Sometimes, there’s nothing better than settling down and feeding the gray matter with a good documentary. Except that can feel difficult to do with bumf like Ancient Aliens running around. Is it really difficult to learn how ancient civilizations built their monuments and lived their lives without injecting little gray men into them?
Luckily, where TV may have failed, streaming services can succeed. Each one has some strong contenders to deliver solid facts about the past. But here are some of the best ancient history documentaries people can find across the different streaming services out there.
Updated September 20, 2022, by David Heath: Amazon Prime has typically led the way when it comes to historical documentaries, but the others are slowly catching up. The likes of Netflix and Hulu now have their perks too, with each offering a few hidden gems that deserve more eyes on them. As a result, those looking to learn more about classical history really are spoiled for choice, with plenty of great ancient history documentaries available across the many streaming services.
13 Africa and Britain: A Forgotten History- Britbox, Amazon Prime
Also known as Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga’s documentary series isn’t strictly about ancient history. Consisting of four 50-minute episodes, the latter three cover comparatively more modern events like the transatlantic slave trade, Queen Victoria’s black god-daughter, and the African kings who stood up to the British Empire. Fascinating, but not ancient.
However, the first episode reveals that ancient Britain, and Europe as a whole, was much more multicultural than people would care to admit. Africans settled across the continent and in England via the Roman Empire since the early CE years, and still maintained a presence across the Dark Ages and Medieval period. Olusoga delves into these ancient Black Britons’ stories to learn how they were discovered, how they made it to the UK, and why they moved there.
12 Hannibal: The Man Who Hated Rome- Roku, Amazon Prime
For something more solidly ancient, Hannibal: The Man Who Hated Rome goes into Carthage’s most famous general and his campaign against Rome. It’s a pretty old documentary, so its claims to use the latest 3D technology aren’t as exciting now as they were in 2003. Yet it’s still an enjoyable and informative source on how even Hannibal’s enemies grew to respect him as well as fear him.
The documentary can be found on Roku, though it’s more easily accessible on Amazon Prime. Regular Prime too, not a channel add-on like History Vault or PBS Documentaries. So, if anyone would rather stick to the one service, Hannibal‘s a good advert for sticking with Amazon.
11 Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings- Pluto TV, Xive TV Documentaries via Amazon Prime
The lives of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and their reigns through their different empires have inspired tons of movies, TV shows, and other documentaries. But this 2013 documentary aims to examine just how the average ancient Egyptian lived. What were they doing while their kings and queens had their squabbles? The documentary looks into it by examining their rituals, culture, and their remains.
XiveTV costs $4.99 per month on top of a $14.99 Prime subscription, past the requisite 7-day and 30-day free trials respectively. However, the documentary can also be seen on Pluto TV, which is completely free! So, if anyone just wants to see the documentary with little fuss and muss, leaving the jungle and heading to space with Pluto is the best way to go about it.
10 Horrible Histories- Hulu, Disney+, ESPN+
Okay, this one isn’t strictly about ancient history, nor is it really a serious documentary show. Based on the book series by Terry Deary, Horrible Histories is a BBC show that teaches history through the power of skits and songs. While it’s primarily for kids, it doesn’t skimp on detail for the sake of sanitization. It just presents them in a way that’s meant to be entertaining for the young and old alike.
It covers a broad range of ancient cultures too, from the Savage Stone Age to the Awful Egyptians. Groovy Greeks to Rotten Romans, Angry Aztecs to Incredible Incas. In the UK, its best seasons (1-5) are on Netflix. In North America, viewers can hit up Hulu, Disney+ or ESPN+ to find it.
9 Rome: Rise And Fall Of An Empire – History Vault Via Amazon Prime
Not to be confused with the BBC drama series Ancient Rome: Rise & Fall of an Empire, this documentary miniseries focuses on the history of Rome from its first barbarian war to its last. Through its thirteen 1-hr episodes, the series covers Rome’s biggest players in Spartacus and Julius Caesar, to its lowest moments with its internecine conflicts and eventual fall to tribes like the Visigoths.
The DVD set can be bought for $35 from 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 time to spare could binge right through it.
