Aug 29, 2023
During this content drought, get lost in these epic historical fiction and fantasy series!
So, who’s feeling the effects of this continuing writers’ strike and subsequent content drought? Because I know it’s not just me. When the line was drawn in the sand in Hollywood months ago, I held out hope that studios would do the right thing; good thing I’m not holding my breath. Summer is a time of year when we are usually inundated with new streaming content, but this season offered slim pickins. If you find yourself flying through your queue content, now looking for something to get into while you await the next big series release, you’re in luck. Here are some of my favorite historical fiction and fantasy series sure to keep you entertained, worth a really good binge.
Created by: Barbara Eder, Stefan Ruzowitzky, Steve Saint Leger, & Lennart Ruff
Where to binge it: Netflix
Barbarians is a high budget German historical war drama that dropped on Netfix in 2020 right when we were all confined to our homes during COVID. That’s probably the reason this series soared in popularity: Everyone was home to see it. If you’ve yet to indulge, now’s your chance.
Barbarians tells the story of what happened during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Germania—namely the resulting rebellion of the Germanic tribes during the Battle of Teutoburg Forest around 9 A.D. The Battle of Teutoburg was pivotal during this time because it was under the cover of darkness when an alliance of Germanic tribes targeted their oppressors. The result? Destruction of three Roman legions. Boom.
Barbarians tells the story of three friends whose fates are intertwined in fighting for their freedom and dealing with the drama of love, loyalty, and betrayal. Barbarians is full of action, heavy on the bloodshed, and loaded with high production value, solid acting, and some pretty sweet camera work and effects. Currently there are two seasons around the Battle of Teutoburg, and while it’s yet to be announced, it’s assumed that season three will focus on the aftermath of conflict. Bring it on, Netflix!
Created by: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth, James Richardson, & Terry Cafolla
Where to binge it: Prime Video, MGM+, Fubo, Sky & Now, Apple TV
Swords, sorcery, swears, and sassiness … and Romans and Druids—that’s the good time Britannia presents to us all wrapped up in a nice little bow. The series landed on Prime Video in 2018 then was picked up by EPIX in 2020 for Seasons 2 and 3. Sadly, and disappointingly, EPIX scrapped Season 4 (booo), a decision that left all of us fans on the edge of our seats craving closure to this fantastic drama series. They blamed it on COVID.
Set during the primitive and mystical times of 43 A.D., Britannia follows the Roman army in their quest to conquer Britain after Caesar’s failed attempt 90 years prior. This mystical land, as we learn right off the bat, is home to some pretty tough, wild, and mouthy female warriors and powerful Druids, who have the unique ability to channel the mysterious forces of the Underworld. Britannia is an enthralling tale of extreme power struggles and clashing cultures in a gripping narrative that breathes life into this robust selection of characters, each with their own abilities, motives, and loyalties.
Britannia stars Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone) as a powerful Celtic warrior and David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as Roman General Aulus Plautius, who went on to become the first governor of this newly conquered land. It also stars MacKenzie Crook, whom you may best remember as the dude who kept losing his eyeball in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. While both Reilly and Morrissey richly embody the characters they portray, Crook is the one who steals the spotlight in every single episode he appears.
Britannia focuses on Rome’s effort to crush the Celtic tribes, who just so happen to be divided and at war amongst themselves. At the same time, it also follows a great prophecy that exists and rolls off tongues from tribe to tribe: A “Chosen One” will save her war-torn land from the Romans. However, that prophecy falls into jeopardy with the arrival of “The Dead Man” (also played by Crook), which sets into motion a battle amongst the Druids, risking their demise.
Britannia attracted a multitude of critical acclaim for its vivid portrayal of Rome’s invasion of Britain. It is one hell of a bloody, brooding series with an excellent plot, fascinating narratives, gorgeous visuals, even better plot twists, impeccable battle sequences, and a healthy mix of history and fantasy, not to mention superb acting, tribal tattoos, and costumes.
Britannia is fun, active, engaging, and highly entertaining as opposed to historically accurate, and it promises a thrilling escape into a fantastical world where magic, swearing, brutality, levity, and a taste of the ancient past collide.
Created by: Chris Chibnall & Michael Hirst
Where to binge it: Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV
Camelot’s one and only season saw much success when it debuted in 2011, but scheduling conflicts between cast members prevented a second season … allegedly. Regardless, Camelot is a must-see one-season series, especially for fans of the King Arthur legend. While there are many adaptations, this one is created by screenwriter Michael Hirst, who is responsible for the unforgettable historical series Vikings and The Tudors; he is, in my opinion, the king when it comes to creating the most fantastic and memorable historical drama series. Hirst’s interpretation of the King Arthur legend breathes a very adult twist into the tale with its focus on sibling rivalry, passion, and romance.
