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The Podcaster Who (Single-handledly) Made Me Love History

The Podcaster Who (Single-handledly) Made Me Love History

This is an instalment of Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com.

My law-school years were humbling ones. I’d been admitted to a highly touted American program based pretty much entirely on my ability to ace standardized tests. This skill didn’t signify any actual knowledge, however. And once on campus, I found myself surrounded by people who were much smarter and more accomplished.

But one positive thing about being the runt of the intellectual litter is that you learn to jump higher for scraps—and the experience set me on an intellectual-improvement kick that persists to this day.

Coming into law school, my own background was in engineering, while most of my classmates were products of elite programs in history, political science, and philosophy. As such, they tended to casually throw around adjectives such as “Rawlsian” and “Hegelian.” I had no idea who Rawls or Hegel were, let alone read any of their works. And I knew that I’d continue to feel dumb unless I brought myself up to speed quick.

At the time, I was spending many of my weekends on the road, going back and forth between campus and my home in Montreal. It was a six-hour drive, which turned out to be the right amount of time for educational books on tape about all the famous thinkers and important ideas I’d missed out on in college. (This was the pre-MP3 era, when these things were, quite literally, cardboard boxes full of cassettes). Amazingly, the scheme actually worked. By the time my second year started, I was able to at least follow along when some classmate went off about how Rawlsian everything was. Sometimes, I’d even be able to offer a Hegelian counterpoint.

After I graduated, I continued inhaling audiobooks, even as many people I knew were switching over to podcasts. But most of the popular podcasts recommended to me were chatty talk shows, or digests of news that I preferred to get from newspapers. And while I have nothing against Sam Harris or Joe Rogan, I feel like the culture wars loom large enough in my professional life without broadcasting them over my ear buds or car speakers. What I was craving, I realize in hindsight, was a podcaster who engaged me on a deep intellectual level, while never making me feel like I was still at work. And his name turned out to be Mike Duncan.

Mike Duncan, photographed in 2013

Duncan has created two podcasts; The History of Rome, which ran for 192 episodes between 2007 and 2013, and Revolutions, which now sits at 289 episodes and counting. While I’ve occasionally cited his work in passing, I’ve never dedicated an entire article to Duncan because I worried it would come out as glorified fan mail. But the time now feels right. Thanks to the COVID pandemic, podcasts are enjoying a surge in popularity (a phenomenon we’ve observed firsthand as producers of our own Quillette podcast). And with more free time to spare, many of us are embarking on long-delayed self-improvement projects—such as, say, teaching ourselves about the roots of western civilization.

A huge part of Duncan’s appeal is his humble, layman’s approach. While he’s been reading about ancient history his entire life (even tearing through Gibbon’s History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire as a young child), he was never a professional academic, and (from what I can tell) has no substantive knowledge of Latin, Greek, or, indeed, any language except English. The Seattle native began narrating The History of Rome as a hobby while he was a fishmonger, and it didn’t occur to him that this could be a full-time job until he was deep into History of Rome.

Even after becoming an award winning big shot in nerd-podcast culture (and a published author), he’s continued to radiate humility, candidly admitting to mistakes he’d made in previous podcast episodes (confusing composite bows and compound bows in one infamous case involving his discussion of the Huns, for instance). While he treats the grand arc of history with the sense of respect and awe it deserves, Duncan also will lapse into casual modern idioms and pop-culture references when highlighting bizarre or hilarious events.

In his treatment of the Roman military genius Aurelian, for instance, Duncan went on an extended (and persuasive) riff about how the great emperor’s run of victories between 270 and 275 AD was analogous to pitcher Sandy Koufax’s insane MVP run from 1962 to 1966. Duncan’s treatment of Spartacus is marked by shoutouts to Kirk Douglas. In discussing the stereotype of the “evil Roman stepmother,” he critiques the BBC’s I, Claudius and its lurid depiction of Livia Drusilla. When he can’t pronounce a name properly—Klemens von Metternich, for instance, or the French commune of Nîmes—he confesses as much with disarming frankness.

Overall, The History of Rome delivers exactly what the title promises—a linear narrative that begins with the mythology of Romulus and Remus, and ends with the Western empire’s last pitiful gasps in the late fifth century. (Duncan’s decision to not continue on into the subsequent millennium of eastern Roman history disappointed fans, though in my case it led me to Lars Brownworth’s excellent podcast, 12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of The Byzantine Empir‪e, as a means to fill the gap.)

