Whether it's because you're a history aficionado or because you love well produced shows, this list is definitely for you! From the likes of HBO, Starz, the History Channel, the CW and Showtime, these history-driven series bring historical events and characters to the small-screen with an intensity you're usually only bound to find in the big screen. Produced basically as if they were mini-films, each episode of these historical TV shows features a perfect combination of historical portrayal and fiction, with awesome cinematic and some deeply researched production.
From kings and queens to slaves and gladiators, here are some of the series that are a must-watch for anyone who craves historical depictions.
1. Barbarians Rising (History Channel)
Although not your every day #perioddrama, Barbarians Rising is a mini-series of four episodes showing the lives of the most important and renown barbarian leaders. Their defiance of the mighty Roman Empire helped write the history — and border lines — of many current European countries, and Barbarians Rising does a pretty fine job of entwining their stories with comments from some of the best historians of today. It also has some very familiar faces for those who are Game of Thrones fans!
Each of the four episodes centers on the lives of two barbarian leaders who rebelled against the oppression and slavery of the Roman Empire, and who empowered their peoples and their nations to fight against the tyranny of Rome. Britain's Boudica, Germany's Arminius (played by #BlackSails' Tom Hopper), and Thrace's Spartacus are some examples of defiant leaders whose stories Barbarians Rising aims to depict.
2. Rome (HBO)
#HBO's two-season historical drama Rome, starts in 49 BC in the Roman transition from Republic to Empire. Julius Caesar's war against the most traditional and conservative senators, his ascension to power through dictatorship and his doom are at the core of the first season. Rome's main plot revolves around the wealthy and powerful, but it also gives some insight into the lives of the poor. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are two Roman soldiers — adapted from actual soldiers who served under Julius Caesar — who have some weigh in the historical events that come to pass on the series.
Octavian, who later became the Roman Emperor Augustus, is present in Season 1, but is paramount in the show's second season. He is Marc Anthony's rival in the struggle for the ultimate control of Rome. As Season 2 develops, Augustus gets his laurels while Marc Anthony and his lover Cleopatra face a huge defeat at the Battle of Actium. As a consequence, Anthony kills himself and Augustus rises to the title of First Emperor of Rome. Rome was prematurely canceled in its second season and, as the last season draws to an end, it is pretty obvious that the show was on a timer. It feels a bit rushed towards the finale, with much history being told and shown at a fast pace, but the show closes with the same dignity and mastery as it started.
3. The Last Kingdom (History Channel)
Based on The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom follows the life of the Saxon Uhtred. After being kidnapped by the Vikings, Uhtred is raised by a Norse family who educate him on their way of life and teach him their beliefs, which he eventually accepts and settles into.
It's only when his Viking parents are brutally murdered, and Uhtred gets the blame for it, that he decides to go back to his Saxon ways. He joins forces with the King of Wessex — the only one of the Saxon kingdoms that hasn't been conquered by the Vikings. It is Uhtred's job to help Wessex and make it The Last Kingdom of Saxon Britain.
The Last Kingdom had its first season produced by BBC as an 8-episode series, and has been picked up by #Netflix for a second season.
4. Black Sails (Starz)
Black Sails is the prequel to Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," and follows Captain Flint and his shipmates as they pirate around Nassau. Black Sails depicts everything which makes pirates so fascinating to watch. There's treachery, violence, passion and a ton of powerful and sly characters that will keep you glued to the screen.
Flint is the perfect anti-hero, as he struggles with his own internal demons while dragging his shipmates into the treasure hunt of a lifetime. Black Sails does a pretty good job of showing the Piracy Golden Age in Nassau, and the British failure to rid the seas of the black. After four seasons, Starz pulled the plug on the show, but Flint and his merry band of pirates each have the closure they deserve.
Black Sails features Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Game of Thrones' Tom Hopper and Shameless' Zach McGowan.
5. Vikings (History Channel)
History's Vikings is a joyride if you bear any love for the Nordic Sagas. Centered around King Ragnar Lothbrok, Vikings explores viking culture, their invasions of Wessex, Normandy and Francia, with some violence and family feud to go with it. Although the character of Ragnar is actually based upon at least three historical leaders of the Scandinavian nations, the series also strives for accuracy in Ragnar's brother Rollo and Ragnar's sons — who turned out to be great rulers themselves.
#Vikings brings to the screen some Nordic mythology and the interaction between catholics and pagans in the friendship of Ragnar and the priest Athelstan. With shieldmaidens, the classic viking longships and shield walls, Vikings takes viewers deep into the Northmen lifestyle and their ambitions. The show is currently on hiatus after a wonderful fourth season.
Travis Fimmel is the visionary King Ragnar Lothbrok. Gabriel Byrne guests as Earl Haraldson and Gustav Skarsgard plays the shipbuilder and Ragnar's frenemy, Floki.
