February in podcasts

This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show).  There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book.  Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times.  I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.

Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects.  In fact he tweeted this the other day;

The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.

He does seem to manage the time better nowadays.  When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series.  Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes.  It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary.  Some introductions add a nice personal touch too.  The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.

The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish.  There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy.  Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show.  It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it).  I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).

Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas.  I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven.  The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good).  I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison.  The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative.  I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.


The Storm Before The Storm by Mike Duncan

34184069Mike Duncan is known, among people who follow such a thing, as a history podcaster.  He paved the way for the now ubiquitous “History of …” style with his History of Rome, before moving onto covering Revolutions (so far: the English Civil War, the American, a variety of French, Haiti and South American independence). He has a dry wit and interests in politics that allow him to take the most detailed of topics, and explain them through modern analogies, jokes and good old fashioned story telling.  The Storm Before The Storm is his first outing as an author.

In it he returns to ground he covered back in the History of Rome – the downfall of the Roman Republic. But unlike other books he steers clear of Pompey, Julius Caesar or Octavian. For Duncan, it’s the earlier stages that bear more attention.  TSBTS deals with the Italian struggle for citizenship, the reformist Gracchi brothers, and ultimately the struggle for supremacy between Marius and Sulla.

This isn’t obscure by any means, but in most tellings it is left as an introduction or a few short chapters before the main story arc begins. (One of my favourite books is Rubicon by Tom Holland.  In that he get through the same period in the first 20% of the book)  But Duncan explains how the damage to the political structure was dealt in this period, with increasing deviation from the traditions and conventions (mos maiorum) that held the Republic together.  By the time Sulla is putting up proscription lists of enemies for execution, the whole thing is doomed.

Duncan’s story telling is as good as ever and re-centring the story around convention and the Italians does add something, even for readers already familiar with the story.  Even so, there is a part in between the Gracchi and the Social War where the names keep coming and going too quick to follow and the book (briefly) becomes a little dry.  The fast pace stops this becoming an issue however.  I’d definitely recommend it.  Maybe not over Rubicon as a first introduction, but it’s in the same league.  It’s less personality focus, but it may give a better picture of how the system of the Republic collapsed.

Campaigns of Alexander

As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently.  Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up.  It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history.  It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.

I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source.   Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome.  As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).

There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour.  Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.

What else is there to add?  The story of Alexander is a classic.  There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures.  In either form, it’s very enjoyable.


A History of the World in 100 Objects

I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum.  Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity.  I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.

The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast.  The book has a very “podcast” feel to it.  Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work.  The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected.  There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.

While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure.  They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another).  There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality.  Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.

One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives.  He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles.  The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this.  And I am very much looking forward to doing so!


Post 63: History of Rome/Revolutions Fundraiser

With the ease that the internet allows, many people who run blogs or podcasts (even very good ones) will be amateurs making the most of their spare time. However, time can be limited and running things can cost money – so podcasts will sometimes consider ways to raise funds. Some of these methods work better than others, but there’s plenty of room for inventiveness.

Some like the History of Byzantium podcast may sell occasional special episodes. Others like Hardcore History may sell large parts of their back catalogue (at a fairly decent price too, given the length – they’re worth checking out). Many like David Crowther’s History of England podcast, may just have an option for donations. Peter Adamson at the History of Philosophy gets a grant. And some like The History of Iran podcast are even funded via Kickstarter.

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Post 60: Emperors of Rome podcast

LogoAfter Mike Duncan’s superb History of Rome, do we really need another podcast about Romans?  Obviously more than a few people think so, by the way that this series, by La Trobe University in Australia has rocketed up the iTunes charts. In fairness, the show itself has a different format and tone – it’s much more biographical in focus and is presented as an interview between the host, Matt Smith, and a lecturer at the university, Dr Rhiannon Evans. Pieces of the interviews are then put together to tell the story and discuss any interesting points that crop up.

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Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2

Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.

The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.

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Post 51: Myths and History of Ancient Greece

My last attempt to familiarize myself with Greek myths didn’t go too well. Robert Grave’s book on the topic was written in a rather affected style and contained interpretations and footnotes that could best be described as a bit mental. After a bit of a break, I recently made a new attempt with Paul Vincent’s Myths and History of Greece and Rome podcast.

It’s not a bad idea for a topic, and I can picture a series that works to tell the stories dramatically while dropping out now and then to explain them. How should we interpret these myths? How do they relate to other aspects of ancient Greek culture? How did they change over time? What impact have they had since? It would be fascinating to hear answers to these, preferably while staying well away from Robert Grave’s mushroom hallucination trip. It was disappointing then to find this series a bit ‘no thrills’.

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Post 45: The Egyptian History Podcast

This is yet another in the History of X mould – the name happens to be flipped around to Egyptian History, so I guess its already breaking that formula, but how will it stand up against its predecessors? On first glance things look good – the presenter Dominic Perry is actually a graduate student in Egyptian history. As much as I love David Crowther’s ‘man in a shed’ amateurism on History of England podcast, Egyptian history is an area with so many conspiracy theories, myths and general nonsense that it is reassuring to have someone who can give a modern academic view. It’s also great to have someone with access to and experience of materials and locations that wouldn’t be possible for the amateur podcaster.

I should say at this point that I’ve struggled with Egyptian history in the past. Even recently, I attempted to read Toby Wilkinson’s epic history of Egypt but balked halfway through in the face of incomprehensible names and a seemingly never ending succession of kings that we know little about. That’s the potential problem with such a show, the kingdoms of Egypt lasted for so long and the culture changed so much over that time – pacing things correctly can be difficult.

Previously I was barely able to get a handle on things before a new king or god or style of temple would pop up and blow everything out of the water. With this said, it is very much to Dominic Perry’s credit that he has managed to bring me along with him. The show does move quickly, but things are well placed with a special focus on new concepts as they arrive. This is balanced well, with episodes often split between a narrative and another topic (for example, women or the economy).

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Post 39: How Jamaica Conquered The World

On first sight, How Jamaica Conquered The World did not sound particularly promising. No offence to Jamaica, but I’d never had any real interest in their history. It’s to podcaster Roifield Brown’s credit then that he has managed to make such a fascinating and unique podcast that it can win over skeptics like me.

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