Best ancient history documentaries you can watch on streaming services
Sometimes, nothing better than to sit down and feed the gray matter with a good documentary. Except it might seem hard to do with bumf like ancient aliens run everywhere. Is it really hard to learn how ancient civilizations built their monuments and lived their lives without injecting little gray men into them?
Fortunately, where television has failed, streaming services can succeed. Each has strong contenders to provide solid facts about the past. But here are 10 of the best documentaries that people can find on the various streaming services.
ten Horrible Histories – Hulu, Disney+, ESPN+
Okay, this one isn’t strictly about ancient history, nor is it really a serious documentary. Based on the series of books by Terry Deary, horror stories is a BBC program that teaches history through the power of sketches and songs. Although it’s primarily aimed at kids, it doesn’t skimp on details for sanitizing purposes. It simply presents them in a way that is meant to be entertaining for young and old.
It also covers a wide range of ancient cultures, from the savage Stone Age to the terrible Egyptians. From groovy Greeks to rotten Romans, from angry Aztecs to incredible Incas. In the UK, its best seasons (1-5) are on Netflix. In North America, viewers can go to Hulu, Disney+, or ESPN+ to find it.
9 Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire – Historical Vault via Amazon Prime
Not to be confused with BBC drama series Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire, this documentary mini-series focuses on the history of Rome from its first barbarian war to its last. Across its thirteen hour-long episodes, the series covers Rome’s greatest players in Spartacus and Julius Caesar, through to its lowest moments with its infighting and eventual downfall to tribes like the Visigoths.
The DVD game can be purchased for $35 on Amazon. Or for $4.99 per month by subscribing to History Vault on Amazon Prime. They even offer a 7-day free trial, so viewers with spare time can binge.
8 Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth – Pluto TV, Magellan TV
Jumping over the sea to Italy’s older neighbours, Ancient Greece: the greatest spectacle on earth follows Dr. Michael Scott as he delves into the origins of drama, comedy, tragedy, and theater in general via ancient civilization. Not only that, but the show also touches on the links of Greek theater with Athenian democracy, its success when Athens faltered, and its influence on other cultures like the Romans.
The show can be watched on Magellan TV for $4.99 per month. It comes with a free trial in case people want to try before they buy. Whereas Pluto TV allows viewers to try without buying. Just sign up for the service and all of their movies and shows can be watched anytime and anywhere at no additional cost.
seven The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha – PBS Documentaries Via Amazon Prime
Talking about the Romans, Greeks, Celts, etc. could be very good. But is there anything for people tired of old Europeans? Yes, with a little digging. Directed by David Grubin and narrated by Richard Gere, The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha does exactly what it says on the box: it tells the viewer about the life, history and teachings of the founder of Buddhism.
Along with the religious discussion, it covers what life was like in ancient India with its hardships and different cultures. It can be viewed via the PBS Documentaries Prime video channel, with the same 7-day free trial offer. Only, it’s cheaper than History Vault at $3.99 per month. It’s still on top of the regular price of a Prime membership, but it’s still less taxing on the wallet.
6 Secrets of the Parthenon – PBS Documentaries via Amazon Prime
In addition, PBS Documentaries also offers this classic documentary about the most famous building in the Acropolis. For the same 7-day free trial and the same price of $3.99 per month thereafter, the show traces the history of the Parthenon from its construction to the present day.
It examines its architectural quirks and how they challenged modern masons in their efforts to restore the building. Not to mention the techniques they use to circumvent them, either with new methods or by replicating the amazingly precise ones the original Greeks used to make it in the first place. It also explains how the Greeks did it without involving astronauts, which is a plus.
5 Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb – Netflix
So far, Amazon Prime has had the best performance on this list, except for the fact that it requires buying channels like a TV package. At least with Netflix, people can just sign up and watch everything on it at no extra cost. Unless they decide to raise their prices again or make some other controversial decision. That said, while things are still good with the service, viewers can check The secrets of the Saqqara tomb.
This documentary follows Mohammad Yousef and his team as they examine a newly discovered tomb in the Saqqara necropolis. It dates back to the 25th century BCE and has been perfectly preserved over the 4,400 years since the last human entry inside. As such, there were still plenty of sights to see over those four millennia of grave robbers missed.
4 The Egyptian Golden Empire – Amazon Prime
Not to be beaten, the Amazon Prime base still has plenty to watch without rushing to PBS Documentaries or History Vault. For instance, Egypt’s golden empire focuses on the era from 1560 BCE to 1080 BCE. This time covers how the nation went from failing the Hyskos and Nubians to being a powerful player in their own right.
Along with the rise of its culture and construction, the documentary tackles the history of Egypt’s most famous and infamous pharaohs. From Akhenaten to Tutankhamun, from Hatshepsut to Ramses the Great, Egypt’s golden empire dives deep into the top of the country.
3 Dawn of the Maya – Amazon Prime
Dawn of the Mayans, unsurprisingly, covers the early development of one of Mexico’s most iconic cultures. While most sources prefer to focus on the later years of the Maya, this documentary struggles with its pre-classic years.
During this time the Maya produced their first writing system, a wide variety of art, their classic pyramids and the beginning of their cities. While their counterparts elsewhere lived much more humbly. Just sign up for Amazon Prime, and it’s available to watch.
2 Genius of the Ancient World – BBC Select Via Amazon Prime
PBS covered the Buddha alone in its documentary. What if people wanted more than just one? The BBC series genius of the ancient world also covers the Buddha alongside Socrates and Confucius. The show examines their philosophies and how they influenced the world around them. What is the importance of Confucianism in China? Or Socratic philosophy in Greece and beyond? Watch the documentary and find out.
It’s just adding the BBC Select channel to Amazon Prime. Like History Vault, it costs $4.99 per month after a 7-day free trial. The trial is expected to last as long as viewers need since Genius only has three one-hour episodes, though it packs a lot of information into its total runtime. It is one of the best shows to try out if one is seriously considering buying the channel.
1 Dawn Of Humanity – Kanopy, PBS documentaries via Amazon Prime
Yet human history is longer than that of the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Indians or even Egyptians. What is there for people who really want to go back in time? Just when the first monkey decided that walking on two legs was better than swinging on tree branches.
The dawn of humanity looks at the discovery of Homo Naledi, a new type of hominid that lived in South Africa. The documentary covers his excavation and examination: how he compares to other hominids and what his remains say about his abilities. The documentary is available for a price through PBS Documentaries on Amazon Prime. Or for free on Kanopy. Just get a library card and sign up today to check it out.
More: Heartbreaking nature documentaries you should watch