Make me interested in history
February 11, 2014 4:19 PM   Subscribe

I feel like high school Canadian history class, which was mostly a list of wars, sort of killed any interest in history that I may have had. Please recommend me some European/world/ancient history documentaries that will change my mind!

I tend to prefer documentaries that discuss one thing in depth, rather than a shallow-but-broad focus.
posted by torisaur to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The BBC's World At War documentary, which is a 26-part documentary about WW2, is probably the best documentary of any kind I've ever seen. It is especially good if you were bored to death in school by WW2, because it turns out WW2 is actually fascinating.
posted by Jairus at 4:30 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a podcast, but Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is fantastic. He is a former journalist and really knows how to make history engaging. Much of it is available on iTunes. Older episodes are about $1 each on his personal website.

I mostly read books and can list some of those if you are interested, either for Canadian or world history. The Golden Spruce is easily the best book I have ever read about BC, for example.

As for documentaries, Ken Burns has made some amazing, very in-depth documentaries about American History. The Civil War is my personal favourite.
posted by the thing about it at 4:38 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you considered something like Downton Abbey? It's 90% a fun drama about people, but there is a fair amount of dwelling about how their lives are changed in various ways by the history unfolding around them. A lot of attention and money goes into the historical side of it.
posted by anonymisc at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2014

For actual books, Pierre Berton's stuff is amazing (he is beloved by Canadian historians for actually employing real historians, typically students, as researchers for his popular history books).

The Last Spike is pretty awesome, as is Arctic Grail and Vimy.

For actual documentaries, American Experience is really good.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:57 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can get hold of it, the TV series "I, Claudius" is superb. It is semi-fictionalized but largely true to the actual events.

It covers the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, and ends just as Nero's reign begins.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:59 PM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

There's a BBC series on YouTube called Victorian Farm (they've done several versions, different time periods) where two archeologists and a historian live on a farm for a year using the technology of that time period - I find day to day life FAR more interesting than wars and dates!

There's also a series (BBC) called Turn Back Time: The Family, which has several families live in several different time periods (one each episode) and trace the development of the nuclear family.

If you inspect the recommended links on YouTube for the above, you'll find other similar things.

Likewise, I loved the PBS series "Colonial House" - they did a whole bunch of them, all available on Amazon.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:00 PM on February 11, 2014

I've been meaning to see Teenage, which is a documentary about the changing social and cultural conditions that led to the period between childhood and adulthood being seen as a specific demographic.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is really about prehistory than ancient history, but my god is it good.

Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire -- does what it says on the tin.

There's a ton of incredible documentaries about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust -- it's a big subject in and of itself, so I didn't want to start going down that rabbit hole unless you're interested in that era.
posted by scody at 5:05 PM on February 11, 2014

You might like Simon Schama's A History of Britain. I did, anyway.

Also podcast-wise are MeFi staples The History of Rome and The Ancient World. Also Norman Centuries and/or 12 Byzantine Rulers.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:14 PM on February 11, 2014

Like KokuRyu says, "For actual books, Pierre Berton's stuff is amazing"
Niagara: A History of the Falls is a fascinating look at the sudden electrifying rise of electric power utilities, and also toxic waste dumps, and other interesting things.

Like Chocolate Pickle says, the classic BBC miniseries 'I, Claudius' is superb. Unfortunately, YT blocks it in Canada, pity. You might try your library, good luck, mature subject matter, and a swell prancing performance from the young John Hurt as Caligula.
posted by ovvl at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Berton even made the War of 1812 interesting.

Something else I really, really, really wish I had known about when I did my history degree was Bernard Cornwell's books. He really brings the Napoleonic era alive in his kick-ass Sharpe novels, and has other awesome series that feature ripping yarns about the 100 Years War, the American Civil War, Danelaw-era Britain, and Arthurian Britain.

The Sharpe TV series is available on YouTube, I think, but in general television is nowhere near as rich and immersive experience as reading a book (watching Sharpe on television after reading the books is downright irritating because of the various inaccuracies compared to Cornwell's well-researched plots).

And of course Bernard Cornwell is the gateway drug that leads to Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyad, which is just about as immersive, rich and detailed an experience as you will ever find.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:42 PM on February 11, 2014

It is semi-fictionalized but largely true to the actual events.