8 Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show On Earth – Pluto TV, Magellan TV
Hopping over the sea to Italy’s elder neighbors, Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth follows Dr. Michael Scott as he looks into the origins of drama, comedy, tragedy, and theater in general via the ancient civilization. Not only that, but the show also goes into Greek theater’s connections to Athenian democracy, its success when Athens faltered, and its influence over other cultures like the Romans.
The show can be watched on Magellan TV for $4.99 per month. It does come with a free trial in case people want to try it before they buy it. Whereas Pluto TV allows viewers to try without buying. Just sign up for the service and all their films and shows can be watched anytime and anywhere for no extra cost.
7 The Buddha: The Story Of Siddhartha – PBS Documentaries Via Amazon Prime
Going on about the Romans, Greeks, Celts, and the like might be all well and good. But is there anything out there for people tired of ancient 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 tin: it tells the viewer the life, history, and teachings of the founder of Buddhism.
Alongside the religious discussion, it covers what life was like in ancient India with its hardships and different cultures. It can be watched through the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel, with the same 7-day free trial offer. Only it’s cheaper than the History Vault at $3.99 per month. That’s still on top of the regular price of a Prime subscription, but that’s still less of a strain on the wallet.
6 Secrets Of The Parthenon – PBS Documentaries Via Amazon Prime
Besides, PBS Documentaries also offers this classic documentary on the most famous building within the Acropolis. For the same 7-day free trial, and the same $3.99 price per month after that, the show goes over the Parthenon’s history from its construction to the modern day.
It looks into its architectural quirks and how they’ve challenged modern-day masons in their efforts to restore the building. Not to mention the techniques they use to get around them, either with new methods or replicating the surprisingly accurate ones the original Greeks used to make it in the first place. It also goes into how the Greeks did it without involving spacemen, which is a plus.
5 Secrets Of The Saqqara Tomb – Netflix
Amazon Prime has had the strongest showing on this list so far, bar the fact that it requires buying channels on it like a TV package. At least with Netflix, people can just sign up for it and watch whatever’s on there with no extra cost. Unless they decide to bump their prices up again or make some other controversial decision. That said, while things are still good with the service, viewers can check out Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.
This documentary follows Mohammad Yousef and his team as they examine a freshly discovered tomb within the Saqqara necropolis. It dates back to the 25th century BCE and has been perfectly preserved in the 4,400 years since humans last went inside it. As such, it still had plenty of sights to see within that four millennia’s worth of grave robbers missed out on.
4 Egypt’s Golden Empire – Amazon Prime
Not to be beaten out, base Amazon Prime still has plenty of programming for viewers to watch without bolting on PBS Documentaries or History Vault. For example, Egypt’s Golden Empire focuses on the era from 1560 BCE to 1080 BCE. This time covers how the nation went from faltering to the Hyskos and Nubians to being a power player in its own right.
Alongside the rise of its culture and construction, the documentary goes into the history of Egypt’s most famous and infamous Pharaohs. From Akhenaton to Tutankhamen, Hatshepsut to Ramesses the Great, Egypt’s Golden Empire delves in deep into the country’s peak.
3 Dawn Of The Maya – Amazon Prime
Dawn of the Maya, unsurprisingly enough, covers the early development of one of Mexico’s most iconic cultures. While most sources prefer to focus on the Mayans’ later years, this documentary goes to bat for its pre-classic years.
During that time, the Mayans produced their early writing system, a wide variety of art, their classic pyramids, and the start of their cities. All while their counterparts elsewhere were living 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 their documentary. But what if people wanted more than just the one? The BBC’s 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. How important is Confucianism to China? Or Socratic philosophy to Greece and beyond? Watch the documentary and find out.
It just involves adding the BBC Select channel to Amazon Prime. Like the History Vault, it costs $4.99 per month after a 7-day free trial. The trial should be all the time viewers will need since Genius just has three 1-hr episodes, though it packs a lot of info within its total runtime. It’s one of the best shows to try if one’s really thinking of buying the channel.
1 Dawn Of Humanity- Kanopy, PBS Documentaries Via Amazon Prime
Still, human history goes longer than the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, or even the Egyptians. What’s there for people who really want to go back in time? Right to when the first ape decided walking on two legs was better than swinging from tree branches.
Dawn of Humanity goes into the discovery of Homo Naledi, a new type of hominid that lived in South Africa. The documentary covers its excavation and examination: how it compared to other hominids, and what its remains say about its capabilities. 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 see it.