After King Uther dies in Camelot, Britain sits in chaos. Merlin (Joseph Fiennes, of The Handmaid’s Tale) begins searching for an heir and winds up finding an impetuous young man named Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower, of Stranger Things). Arthur is Uther’s unknown son who has been raised as a commoner.
Camelot revolves around the intense battle for the throne between Arthur and his evil half-sister, Morgan (Eva Green, of Penny Dreadful), who is determined to fight her brother to the bitter end, even summoning unnatural forces to help her claim the crown. Arthur’s journey to unite a kingdom shredded by war becomes a series of profound moral tests and difficult challenges that make for a riveting watch.
The Last Kingdom
Created by: Nick Murphy
Where to binge it: Netflix
The Last Kingdom is one of my absolute favorite historical fiction series on the planet. It’s a heart-wrenching British television series based on Bernard Cornwell’s novel of the same name. In case you’re unaware, Cornwell is an English-American historical fiction author with the penchant for writing some of the most dramatic, engaging historical tales, besides Philippa Gregory, but her focus is different.
“The Last Kingdom” is the first novel in Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series (2004), which tells the story of how England began under King Alfred the Great. While the series is spectacular, it doesn’t follow Cornwell’s books true to form, so if you’ve read them, don’t get lost in expectations.
The Last Kingdom centers on Uhtred of Bebbanburg (aka Uhtred Uhtredsson and/or Uhtred Ragnarsson), who is played by American Horror Story’s Alexander Dreymon. Born a young Saxon noble, Uhtred is kidnapped by Danish Vikings during an invasion and raised as a Dane in Ragnar Ragnarsson’s kingdom, but it’s not the same Ragnar you’re thinking—different time periods. While in captivity, Uhtred is woven into Danish culture, language, and religion for years before he finds himself in the service of King Alfred of Wessex, played by David Dawson, whom you may remember from Peaky Blinders.
The Last Kingdom delves into the turbulent backdrop of King Alfred’s desire to unite the separate kingdoms while exploring Uhtred’s loyalties between his love for and loyalty to both Saxons and Danes. The series is a whole package replete with an engaging, dynamic storyline and is a must-see for anyone looking to get lost in an epic and thrilling historical drama.
What you can expect: gorgeous cinematography, multi-dimensional characters, exciting battle sequences, and copious amount of blood, brutality, emotion, entertainment, and top-notch storytelling and acting. I do recommend watching with subtitles, though, because it’s often difficult to understand some of the accents. The Last Kingdom ended its five-season run in 2022 and wrapped up Cornwell’s “Saxon Stories” adventure with a movie in Summer 2023, Seven Kings Must Die.
Created by: Jon Iver Helgaker & Jonas Torgersen
Where to binge it: Netflix
Norsemen injects a different, comedic perspective into the Viking saga. This Norwegian series (also filmed in English) will have you laughing your butt off at a group of Vikings living in the village of Norheim. The series follows the life of these villagers and their day-to-day happenings full of strife and shenanigans, silliness and stupidity.
Norsemen is unique and different with awkwardly hilarious moments, making it one of the most watchable and enjoyable medieval shows to dive into, especially now while new content is sparse. It serves up a highly entertaining take on the Viking Age and presents the challenges faced by a small Viking village; it also portrays quite a funny but childish rivalry between the chieftan and his little brother.
In three seasons, we’re taken into silly disputes with neighboring villages, including a rival tribe led by a ruthless Viking and the efforts of a Roman slave to modernize Norheim’s culture, resulting in persistent ongoing conflicts.
One character you’ll fall in love with is the sword-wielding, no-nonsense wife of the chieftan, Hildur. She’s a force to be reckoned with and is the most grounded, level-headed warrior amongst all the Viking men. Norsemen is good for three seasons of hearty laughs and offers a tongue-in-cheek take on the whole Viking craze.
Created by: John Logan
Where to binge it: Showtime, Paramount+, Fubo, Sky
Penny Dreadful (2014) is set in the 19th Century’s dark recesses of Victorian Gothic London. This psychological thriller series masterfully weaves together classic literary figures with a chilling narrative that keeps viewers craving more, exploring specifically the origin stories of Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray.
Season 1 begins in 1891 when avid explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton, of Doom Patrol) and his seductive clairvoyant Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, of Camelot) hire an American gunman and roadshow artist (Josh Hartnett, of Lucky Number Slevin) to help locate and rescue Sir Malcolm’s daughter from a mysterious vampire, among other supernatural forces. They receive help from a young doctor named Victor Frankenstein, who is hunted (and haunted) by an undead man of Frankenstein’s creation, who is masterfully played by Rory Kinnear (No Time to Die, Our Flag Means Death).
