Eight Days That Made Rome: behind the scenes with historian Bettany Hughes

From Hannibal’s defeat at the battle of Zama to Spartacus’ breakout from gladiator school, stories from Ancient Rome continue to fascinate. Here, historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes talks to History Extra about Eight Days That Made Rome, a new Channel 5 series that examines the extraordinary expansion of the Roman empire…

Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes. (Channel 5)

We caught up with Bettany to find out more about her new eight-part series and to ask her about the secret of Rome’s success…


Q. What can viewers expect from Eight Days That Made Rome?

A. We wanted to explore the vast history of Rome, spanning from its conflicts with the Carthaginians – which ended in the battle of Zama in 202 BC – to the establishment of ‘New Rome’ – Constantinople. We look at more than 800 years of Roman history because we want to make the point that the story of the Romans didn’t just happen in one time or one place.

Everyone will have heard of some of the stories in the series. Most people are familiar with the Spartacus revolt and the attack on Boudica, for example. But there will be plenty of others that people might not be so familiar with, such as the story of Octavian – who later became Augustus – and how he stole Mark Antony’s will in a bid for power.

The fight between Scipio and Hannibal at the battle of Zama. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Q. The series spans a massive time period. How did you decide which eight days were important enough to deserve their own episode?

A. It took a lot of research and debate because there are so many amazing moments to choose from. Ultimately, it was an evidence-based decision: I chose particular moments where I knew that we had a new archaeological discovery to share with the public. I think one of the reasons we should be making new television programmes about history is to bring new evidence to light.

Q. What new evidence do we see in this series?

A. In the first episode, we travel to the archaeological dig of Illiturgis in Spain and explore new evidence that shows how the Romans fought a genocidal war against their enemies. We know from historical sources, such as those written by Titus Livy [a Roman historian], that communities who supported the Carthaginians were eradicated by the Romans – but we’ve never had the physical evidence to back this up before.

In the series, however, we talk to an archaeologist working on the site of one of these communities. He shows us  new evidence that has been dug up: bolts from a ballista [an ancient missile weapon] and nails from Roman hobnail boots. From that moment on, and for a couple of decades, there was no further activity at the site at all in archaeological terms. This suggests that the Romans wiped the entire community out, so that all that remained was a ghost town.

We also look at evidence in new ways. In our episode about Nero [a Roman emperor infamous for his persecution of Christians], we look at coins that he had minted of himself and explore what they can tell us about his health. His face appears to completely change over the period of about five years: you can see that he became very ‘bull-necked’ and jowly. When we spoke to medical experts, they suggested that Nero was exhibiting symptoms of Coshing’s disease, which can cause psychotic behaviour. We’re not saying that this is definitive – we can’t possibly know whether he definitely had this condition – but it is fascinating to have this new theory.

In episode three, we focus on Julius Caesar and try to analyse him in a new light. We investigate the fainting fits he had, and we visit one of his killing fields in Gaul. We learn that he operated with a ruthless ferocity: the bone evidence that has been pulled up from a nearby river tells us that he killed men, women and children indiscriminately.

Q. Who are the ‘big players’ in this series?

A. We explore the tales of Hannibal, Scipio, Spartacus, Caesar, Nero, Boudica and Octavian (before he became Augustus) in the first seven episodes. We then take look at Constantine the Great, and his establishment of the new Rome, Constantinople.

Q. If you had to pick one, which of these figures is most interesting to you?

A. It’s a difficult question, but I think I would choose either Spartacus or Boudica. It’s great to explore their experiences of Rome, looking not through the perspective of those with power but through those who challenge them. We really wanted to try and work out why they were able to act in the way they did and what that tells us about the holistic nature of the Roman empire. It’s not always a story of power and triumph, and the stories of Boudica and Spartacus show us what it’s really like for the people who lived under Roman rule…

Spartacus, a Roman gladiator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, is shown here defeating an opponent. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Q. The Roman empire is quite a masculine playground; what was life like for women?

A. There’s absolutely no doubt that women were second-class citizens in the Roman world. Often the only way they could wield authority was through dynastic power and the physical birth of the next generation – although they could influence politics behind the scenes.

I particularly love the story of Boudica, and I love that we have a whole episode that puts a woman at the centre of the story. If you look at the sources, you can see that the Romans sort of fetishised Boudica. We hear that she was this really ferocious woman, with “flashing” eyes and tawny hair down to her waist. That’s the Romans implying that Boudica had to be some sort of ‘super-woman’ in order to be a woman who succeeded against them.

