From the battlegrounds of ancient Rome to the regal halls of the British monarchy, historical television series have captivated audiences with their depictions of bygone eras, larger-than-life characters, and spellbinding narratives. Whether it’s a dramatic retelling of a famous king’s reign, the inspiring journey of a beloved figure, or an exploration of the everyday lives of ordinary people, these shows have a unique ability to transport us to the past and immerse us in the fascinating stories that have shaped our world.
In this article, we have compiled a list of the 30 best historical TV series you should watch before you die, each offering a captivating and thought-provoking glimpse into the tapestry of human history. So sit back, relax, and prepare to embark on a thrilling journey through time as we delve into the most fascinating historical TV shows that have ever graced our screens.
30. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Despite some shortcomings, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s enchanting tale of a 1950s housewife-turned-aspiring stand-up comedian, featuring the radiant Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, is utterly delightful. The series revolves around Midge’s act, refined under the guidance of manager Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), which shines during cocktail parties, in court, and on stage.
As Midge gains momentum, her raw, rapid-fire wit transforms into a captivating performance, skillfully navigating emotional turbulence and landing each laugh. Brosnahan’s natural comedic talent is evident, and Sherman-Palladino’s direction masterfully balances the line between life and art. As a comedy about comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel captures the essence of a star in the making, simultaneously vulnerable and self-aware.
Though the show has faced some criticism for portraying a privileged fantasy, its fantastical elements remain irresistibly enjoyable. The series is sharp, witty, and occasionally deeply emotional, showcasing stunning costumes and clever dialogue. Brosnahan’s exceptional charm keeps the show from becoming overly theatrical, while the talented supporting cast, including Susie, adds depth and complexity. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a whimsical escape with the perfect balance of humor and heartfelt emotion.
The sumptuous and melodramatic series Versailles centers on the reign of France’s King Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. As the expansion of France and the resulting rise in taxation set the stage for revolution, the series delves into the construction of the magnificent Versailles and the intrigue, scandal, and drama that defined the era. Blagden’s portrayal of the king, who firmly believes in his divine appointment, is superb, perfectly capturing his combination of boldness and inner conflict.
Equally impressive is Vlahos as Louis’ brother Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, who confidently embraces his penchant for women’s clothing and his passionate affair with the Chevalier of Lorraine. Amidst the numerous mistresses, sexual escapades, and mysteries, the show also explores themes of betrayal and witchcraft. Versailles is an exhilarating, modern-feeling adventure that prioritizes entertainment over historical accuracy, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
28. Vikings: Valhalla
Acclaimed writer Jeb Stuart, known for his remarkable work on cinematic hits like Die Hard (1988), Inmate (1989), and The Fugitive (1993), had long been absent from high-profile projects. That changed when Michael Hirst’s series Vikings (2013–2020) sparked his creativity, leading him to develop his own saga set within a Viking community. Although the script for the TV series Vikings: Valhalla has its imperfections, particularly in the dialogue, it remains captivating for a myriad of reasons.
The show cleverly intertwines historical motifs and characters, exploring themes of power acquired through deception and violence, which are universally relatable. Additionally, the series delves into the use of an unseen God, a practice still present today. This thought-provoking story offers ample room for interpretation and is ripe with potential for a thrilling multi-season journey.
27. The Magnificent Century
The Magnificent Century is a multifaceted production that features an array of captivating storylines, often involving quarrels, conflicts, murders, and intricate schemes. Characters frequently change allegiances and form new alliances, while the palace sees the introduction of fresh faces. With an extensive ensemble that includes sultanas, princes, pashas, servants, and episodic roles, there’s no shortage of depth to the characters. Each individual possesses a unique personality, energy, and ability to evoke strong emotions, either admiration or hatred, among viewers.
The Magnificent Century is a polarizing series that one either falls in love with or simply cannot watch – there’s no middle ground. A significant factor contributing to the show’s success is its visual appeal; the elaborate sets, costumes, jewelry, and hairstyles all come together to create an immersive and believable experience that transports the audience to a different time and place.
