Take an Eye-Opening Journey into the Past: Top 10 Historical TV Series
Ancient history and some of its famous faces have inspired countless TV series over recent years, ranging from drama and action, to fantasy and sci-fi. We all know that “based on actual events” or “inspired by real events” rarely means we’ll watch a true-to-life reenactment of historical events. Not to mention that historical facts are often the basis for heated debate.
The point here is that these kinds of shows are not documentaries. Dramatic license is an important aspect to ensure a successful historical fiction or drama series. While the involvement of historical experts in creating many of these shows demonstrates that the producers had some interest in historical accuracy, most of what you’ll see is a mix of some fascinating facts with lots of entertaining fiction. If something in particular grabs your interest, read up on it and you may be surprised to discover that the real story behind your new favorite show is just as exciting as the drama playing out on the screen!
- Ragnar Lothbrok: A Real Viking Hero Whose Life Became Lost to Legend
- The legendary Spartacus: Gladiator and leader of slaves against the Romans
- Destined for Glory: The Reign of Empress Catherine the Great
What’s it About? There are many rich, powerful, and historically significant characters in this historical TV series, such as Caesar, Cleopatra, Octavius, and Mark Anthony, but Rome focuses on the fictional adventures of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, following their lives as they witness and influence many important historical events in the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
What Stands Out? Elaborately detailed sets demonstrate part of the huge financial costs that went into making the series. It was nominated for, and received, several awards for its writing, directing, production, and visual effects. Many would argue that Rome set the stage for the success of the historical dramas that follow on this list.
How Historically Accurate is it? Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo were a pair of Roman soldiers who were mentioned in Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, however their story has been embellished. One of the series’ creators stated that “this series is much more about how the psychology of the characters affects history than simply following the history as we know it.” The producers wanted to present the grittier side of ancient Rome. The show was well-researched, exploring what private and public life were like in ancient Rome to make it feel more authentic, even though the focus was not to create a documentary.
There are many rich, powerful, and historically significant characters in the series Rome. (burnel11 / Adobe Stock)
What’s it About? A “sword and sandal” depiction of the life of the Thracian warrior turned gladiator, Spartacus. Enslaved and forced into gladiatorial combat by the Romans, Spartacus later escaped and was an instrumental figure in the Third Servile War, a slave uprising that took place between 73 and 71 BC.
What Stands Out? The extreme nature of the fights and battle scenes, as well as their unique style. Dramatic scenes and a fast-paced storyline play out in front of distinct background scenery.
How Historically Accurate is it? The series producer calls the show “historically adjacent.” Surprisingly enough, the high levels of violence, sex, nudity, and the treatment of slaves are said to be somewhat accurate representations of life in ancient Rome, but history takes a back seat to entertainment in fight scenes, gladiatorial battles, and several other elements. A certain level of historical accuracy is maintained, but this series knows it’s made for entertainment, and isn’t aiming for factual accuracy.
Spartacus is a “sword and sandal” depiction of the life of the Thracian warrior turned gladiator. (Warpedgalerie / Adobe Stock)
What’s it About? This series depicts all the ugly sides of the cutthroat, power-driven Canadian fur trade turf wars in the 1700s and the potential for drama and intrigue for all involved. Its story centers on a half-Irish, half-Cree outlaw who used to work for the powerful Hudson's Bay Company and now seeks revenge on his former employer, who also seeks revenge on him.
What Stands Out? The in-depth backstories for many of the characters. Although Declan Harp takes center-stage, everyone else gets a moment to shine as plot twists abound, there’s lots of action, and the scenery where it all plays out is breathtaking at times. It’s also surprising that the violence that is present is generally used to expand the narrative and less for shock value, unlike many other historical dramas.
How Historically Accurate is it? The story is centered on entirely fictional characters, but the executive producer has called it a historical fiction drama, possibly for its historic setting. The North American fur trade was real and it did involve the Hudson’s Bay Company and its trading posts. Like many other history series, it’s an imaginative tale inspired by history.
Marco Polo (2014-2016)
What’s it About? Marco Polo in the Mongol Empire creates a recipe for exciting times. The series begins with Marco Polo as Kublai Khan’s prisoner and goes on to explore political intrigue, assassination attempts, greed, betrayal, a love story, and scenes of Marco Polo enhancing his fighting skills in kung-fu movie/matrix-style training sessions with a blind master named Hundred Eyes.
What Stands Out? The series was cancelled after two seasons, but in that time the big-budget series, in which East meets West, was acknowledged for its sets, cinematography, and music.
How Historically Accurate is it? The series’ executive producer and writer stated that historical accuracy was “very important,” but that the series wasn’t “chained to history.” Most characters were real people, but many of the events depicted about their lives were not.
In Marco Polo, historical accuracy was “very important” but the series wasn’t “chained to history.” (Артем Дубровин /Adobe Stock)
What’s it About? Inspired by the sagas of one of the best-known legendary Norse heroes, Ragnar Lothbrok, the series follows the life of Ragnar and his family as he transforms from farmer to successful raider to Scandinavian king. Later seasons depict the stories of his sons as they adventure across England, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.
What Stands Out? While not necessarily historically accurate, the series’ acting, writing, sets, and props, have all been praised for their attention to detail and these elements come together to create an in-depth story. Raiding and pillaging are combined with exploring Norse religion and family life.
How Historically Accurate is it? The series is inspired by the Norse sagas and some of the people in them, which themselves are a mix of fact and fantasy. Other documents from the period were also consulted to depict some events with some accuracy, such as the Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD. However, artistic license also brings together characters who could have never met in real life, and also alters the details of some historical events.
