The Romans

The Romans is another Dr. Who historical story, as clownish and clumsy as The Aztecs is weighty and intelligent. The show is a wretched mix of leaden drama (the most unconvincing gladiator fighting you’ll ever see) and feeble slapstick which never remotely gels: a sitcom which lacks a laugh track, so William Hartnell supplies his own, cackling with glee after almost every line. Fun to make, then (probably) – but dreadfully dated, even for 60s Who.

Of course the whole thing ends with Nero setting Rome on fire. This is history as every schoolboy knew it – a series of unfortunate events, so to speak. It’s also the version of history that lives on in Terry Deary’s excellent Horrible Histories books, which mix comedy and fact to much more posed effect. Deary’s premise is sensible: children will remember history better if you highlight the gruesome or exciting bits. It’s a sharp contrast to the ’empathy’ method of teaching, whose books are not called things like Terrible Tudors but boast lid-lowering titles like Life In A Medieval Town.

My adult taste in history has generally run to ’empathy’ – I like books which try and grasp or glimse the mentalities of the past, even if that makes them ‘history’ only obliquely; I like the recent boom in popular history and am delighted that it hasn’t focussed on kings and plagues but on the apparent trivialities of salt, cod, dyes and compasses. But I have no doubt that teaching ‘event’ history is the best way to get kids interested in the past. Though these days they don’t have to make do with a load of character actors larking about of a Saturday teatime, they have Rome: Total War instead.