Whether it is because you’re a history aficionado or because you love well produced shows, this list is definitely for you! From the likes of HBO, Starz, the History Channel, CW and Showtime, these history-driven series bring historical events and characters to the small-screens with an intensity you’re only bound to find in the big screen. Produced basically as if they were mini-films, each episode of these historical TV shows portrays a perfect combination of historical portrayal and fiction, with awesome cinematic and some deeply researched production.
From kings and queens to slaves and gladiators, here are the 7 series that are a must-watch for anyone who craves historical depictions.
Rome – HBO (Concluded)
HBO’s two-season historical drama Rome, starts in 49 BC in the Roman transition from Republic to Empire. Julius Caesar’s war against the most traditional and conservative senators, his ascension to power through dictatorship and his doom are at the core of the first season. Rome‘s main plot revolves around the wealthy and powerful, but it also gives some insight into the lives of the poor. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are two Roman soldiers – adapted from actual soldiers who served under Julius Caesar – who have some weigh in the historical events that come to pass on the series.
Octavian, who later became the Roman Emperor Augustus, is present in Season 1, but is paramount on the show’s second season. He is Marc Anthony’s rival in the struggle for the ultimate control of Rome. As Season 2 develops, Augustus gets his laurels while Marc Anthony and his lover Cleopatra face a huge defeat at the Battle of Actium. As a consequence, Anthony kills himself and Augustus rises to the title of First Emperor of Rome. Rome was prematurely canceled in its second season and, as the last season draws to an end, it is pretty obvious that the show was on a timer. It feels a bit rushed towards the end, with much history being told and shown at a fast pace, but the show closes with the same dignity and mastery as it started.
Rome’s star-cast includes Grey’s Anatomy‘s Kevin McKidd as Vorenus, Ray Stevenson (Thor and Divergent series) and Outlander‘s Tobias Menzies.
Vikings – History Channel (On Hiatus)
History’s Vikings is a joyride if you bear any love for the Nordic Sagas. Centered around , Vikings explores viking culture, their invasions of Wessex, Normandy and Francia, with some violence and family feud to go with. Although the character of Ragnar is actually based upon at least three historical leaders of the Scandinavian nations, the series also strives for accuracy in Ragnar’s brother Rollo and Ragnar’s sons – who turned out to be great rulers themselves.
Vikings brings to the screen some Nordic mythology and the interaction between catholics and pagans in the friendship of Ragnar and the priest Athelstan. With shieldmaidens, the classic viking longships and shield walls, Vikings takes viewers deep into the Northmen lifestyle and their ambitions. The show is currently halfway through its forth season, but there’s still time to catch up before it comes back for the final half.
Travis Fimmel is the visionary King Ragnar Lothbrok. Gabriel Byrne guests as Earl Haraldson and plays the shipbuilder and Ragnar’s frenemy, Floki.
Spartacus – Starz (Concluded)
Before History Channel brought us the real story of the rebel slave in Barbarians Rising, Starz had stunned us all with its four seasons of Spartacus. The show, which is quite heavy on mixing recorded history and fictional events, gave us a strong and fierce Spartacus in Andy Whitfield – and, after his passing, Liam McKintyre – who fought the Roman slave system alongside his fellow gladiators Crixus and Gannicus. Starz’s Spartacus isn’t for the faint of heart. It is bloody, visceral and heavy on the sex scenes, but it’s also an entertaining take – even if a bit fantastical – of the Roman Empire.
Because of Andy’s health issues after season 1, Starz allowed him one season off and, instead of following the first season’s storyline, released a prequel to Spartacus while Andy was away. For that reason, Spartacus‘ seasons aren’t aligned in a chronological order, which may be confusing for new viewers. If you decide to have a go at Spartacus, follow it chronologically: Gods of The Arena, Spartacus, Vengeance and War of the Damned, and get ready for all the gore and violence you can master!
Besides Andy Whitfield and Liam McKintyre in the lead role, the ensemble also includes John Hannah as Batiatus and Arrow‘s Amanda Waller, Cynthia Addai-Robinson.
The White Queen – Starz (Concluded)
This is a show that even Game of Thrones‘ author George R. R. Martin would recommend, simply because it portrays the events that originated the War of Roses, which Martin used as a base for his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ books. The White Queen centers around Elizabeth Woodville, a widow and a mother that wins over the heart of soon-to-be-king Edward of York. Since Elizabeth doesn’t have a single drop of royal blood in her veins, her marriage to King Edward IV is deeply controversial.
Elizabeth Woodville is a key-player in England’s power games in the later half of the 1400’s, and she’s a well-know historical figure, even if her story lacks documentation. Author Philippa Gregory started her book series ‘The Cousin’s War’ with Elizabeth and Edward’s love story and the Yorks’ feud with the Lancasters for the English throne. After King Edward’s death, Elizabeth – The White Queen – becomes an impediment to the reign of Richard III, and both her sons get imprisoned in the Tower of London and are never seen again. Elizabeth’s bloodline is present in every single English monarch until today, through her daughter’s marriage to Henry Tudor, which will be the point of focus for – set to debut in 2017.
