Narrated by Robert R. Cargill, this eight-part documentary — originally airing on the History Channel — brings to life the rise and fall of the Roman Empire through one building — the bloody arena known as the Colosseum. In each episode, one fighter type or person tells the story of how Rome’s Emperors used blood and circuses to show their power and appease their people.

The series starts in the year 80 AD and “The Gladiators,” as Titus gives his people 100 days of games with the main event presenting a battle between the gladiators Priscus and Verus. It goes deeper than just these two men and shows how the fighters were selected, how they trained and how poets and made their exploits remembered up until now.

“The Builder” is an episode that taught me so much, exploring how Emperor Domitian pushed master builder Haterius to feats of engineering near magic, as he built a labyrinth underneath the colosseum floor and a series of elevators that could make it appear that gladiators, animals and scenery could appear out of nowhere.

“The Beastmaster” is about Carpophorus, who was enslaved by the Romans and trained to fight the beasts of his homeland. “The Gladiatrix” is about the female gladiators who fought under Emperor Trajan, while “The Martyr” is about the Christians who died in the Colosseum, including Ignatius, who walked 1,800 miles to be killed there.

“The Scientist” explains the life of Galan, who goes from a lowly physician to becoming the personal doctor and close ally of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, “The Emperor” describes the reign of Commodus and “The Pagan” follows the end of the empire, as earthquakes, fires and an invasion take their toll, with the Colosseum itself finally being left empty.

Each episode, directed by Roel Reiné (Hard Target 2The Man With the Iron Fists 2The Marine 2Death Race 2) and written by the team of Jim Greayer, Jeremiah Murphy, Colin Teevan, Niall Cassin, Joseph Millson, Dario Poloni and Sumerah Srivastav, this series packs a lot of history into a very short time. It doesn’t shy away from violence, as you can imagine, and that might be why this is a much more entertaining way of learning history than old books and filmstrips from high school.

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