Rome's Caesars rule again, on A&E Preview: 'Biography' devotes a week to six legendary leaders.

On the Air

October 05, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

They ruled over one of history's most magnificent civilizations, overseeing an age that stretched from just before the birth of Christ to the rise of Byzantium and beyond. Their names have been incorporated into the vocabulary as months of the year, rulers of Russia, even ways of giving birth. Some were great, others notorious. All were fascinating.

Beginning tonight, A&E's "Biography" departs from its usual roster of 20th-century names to dip back a couple of millenniums and look at the men who led the Roman Empire, rulers whose deeds have become legends known to every schoolchild. "Hail Caesar" week looks at a half-dozen of Rome's most famous leaders, beginning tonight with the man who started it all, Julius Caesar, and ending Saturday with the emperor whose death signaled the end of the empire, Justinian.

Tonight's look at Julius Caesar may surprise those who know only the legend -- "I came, I saw, I conquered," "Et tu, Brute?" and that sort of stuff. The portrait painted here of the man born Gaius Julius Caesar is far more complicated than that.

As a youth, he was beaten by his parents. As a man, he was extraordinarily vain, plucking his body hair with tweezers and taking great care to see that none of the hairs on his balding head were ever out of place. He was prone to epileptic seizures. He was quite the Roman bon vivant. But he was also ruthless -- as one historian notes, "By night, one of Rome's beautiful people; by day, a bully, a Mafia thug."

DTC He was a great military leader, conquering more peoples than any general before him, and a brilliant political tactician, endearing himself to the poor masses, who saw him as their friend and savior. But he was also power-mad and made the fatal mistake of incurring the wrath of Rome's ruling class, who helped murder him in 44 B.C. He was stabbed 23 times, and his last act was to pull his purple toga over his head, so no one would see him die.

Caesar's story is only the first of six, told in typical "Biography" style: Narrator Jack Perkins provides the facts; various talking heads interpret them. Likenesses of the Roman leaders -- busts, mosaics, coins -- are shown repeatedly, as are depictions of the period and shots of ancient ruins and landscapes seemingly untouched by modern civilization.

From Caesar, it's on to Augustus, who may have been the greatest emperor of all, so venerated that he was declared a god shortly after his death; Nero, one of the worst, a would-be actor so vain he wouldn't allow his audiences to leave before he was done (some audience members feigned death in an attempt to escape); and Hadrian, who concentrated not on expanding the Roman empire, but strengthening it.

There's also Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who moved the center of the empire from Rome east to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), and Justinian, whose reunified empire could not survive his death.

The six shows of "Hail Caesar" week air at 8 o'clock nightly, with rebroadcasts at midnight.

It's all quite informative, if a bit cold and impersonal, more a lecture about these lives than a tour through them. The ancient buildings and works of art are impressive, but we're hardly ever told exactly what they are, or who did them, or how they managed to survive for 2,000 years. Such information may not be key to understanding history, but it's essential to grasping it, to making it come alive and to developing a passion for it.

Still, that's a fairly minor quibble. "Biography" tells its stories well. Any television show that spends an entire week introducing a new generation to the wonders of Rome deserves support.

Deborah Weiner returns

Deborah Weiner left her heart in Baltimore.

That's why she's so glad to be able to come back and reclaim it.

After a three-year stint with ABC, the Pikesville native and Park School grad returns home tonight as co-anchor of the evening news broadcasts on WNUV, Channel 54, and WBFF, Channel 45. She'll be replacing Lisa Willis, who left the station -- and the TV news business -- after six years. Her last broadcast was Thursday night.

"We always felt pulled back here," says Weiner, whose husband, attorney Barry Gogel, also hails from Pikesville. "ABC was a wonderful experience for me, but it really was a chapter in my life, as opposed to my whole life."

Weiner will team with Tony Harris for Channel 54's 6: 30 news and Channel 45's 10 o'clock news.

She returns to Charm City after three years in Washington.

"People who really know who I am always knew where my heart was," she says.

Armed with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern, Weiner, 33, landed her first television job reporting for a station in Greenville, S.C. After three years there, she returned home and was a charter member of the news team at WBFF, which inaugurated its coverage as a Fox affiliate in 1991.

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