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Empires DynastiesEmpires – Dynasties on DVD

As much as we hate to say it, sometimes education can be fun, interesting and entertaining.

PBS’ Dynasties sports five discs examining five of history’s greatest empires: The Greeks – Crucible of Civilization; The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance; Japan – Memoirs of a Secret Empire; The Roman Empire – In the First Century; and Egypt’s Golden Empire. Each takes an extensive look at its respective civilization, and gives us a fantastic history lesson that’s well told and well-produced.

One of the topics of history we find most interesting is the civilization of ancient Greece , which was responsible for much that we hold dear today.

This section of the Dynasties set shows the Greeks from their beginnings as a bunch of isolated and different city states through the rise of democracy and the flourishing of arts, science, and philosophy.

The production values are terrific, from the unusual use of "frozen actors" to put human faces on some of the most important historical figures to the choice of having shot the series in 16x9 widescreen.

The disc is fascinating, and anyone interested in history should take a look at it. It really does an excellent job of bringing the ancient Greeks to life again.

All of these pieces work because they don’t feature a bunch of stuffed shirts standing in front of a chalkboard monotonedly reading word for word from an overrated textbook. Instead, these documentaries take you into the time, introduce you to characters, and let you follow them through the turns of events.

It’s interesting to see how hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of years later, things really aren’t that different when it all comes down to it. People are pretty well the same, we still have social and political clashes, sexism, racism, people robbing others of their freedom and people criticizing others for wanting to get it back.

Using actors instead of only using historians gives it more realistic, personal feel. It’s like watching an epic story unfold, one that’s free of Hollywood studio input and historical inaccuracies (at least as far as we know). The discs educate and entertain, but don’t overload you with too much information at once or ever get preachy or politically correct, which is surprising considering that this is from PBS!

All of these pieces are great, but most interesting may be The Medici, if only because it’s the section we were the least familiar with. We’ve heard plenty of times the stories of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, but you rarely hear any mention of Medici, who were actually essential in the transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo may never have accomplished what they did without the Medici family.

Some of the documentaries run over 200 minutes, but they’re so well made that you don’t even care. A couple of them are even too short, in the sense that you don’t want them to end. Learning is rarely this entertaining! We recommend these docs to anyone wanting to learn more about history’s greats, but make sure you have plenty of free time.

The DVD presentations are very good, indeed. Each piece is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital Stereo. Quality is good for both, though the picture quality suffers from some grain in certain places. Not that this is the type of situation in which we’d care too much. Audio is surprisingly good, with the sound effects and dialogue meshing very well.

The Medici features a making-of featurette and a “Who’s Who: Key Characters of the Renassaince” piece. The Greeks includes a director’s commentary and some additional scenes not shown in the original broadcast.

Empires – Dynasties, from PBS Home Video
140 – 220 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital Stereo


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Updated May 13, 2006