't the only emperor to work on aqueducts, the program credits the emperor with the Anio aqueduct, while describing both his reign and his relationship with his wife Agrippina. This ties one engineering feat with the next, the pleasure palace of the Golden Palace (Domus Aurea), constructed by Agrippina's son, the Emperor Nero.

Nero's murder of his mother ties in with a later segment on Emperor Caracalla who killed his brother before the eyes of his mother.

Between these two emperors, Rome: Engineering an Empire covers the building feats and careers of the good emperors, Vespasian, Trajan, and Hadrian, builders of the Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater; builder of a column celebrating his conquests and an early shopping mall with 150 storefronts, and rebuilder of the forum; and the wall up to 30 feet high in places that crossed the entire width of Britain.

Rome: Engineering an Empire is available on DVD from Amazon.