Post 20: History of Byzantium Podcast

The History of Byzantium podcast by Robin Pierson is another series in the “History of X” mould that follows the style of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome. Even more than that, it is intended as an unofficial follow up to that series which ended at the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It therefore aims to tell the story of the Eastern Roman Empire from where that left off in 476 A.D to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D (though it is currently paused at 620, so there’s still quite some way to go). A continuation to cover this was much requested from Mike Duncan towards the end of his series, not just for the sake of some more episodes but also because Byzantine history can be pretty awesome in its own right, so it was great to see someone step up to fill in that gap. It’s not an easy task either, the culture, politics, religion and challenges of the Empire are obviously different to those of the old unified Roman empire and will change considerably over the next thousand years. Juggling these different aspects and painting a detailed picture of the world they combine in is essential.

I’m not going to go into the topic too much, but historically the Byzantine Empire has often been neglected. As one Victorian historian, William Lecky, said:

“Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet “mean” may be so emphatically applied…The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.”

Maybe that was disliked in the 19th century, but nowadays that sounds like a particular top rated TV show (no wonder Pierson has interests there too) and definitely the sort of thing that you lot in the public are into. There’s even more to it than that though. The story of Justinian is as good as any Roman emperor (even the big hitters like Augustus or Constantine). The culture and art while the west fell into chaos was much more than the static museum-like curation that it’s sometimes portrayed as. The religious debates and troubles over the nature of God are lively and engaging. I’ve already wrote a post on their interactions with Venice. This is a vibrant civilization that did so much more than just ‘endure’ for a thousand years. It’s so much more than a postscript to Rome.

Robin is apparently already a podcast veteran with experience recording for his TV review website, the TV Critic. I’ve not listened to that much but, from what I have, his style there is less scripted and includes discussions with co-presenter – more like a radio show. This series has a style closer to Mike Duncan’s – relaxed and confident with a dry wit, though perhaps slightly less upbeat (and definitely more English) than Duncan. It takes a few episodes for the style to be nailed down, but that’s not unusual and RP does manage to make the series feel like his own thing rather than a substitute for another podcast. Both of Pierson’s series are very professionally delivered and put together, and one has to appreciate the ability to vary his style between series.

The series generally runs chronologically with the story delivered in half hour chunks, but we do get summary episodes at the end of each century and occasional special features on big events – Justinian’s plague and an upcoming episode of Heracleus. In the standard episodes, we get carefully laid out stories that work to introduce relevant characters and concepts so that the story follows smoothly. The pacing is particularly good – it doesn’t repeat itself or get bogged down in detail, but there’s a lot of depth and colour to the episodes. It may be slightly less light-hearted than History of England or Mike Duncan, but it’s far from dry and the extra depth and detail that abounds more than makes up for that. It’s difficult to pick out any one exceptional aspect, it’s just a very well balanced show.

JustinianThe summary episodes show off that love of detail and colour brilliantly. Over a number of episodes, we’re taken on a trip around the Empire, around the neighbouring regions and the city of Constantinople itself; looking at what has changed, what is important, and really just how the whole thing fits together. These summaries may not have been necessary (or even that useful) where ancient Rome was concerned, but in the rapidly changing world where the Byzantine Empire sits they are both fascinating and essential. But that’s not all for the non-narrative episodes, we’ve had ones on “What is a Byzantine?”, the continued trend of the empire towards Christianity, the army and the Strategikon, and just mixed bags of listener’s questions. This interaction with the listener is a great touch, it gives time for detailed answers and discussions of topics that might not otherwise sit comfortably into an episode. I had previously praised David Crowther use of such cultural/socio-economic episodes on the History of England podcast, but I think Robin Pierson takes the prize on this one. There is clearly a huge amount of research involved, with the plague there was plenty of hard biological and medical information alongside the social and political effects.

The use of the website is also great, with maps, documents, art and a bibliography to provide more colour and a launching off point for anyone looking to find out more. I really, really like the bibliography, in which RP has taken the time to write short summaries of the books and graded them according to their level or who might be interested: “For beginners”, “For very interested listeners” etc.. It again shows the wonderful attention to detail and consideration for the audience that exist in this podcast.

I usually try to add in some downsides or criticisms of the podcast for balance, but really there is not much here for me to pick out. The posting schedule can be somewhat erratic, but it’s somewhat understandable with the quality of the podcast and the level of research that has to be carried out alongside another podcast and a job. At the time of writing there has been a few months since the last post, which is mildly disappointing, but it promises to be a Dan Carlin length epic on Heracleus (so long that it required some technical fiddling and re-hosting of the website to accomodate it) so it should be worth the wait. It’s also worth noting that this podcast does do fundraising episodes, which require listeners to pay for them. Some people may balk at this, but really it’s a few pound for a show that provides hours and hours of listening for free.

I wholeheartedly recommend this podcast, it’s definitely one of my favourites. It’s very well crafted and produced, and shines a spotlight on an often underrated period of history. It’s particularly useful for anyone who is looking for somewhere to go after Mike Duncan’s History of Rome or anyone wanting more detail after Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Emperors; but it works equally as well standing alone, for whatever level of previous historical knowledge you may have. Check it out if you haven’t already!

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