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PBS series puts ancient Rome in new light

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If nothing else, the success of the film "Gladiator" reminds us that Rome, and particularly Roman soldiers, still exerts a strong hold on the popular imagination.

But Rome, say the producers of a new series on the ancient empire, has been interpreted for much of the 20th-century through the lens of fascism.

Modern historians have begun to point out that this warlike perspective is far too simplistic a view about a power that once ruled much of the world for nearly a millennium.

Every generation reinterprets history, and we need to look at Rome from a new point of view, says series co-executive producer Margaret Koval.

Following the 20th-century dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini, ancient Rome was reinterpreted in a militaristic way, she points out. Now, ancient Rome is ready to be re-understood through the eyes of a generation not convulsed by war.

The latest installment in the PBS "Empire" series, The Roman Empire in the First Century (July 18 and 25, 8-10 p.m., check local listings), looks behind the militaristic armor with which the reputation of Rome has been clad to reveal a far more complex, culturally diverse, and sophisticated empire, not unlike the superpowers of modern times.

The miniseries focuses on the height of Roman power. At its core, the Roman Empire was a contradiction, Ms. Koval says. On the one hand, it was violent and oppressive. On the other, she says, it produced great art, such as the love poetry of Ovid and Virgil.

Divided into four hour-long installments over two nights, the miniseries uses historical re-creations, architectural details, and works of art to evoke a sense of the past without being overly literal.

The series tries to emphasize a less familiar side of the Roman Empire, Koval says, which was important in order to show how broad a cultural net the empire cast.

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