At my former day job in Iowa, I had the opportunity to listen to a great deal of audio while I was working. Consequently, I discovered some really fascinating podcasts on a wide variety of subjects.
As a writer, I particularly enjoy history podcasts. Not only do they give me lots of interesting story ideas, but they help to expand my mind and give me some useful perspectives on where we came from and how we arrived at where we are in the modern world today. Before I started listening, there were a lot of dark areas in my understanding of world history. Now, much less so.
I tried out a wide variety of history podcasts, some good, some acceptable, and a few that were less than useful. Of all the podcasts I tried out, here are the five best.
History of Rome by Mike Duncan
Of all the history podcasts out there, Mike Duncan sets the standard with History of Rome. Short and concise, yet full of fascinating insights and connections, this podcast opened my eyes to Roman history and lightened what was previously a very dark section of my understanding of the world.
Where other podcasts lose sight of the forest for the trees, History of Rome never does. And where other podcasts advance a single narrative without exploring alternate explanations of events, History of Rome retains enough curiosity for this never to be a problem. Indeed, for major events like the crisis of the third century or the migration period, Mike Duncan explores multiple causative events, both proximate and ultimate. He’s not just presenting somebody else’s version of history: he examines original sources and comes to his own conclusions.
Histoy of Rome was what got me into history podcasts in the first place. It’s also what opened my eyes to things like monetary systems and the rise of serfdom. There was a hole in my understanding of the world, and History of Rome not only filled it, it gave me a bridge to knowledge I wasn’t aware I didn’t possess. Definitely recommended.
History of Byzantium by Robin Pierson
When the History of Rome ended with the fall of the western Roman Empire, Robin Pierson didn’t want it to end. So he started a podcast of his own, about the eastern Roman Empire from the reign of Zeno in the fifth century to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The result is The History of Byzantium.
This podcast is very much a continuation of the History of Rome. It’s a little more difficult to follow, mostly because Byzantine history is so… well, Byzantine. However, Robin does a good job tying it all together and making it comprehensible. He also interviews a number of historians and other subject experts, which can be very interesting.
I never realized how pivotal and important the eastern Roman Empire was. From Justinian and Theodora to the apocalyptic wars with the Muslims that stopped them from overrunning Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, the history of Byzantium is absolutely fascinating. Well worth a listen.
Revolutions by Mike Duncan
After finishing the History of Rome, Mike Duncan started a new history podcast called Revolutions. This podcast explores the major political revolutions of the modern era, starting with the English civil war and ultimately leading to… well, we don’t know yet! Once again, this was a relatively dark area in my understanding of the world that Mike Duncan quite effectively illuminated.
It’s been particularly interesting to see how all of these revolutions are connected. The English civil war in many ways laid the groundwork for the political philosophy of classical liberalism, which led to the American Revolution. In turn, the American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which triggered the Haitian Revolution (the only successful slave revolt in history), which spilled over into South American with Simon Bolivar. The failures of the French Revolution led to Napoleon, the restoration of the Bourbons, and the backlash of Metternich and European conservatism. This led to the tensions which exploded in the revolutions of 1848, whose failures led to the rise of socialism and communism.
Revolutions has shaped up to be just as good as History of Rome, if not better. Definitely worth subscribing.
Western Civ by Adam Walsh
The scope of Western Civ is a lot broader than the other podcasts I’ve listed, and that’s part of what I like about it. Instead of diving into the minutiae, it gives a very good sweeping overview of civilization, starting with the prehistoric fertile crescent and ultimately leading to… well, so far we’re at the high middle ages, but I get the sense that we’re ultimately headed for the modern day.
Adam Walsh also does a lot of readings from stuff like Homer, Cicero, Beowulf, and Norse mythology. It can be really interesting to hear the original documents in translation, especially after getting a context for them. It’s clear from his reading that he’s got a passion for this stuff, which bleeds over into the whole production.
For a broad overview of Western history, both to get a sense where your blind spots are and to put everything else into context, Western Civ is probably the best history podcast I’ve found for that.
History of English by Kevin Stroud
Years ago, in college, I took an ELANG class for my English minor and found it absolutely fascinating. The History of English Podcast combines all the best parts of that linguistics class with the history of the people who spoke it. Starting with the Indo-Europeans and what archaeologists have managed to piece together about them, Kevin traces the origins of just about every aspect of the English language.
In particular, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the Anglo-Saxons and the language they spoke. Kings and Earls, pagans and Christians, far-reaching marriage alliances and invasions from the Vikings and the French. I never considered how the English language itself is a historical artifact, but it really is. As a writer, I find this particularly fascinating.
The History of English Podcast goes really in-depth about things like the Norman conquest and the English monarchy, but it’s never too dry or difficult to follow. Also, each episode is packed with some really fascinating insights into our everyday language. Definitely worth subscribing, especially if you like to write.