Boudica or Boadicea, Queen of the British Iceni tribe, a Celtic tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Caption reads: 'Boadicea haranging the Britons.' Boudica died circa AD 60 or 61.
Boudica, also spelled Boudicca or Boadicea, was an ancient British queen who led a revolt against Roman rule. According to Roman historian Tacitus, Boudica’s rebels massacred 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Q. What event did you find particularly interesting?

A. In episode seven, we take a close look at the Colosseum and the establishment of the Flavian dynasty. We examine exactly why it was built – because it was part of this fledgling dynasty who were trying to establish themselves. We explore the arena’s incredible opening ceremony, which saw hundreds of exotic animals shipped across the Roman empire and bloodletting on an epic scale. It was all about reminding people of the vastness of the empire’s reach and power. I think it’s fascinating that the Romans used this big engineering project to bolster their own imperial power.

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 3: Overview taken from the top of the Colosseum during a press preview of the opening of the 4th and 5th level of the monument. on October 3, 2017 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
An overview of the Colloseum, a giant amphitheatre build in Rome under the Flavian emperors. Thousands of hand-to-hand combats took place at the venue between gladiators, men and animals. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Q. What makes the Roman empire so fascinating to people and why is still relevant today?

A. The conversations that people have every day are a great example. Around 40 per cent of the words we use are of Greco-Roman origin.

Also, one of the big question that’s raised in the series is what we, as a species, do with power. What counts as a misuse or an abuse of power? That’s a question that’s going to be eternally fascinating…

Q. Were the Romans the world’s first superpower?

A. There’s no doubt about it. Something that I hope the people will take from the series is a sense of the sheer physical expanse of the Roman empire. It’s difficult to grasp just how vast it was, but once you do you really start to both respect and fear the scale of their ambition. It’s incredible to think about the journeys they made across many thousands of miles and different territories.

Q. How did they manage this massive expansion and why were they so successful?

A. I think they had this killer combination of brains and brawn. They had an incredibly strong military ethos, which we can see in the stories and myths that they tell about themselves. Lots of the civilisations and communities at this time had to fight to survive, but the Romans really embraced it. It was a huge part of their culture and it was part of what it meant to be Roman. They were also huge fans of the Greeks, and recognised the power of words and diplomacy. They didn’t treat people as fools, and they were very sophisticated in how they spoke to them.

Q. What aspects of Roman culture would be shocking to us today?

A. The fact that they buried Vestal Virgins alive. We explore this in the first programme, and we see the moment that a poor Vestal Virgin was buried alive as a human sacrifice. People possibly don’t realise how brutal the Romans were. They know about the bloodshed in Rome, and they know about the Gladiator fights, but burying some of the most-high status women in Rome alive is something else…

A 19th-century engraving of a Roman gladiator fight. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Q. In what ways are the Romans similar and different to us?

A. I think it’s important to remember that they’re not just us dressed up in togas. We make a real mistake if we think that. They did operate in a different way and lived in a very different kind of world.

Having said that, they are also remarkably similar to us.  They operated a slave economy, and had these massive sites in which they slaughtered both humans and animals, but they also debated their actions. They asked themselves: “Is this the right way to behave? How is this affecting us, in terms of our spirit?”. So, although they did things differently to us, they also had the sophistication to question themselves.

Q. Are there any misconceptions we have about Rome?

A. We can be so wowed by the archaeological remains and the great literature that survived from the Roman period that we almost feel that their success was predestined or inevitable. But what they were actually doing is what every one of us is doing today – muddling along and trying to work out the best solutions to problems.

In the first episode, we show the origins of the empire and how it started off as this tiny territory before exploding outwards. We wanted people to realise that the empire starts somewhere, and is not just born great.

Q. Do we get a sense of what life was like for the ordinary person?

A. I think people are fascinated by how ordinary people lived. As such, we’re very conscious to put some of that evidence on screen.

There’s a particular moment in the Boudica episode that’s a great example. Boudica attacked one of the Roman cities and the heat from her fires has flash-burnt a family’s larder. This family knew that the Boudica army was coming, so they buried their valuables in a sack of lentils. We have this amazing archaeological find of gold and jewellery among all of these flash dried figs and mustard seeds. It seems such a human moment. Little moments like that seem to really collapse the years between now and 2,000 years ago.


Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian and broadcaster. She is the presenter of Channel 5’s new series Eight Days That Made Rome, which begins at 9pm on Friday 27 October.