6. Spartacus (Starz)
Before History Channel brought us the real story of the rebel slave in Barbarians Rising, Starz had stunned us all with its four seasons of Spartacus. The show, which is quite heavy on mixing recorded history and fictional events, gave us a strong and fierce Spartacus in Andy Whitfield — and, after his passing, Liam McKintyre — who fought the Roman slave system alongside his fellow gladiators Crixus and Gannicus. Starz's Spartacus isn't for the faint of heart. It is bloody, visceral and heavy on the sex scenes, but it's also an entertaining take — even if a bit fantastical — of the Roman Empire.
Because of Whitfield's health issues after Season 1, #Starz allowed him one season off and, instead of following the first season's storyline, released a prequel to Spartacus while Whitfield was away. For that reason, Spartacus' seasons aren't aligned in a chronological order, which may be confusing for new viewers. If you decide to have a go at Spartacus, follow it chronologically: Gods of The Arena, Spartacus, Vengeance and War of the Damned, and get ready for all the gore and violence you can master!
Besides Andy Whitfield and Liam McKintyre in the lead role, the ensemble also includes John Hannah as Batiatus and Arrow's Amanda Waller, Cynthia Addai-Robinson.
7. The Borgias (Showtime)
In 2011, #Showtime premiered The Borgias with an original plan for four seasons. Centered on the Borgia family and their rise to power in the Roman church, it starts off with Cesare Borgia becoming Pope Alexander VI. The series explores the plot of the family's enemies to depose them of power and the Borgia siblings' lives — with Lucrecia, Juan and Cesare taking center stage most of the time. The rivalry between Juan and Cesare, Juan's fall from grace and Lucrecia's marriages and offspring serve as main stories for the first two seasons.
Season 3 takes a more up-close and personal look at Lucrecia and Cesare's relationship, and their incest — derived from allegations about the real-life Borgia siblings — is the high point of the final season. Church politics, prominent Italian families and murderous plots make The Borgias incredibly addictive. The final season didn't actually end — which can make it a bit frustrating for some — but the two-hour-finale script did get released as an e-book later on.
The fantastic Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia and the cast also features The Strains Ruta Gedmintas and Outlander's Lotte Verbeek as Julia Farnese.
8. Da Vinci's Demons (Starz)
Leonardo Da Vinci is probably one of the most famous historical figures to feature in books, movies and shows, so it's no surprise that Da Vinci's Demons ran for three great seasons. The show is mostly set in Florence, and depicts the Medici family's struggle to keep their power, with Leonardo's crazy inventions helping them on the way. The Da Vinci we get in the TV series is a much younger version of the Leonardo we're used to, but Tom Riley does an astounding job as the mysterious Renaissance icon.
Conflicted by both his past and his desire to foresee the future, Leonardo begins to search for the Book of Leaves, which supposedly contains the answers to all his questions. The search leads him and his few friends to face some wild adventures and help shape historical events on the way. Da Vinci's Demons offers some magic moments in which we can see Leonardo as he produces some of his most famous works and inventions.
Although Starz cancelled the series after its third season, the ending to Da Vinci's Demons offers some creative room in terms of a future sequel —which, at this point, we can only hope for.
9. The White Queen (BBC)
This is a show that even #GameofThrones' author George R. R. Martin would recommend, simply because it portrays the events that originated the War of Roses, which Martin used as a base for his A Song of Ice and Fire books. The White Queen centers around Elizabeth Woodville, a widow and a mother who wins over the heart of soon-to-be-king Edward of York. Since Elizabeth doesn't have a single drop of royal blood in her veins, her marriage to King Edward IV is deeply controversial.
Elizabeth Woodville is a key-player in England's power games in the later half of the 1400s, and she's a well-know historical figure, even if her story lacks documentation. Author Philippa Gregory started her book series The Cousin's War with Elizabeth and Edward's love story, and the Yorks' feud with the Lancasters for the English throne. After King Edward's death, Elizabeth, a.k.a The White Queen, becomes an impediment to the reign of Richard III, and both her sons get imprisoned in the Tower of London and are never seen again. Elizabeth's bloodline is present in every single English monarch until today, through her daughter's marriage to Henry Tudor, which is the point of focus for the series' sequel #TheWhitePrincess.
Max Irons (The Host) portrays King Edward IV, while the title character is played by Rebecca Ferguson. Game of Thrones' Faye Marsay is also present as Lady Anne Neville, the Kingmaker's daughter.
10. The White Princess (Starz)
This eight-episode miniseries had been eagerly anticipated by fans of its prequel, The White Queen. Even after the huge success of The White Queen, BBC claimed to have no interest in doing a sequel, so when Starz announced they'd bought the rights — and that pre-production had already started, in 2015 — fans of Philippa Gregory's novels couldn't be more pleased.
The White Princess picks up almost where the prequel left off, albeit with a completely different cast. In the eight episodes, Elizabeth of York is betrothed, gets married to and bares children for King Henry VII — the last Lancaster king, and the first Tudor one. The White Queen's executive producer, Emma Frost, takes over as showrunner for the sequel, and the female perspective of England (post War of the Roses) takes center stage in The White Princess.
The title character is played by Wolfhall's Jodi Comer, while Jacob Collins-Levy delivers an honest and relatable King Henry VII. To top it off, Thrones' own Lady Stark, Michelle Farley, plays the King's mother, Margaret Beauford.
