The Ultimate Guide to the Best Historical Fiction TV Series: From Ancient Rome to Victorian England and Beyond
Immerse yourself in the fascinating world of history while indulging in the captivating realm of television with the best historical fiction TV series. From ancient Rome to the bustling streets of London, these shows transport you through time and immerse you in the tales of iconic figures and captivating eras. Explore the plots filled with political intrigue, royal scandals, and gripping adventures, as we journey through centuries of history brought to life on the small screen. Whether you're a history enthusiast or simply crave an enthralling story, these TV series are bound to leave you hooked from the very first episode.
Rome, 49 BCE
Travel back in time to ancient Rome with the TV show Rome, which aired on HBO. This series became famous for its high production value and the inclusion of historical characters, making it feel more like a game from the Assassin's Creed franchise than a regular TV show. It's the perfect choice for fans of period dramas and sets the stage for a chronological viewing of other great shows in the genre. Hail, Caesar! — Alexis Nedd
How to watch: Rome is now streaming on Max.
Miss Scarlet and the Duke, mid-1800s
In Victorian London, Eliza Scarlet (Kate Phillips), the daughter of a detective, defies societal norms by becoming a private investigator. She is determined to challenge the belief that women are incapable of solving crimes. Alongside her childhood friend and police detective inspector, William "Duke" Wellington (Stuart Martin), Eliza embarks on solving mysteries while navigating her complex feelings for William. Miss Scarlet and the Duke is an addictive period crime drama that showcases sophisticated mysteries. The series impresses with its attention to detail in set designs, costumes, and cinematography. It is a must-watch for fans of the genre. — K.G.
How to watch: Miss Scarlet and the Duke is now streaming on the Amazon Prime PBS Masterpiece channel.
The Underground Railroad, mid-1800s
Credit: Amazon Studios
The Underground Railroad, directed by Barry Jenkins (known for Moonlight), is a hauntingly beautiful series based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning novel. It follows the courageous journey of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman enslaved in the American South, as she escapes using the Underground Railroad. In this alternate history, the Underground Railroad is portrayed as an actual network of transportation. The show delves into an intensified oppression of Black people in the southern states, delivering a brutal yet emotional narrative. With powerful performances and a compelling message, The Underground Railroad is an extraordinary piece of art. — K.G.
How to watch: The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Prime Video.
Credit: Robert Viglasky / HBO
Gunpowder is a miniseries that retells the legendary events of the gunpowder plot to blow up the British houses of parliament, led by Guy Fawkes. The show centers around Fawkes' political and social motivations, providing a fresh perspective on the story. Despite the historical ending being well-known, Gunpowder adds depth to Fawkes' treason and offers a glimpse into the past. Kit Harington portrays Fawkes, and his performance showcases the character's complexity against the backdrop of political intrigue. Gunpowder is an intriguing and immersive watch. — A.N.
How to watch: Gunpowder is now streaming on Max.
Credit: BBC / Canal
Versailles is a unique period drama that focuses on the historical setting rather than a particular event. It explores the grand vision of King Louis XIV to transform a royal hunting lodge into a magnificent palace. The show brings to life the dramatic intrigues of the court of Versailles and offers a glimpse into the secrets of the era. Filmed on location at the palace and other chateaux in France, Versailles captivates with its stunning architecture and explores the dark side of royal power. — A.N.
How to watch: Versailles is now streaming on Netflix
Vikings, 793 - 900 and Vikings: Valhalla, 1002 - 1066
Credit: Bernard Walsh / Netflix
Vikings is a series that chronicles the legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok, his sons, and the beginning of the Viking Age. It takes inspiration from historical events and showcases Ragnar's quest for power through battles, raids, and strategic maneuvering. Ragnar, portrayed by Travis Fimmel, is a fascinating leader with a unique perspective on the world. The show presents captivating fight scenes, rich lore, and memorable characters like Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), Ragnar's shield-maiden wife. Vikings is a gripping and adventurous watch that appeals to fans of both history and thrilling storytelling. Plus, it's a treasure trove for intricate braid hairstyles!