Revolutions, on the other hand, presents a series of distinct historical arcs examining, in turn, the revolutions of England, the United States, France, Haiti, Latin America, and western and central Europe. At first, I was skeptical that it could ever match the majesty of The History of Rome. But it’s just as good—maybe even better. And the pandemic has given me time to joyously binge-listen to Revolutions in a way that I could never do with its Roman-themed predecessor.

The guiding conceit in both podcasts, consistently sustained, is that we’re all learning this stuff together. This approach is more than just a gee-shucks shtick: Because Duncan is literally new to much of the material he’s presenting—often cramming in his research just days before recording his podcasts—you never feel like he has any kind of ideological agenda. Unlike a “real” academic historian, who’s risen through the ranks on the strength of a PhD thesis that staked out a particular interpretation of history, Duncan has no grand theory into which he has to mould his material.

Yes, he will often point out common themes and undercurrents—noting, for instance, that Rome’s survival in its late imperial period often was owed to the infusion of multicultural leadership talent from Spain (Trajan, Hadrian), the Balkans (Diocletian, Constantine), and Germany (Stilicho). But these are typically offered as asides, not narrative centrepieces that overshadow the actual facts.

Even the final History of Rome episode, which offered thoughts on “why the western empire fell when it did,” presents as more of a collection of historical theses than any kind of definitive grand explanation. Nor does he have any particular ax to grind in regard to modern politics. The genius of Duncan’s podcasts isn’t just what he puts into them, but what he keeps out.

The History of Rome was literally a life-changing podcast for me. By providing me with a foundational understanding of this singularly important civilization, it gave me an intellectual framework for understanding a wide range of historically-themed books, documentaries, and even board games that I once would have found inaccessible or obscure. It felt empowering—much like those books on tape I’d listened to way back in the 1990s to catch up on the great philosophers. For the first time in my life, I found myself truly excited about the grand sweep of history.

Revolutions took this passion to a new level. Because the Mike Duncan who taught me about Rome is the same Mike Duncan who, years later, would be guiding his listeners through the great liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, he’s able to draw on a rich archive of past-recounted personalities and anecdotes to bring these more modern historical narratives to life. His discussion of the early foibles of Napoleon III, for instance, reminds us of Caesar landing flat on his face while stepping off a boat during his African campaign in 47 BC, not to mention the (many) humiliations of Simón Bolívar that preceded the liberation of South America.

Napoleon III portrait, 1855

I have listened to The History of Rome twice—and plan to do so at least once more. And I listened to the 55-episode Revolutions arc on the French revolution (which I consider Peak Duncan) three times. All in all, I’ve calculated, I’ve spent about 350 hours of my life listening to Mike Duncan’s voice—which probably tallies up to about three million words, the equivalent of about 30 books read aloud. While I’m not even finished with Revolutions (it’s 1848 in my timeline, and the future Napoleon III is still just some self-important clown with a famous uncle), I’m hoping that, once this podcast runs its course, Duncan will go back to where he left Italy at the end of The History of Rome, and fill in the 12-century stretch of history that separates Odoacer’s conquest from the downfall of Charles I.

And since Duncan excels at vast, longitudinal narratives based around a single theme and a sequentially defined set of dramatis personae, the idea I’d suggest is the history of the western Europe refracted through the long line of popes (and antipopes) that led the Catholic church. Certainly, there’d be more than enough overlap with material that Duncan has already presented in detail—including the Arian controversy (which he covered in surprising detail during his lengthy treatment of the Constantinian period), the rise of Enlightenment thought before the French Revolution, and of course the physical setting of Rome itself—to ensure that listeners feel they’re still inhabiting the same Duncanian time-space historical continuum.

Excited? Then dive right in with episode one of The History of Rome. It won’t cost you a thing (though Duncan does rely financially, to some extent, on voluntary contributions from his fans). Many years from now, you just may remember this as one of the most consequential decisions you made during this modern incarnation of the Antonine Plague.

 

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He tweets @jonkay. Writers interested in contributing to our occasional series Simple Pleasures may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com.

Featured image: Roman fresco discovered in Herculaneum, Italy.