Season 2 of Penny Dreadful introduces some wild witchcraft within a coven of witches who answer to Lucifer and are on the hunt to bring Miss Ives to their master. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, of Mr. Mercedes) is forced to make his creature a bride, which is a story and process that clenches at your heart strings as you watch in moments of horror and awe.
And in Season 3, our main characters encounter more supernatural events as they find themselves split up and placed all over the world, but when Count Dracula appears in London, the battle for Vanessa’s soul begins.
With its ensemble cast led by the enigmatic Eva Green, Penny Dreadful delves into the supernatural world, unearthing creatures and legends that lurk in the shadows. It garnered critical acclaim for its superb acting, atmospheric cinematography, and rich storytelling, earning several awards and nominations throughout its three-season run. Effortlessly weaving together psychological drama with visceral horror, Penny Dreadful offers a psychologically immersive experience that lingers long after the credits roll.
Created by: Bruno Heller, William J. MacDonald, & John Milius
Where to binge it: HBO & Max, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, BritBox, Apple TV
If you know who Ray Stevenson (King Arthur, 2004) is, you don’t want to miss out on seeing him in Rome. A furiously crass British historical drama following the turbulent transition of the Roman Republic to an autocratic empire, Rome portrays both the aristocratic viewpoint of Julius Caesar and his allies, as well as the politically naive viewpoint of ordinary Romans like Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, of Grey’s Anatomy) and Titus Pullo (Stevenson). It's a raw account of the lives and deeds of the rich, powerful, and historically significant as they navigate politics, war, and family dynamics in pursuit of a stable Roman Empire.
Rome Season 1 is all about Julius Caesar’s civil war of 49 B.C. against the traditionalist conservative faction in the Roman Senate. It focuses on his rise to dictatorship, followed by his subsequent fail, right on down to his assassination on the Ides of March 44 B.C. We also see the early years of the young Octavian, who is destined to become the first emperor of Rome.
Season 2 is set around the power struggle between Octavian and Mark Antony following Caesar’s assassination and covers the time period from Caesar’s death to Antony and Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 B.C. High production values cancelled Rome’s Season 3, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out.
Rome is an exciting exploration of the complexities of the Roman Empire and its eventual rise to power. Featuring over-the-top production values—especially for 2005—as well as elaborate sets and costumes with intriguing storylines full of explosive drama and action, Rome is certainly one historical series you shouldn’t pass on watching. In addition to Stevenson and McKidd, Rome also features James Purefoy (Pennyworth), Tobias Menzies (Outlander), Polly Walker (Bridgerton), and Indira Varma (Game of Thrones).
Created by: Steven S. DeKnight
Where to binge it: Starz, Roku Channel, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play, Lionsgate+
Spartacus: Blood and Sand was one of the best shows on cable in 2010—historically speaking, at least. The epic series received high acclaim for its extreme production value, mouth-watering narratives, tremendous combat sequences, and its lead actor, Andy Whitfield, who sadly left this physical plane in 2011 when he succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He, indeed, left behind a huge mark on the industry not just for who he was but also for his efforts and success in bringing the character of Spartacus to such radical life.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand tells the story of the Thracian gladiator Spartacus who, from 73 to 71 B.C., led a major slave rebellion against the Roman Republic departing from Capua. When he is torn from his homeland, and thusly separated from his wife, Spartacus is forced into slavery and is condemned to fight in the excessively violent gladiator’s arena in Rome. As he navigates the violent, brutal world, Spartacus comes to realize that not all battles are fought in an arena, as he must overcome lies, treachery, and temptation if he wants to survive.
Executive producers Steven S. DeKnight (Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Robert Tapert (Evil Dead, Evil Dead Rise) focused on structuring the events of Spartacus’ obscure early life leading right up to the beginning of historical records, but after completing Season 1, they chose to delay Season 2 due to Whitfield’s illness.
In the interim, Starz produced a six-episode prequel miniseries entitled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which is one of the best miniseries—let alone prequel miniseries—that exists. It features incredibly visceral gladiator games in a style reminiscent of a Zack Snyder film, and everything about it screams BADASS: characters, attitudes, training, brutality, loyalty, heart, and tolerance.
When Season 2, Spartacus: Vengeance, finally released, actor Liam McIntyre (The Flash TV series) took on the titular role of Spartacus, which ultimately ended with Season 3, Spartacus: War of the Damned.
Spartacus is a seductively thrilling action-drama series rampant with blood, violence, drama, and lots of sex that brings to life the Roman Republic and its depravity. Through Spartacus’ struggle for vengeance, we accompany him on his heroic journey to free himself and his people from slavery.
With epic arena battles, intense gladiator training, political intrigue, excellent effects, and passionate romances, Spartacus is a series that will, no doubt, captivate you from beginning to end. There’s no room for insecurity of any kind in this series, which’ll have you attempting to binge as much of it in one sitting as you can. Spartacus’ gripping story and outstanding performances make it one of the best medieval TV shows ever made.