Set 100 years after the original series, Vikings: Valhalla continues the saga during the end of the Viking Age. It follows vikings from Norway to Denmark seeking revenge after the English king destroys their settlements. The sequel series promises more exciting tales from this iconic historical period. — Kristina Grosspietsch
How to watch: Vikings is now streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime. Vikings: Valhalla is now streaming on Netflix.
The Last Kingdom, 866-920
For those who yearn for a medieval series to fill the void left by Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom is a perfect choice. Adapted from Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Series, the show unfolds during a tumultuous period in British history. It showcases the constant territorial conflicts between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. The protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon), is an Anglo-Saxon warrior who was raised by Danes after being torn from his ancestral home as a child. Uhtred becomes a key figure in King Alfred's mission to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms due to his heritage and remarkable combat skills. The Last Kingdom boasts a talented cast, thrilling battle sequences, and intricate Viking braids. This exploration of civilization, savagery, and honor will leave viewers captivated and eager for more. To Bebbanburg! — K.G.
How to watch: The Last Kingdom is now streaming on Netflix.
Marco Polo, late 1200s
Credit: Phil Bray / Netflix
Marco Polo, the Netflix original series, brings to life the adventures of the famous Italian explorer in the 13th century. It focuses on Polo's time as a liaison to Kublai Khan, the first Mongol ruler to conquer all of China and the grandson of Genghis Khan. The show features a diverse cast of east and south Asian actors, who portray the captivating war, political intrigue, and magnificent court life during this period. Expect lots of silk costumes, intense battles, and intense power struggles within the Khan's court. Marco Polo is a unique historical drama that offers a fresh perspective on a fascinating era. — A.N.
How to watch: Marco Polo is now streaming on Netflix.
Medici: Masters of Florence, 1429-1440s
Medici: Masters of Florence is a series that delves into the history of Florence in the mid-15th century. It follows the powerful Medici family and their influence on the city. The show explores the political landscape of the time and the family's rise to wealth and prominence. Starring Richard Madden, the series offers a unique take on the period, though it should be noted that Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Lorenzo de Medici has an unexpected Brooklyn accent. Despite this, Medici: Masters of Florence immerses viewers in the intricacies of Renaissance Florence, including its plagues, banks, and captivating characters. — A.N.
How to watch: Medici: Masters of Florence is now streaming on Netflix.
The Borgias, 1492-1503
The Borgias is a series that explores the life of Pope Alexander XI, a controversial figure in Vatican history. Known for his allegedly immoral and lecherous behavior, the show depicts Pope Alexander's ascent to power and his relationship with his scheming illegitimate children. Although the events portrayed have been somewhat fictionalized, The Borgias offers an intriguing look into the world of the 15th century Pope's family. Dustin Hoffman portrays Lorenzo de Medici with an intriguing Brooklyn accent, adding a unique element to the series. Father of the church indeed. — A.N.
How to watch: The Borgias is now streaming on Paramount and Showtime.
The Tudors, 1526-1547
The Tudors, a highly successful series that premiered in 2007, played a significant role in popularizing sexified royal history TV shows. It spans the years 1526 to 1547 and explores the story of King Henry VIII, infamous for his six wives. The show propelled Henry Cavill to prominence in his role as the Duke of Suffolk and introduced Natalie Dormer as the original Margaery Tyrell—Anne Boleyn. The Tudors is an entertaining and gripping portrayal of the tumultuous Tudor dynasty, and it remains a fan-favorite to this day. — A.N.
How to watch: The Tudors is now streaming on Prime Video, Paramount , and Showtime.
Wolf Hall, 1529 - 1536
Mark Rylance delivers an astounding performance in this captivating historical series that chronicles Sir Thomas Cromwell's ascent to power during the reign of Henry VIII. Despite his humble origins, Cromwell becomes a key player in the king's court by orchestrating Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn — a feat that his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, failed to achieve. Filled with political intrigue and high stakes, Cromwell must navigate the treacherous waters of the court, manipulating and coaxing to fulfill the king's desires while safeguarding his own interests. One wrong move could cost him his life. Based on Hilary Mantel's acclaimed novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this BBC series is a intelligent and captivating watch. It also features a talented cast of familiar faces from other beloved British shows, including Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Tom Holland, and Jonathan Pryce. — K.G.
