Following the surprisingly successful translation of Shakespeare's history plays into the fifteen-part miniseries An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960), producer-director Peter Dews attempted a similar feat with the three major Roman tragedies. Accordingly, the nine-part The Spread of the Eagle (BBC, 1963) presented Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in order of real-life historical events, staged on what by early 1960s BBC standards was a huge budget.
Each 50-minute episode granted a total running time of two-and-a-half hours per play, allowing more of the text to be presented than was the case with An Age of Kings. However, there were fewer opportunities for continuity: while the history plays span less than a century, the Roman plays cover five, with no overlap at all between Coriolanus and the rest. Designer Clifford Hatts compensated to some extent through imaginative visual links - for instance, Rome's great Forum is under construction during Coriolanus, but completed by the time the action of Julius Caesar gets underway.
In contrast to the more intimate approach favoured by later projects such as the BBC Television Shakespeare, Dews here attempted a genuine sense of scale, seeking to stress what he identified as the common theme of "the belief in Rome as an ideal, greater than its upholders or detractors". The series title was taken not from Shakespeare but as a general reference to the eagle that symbolised the Roman empire. In designing the look of the series, Hatts was asked to stress the monumental - in Dews' words, "to show great men in great places". Or indeed great women, as Cleopatra's monument in the final episode is one of Hatts' most eye-catching achievements, both inside and out.
As before, the casting offset star roles against a core company of actors playing multiple parts. Of the leads, Robert Hardy, Mary Morris, Frank Pettingell and David William had appeared in the earlier series, and were joined by Peter Cushing, Roland Culver, Beatrix Lehmann, Barry Jones, Paul Eddington and Keith Michell, whose Mark Antony occupies the lion's share of screen time. His doomed romance with Cleopatra (Morris) is given added resonance by the fact that we have already been shown his glory days in earlier episodes, and can better appreciate just how far he has fallen - the kind of intertextual linkage that made An Age of Kings so compelling, but which was unavoidably harder to achieve this time round.