26. The Chosen
While Jesus Christ is undeniably the central figure of this free-to-watch show, it’s the disciples and other characters that make this series truly exceptional. The Chosen offers a unique perspective on events such as the healing of Mary Magdalene, the calling of the apostles, and Jesus’s miracles by presenting them through the eyes of Nicodemus, Peter, Matthew, and other supporting characters. This fresh approach to the New Testament narrative, incorporating both primary and secondary characters, adds an inspiring and engaging layer to the story, making it one of the finest historical TV shows based on Biblical events.
The series invites viewers to connect with the characters on a deeper level, fostering a more profound understanding of Jesus’s teachings and the impact they had on those around him. By humanizing these timeless stories and providing greater depth to the well-known accounts, The Chosen offers a refreshing and captivating take on the life of Jesus and his followers.
Before encountering Underground, I believed that television could achieve a great deal. However, after the first season of Underground, I am now convinced that TV has the power to alter history and transform language itself. What does the term “slave” mean? How did it apply to those enslaved in America? Although the WGN America series, created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and executive produced by John Legend and Anthony Hemingway, is not the first artistic endeavor to portray black American “slaves” as human beings, it stands out for its ability to reveal the genuine humanity of enslaved individuals.
The series delves into a range of emotions and characteristics—jealousy, sexual desire, vengeance, villainy, anger, heroism, spirituality, and contentment—exhibited by enslaved people. Green, Pokaski, and their exceptional writing team dared to deviate from the traditional slave narrative formula, where slaves are depicted as good victims and masters as evil victimizers. Had they adhered to this formula, they might have still produced an essential and captivating television show.
However, by breaking away from convention, they crafted a series that was not only entertaining but also shocking, sending a powerful message about the distinction between a slave and an enslaved person. Although my tongue still struggles to say the latter instead of the former, my mind is already grasping the difference. After watching Underground, I can envision enslaved individuals as complex and multifaceted characters, each with their own unique story. By presenting these gripping storylines and performances, Underground allows us to reimagine the past and, perhaps most significantly, reshape our vision of the future.
The imagery, music, and collaborative efforts of editors, set designers, and costume designers in Warrior harmonize beautifully, demonstrating the series’ strength in its audiovisual aspects. Regrettably, the storyline does not measure up to this standard. It is unclear how much of Bruce Lee’s ideas were incorporated into the script, but it is evident that the central plot has been stretched thin. Regardless, the series portrays an intriguing character from the Far East who demonstrates his skills to Americans, a concept that Bruce Lee would undoubtedly have embraced.
23. Marco Polo
The $90 million budget allocated for the first season of Marco Polo is evident in the series’ stunning visuals, costumes, and set designs. Despite its aesthetic allure, the series suffers from disarray at the script level. Court intrigues, which are the most engaging aspect of the show, are often sidelined by uninteresting and forced romantic subplots.
However, the series occasionally dazzles viewers with well-executed kung-fu fight scenes, only to lose that momentum later on. The show features charismatic performances, such as Benedict Wong’s portrayal of Kublai Khan, which are juxtaposed with the lackluster presence of Lorenzo Richelmy.
The Vikings are widely regarded as one of history’s fiercest tribes, and their depiction in various TV series and films has reinforced their fearsome reputation. While these portrayals have generated excitement around Viking culture, they have also rendered Viking characters somewhat one-dimensional. Norsemen, a comedy-drama, seeks to challenge this stereotype by focusing on the everyday lives of Vikings in Norheim, humorously depicting their struggles to navigate mundane tasks and conflicts with other tribes.
Taking a closer look at the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the television series Victoria hasn’t quite managed to garner the same level of attention as its glamorous counterpart, The Crown. Nonetheless, both series share striking resemblances. Each narrative revolves around a young woman unexpectedly thrust into a royal role, grappling with the challenges of living under the public eye and striving to earn the respect of men who doubt their capabilities.
Within the intricate web of politics, Victoria features two captivating love stories: one between the young queen and her first Prime Minister, affectionately referred to as “Lord M,” and the other between Victoria and her future husband, Albert. Each love story is distinctive, particularly in how the show allows Victoria and Albert to experience both domestic harmony and the typical conflicts that arise between couples, albeit intensified by their royal statuses.