How to watch: Catherine the Great, 1770-1796
Credit: Hal Shinnie / HBO
If you're looking for a period drama that's shorter in length, give Catherine the Great on HBO a try. This four-episode miniseries packs a punch, despite leaving you wanting more. Helen Mirren delivers a powerful performance as Catherine the Great, the last Tsarina of Russia and one of the most influential women in European history. Known for her sexual freedom and political prowess, Catherine's reign was a mix of scandalous rumors and remarkable achievements. Captivating and thought-provoking, Catherine the Great offers insight into the complexities of her life and legacy. — A.N.
How to watch: Harlots, 1760s-ish
While most period dramas focus on well-known historical figures, Harlots shines a light on the women history would rather forget. Set in 18th century London, the series depicts a mob drama between two rival brothels: one catering to the wealthy upper class men and the other striving to improve its social and financial standing. Harlots takes an honest and insightful look at the role of sex work in human civilization and the limited choices women had at the time. It's a story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. — A.N.
How to watch: Pride and Prejudice, early 1800s
Credit: Moviestore / Shutterstock
No list of period dramas would be complete without Pride and Prejudice. The 1995 BBC TV adaptation of Jane Austen's iconic novel is a must-watch for any fan of Regency romance. Colin Firth's portrayal of the brooding and enigmatic Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle's sparkling performance as the bold and independent Elizabeth Bennet make this version a true classic. With exquisite attention to detail and a faithful adaptation of Austen's words, this series takes viewers on a journey through the ups and downs of Elizabeth and Darcy's love story. It's a tale that has inspired countless adaptations and modern retellings, but this version remains the gold standard. Prepare to be transported to the enchanting world of Austen and fall in love all over again. — K.G.
Credit: Liam Daniel / Netflix
Looking for a period romance with a modern twist? Bridgerton, created by Shonda Rhimes, is just what you need. Set in the Regency era, this series follows the Bridgerton family and their romantic escapades. Season 1 focuses on the eldest daughter, Daphne, as she navigates the complex world of debutante balls and courtship. Season 2 shifts the focus to her brother, Anthony, as he searches for a suitable wife. With classical pop covers, lush costumes, and scandalous secrets, Bridgerton brings a fresh and entertaining twist to the period drama genre. This series has captured the hearts of viewers worldwide and remains completely irresistible. Additionally, the spinoff Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story provides a lavish and captivating look into the life of Queen Charlotte herself. — K.G.
How to watch:
Alias Grace, 1840s
Credit: Jan Thijs / Netflix
Alias Grace is a gripping psychological mystery based on Margaret Atwood's novel. Set in the 1840s, the miniseries delves into the story of Grace Marks, a convicted murderer who has spent 15 years in prison with no memory of the crime she committed. As psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan evaluates Grace, he becomes increasingly entangled in her enigmatic past. Written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, this adaptation stays true to the source material, delivering a captivating and thought-provoking watch. The talented cast, led by Sarah Gadon, brings the tension and intrigue to life, making Alias Grace an addictive and deeply impactful series. — K.G.
How to watch: Cranford, 1840s
If you're in the mood for a period drama that focuses on a small village community, Cranford is the perfect choice. Set in 19th century northwest England, this series follows a group of middle-class spinsters and widows as they navigate the joys and sorrows of life. Led by the indomitable Jenkyns sisters, played by Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, the residents of Cranford face new loves, losses, and the scandalous arrival of a railway. With its warm and poignant storytelling, Cranford offers a delightful and heartwarming watch. The follow-up series, Return to Cranford, introduces Jodie Whittaker, Tom Hiddleston, and Michelle Dockery to the cast, adding to the charm of this beloved show. — K.G.
How to watch: Victoria, 1838-1851
Credit: ITV / PBS
For a sweeping historical drama that spans the reign of Queen Victoria, look no further than Victoria. Jenna Coleman delivers a mesmerizing performance as the iconic queen, taking viewers on a journey from her coronation to her marriage with Prince Albert, played by Tom Hughes. With its rich storytelling and visual splendor, this ITV series provides a glimpse into the life of a monarch who held the throne for a record-breaking length of time. Queen Victoria's extraordinary reign is filled with captivating stories that have the potential for many more seasons. — A.N.
