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‘Barbarians Rising’ review: Roman Empire’s fall sluggishly retold

Jefferson Hall as Viriathus in History's

Jefferson Hall as Viriathus in History's "Barbarians Rising." Photo Credit: HISTORY / Elena Nenkova

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Monday night at 9 on History

GRADE C

WHAT IT’S ABOUT The Roman Empire rose, then fell, while fighting “barbarians,” or disparate tribes from the north, south, east and west that prodded the boundaries of the expanding realm for weaknesses or entry points. Monday’s episode opens with the Punic wars — notably Hannibal’s epic trek across the Alps, and the Battle of Cannae, which took place in 216 BC, and routed the Roman armies. Future episodes look at wars with Spartacus, Attila, and Alaric, king of the Goths. There are abundant re-enactments with commentary, by many scholars and military experts, including Gen. Wesley Clark, U.S. Army (Ret.)

MY SAY At the risk of boring you with tradecraft details, History offered for review an “unsweetened” version of “Barbarians’ ” Monday opener — meaning without key elements like music, final narration or fine-tuned special effects. That’s too bad because those “sweeteners” can sometimes turn a steaming heap of lumpy oatmeal into a towering triumph. It’s unlikely, however, that they’d get all the lumps out of “Barbarians,” or at least the re-enactments that make up the bulk of this eight-parter. The sword-and-sandal mini-epics here are lavishly produced, and (for the most part) dramatically comatose. In their estimation, the great wheels of ancient history ground slowly, deliberatively . . . and interminably. The Roman legions of “Barbarians Rising” often seem to take extended coffee breaks between battles. Little wonder Rome wasn’t built in a day.

But get past those, and “Barbarians” does offer a reasonably detailed look at a chapter in history that doesn’t usually get much prime-time exposure. It even takes a stand on this question: Was Hannibal black (meaning sub-Saharan) or Semitic (north African)? Here he is black (British actor Nicholas Pinnock plays the role) which is a compelling interpretation, perhaps a provocative one, too. Scholars have apparently argued for both cases, but the scholars seen on-screen in “Barbarians” don’t address his provenance. (At least a civil rights leader seems to: Speaking of Hannibal, Jesse Jackson says, “leaders must use the light of hope in the darkness of despair.”)

BOTTOM LINE The sluggish re-enactments keep this “Barbarians” from rising.

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