The series truly comes into its own in the second season, evolving into an emotionally resonant and unexpectedly comforting portrayal of the royal household, its employees, and the nation that Victoria and Albert strive to modernize. With stunning costumes and expert storytelling, Victoria offers viewers an immersive experience that often has American audiences turning to Wikipedia to learn more about the historical events depicted in the series. —Allison Keene
20. The Last Kingdom
Debuting in 2015, The Last Kingdom is a historical television series based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories novels. Regarded as one of the finest historical TV shows, it initially aired on BBC America before Netflix secured the rights and exclusively produced episodes thereafter. Set in the late 9th century, the series follows Uhtred, a man born a Saxon but raised by Vikings.
As tensions rise, Uhtred faces the difficult choice between the people who nurtured him and those with whom he shares a blood connection. Despite not being an award contender, the show remains immensely popular among television audiences.
19. John Adams
John Adams, an exceptional television production adorned with the HBO logo, has often been overlooked despite its significant merits. This remarkable series not only narrates the intriguing story of a man who played a crucial role in the formation of an independent United States, but also boasts exceptional cinematography, superb acting, exquisite costumes, and an authentic set design. The production is astutely crafted, capturing the audience’s attention with its impressive portrayal of historical events.
18. Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey remains one of the most triumphant historical TV shows in British television history, premiering in 2010 on ITV in the United Kingdom and PBS in the United States. Featuring a stellar British cast, including a standout performance by Dame Maggie Smith, the series is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, chronicling the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants.
The historical drama weaves in numerous real-world events, yet it is the everyday challenges and triumphs of the beloved characters that have transformed Downton Abbey into a global phenomenon. Spanning six seasons and a feature film, the show consistently drew in over 10 million viewers, excluding its first season.
Often likened to Gossip Girl, Bridgerton transports viewers from contemporary Manhattan to 19th-century London. Both series share an emphasis on the romantic entanglements of their characters, as well as luxurious fashion and breathtaking set designs that depict the lives of the ultra-wealthy. Additionally, each narrative is guided by a mysterious, omniscient narrator of undisclosed identity. Despite these similarities, the Netflix series Bridgerton possesses a more mature tone compared to Gossip Girl, allowing viewers to indulge in this guilty pleasure without any feelings of shame or embarrassment.
16. The Crown
Currently one of the most renowned historical series, The Crown has remained incredibly popular since its Netflix debut in 2016. With Claire Foy portraying a young Queen Elizabeth II, the series follows her ascent to the throne at just 25 years old and offers a glimpse into her life as a royal in the 1940s. As the show progresses through the years, characters are recast to reflect their aging, providing insight into how political rivalries and personal relationships shaped the 20th century. Garnering numerous accolades, The Crown has received 10 Emmy Awards and seven Golden Globes.
15. The Spanish Princess
For fans of historical fiction, The Spanish Princess offers a unique perspective on the often-told story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Rather than focusing on Henry’s decision to leave Catherine for Anne Boleyn, this show highlights Catherine’s victories during their 24-year marriage prior to its annulment. Based on novels by Philippa Gregory, this captivating tale employs a diverse cast that accurately reflects the historical period.
The Spanish Princess invites viewers to explore a side of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s story that is seldom portrayed on screen, including the deceptions, romances, and beheadings that accompany their reign. To delve even deeper into the narrative of women in the English monarchy, check out The White Queen and The White Princess, the first two installments of this anthology, as well as the beautifully intricate Wolf Hall, which covers the latter years of Henry’s rule and the church’s schism.
14. The Great
From the writer of The Favourite, Tony McNamara, comes “an occasionally true story” for Hulu that chronicles the rise of Catherine the Great. Set in 18th-century Russia, the 10-episode series boasts a witty, fast-paced script and lavish costumes, combining the aesthetics of a traditional historical drama with a refreshingly modern approach. The Great explores the challenges Catherine (Elle Fanning) faces as a naive German bride married to the cruel and incompetent Peter (Nicholas Hoult).