Created by: Michael Hirst
Where to binge it: Prime Video, Paramount+, Showtime, Fubo, Apple TV, Google Play, Sky
When I discovered The Tudors (2007), I’ll admit I was obsessed. I’ve always loved the tale of Henry VIII, his court politics, his wives, and his crumbling sanity, and this series blew me (and most everyone else who watched it) completely away. Another hit historical series from Michael Hirst, The Tudors is set primarily in 16th-century England at King Henry VIII’s court. The show lured in audiences with its political intrigue, elaborate costumes and sets, intricate storylines, and emotionally charged performances—namely from Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings), who plays King Henry.
The Tudors is an enthralling and dynamic drama that brings to life the power struggles, romances, and political machinations of Henry VIII’s court while exposing us to his passionate, often volatile relationships with his six wives … and his power. It showcases one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, replete with treachery, ambition, lust, and greed. Henry is a shrewd, charming, passionate leader hell-bent on leaving his mark on the world, and we get a front-row seat as he impulsively navigates his way through love, war, and politics in an effort to secure England’s future.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings so much emotional likeness to his character, it’s as though he truly channeled the sovereign while filming The Tudors. We as viewers are but flies on the wall in King Henry’s court watching his sanity unravel woman by woman, wife by wife. He. Is. Divine.
Remember when Heath Ledger took on the role of the Joker and it was said he lived the role as though there were no separation between himself and it? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he was inspired by Rhys Meyers’ stellar portrayal of the legendary King Henry VIII. The Tudors is one series you’ll watch over and over and possibly over again—it’s that good.
Created by: Michael Hirst
Where to binge it: Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+, Peacock, Apple TV, Google Play
Annnnd in yet another slam dunk from screenwriter Michael Hirst, we have Vikings. I feel like it needs no introduction, but just in case, it’s a beast of a historical fiction masterpiece that’s loaded with bad-ass shield maidens, ravenous Viking warriors packed in emotional depth, and raw tribal violence wrapped in near-perfect narratives garnished with drama, suspense, and mythology. Vikings is one of the rarest shows on earth that is never, ever dull and whole-heartedly entertaining in plot, action, cinematography, soundtrack, and acting.
Vikings follows the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok (Traves Fimmel, of Raised by Wolves), who claims to be a direct descendant of the god Odin. He and his band of Norse warriors explore, pillage, and conquer new lands in all their brutal glory. Along the way, we’re introduced to all of Ragnar’s family and descendants, and the paths each of their lives take.
Frustrated by the policies of Earl Haraldson, who only sends raiders to the east to Baltic states and Russia, Ragnar seeks to secure his legacy as a leader of men through epic battles and political alliances by forging west to the new world. On his journey, he must deal with betrayals, unexpected turns of fate, and the growing power of his enemies. His family and allies experience a mix of adventure and tragedy as they struggle to survive in the treacherous world of Dark Age Scandinavia.
Vikings consists of six action-packed seasons chocked full of love, drama, war, brotherhood, community, and brutality and captures the gritty, savage reality of the Viking Age in a captivating and awe-inspiring manner, perfect for a binge-worthy medieval TV show.
And, though it is good but does not live up to its predecessor, you might as well continue the fantasy and follow up with Vikings: Valhalla—it’s the sequel series to Vikings. Created by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), Vikings: Valhalla is set 100 years after Vikings events and chronicles the beginning of the end of the Viking Age. It explores the adventures of Leif Erikson, Freydis (daughter of Erik the Red), Norweigan King Harald Hardrada, and the Norman King William the Conquerer in an action-packed drama that grows on you as it works to present traditional Viking stories with a twist. You can find Vikings: Valhalla streaming on Netflix.
Every one of these series is a must-see worth making time to watch for the first time ever or to revisit for a whole new experience. With each viewing, you’ll fall deeper and deeper into their respective narratives and begin noticing varying degrees of beauty, art, and storytelling in places you didn’t see the first go-round.
If you’re still looking for more historical fiction and fantasy series to binge after these, check out the following: The White Princess and The White Queen (Starz, Prime Video), The Serpent Queen (Starz), Merlin (Peacock, Prime Video, Apple TV), Marco Polo (Netflix), Kingdom (Netflix), Game of Thrones (HBO & Max), House of Dragons (HBO & Max), Outlander (Starz), The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Prime Video), Reign (Prime Video), The Spanish Princess (Starz, Hulu), The Great (Hulu), Pillars of the Earth (Prime Video, Vudu, Roku), Medici (Netflix), The Borgias (Hulu, Disney+ ), and Black Sails (Starz).
Keeley Brooks is a big ole movies, television, and streaming nerd with an uncontrollable urge to write about everything she watches, even if it sucks. Need specific recommendations? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.