I, Claudius is true to actual events in that it reports who dies and lives, but it is not an accurate representation of what actually might have happened any more than the Tudors was. I like I, Claudius, but not it is pretty much entertaining rumour-mongering ripping off the least backed up and bitchiest parts of Tacitus.

For TV programs about ancient Rome, many people really like Mary Beard so I recommend her if you're interested in ancient history. I generally find that most of the documentaries on Rome are a bit shallow and really packed with the same sort of scholars and discussion of the same political events to the exclusion of non-political matters, but Beard is an exception to that, I find.

Darnton's books on 17th and 18th century France are fascinating; the Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France is a page turner (how could it not be with that title!) and his Great Cat Massacre has a sequence of brilliant and entertaining essays presenting different slices of life in 18th century France. You will not be bored, I promise.

If you want to read primary sources on the ancient world, Suetonius' Lives of the Caesar's is fun, though he gets increasingly less reliable as you get later and he got cut off from access to ancient sources. Plutarch's lives are fascinating but hit or miss in terms of reliability (some of the Roman lives are a bit under-sourced). Cicero's letters are a fun introduction to daily life and political shenanigans of the Late Roman Republic and he can be entertainingly bitchy about famous people in a way that you won't read elsewhere and provide a lot of variety in subject matter.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:20 PM on February 11, 2014

I agree with the OP that history can often be taught as a sequence of boring, inconsequential lulls between troop movements. Which is a shame; history is not just intellectually interesting but essential to understanding why things are the way they are and assessing the potential futures we may face.

Lots of other things happened in history besides the Great Determinative Battles of yore. Art, culture, revolution, science, economic development, religion, sex, etc. Perhaps your interest would be piqued by something a bit more specific? If there's something you like, there's probably a history of it out there somewhere.

Here's a fun documentary on the French Revolution, the most important political event in Western history.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:56 PM on February 11, 2014

I recommend Crash Course World History by John Green on YouTube, not because it covers subjects in very much depth, but because it make a good case for why learning about history matters for the way we understand the world today.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:51 AM on February 12, 2014

Thanks for the recommendations so far! I will for sure check out some of these books (actually, I've just started reading Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff which is what inspired this question), but I am mostly looking for documentaries to watch with my partner who is both a documentary- and history-buff and is delighted at my sudden interest.

I am willing to try any time period or country, I suppose I am less interested in the war/military aspect of history and more about the cultural/social aspects of living in particular places at particular times or across a long span of time.
posted by torisaur at 6:20 AM on February 12, 2014

This is a little strange to say, but for me the big change came when I started narrowing way in on history through the stories of particular people, real or fictional. So big political overviews were less helpful to me than tiny, personal stories, and once the personal stories resonated with me I'd become interested in their whole world (Personally, a big one was Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear, but ymmv). I can't recommend specific documentaries, but the general approach might help you.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:52 AM on February 12, 2014

I also really recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast, at least for long car rides. I think there's enough of what you like in his episodes for you to sink your teeth into. I like his work so much because Dan Carlin is adept at analyzing the character of the people who become involved in various moments of history. That said, while I think he's great at the social side of things and trying to put himself and listeners in the shoes of the people who were there, I admit he doesn't spend nearly the same amount of effort on the cultural side.
posted by Green With You at 8:36 AM on February 12, 2014

Have you ever watched "Connections"? It's about the history of technology, and it's really fun.

There was a sequel, "The Day the Universe Changed" which is just as good.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:37 AM on February 12, 2014

Guns, Germs and Steel is more sociology or anthropology than history, but the theories have a very specific historic basis.
posted by cnc at 1:12 PM on February 12, 2014

Seconding Mary Beard. for BBC Two in 2012 she wrote and presented the 3 part TV series Meet the Romans with Mary Beard for BBC Two which concerns how ordinary people lived in Rome, the world's first global metropolis. If you can find them they are interesting, informative, chatty and accessible. She makes the subject come alive.

Another set of british documentaries is Tony Robinson (Baldrick in Blackadder) 's The Worst Jobs in History, researching and re-enacting some of the more horrible jobs of the past millennium. Such as fuller, chimney sweep, executioner, leech collector, Plague burier etc.

There's also the Horrible Histories series but they're more for kids.
posted by glasseyes at 3:59 PM on February 13, 2014

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