TELEVISION drama's fascination with the past knows no bounds. On Wednesday, the History Channel launched its lavish new docu-drama series Barbarians Rising, while tonight sees the eagerly-anticipated return to BBC1 of Poldark, with Aidan Turner shirtlessly scything his way through Georgian era England. Poldark, of course, goes head-to-head with Victoria, and stars Jenna Coleman as the flighty young monarch.

Whether it's Versailles, with its stately cast of imperturbable aristos, or the posh porn of Downton Abbey, television's crop of history-based dramas covers a vast time-frame and offers a compelling yield. Here are 12 of the best.


LOTS of critics - and viewers, for that matter - couldn't help watching this on-going History channel drama series in the light of the all-conquering Game of Thrones. Critical opinion was divided: some, while praising its brutally direct way with a story, thought it inferior to GoT but others were a lot more generous. Travis Fimmel played Ragnar Lothbrok, a real historic character who begins as a farmer, goes on to defy his Viking chief (played by Gabriel Byrne), and goes on to plunder early Britain and become king of the Norsemen. One American critic said: "Vikings is a mini-series about a band of professional pillagers with a disregard for human life and a relentless focus on gratifying material desires. So it is somewhat surprising that it is also a refreshing study in restraint."


The much-praised 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's novels, about the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius was hailed as a masterclass in great drama at the time. It had a great cast, too: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Stewart. Prof Mary Beard, the renowned classicist, still speaks highly of it, saying: "If I watched it now I might think differently. I’m sure the scenery would wobble a bit. I can vividly remember when the emperor Augustus died and the camera stayed on his face for what seemed like an age. It was such a striking moment. I shouldn’t say this, but it might be the only show where the TV version is better than the original novel."


Be warned: Michael Bay, director of Pearl Harbour and Transformers, is one of the executive producer behind this pirate extravaganza for America's Starz network. A prequel to Treasure Island, it has a fine eye for period detail and far from romanticising pirates asks why they do the piratical and nasty things they do. Toby Stephens, who plays the much-feared Captain Flint, says: “We’ve never seen this side of pirates before. We’ve only ever seen the slightly comic-book version. There is nothing glamorous about piracy. It’s grim. They don’t want to be like that. They do it because they’ve got no other way out.”


AS Orson Welles's Harry Lime says in The Third Man: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed ..." Much of this has been reflected in the various TV series made about them, including a lavish 10-part BBC series that aired in 1981, and this Neil Jordan-created series that began in 2011 on the Showtime channel, with Jeremy Irons as the charismatic Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI. The Borgias, said Irons, "were the most powerful, bloodthirsty, immoral bunch that you could wish for." Sounds great TV - so, it's a bit of a shame they cancelled the show before the end, then, eh?


QUIETLY magnificent adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novels about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. It felt, looked and sounded right: the candle-lit interiors, the costumes, the dialogue, the characters' interplay. Anne Boleyn's as-bleak-as-you-would-expect execution scene in the final episode lives in the memory. Claire Foy as Anne, Damian Lewis as Henry, Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey - and, above all, playing Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who rose to become Henry's trusted advisor, Mark Rylance; you finally saw what theatre critics had long been saying, that Rylance is, quite simply, the best actor of his generation.


FOR an alternative realisation of Henry VIII, turn to this lavishly-made historical drama (though some critics noted its lapses in historical accuracy). Jonathan Rhys Meyers played the monarch, alongside a cast that includes Natalie Dormer, Jeremy Northam and Peter O'Toole. Rhys Meyers, ever candid, admitted: “I signed on for The Tudors thinking it was only going to be one season. I didn’t want it to be four seasons. I was slightly horrified. By season three or four, I wasn’t happy doing it. Psychologically, I had to be 6ft 3in and I’m only 5ft 10in – and Henry’s size was a huge element of him.” Nonetheless, the series remains a firm favourite with many fans.


"LA plus ludicrous show dans l'histoire de TV," was a not-very-admiring headline recently, above a review of this British-Franco-Canadian series. This sumptuous period drama focused on the decadent early reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Cue lots of courtly intrigue, cross-dressing princes and ratings-grabbing sex scenes. Some suspected a sensationalising of history, but Antonia Fraser, respected author of a book on life at Versailles, says it's all true: sex, royalty, mistresses, intrigue, illegitimate children, happy marriages of state and unhappy marriages of state, "all centring round this extraordinary man, Louis XIV."


"IT is safe to say," one critic wrote earlier this year, "that this is the greatest TV costume drama of the past decade and has raised the bar in a genre for which we are already renowned all over the world." Andrew Davies made a dazzling success of his adaptation of Tolstoy's masterpiece, and said it was his best adaptation yet. A great cast included James Norton and Lily James, and there was a stunning, feature-length finale, too.


ROBIN Ellis, who played Ross Poldark in the BBC's original 1970s outing, remembers taking his shirt off only once during filming. "The next day," he recalled, "I took my washing into the launderette and the woman who did service washes wagged her finger at me and said, 'Big mistake.' So I never took it off again." Changed days. The topless scything scene in series one that featured the present-day Poldark, charismatic Aidan Turner, seared itself onto the nation's collective retina, set Twitter aflame and made him heart-throb du jour. Season two begins tonight, with Turner and his wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) not finding things very easy going down Cornwall way.


A HUGE hit right from the moment its first episode aired six years ago, Julian Fellowes's ITV drama chronicled the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants. It went on to attract a vast audience when it was screened in the States and was also a smash in Russia and the Middle East. A notable cast included Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and Dame Maggie Smith as the effortlessly waspish Dowager Countess of Grantham. Its final episode was watched by 6.6 million viewers, beating EastEnders in the Christmas Day TV ratings battle last year. Others detested it as ludicrous fawning class-obsessed nonsense.


GROWN, if slightly fey, young men with teddy bears? Indeed. This languid but hugely popular 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, with Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), a Second World War army officer looking back on his Oxford friendship with the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and his time at Brideshead Castle, where he is now stationed. The notable cast also included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Claire Bloom. To Anthony Burgess, it was "the best piece of television ever made."


RIVETING HBO drama set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, with Steve Buscemi going feral as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a powerful political figure. Lots of brutal violence, of course, but there was also plenty of bittersweet moments as well. Kelly Macdonald played Buscemi's wife. "Boardwalk Empire may not have gained the popular acclaim of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos," one critic said, "but it is one of the most exceptional, multi-layered television dramas of the past 25 years."

To the lost, as fans of the show would say.