11. Reign (The CW)
From a historical perspective, Reign serves as a follow-up for the events of The White Queen but from the Scottish viewpoint. Reign's main protagonist is Mary Stuart, dubbed Mary Queen of Scots, the famous Scottish monarch from 1542 to 1567. Mary is the daughter of King James and, as her father's heir, she ascends to the throne of Scotland at six-days-old. Her mother, Mary of Guise, becomes regent and sends Mary off to France, where she's to wed the French Dauphin Francis Valois.
In #Reign, Mary and her ladies-in-waiting spend some years at the French court, facing the dangers and hard choices of Mary's role as Queen of Scotland. History is heavily condensed and romanticized in Reign, with Mary and Francis' love story taking center stage. Queen Elizabeth of England is also present in the series, as Mary's cousin and competitor for both the English and Scottish crowns. After Francis dies in Season 3, Mary eventually returns to her homeland Scotland to try and prevent the protestant John Knox from dissolving her reign. Reign ended its short journey this year, portraying the events in Mary's last years in Scotland — and as an eventual prisoner of her cousin, Elizabeth.
#MeganFollows plays Catherine de' Medici, Francis' mother and Queen of France in Season 1. Mary Stuart is played by Adelaide Kane and The Chronicles of Narnia's Anna Popplewell is one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting.
12. The Tudors (Showtime)
With its sole focus being on Henry VIII's monarchy, court and personal life, The Tudors ran for four seasons on Showtime. Depicting events from roughly the same period as Reign, The Tudors is about the English King Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir. Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, gave him his eldest daughter Mary (later dubbed Bloody Mary for her persecution of protestants) and, to obtain his divorce and marry his next wife Anne Boleyn, Henry broke off with Rome. Henry's decision led to the English Reformation and the creation of the Church of England. However, it all amassed to nothing, since Anne gave him a single daughter, Elizabeth (the one you can watch on Reign).
The Tudors follows Henry as he navigates through six wives, many lovers and his extravagant court and courtesans up until his his final days. English politics and religious quarrels are also heavily present on the show, offering an entertaining — though not completely accurate — insight into early 1500's European monarchies. King Henry VIII eventually had a son — who ended up succeeding him for a brief period of time — from his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Henry VIII is played by #JonathanRhysMeyers, while his most famous wife, Anne Boleyn is played by Thrones' #NatalieDorman. #HenryCavill had his big breakthrough as the First Duke of Suffolk, Charles Branson — before moving on to becoming Superman, of course.
13. Outlander (Starz)
Based on Diana Gabaldon's series of books, Outlander is a fictional story set in 1743. The series takes off when Claire Randall touches a stone in the mystical circle of Craigh na Dun, and is magically transported back 200 years to 1743. Thence, Outlander follows Claire as she navigates through the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th century, with its Clan politics and rugged way of life. The costumes and sets — which earned Outlander an Emmy nomination this year — look straight out of medieval times, with men in their long plaid kilts and women with their arisaids and neck scarves. Because Claire is a nurse, there's also the chance at a glimpse through the medical apparatus of the 1700s and the strong usage of herbs as medicine.
#OutlanderSeason2 follows Claire — and her now husband — James Fraser to France and Louis XV's court. Versailles, the streets of Paris, the royal parties and even a brothel are highly elaborate and intricately designed in the show. As the season comes to its end, #Outlander takes a ship back to Scotland's history and the infamous Battle of Culloden Moor. The Battle of Culloden was the final stand of the Scottish people against the unification of the crowns, back in 1746 and, after their overwhelming defeat, the highland Scots were deprived of their culture and their Clan system.
Time-traveler Claire Randall Fraser is played by Golden Globe nominee Caitriona Balfe. #SamHeughan is the dashing Jamie Fraser, and Tobias Menzies (Rome/Game of Thrones) rivals Jamie as both Frank Randall — Claire's husband from 1945 — and Cap. Jack Randall of the English Regiment in 1743.
14. Downton Abbey (PBS)
This upstairs-downstairs British drama gives the viewers the best of the both worlds, as it shifts between the lives of the English Crawley family and their servants. Downton Abbey is actually the name of the Crawley family home and, although the show centers on the family, you get a vivid picture of what life was like in England in the early 20th century. The series spans from 1912 ( a day after the Titanic sank) to 1925, offering a first-row seat to the First World War and the uprising of the working class.
Lord Crawley is the patriarch of the family and carries the title of Earl of Grantham, which entitles him and his family to lands, prestige and — of course — servants. The servants provide a wonderful contrast to the truly aristocratic lifestyle led by the Crawleys, showing their hopes, dreams and ambitions for a different life. Downton Abbey ran for six glorious seasons — which are extremely easy to binge-watch in one go — and it certainly left a hole in the genre when it concluded with its staple Christmas special in 2015.
These should make for a good fix if you're into history, politics, family war, bloody battles and awesome actors to go with. It doesn't matter if you're watching for the production value or the familiar names and historical accuracy, these shows are prime entertainment for everyone.
So, which one will you start with? Or did your favorite historical drama not make the list? Share it in the comments below!