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult deliver outstanding performances, skillfully navigating the script’s humor and drama. Catherine’s love for her adopted country drives her to dream of a progressive, vibrant Russia, sparking her bold quest for power. The Great is a series best savored, as it beautifully traces Catherine’s journey of self-discovery and determination to effect change, all while being interspersed with moments of absurdity. The show not only entertains but also invites reflection on themes of sacrifice, transformation, and the courage required to challenge a tyrant.
Poldark is an outstanding historical television series that first premiered in 2015 as part of PBS’ Masterpiece lineup. Set in late 18th century England, the show is based on a series of novels bearing the same name. The series features Aidan Turner in the lead role of Ross Poldark, a man presumed dead who returns home from the American Revolution to find his life has changed drastically.
His beloved has moved on, his father has passed away, and his estate has been sold and left in disarray. The series chronicles Ross’ challenges as he attempts to rebuild his life and reestablish his place in society. This underrated show garnered immense popularity in Britain, earning one BAFTA Award.
Frontier, a Netflix original series, is widely considered to be one of the platform’s most underrated offerings. Starring Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones fame alongside Landon Liboiron, Zoe Boyle, and Evan Jonigkeit, this historical drama deserved more attention than it received. Set in 18th century Canada amidst breathtaking, icy landscapes, the series centers on a bitter feud between outlaw Declan Harp (Momoa) and high-ranking officer Lord Archibald Benton (Alun Armstrong).
Throughout its three seasons, Frontier showcases exceptional acting, a captivating and rapidly evolving plot, and numerous action-packed sequences that keep audiences engaged. Although Netflix has not officially canceled the show, a fourth season seems unlikely given the four-year gap since the release of season three. Nevertheless, streaming platforms ensure that this underrated gem remains available for viewers to enjoy.
Outlander masterfully combines elements of adventure, romance, and mystery to create an enthralling viewing experience that transports audiences across two distinct historical periods. Ronald D. Moore’s series boasts exceptional writing, stunning cinematography, and relatable characters whose realistic portrayals resonate with viewers.
While the show maintained this high level of quality up until its third season, subsequent storylines and character development have faltered somewhat. However, the intriguing concept and remarkable execution of Outlander continue to captivate audiences, solidifying its status as a must-watch series.
10. The Terror
Within the press materials, it is mentioned that the showrunner of the production, David Kajganich, once spent a decade working as a professional desert guide and medic. He often shared the tale of Franklin’s expedition around numerous campfires. Undoubtedly, his first foray into television production is imbued with an atmosphere and mystery that are truly captivating, with the story unfolding meticulously.
A defining characteristic of Terror is indeed terror itself – it soon becomes evident that the Arctic cold isn’t the only threat to the crew. The atmosphere gradually intensifies, in line with the show’s unhurried pace, as each subsequent episode reinforces the sense that a happy ending is not to be expected.
9. The Borgias
Every single frame from The Borgias is a work of art, carefully crafted and seemingly inspired by the world of painting. While at times the locations appear to be repetitive, it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the series. Essentially, it is akin to a thirty-hour movie with a hefty price tag. A single episode reportedly costs nearly five million dollars, only marginally less than Game of Thrones produced during the same period.
8. Boardwalk Empire
While it may be tempting to dismiss Boardwalk Empire as a mere Sopranos replica set in the 1920s, the show astutely incorporates some of the best elements of its predecessor and broadens its scope. The diverse spotlight, which ranges from the upper echelons of political office to the lives of lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, is what sets the show apart. Boardwalk Empire presents moral dilemmas with far-reaching implications, humanizing those affected by its events.
The show’s political commentary is insightful without appearing overbearing, and its characters successfully strike a balance between archetypal representations and genuine human beings. Although not as fast-paced as some other dramas, Boardwalk Empire’s deliberate slow-burn boasts a depth and beauty seldom paralleled on television. As the series evolved, it shifted its focus from the intricacies of New Jersey politics to a more engrossing national landscape, resulting in grander, more operatic, and expressionistic characters and narratives.