How to watch: The Durrells, 1930s
If you're in need of some joy and laughter, The Durrells is the perfect choice. Set in the 1930s, this heartwarming series follows the adventures of the Durrell family as they move to the Greek island of Corfu in pursuit of a simpler life. Led by the spirited Louisa Durrell, played by Keely Hawes, the family overcomes cultural differences, language barriers, and the absence of modern conveniences to create a home in paradise. Based on naturalist Gerald Durrell's memoirs, the series combines humor, charm, and adorable animals to create an irresistibly entertaining watch. — K.G.
How to watch: All Creatures Great and Small, 1930s
Credit: Channel 5
Escape to the picturesque countryside of 1930s Yorkshire with All Creatures Great and Small. This heartwarming series, based on James Herriot's memoirs, follows James, a young veterinarian, as he joins a practice in a rural community. Alongside his eccentric boss, Siegfried Farnon, and his mischievous brother, Tristan, James tends to the needs of both animals and their grateful owners. All Creatures Great and Small is a light-hearted and engaging watch, perfect for unwinding after a long day. The trials and tribulations of the veterinary practice, combined with the beautiful Yorkshire landscapes, make for a positively charming viewing experience. — K.G.
How to watch: Peaky Blinders, 1919 - 1930s
Credit: BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd./Robert Viglasky
Set in Birmingham, England, during the 1920s and 1930s, Peaky Blinders is a captivating and impactful show that will completely immerse you. It features a thrilling soundtrack, an exceptional cast (RIP Helen McCrory), and stunning cinematography.
Cillian Murphy portrays the intriguing character of Tommy Shelby, the leader of the Peaky Blinders gang, who is known for hiding razor blades in his cap to slit throats. Tommy is a strategic thinker, and his elaborate plans for money, family, and revenge will undoubtedly leave you breathless. Additionally, the show sheds light on the deep emotional scars Tommy and his brother carry from their traumatizing experiences as trench diggers in World War I.
Despite their criminal activities as murderers, smugglers, and thieves, you will surprisingly find yourself rooting for the Peaky Blinders, a testament to the exceptional writing of the series. - K.G.
How to watch: Peaky Blinders is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Downton Abbey, 1912-1925
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Focus/Kobal/Shutterstock
No period drama list would be complete without Downton Abbey. This remarkable series revolves around primarily fictional characters, but their stories regularly intersect with real historical and political events of the early 20th century. From the sinking of the Titanic to the Teapot Dome scandal and the life of a certain British prince, the Crawley family of Downton Estate and their staff become entwined in these gripping historical moments. And when you're done, there are even two movies to enjoy. - A.N.
How to watch: Downton Abbey is now available for streaming on Prime Video and BritBox.
Turn: Washington’s Spies' (2014 - 2017)
Available to stream on AMC .
Turn: Washington’s Spies is a gripping historical drama based on Alexander Rose's book titled "Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring." The series chronicles the real-life Culper Ring, a spy ring utilized by George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.
With its accurate portrayal of the Revolutionary War, TURN stands as one of the best series set during this period. History buffs and espionage enthusiasts will be captivated by the show's thrilling events and clever plot twists.
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Outlander' (2014 - )
Available to stream on Netflix and Starz.
Image via Starz
Outlander is a riveting historical drama series that combines elements of science fiction. Based on a book series with the same name, the show follows the journey of Claire Randall, a former WWII military nurse who is transported back in time to 18th-century Scotland. There, she must navigate the challenges of the time period, including the Jacobite Rising, while also experiencing an unexpected love story.
Outlander stands out as a captivating show that successfully brings the turbulent events of the 18th century to life. Fans of this era and an exceptional soundtrack will find great enjoyment in watching Outlander.
Frontier' (2016 - 2018)
Available to stream on Netflix.
Frontier is a thrilling historical drama series set during the late 1700s in colonial Canada. It delves into the North American fur trade and follows the journey of Declan Harp, a half-Irish and half-Cree outlaw determined to challenge the corrupt fur trade.
