When you think of the Roman Empire, I bet it’s with the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” EIGHT DAYS THAT MADE ROME is a new series presented by the historian Bettany Hughes. It starts to answer that question – think prosperity and stability, but also violence, atrocity, murder and fear.
The premise of Eight Days is to look at defining moments that helped Rome become the vast empire that we recognise from history. Hughes begins the series with examining the crucial battle between Hannibal (he of the elephants) and Publius Cornelius Scipio on the dry plains of North Africa, a culmination of the years-long power struggle between Rome and Carthage.
In the 6th century BC, Rome was just a middling settlement on the banks of the River Tiber. It seems that it was always destined for violence – its founder, Romulus (and the twin he murdered, Remus) being the sons of Mars, the god of War. Over the next few hundred years Rome extended its influence through bullying and genocide, until it controlled most of Italy in what was, in all honesty, a vast protection racket.
The only thorn in Rome’s side was the Carthaginian Empire, ruled by Hannibal. Bad blood flowed between Hannibal and Rome – his army had slaughtered over half the Roman army at a vicious battle at Cannae in south-eastern Italy. It was after this battle that his eventual nemesis emerged, ready for revenge.
It’s not just the battle scenes that impress the enormity of the power struggle – it’s the small details that add a poignant touch. Hughes visits an archaeological dig on the site of Illiturgis, Andalucia, where 90% of the occupants were massacred by Scipio’s army. They have found hob nails from the Roman boots, and a savage bolt from a ballista (a large crossbow). It’s when Hughes tries on a plain bronze ring, a simple ghostly token from a lost life, that the enormity and brutality of the attack strikes home.
The deciding battle between Hannibal and Scipio - Carthage and Rome, is waged in the heat of Zama, North Africa. This is where the winners will be victors not just for one day, but for all time, and the whole world will be the prize of victory. Scipio’s army is being royally trounced by Hannibal, and things look decidedly bleak. Will the cavalry save the day? Will the Roman Empire expand to rule over the Mediterranean and beyond?
I think we all know the answer to that. But that knowledge does not make the showdown between two great generals any less thrilling.
If history bored the heck out of you at school then I promise you, this is NOT boring. The combination of fact-based dramatisation and the enthusiastic delivery by Hughes, mixed with the sweeping scenes of desert and ruined cities, makes for a fascinating programme.
- Aired on Channel 5, October 27 2017 at 21:00.