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Featured TV on DVD Review: Ancients Behaving Badly

May 23rd, 2010

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Ancients Behaving Badly is a documentary program that aired on History, the same cable channel that airs shows like Haunted History, MonsterQuest, Nostradamus Effect, and UFO Hunters. So their grasp of "history" is dubious at times. Is this show real history, or is it little more than exploitative entertainment masquerading as history?

The show takes a look at eight leaders from the ancient past and their cruel reputations. Disc one starts with Caligula, who is arguably the most famous for his barbaric behavior. Speaking of barbarians, Attila the Hun is next up and he helped turn "Hun" into an insult. Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great are both looked at as great military leaders and creators of Empires, but their methods of gaining power and maintaining it are harsh. Over on disc two we start with Nero, best known today for playing his Lyre while Rome burned. Next up is Hannibal, the guy with the Elephants and not the guy with the fave beans and a nice Chianti. Disc two continues with Genghis Khan, whom I might be related too, in a very, very distant manner. (Although if the research is correct, I'm not alone.) And finally we come to Cleopatra, who is better known for her lovers than her acts of violence.

This show can be quickly compared to two shows I've reviewed recently: Deadliest Warrior and Clash of the Gods.

For instance, they do a lot of reenactments of certain weapons that these leaders used, like the Huns' riding saddle and how it helped defeat Roman armies. Or the compound bow used by Genghis's horde. They also test myths like the Nero's attempt to kill his mother with a booby-trapped boat, or the various types of poisons that can be used and to what effect. These scientific tests and simulations remind me of Deadliest Warrior and it is one of the best parts of the show. It is also interesting when talking about the military campaigns of some of these ancients. (Not all of them had military campaigns of note.) It gets less interesting when they move from the military conquests to the political killings and finally into the more sadistic pleasure killings. When you get into some of the details, it starts to feel exploitative, and that's when I start to lose interest.

It's style borrows from Clash of the Gods, with a lot of limited animation. I much prefer the style used here. It's comic book like in appearance, but while it is stylized, the style doesn't go overboard and interfere with its effectiveness. It is quite bloody, but that's to be expected given the subject matter. Also, like in Clash of the Gods, it can be repetitive, although not to the same degree. For instance, a lot of the general mayhem performed by Caligula and Nero is illustrated with the same short animated clips. Likewise, important events in a person's life, like Genghis killing his brother, are shown a number of times throughout the episode.

The show does try to be too scientific at times. The "Medical Simulator" comes across as a bit of a joke. You can say, "Attila the Hun had a blood vessel burst and he choked on his own blood." without using a supped up CPR dummy to try and illustrate that. Also, don't tell me this is the truth. This isn't the truth; this is speculation based on evidence that is sometimes dubious. You simply can't make a medical diagnoses or a psychological profile based on second hand information, especially when its written decades after the fact by people with a political agenda.

There are no extras on the two-disc set, nor are there subtitles or play-all buttons. There are proper chapter placements. In fact, when you go to play the episode, you are presented with the chapters to choose from. I like that as an option, but would prefer a play all button as well.

The Verdict

Ancients Behaving Badly is a show for people who want equal parts entertainment and information. Okay, maybe it's a little more on the entertainment end of the scale, but there is still enough information to go with the bloodshed that I won't hold the more exploitative aspects against the show. The lack of extras hurt, but the DVD is still worth checking out.

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