Starring the phenomenal Jason Momoa, Frontier provides a new role for fans of Game of Thrones to enjoy. It is a must-watch for anyone who appreciates wilderness-based historical series.
Medici' (2016 - 2019)
Available to stream on Netflix.
Medici is a captivating historical drama series centered on the infamous Medici family and their experiences during the Renaissance era in Florence, Italy. Each season explores a different period in their family history, shedding light on the political, religious, and artistic aspects of the Renaissance era.
The series is impeccably crafted, and it beautifully captures the essence of the Renaissance. Fans of this era will find themselves enthralled by every episode.
1899' (2022 - )
Available to stream on Netflix.
Image via Netflix
1899 is a groundbreaking historical epic mystery-science fiction series from Netflix. Set in the year 1899, the show follows a group of European immigrants on a journey from London to New York City in search of a better life. It offers a gripping and innovative storyline, and its first season has already been released, with two more planned.
The series masterfully blends science fiction elements with historical accuracy. Fans of exciting historical dramas will be completely engrossed by 1899.
Credit: Anika Molnar
Transatlantic is a stylish and captivating drama series set in the year 1940. It takes place in Marseille at the Hotel Splendide, where the Emergency Rescue Committee is working tirelessly to evacuate artists, writers, and thinkers sought after by the Nazis. Led by Mary Jayne Gold, Varian Fry, and Albert Albert Hirschman, the ERC stays dedicated to their mission despite the increasing risks.
Based on a remarkable true story, Transatlantic tells the tale of the Emergency Rescue Committee and their efforts to provide safe passage for individuals targeted by the Nazis. With its sensational international cast, affecting storyline, and picturesque setting, Transatlantic is a series that will leave a lasting impact. - K.G.
How to watch: Transatlantic is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Outlander, mid to late 1700s
Join Claire Randall, an English former WWII military nurse, on an extraordinary journey in Outlander. After touching some pagan stones, Claire magically travels back to the year 1743 in Scotland. The series follows her resilience in navigating the complexities of the Scottish-English conflicts during a tumultuous period. Along the way, she finds passionate love with Jamie Fraser, a fierce Highland warrior, resulting in a sweeping romance that transcends time and space.
Based on the immensely popular novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander weaves a captivating storyline within a vaguely historical timeline. However, the true magic of the show lies in the undeniable chemistry between Caitríona Balfe and Sam Heughan in the lead roles. Prepare to be enchanted by this ardent love story, not to mention the unforgettable score. - K.G.
How to watch: Outlander is now available for streaming on Netflix and Starz.
Call the Midwife, 1950s - 1960s
Credit: BBC / Neal Street Productions / Olly Courtenay
Call the Midwife is an endearing and uplifting drama series that has continued to enchant audiences for 12 seasons and counting. Set in the post-World War II era in the impoverished neighborhood of Poplar, London, the series follows a group of modern midwives working alongside nuns at Nonnatus House. Together, they provide vital medical attention and maternity care to the underserved community. The show tackles significant themes such as abortion, racism, healthcare inequality, and faith, offering profound empathy and kindness. Many episodes incorporate real medical headlines from the time, including the introduction of the birth control pill and the devastating effects of thalidomide.
Narrated by Vanessa Redgrave and featuring a talented rotating cast, including Jenny Agutter, Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris, Miranda Hart, Emerald Fennell, Fenella Woolgar, and more, Call the Midwife is an emotionally moving drama that always leaves viewers with a sense of hope. - K.G.
How to watch: Call the Midwife is now available for streaming on Netflix.
From ancient Rome to the bustling streets of mid-1800s London, from the intrigue of the Tudor court to the wild adventures of Vikings, historical fiction TV series take us on a captivating journey through time. With gripping storylines, stunning sets, and brilliant performances, these shows transport us to different eras, immersing us in the lives and struggles of characters from the past. Whether you're a history buff or simply looking for an escape into another world, these series offer a mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction. So, grab a seat and let these captivating tales of bygone eras unfold before your eyes, reminding us that while the people and events may be from the past, their stories continue to resonate with us in the present.
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