Max Irons (The Host) portrays King Edward IV, while the title character is played by Rebecca Ferguson. Game of Thrones‘ Faye Marsay is also present as Lady Anne Neville, the Kingmaker’s daughter.
Reign – The CW (On Hiatus)
From a historical perspective, Reign serves as a follow-up for the events of The White Queen, but from the Scottish viewpoint. Reign‘s main protagonist is Mary Stuart, dubbed Mary Queen of Scots, the famous Scottish monarch from 1542 to 1567. Mary is the daughter of King James and, as her father’s heir, she ascends to the throne of Scotland at six days of age. Her mother, Mary of Guise, becomes regent and sends Mary off to France, where she’s to wed the French Dauphin Francis Valois.
In Reign, Mary and her ladies-in-waiting spend some years at the French court, facing the dangers and hard choices of Mary’s role as Queen of Scotland. History is heavily condensed and romanticized in Reign, with Mary and Francis’ love story taking center stage. Queen Elizabeth of England is also present in the series, as Mary’s cousin and competitor for both the English and Scottish crowns. After Francis dies in Season 3, to try and prevent the protestant John Knox from dissolving her reign.
Megan Follows plays Catherine de’ Medici, Francis’ mother and Queen of France in Season 1. Mary Stuart is played by Adelaide Kane and The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Anna Popplewell is one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting.
The Tudors – Showtime (Concluded)
With its sole focus being on Henry VIII’s monarchy, court and personal life, The Tudors ran for four seasons on Showtime. Depicting events from roughly the same period as Reign, The Tudors is about the English King Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, gave him his eldest daughter Mary (later dubbed Bloody Mary for her persecution of protestants) and, to obtain his divorce and marry his next wife Anne Boleyn, Henry broke off with Rome. Henry’s decision led to the English Reformation and the creation of the Church of England, but for all he did, Anne gave him a single daughter, Elizabeth (the one you can watch on Reign).
The Tudors follows Henry as he navigates through six wives, many lovers and his extravagant court and courtesans up until his his final days. English politics and religious quarrels are also heavily present on the show, offering an entertaining – even though not completely accurate – insight into early 1500’s European monarchies. King Henry VIII eventually had a son – who ended up succeeding him for a brief period of time – from his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Henry VIII is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, while his most famous wife, Anne Boleyn is played by Thrones‘ Natalie Dorman. The now Superman Henry Cavill had his big breakthrough as the First Duke of Suffolk, Charles Branson.
Outlander – Starz (On Hiatus)
Based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of books, Outlander is a fictional story set in 1743. The series takes off when Claire Randall touches a stone in the mystical circle of Craigh na Dun and is, magically, transported back 200 years to 1743. Thence, Outlander follows Claire as she navigates through the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th century, with its Clan politics and rugged way of life. The costumes and sets – which earned Outlander – look straight out of medieval times, with men in their long plaid kilts and women with their arisaids and neck scarves. Because Claire is a nurse, there’s also the chance at a glimpse through the medical apparatus of the 1700’s and the strong usage of herbs as medicine.
Season 2 follows Claire – and her now husband – James Fraser to France and Louis XV’s court. Versailles, the streets of Paris, the royal parties and even a brothel are highly elaborate and intricately designed in the show. As the season comes to its end, Outlander takes a ship back to Scotland’s history and the infamous Battle of Culloden Moor. against the unification of the crowns, back in 1746 and, after their overwhelming defeat, the highland Scots were deprived of their culture and their Clan system.
Time-traveler Claire Randall Fraser is played by Golden Globe nominee Caitriona Balfe. Sam Heughan is the dashing Jamie Fraser and Tobias Menzies (Rome/Game of Thrones) rivals Jamie as both Frank Randall – Claire’s husband from 1945 – and Cap. Jack Randall of the English Regiment in 1743.
BONUS Barbarians Rising – History Channel (Concluded)
Although not your every day historical drama show, Barbarians Rising is a mini-series of four episodes showing the lives of the most important and renown barbarian leaders. Their defiance of the mighty Roman Empire helped write the history – and borderlines – of many European countries of today, and Barbarians Rising does a pretty fine job of entwining their stories with comments from some of the best historians of today. It also has some very familiar faces for those who are Game of Thrones fans!
Each of the four episodes centers in the lives of two barbarian leaders who rebelled against the oppression and slavery of the Roman Empire and who empowered their peoples and their nations to fight against the tyranny of Rome. Britain’s Boudica, Germany’s Arminius, and Thrace’s Spartacus are some examples of defiant leaders whose stories Barbarians Rising aims to depict. On the trail of the success of Vikings and Barbarians Rising, History Channel is already producing a new history-based series, .
These should make for a good fix if you’re into history, politics and family war, bloody battles and awesome actors to go with. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching for the production value or the familiar names or historical accuracy, these shows are prime entertainment for everyone.
So, which one will you start with? Or did your favorite historical drama not make the list? Share it in the comments below!
The Walking Dead – Game of Thrones – Outlander – Vikings – Arrow – Sense8 – Homeland