The presence of gore, CGI, and explicit scenes may deter viewers seeking a compelling plot. However, if one can overlook these commercial tactics, it becomes apparent that this series features an expertly crafted script. The plot is intriguing and complex, the characters are dynamic and believable, and the dialogue is rich and engaging. As the finale approaches, it becomes difficult to stifle one’s tears.
The long-anticipated conclusion reveals the series to be a nearly exceptional production, shedding light on the harsh realities of slavery and tyranny. The illusion of freedom is brought into focus, and the sacrifices made to uphold this illusion serve as a stark reminder of humanity’s struggle.
Deadwood delves into the early days of America, illustrating the formation of a society amidst numerous challenges. The narrative unfolds in a Shakespearean manner, with characters employing crude yet poetic dialogues and monologues that have gained legendary status. At times, the series transforms into a theatrical performance, evoking the feeling of watching a stage play. This theatricality is further emphasized through shots framed like scenes from a play, and characters delivering monologues to animals, their reflections in puddles, or even the severed head of a Native American.
The series exhibits its full poetic essence by exploring every facet of a burgeoning society, from the role of law, the economy, humanity, to the existence of God. It’s remarkable how Milch managed to address all these themes in just 36 episodes, seamlessly weaving philosophical, sociological, and existential discourses into the gritty and untamed Wild West.
5. I, Claudius
Breathing life into the history of Rome doesn’t require a grandiose display. All it takes is a profound understanding of the narrative, thoughtful reflection, and the ability to extract more than mere banality and sandals. The 13-episode BBC series accomplishes just that. History enthusiasts and political aficionados will be satiated, while fans of complex intrigues and relationships will be thoroughly entertained. Melancholic viewers will find numerous opportunities for contemplation and emotional resonance.
4. The Tudors
While The Tudors may not be entirely accurate in its portrayal of historical facts, it captivates audiences with its engrossing narrative. The formula for success is simple: assemble a cast of attractive men and stunning, alluring women, dress them in exquisite period attire, and then allow them to shed those garments. Incorporating elements of crime and twisted intrigues adds another layer of excitement. The series is enthralling, electrifying, and exhilarating, which is hardly surprising given that King Henry VIII is one of history’s most colorful and controversial figures.
3. Band Of Brothers
A joint effort between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers continues the legacy of Saving Private Ryan in terms of content, setting, and historical context. The series chronicles the experiences of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division during their service in WWII.
It follows the soldiers from their arrival at basic training through Japan’s surrender in 1945, depicting historic and harrowing events such as the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the capture of Eagle’s Nest from the perspective of the troops themselves. This groundbreaking miniseries won seven Emmys and a Golden Globe Award, and even after more than two decades, remains a benchmark of quality and craftsmanship for other shows, whether historical or otherwise.
The series Rome is distinguished by its gritty realism, which avoids relying on shock value while maintaining high-quality drama, even during its tumultuous conclusion. Ironically, the meticulous attention to detail and the authentic portrayal of antiquity ultimately led to the series’ downfall, as it was canceled due to exorbitant production costs.
Despite its untapped potential, the two-part finale of Rome remains an exceptional series, crafted with diligence and employing its historical foundation to weave an intriguing narrative about the protagonists and the world they inhabit. What sets Rome apart is its ability to breathe new life into a well-known history, achieving a sense of freshness that is often elusive in historical adaptations familiar to audiences worldwide.
Michael Hirst, a history enthusiast, rose to prominence with his screenplays for two films about Queen Elizabeth I Tudor (Elizabeth – 1998; Elizabeth: The Golden Age – 2007) and the TV series The Tudors (2007–2010). His crowning achievement, however, is the production about the followers of Odin, which aired from 2013-2020. Hirst penned all episodes, often displaying remarkable creativity combined with a deep fascination for the history of medieval Europe.
Drawing from the stories of English rulers and the Norse sagas about Ragnar Lodbrok and his descendants, Hirst weaves together an intriguing tale of clashing religions and cultures, lending the work a universal appeal. This series, produced for the History channel, spans six chapters of varying lengths (ranging from 9 to 20 episodes per season) and occasionally loses momentum, succumbing to material fatigue and the creator’s occasional bouts of creative crisis.