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SPY Guide: 10 Essential TV Shows for History Buffs

* Set in times ranging from the Punic Wars to the Cold War
* Histories both real and imagined available to stream online
* Because those who fail to at least watch TV about history are perhaps doomed to repeat it

If you love history and enjoy richly imagined narratives of bygone times and places, here are 10 television shows sure to whet your appetite for antiquity. Whether you’re a stickler for accuracy or enjoy a good “alternative timeline,” these shows take you beyond the historical fiction standards and into some of today’s most fascinating historical TV writing.

1. Vikings

Set in the era of the Icelandic Eddas, or Viking Sagas, this gripping narrative offers a complex look at a culture long known for its seafaring and pillaging ways, but with a rich poetic tradition and dynamic social tensions.


2. Underground

Georgia, 1857: a group of slaves set out to begin a harrowing journey northward to freedom. Taking its title from the Underground Railroad, this series first aired in 2016 and is known for its smart mix of gripping suspense and unflinching look at the human side of history.


3. Black Sails

This flashy pirate drama, airing on STARZ, isn’t based on a true story per se, but it does offer some of TV’s hottest sea-battles and plenty of gorgeous 17th-century costumes. Stream it FREE right now with a STARZ 7-day free trial.

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4. Downton Abbey

Set in an old manor house in the wake of the first world war, this BBC period piece is known for its beautiful sets and costumes and for a historically-accurate rendering of the era’s rising tensions between a generation of aristocracy set in its ways and the pressures of modernity. Stream the whole series for FREE with Prime Video. Don’t have Amazon Prime? Get your 30-day free trial here.


5. Marco Polo

Centered on the famous 13th-century explorer and his wanderings across Asia, this series makes up in character what it lacks in verifiable historical fact. A fun fact about this show is that much of its less-credible elements are based on Marco Polo’s own writings.


6. Rome

HBO’s Rome, which aired from 2005 to 2007, is a gripping, realistic and well-written historical drama featuring the characters and locations familiar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It features plenty of translated Latin profanity and rough Roman sex. With a plot revolving around the ascension of Augustus Caesar and the days when the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, Rome’s success on the cable network eventually paved the way for Game of Thrones.



7. Game of Thrones

While not, strictly speaking, a historical drama, HBO’s mega-hit historical fantasy series, Game of Thrones, mixes a number of recognizable influences from history. Author George RR Martin draws inspiration from the English Wars of the Roses, the dynastic struggles during the late Roman empire and the rivalries among the Genoese and Venetian trade families of the middle ages. Stream Game of Thrones for free online now with an HBO free trial.


8. The Americans

This cold-war drama is a great choice for fans of the mid-century modern aesthetic. Centered around a pair of KGB spies living in deep undercover as a married couple in suburban Washington DC, The Americans brilliantly intertwines family drama (the spies have two real-life American children) with fascinating history. Created by an author with CIA agent experience, The Americans has been called “the whiskey sour of television shows,” for its unique blend of bitterness and charm. Stream the series for FREE with Prime Video. Get your 30-day free trial here.


9. Mad Men

A touchstone of contemporary culture as much as it is a pean to “mid-century modern” aesthetics, this beautiful AMC drama is one of the most thoroughly engaging portraits of an era ever to come to film or television. With its deliberate pacing and fully-realized characters, Mad Men arguably ushered in the current age of sophisticated TV — and introduced that new/old aesthetic for shows to come.


10. The Man in the High Castle

Based on the famous

, this Amazon original series is a historical thriller set in an alternate timeline where the Axis powers won the Second World War. It chronicles the lives of ordinary citizens living under a Nazi-like regime.

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