Created by Scott Chesworth and hosted at http://ancientworldpodcast.blogspot.co.uk/ and intended as a broad introduction to ancient history, cultures, technologies and achievements – this podcast, beginning in April 2012 and originally running to October 2013*, gave a brief trip through world history from the Elamites and Summerians settling down in 4000 B.C to the Roman Republic around 500 B.C.
And this does mean world history – understandably** most of the focus is on the Middle East and Egypt, but we do get some welcome diversions around the world to the Norte Chico people of Peru, the Shang dynasty in China and even ancient Britain. Along with this broad geographical scope, it also steers clear from being a purely military or political history, and the growth of agriculture (for example) and its role in these civilizations is covered particularly well. These give it a well rounded take on ancient history, which can sometimes have a tendency to focus solely on the military campaigns of the comparatively well documented Mediterranean and Middle East.
In a horribly brief summary of my own: civilizations start off slowly in the first few episodes, with Egypt, Minoan Crete and a succession of eastern empires (Akkadia and Ur chief among them) moving into focus. Then history hits a turbulent period with the ‘sea peoples’, Hyskos and other invaders, and things start to pick up pace. Ten episodes in and we possibly get (for me) the peak of the series with the Neo-Assyrians. These play a heavy role in a good portion of the series and add brilliant figures like Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-Pileser III and Ashurbanipal to a series that is not overly focused on individual characters. Following these, we move on to the Babylonians and a more Mediterranean focus as the Greeks become important. The series ends with Athenian democracy and the first steps of the Roman Republic.
The origins of this podcast have been related by Mike Duncan (of History of Rome fame) in an interview*** – Duncan was thinking of doing a similar show as a follow up to Rome, focusing on the early civilizations that pre-dated Rome, but mentioned this over dinner with Scott Chesworth. Scott went quiet, then admitted to having similar plans. They agreed that Mike Duncan would step back and let him … as long as he didn’t take too long about it.
As this story implies, there is certainly a bit History of Rome influence to the podcast with short episodes and an occasional dry wit. The material does necessitate a slightly different style. Covering such a large range of civilizations and era in such a short space of time, and with periods of history that are lacking in real detail, means that the show is a lot broader. To cover this material in such a limited number of podcasts, speed was always going to be a issue and the narrative does skim through rather quickly in places. Despite this, it does still flow smoothly and Chesworth deserves credit for patching the material together into something coherent. The lack of detail is something that could end up going one of two ways when telling the story – one either has to extrapolate dangerously or else leave some characters feeling a bit flat. The podcaster errs towards the second of these, meaning (along with the speed) that things can feel a little shallow at time (but it’s obviously better than just making up things to fill in the blanks!). In terms of the delivery – it may just be me, but his Californian accent is sometimes a little too relaxed, a little too smooth. The tone is generally good and there are asides, pauses and jokes already to break things up; but a little more change in tone or pace in some places might have been welcome.
Despite those minor flaws, I would rate this podcast very highly. It acts perfectly as a stepping stone for newcomers to get a broad introduction of ancient cultures, then enabling anyone who wants more depth to make a more informed choice on where to go next. Scott also helps with that, and there are book recommendations, references and even notifications of events and exhibitions to follow up. Cramming such a large amount of history into a limited number of podcast is a difficult task and here it is executed well, with a consistent tone, style and pacing that makes this feel like a single connected history – rather than a lot of short segments pasted together. If you love the History of Rome podcast or Lars Brownworth’s work (and there’s many people who do), then I would definitely recommend checking this out as it hits on a similar but distinctive style.
* I have to say that writing these posts does have some advantages. I finished Scott Chesworth’s series about six months ago (around the time that he finished it) and wasn’t really expected anything more to appear. On going back to his website http://ancientworldpodcast.blogspot.co.uk/ for this post, it appears that he is doing a mini podcast series on how the ancient world was rediscovered.
** at least for me – as a European.