The Last Kingdom (2015-2019)
What’s it About? Revenge and the fight for political power are two elements presented in this series focusing on the Danish conquest of England. The TV series explores this historic event from the perspective of Uhtred Ragnarson, the son of a Saxon nobleman, who is raised by Danes but finds himself questioning where his loyalties lie: with the kingdom of his ancestry or the people who he grew up with. The title refers to the Kingdom of Wessex, the last major stronghold against the Danes.
What Stands Out? The acting, fight scenes, music, costume and plot have received a lot of praise. The series portrays a gritty, vivid picture of life in the area during that time of transition.
How Historically Accurate is it? Historic events and people mingle with fictional characters and scenes, combining to depict the time and reign of Alfred the Great. Uhtred is a fictional character created from an amalgamation of several historic characters of the same name who also ruled Bebbanburg (Bamburgh Castle). Danish warlords Ubba and Guthrum existed, as did Alfred the Great and Asser the Monk. Of course elements are added to aid with storytelling and entertainment, such as some of the battle scenes.
Viking battle scenes are always exciting! (Альберт Гизатулин /Adobe Stock)
What’s it About? The adventures of fictional Templar leader Landry du Lauzon, a knight who became disheartened by the Crusaders’ failures in the Holy Land but reinvigorated by rumors that the Holy Grail has resurfaced. The series follows the successes, fall, persecution, and suppression of the Knights Templar.
What Stands Out? Chaotic and videogame-like fight scenes, political intrigue, the struggle for power, and dramatic scenes mix the myth and legends to present the Templars as religious warriors with personal battles and contradictory actions.
How Historically Accurate is it? This series is based on history and loosely based on events and crusaders from that time. However, many of the characters, dates, and events have been altered for entertainment purposes. The creators’ goal is more to be “true to the spirit of the time” than to achieve historical accuracy. Pope Boniface VIII, Princess Isabella, King Philip IV of France, and Queen Joan of France and Navarre are all real historical figures.
The series Knightfall follows the successes, fall, persecution, and suppression of the Knights Templar. (guerrieroale /Adobe Stock)
Resurrection: Ertuğrul (2014-2019)
What’s it About? This Turkish historical adventure series, which is in Turkish but with English subtitles, tells the story of Ertuğrul Gazi – the father of the Ottoman Empire’s founder, Sultan Osman I. The focus is on Ertuğrul’s mission to find his tribe, the Kayi, a permanent homeland in the 13th century. He fights the Knights Templers, the Mongols, and the Seljuks.
What Stands Out? For most viewers, this provides an alternative perspective on the groups presented in the series, not to say it’s a true to life view, but it’s something interesting to consider. The costumes, music, and story may also appeal as something different for a Western audience.
How Historically Accurate is it? Although Ertuğrul was a real person, there is little concrete information available about his life other than what was passed on through oral traditions. It’s known he was the son of Sulayman Shah, but it’s not certain if he was really part of the Kayi tribe. The presentation of when and where real historic events occurred is probably accurate. However, the behaviors presented of the different adversarial groups, especially the Crusaders, the Mongols and the Byzantines, is probably not true.
The history series ‘Resurrection: Ertuğrul’ provides alternative views. (darkmedia /Adobe Stock)
Empresses in the Palace (2015 – Netflix Version, 2011 - China)
What’s it About? Trimmed way down from 76 episodes to six in the US version, Empresses in the Palace (aka The Legend of Zhen Huan) is a Mandarin-language TV series available with English subtitles. Depicting the trials and tribulations of Zhen Huan, a young concubine to Qing Dynasty Chinese emperor Yongzheng, the series follows her as she survives the perils of the harem in the Inner Palace. Nothing is as it seems and the fierce infighting between the Empress and the concubines means Huan has to use her wits and talents to survive.
What Stands Out? Praised as one of the best historical dramas to come out of mainland China in recent years, this series has attracted audience attention due to its intricate plot, fancy costumes, and addictive storyline. If you’re looking for less violence and more love, this story combines that force of nature with political themes, historic values, and the cruelty and decadence of the higher echelons of Chinese feudal society. The strong, self-actualized women living in the harem provide a perspective that is far from what you’d expect. You may also be surprised that a show about concubines doesn’t depict sex.
How Historically Accurate is it? The setting is historical and certain characters, like the Emperor, were real, but like all the other TV shows on the list, this is a historical-fiction story. Most of the female characters are fictionalized and, because there is very little information recorded about Imperial women at this time in China, their motivations, desires, behaviors, and actions all come from the creators’ imagination. However, Zhen Huan is loosely based on Dowager Xiaosheng, the Noble Consort Xi to the Yongzheng Emperor and mother of the Qianlong Emperor.
A Chinese empress. (wichansumalee /Adobe Stock)
Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great (2017-2018)
What’s it About? The first season follows princess Sophie Friederike Auguste as she rises to power and becomes the Empress of Russia following a coup d'état and the assassination of her husband, Peter III. The second focuses on the challenges she faces during her reign, the era in which she became known as Catherine the Great. This historical TV series series is in Russian but available with subtitles.
What Stands Out? A well-paced plot, beautiful costume design, impressive sets, and a moving musical score enhance the storyline and have inspired many viewers to watch this series. The story itself is filled with betrayals, adultery, and political intrigue. Suspense is rampant throughout the show.
How Historically Accurate is it? The show has been praised for its historical accuracy, especially when compared to other popular historical dramas. Some say the character development is mostly in-line with historical facts.