Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast. The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.
Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half century or so before the Second World War. It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority. The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.
Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup). The focus is, as ever, diplomatic. There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy. As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages. Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.
I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go. I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).
Mike Duncan of Revolutions Podcast is doing another fundraiser (possibly more of a downsizing, as he moves house). As ever, I’m interested in the books he’s selling – largely to add to my own reading list, so I’ve reproduced them below. Check out his podcasts if somehow you haven’t, and if you are familiar with them, check out the extra episodes and some good t-shirts (I do like his “Livia did it” one).
- Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
- On Revolution – Hannah Arendt
- The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
- Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
- Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
- Essential Rousseau – JJ Rousseau
- Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
- Beyond Good And Evil – Nietzsche
- Thus Sprach Zarathustra – Nietzsche
- Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche
- Autobiography – John Stuart Mill
- On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
- Utilitarianism – Mill and Bentham
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
- Political Essays – David Hume
- Cambridge Companion to David Hume
- Surveys From Exile – Karl Marx
- Common Sense and Rights of Man – Thomas Paine
- Guerrilla Warface – Che Guevara
The English Civil War
- The Causes of the English Revolution – Lawrence Stone
- The Causes of the English Civil War – Conrad Russell
- Britain in Revolution – Austin Woolrych
- The Crisis of Parliaments – Conrad Russell
- History of the Great Rebellion – Earl of Clarendon
- Revolution, Riot and Rebellion – David Underdown
- The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill
- The Century of Revolution – Christopher Hill
The American Revolution
- Rules of Civility – George Washington
- Washington – Ron Chernow
- A Defence of the Constitutions – John Adams
- The Federalist Papers
- The Americans – Daniel Boorstein
- American Scripture – Paulin Maier
- Paul Revere’s Ride – David Hackett Fischer
- The Birth of the Republic – Edmund Morgan
- The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – Bernard Bailyn
- Radicalism of the American Revolution – Gordon Wood
- The Unknown American Revolution – Gary Nash
- Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution – Arthur Schlesinger
- American Slavery, American Freedom – Edmund Morgan
- The Glorious Cause – Robert Middlekauff
The French Revolution
- Massacre at the Champs de Mars – David Andress
- Talleyrand – Duff Cooper
- The Longman Companion – Colin Jones
- The Peasantry in the French Revolution – PM Jones
- Twelve Who Ruled – RR Palmer
- The Sans-culottes – Albert Soboul
- The French Revolution and Human Rights – Lynn Hunt
- Becoming a Revolutionary – Timothy Tackett
- Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
- The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars – TCW Blanning
- Interpreting the French Revolution – Francois Furet
- The Coming of the French Revolution – Georges Lefebvre
- The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution – Alfred Cobban
- The King’s Trial – David Jordan
The Haitian Revolution
- Toussaint L’Ouverture – Jean-Bertrand Aristide
- The Haitian Revolution – David Geggus
- Slave Revolution in the Caribbean – Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus
- Haiti – Laurent Dubois
- Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue – John Garrigus
- You Are All Free – Jeremy Popkin
- Confronting Black Jacobins – Gerald Horne
- The Making of Haiti – Carolyn Fick
- Facing Racial Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon – Philippe Girard
- A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- Bolivar – Marie Arana
- The Spanish-American Revolutions – John Lynch
- Francisco de Miranda – Karen Racine
- For Glory and Bolivar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Saenz – Pamela Murray
- Simon Bolivar – John Lynch
- Writings of Simon Bolivar
- Bolivar – JL Salcedo-Bastardo
- The United States and the Independence of Latin America – Arthur Whitaker
- The General in His Labyrinth – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Jose Antonia Paez – RB Cunninghame Graham
- Scipio Aemillianus – AE Astin
- The Civil War – Caesar
There’s also a baseball section, but I think that’s beyond my interests.
A long time ago, I posted on David Crowther’s History of England podcast. Since then Crowther has went from strength to strength, with at least another hundred episodes and two more centuries. He has also explored ways of expanding the podcast – with a patreon platform and additional members podcasts – though I think he does still record in his shed. I faded out of listening to it a year ago, as he reached the Tudors (a topic that has never really been close to my heart).
I’ve picked it up again in the last month or two and actually quite enjoyed the topic. Although Crowther still loved to quote from the Ladybird Book of kings and queens, Sellar and Yeatman, and Winston Churchill (though the latter mostly just to wheel out an impression), he really seems to have dug into the historiography on the Tudors. His coverage of Henry VII finds a surprisingly light and positive tone, different to many popular histories, and his coverage of Henry VIII finds him exploring academic opinion over time. It’s detailed without getting bogged down – very well done.
Tacking a different tack on the subject, I recently re-read John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes. A quadruple biography of Henry VIII, Charles V, Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent. Norwich is as opinionated as ever – writing offhand comments on topics that Crowther agonised over for episodes – but he is still a very entertaining writer. There may not really be much new material there, even the focus on the relationships between the princes and their effect on foreign policy, but the inclusion of Suleiman is a good touch. Norwich does show how the Ottomans could drive the politics of Europe that the other three fought to rule, and it feels good to have them in their proper place in a history of Europe.
In my last post, I said I had been listening to two new podcasts this month. The first was Slow Burn by Slate. The second is a show called The Fall of Rome by a podcaster called Patrick Wyman – who went into sports journalism after finishing a history PhD, but still provides a state of the art view of the end of the Western Roman empire (whatever form that may take). I’ve read plenty on Rome, what makes this different?
Well, Wyman is able to approach the topic on multiple levels, from multiple angles: not just the political fall of the empire and its military causes that went along with it, but the economic and social processes that went along with it. He’s well versed in the unresolved debates and discussions that go along with the topic – were the barbarians ethnically unified peoples or mixed bands of soldiers under particular leaders; what exactly did it mean when these armies settled? Going higher, what do we even mean by the Fall of Rome? Wyman’s own PhD topic was to show a decline in transport and communication, by showing a decline in the frequency of letters that would have been sent via travellers. And that is the level of detail that he can delve into. His grasp of the material feels reassuringly secure, but he’s open about having own take on some of the topic’s controversies.
He does make these ideas accessible through fictional biographies of invented characters – describing how these processes and changes would have appeared to those who were living through them. Some of these changes would have been gradual, but others (Britain in particular) had a short, sharp decline. I’ve tried reading various views on this area of Late Antiquity – Peter Heather, Chris Wickham, Bryan Ward-Perkins – but seeing the ideas compared and contrasted directly, Wyman presents a very plausible story. In podcasts, Mike Duncan is still probably the best narrative start to this topic but Patrick Wyman is definitely essential for anyone who wants a more detailed analytical approach to the end of Rome.
This month, I have been mostly listening to two new podcasts for me. The first of these is Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate.com exploring aspects of the Watergate scandal. There’s an open political agenda here – comparing the slow drip of sleazy stories from the Nixon White House to the abundance of stories coming from the Trump administration. There’s nothing killer, no knockout against Trump (yet); but maybe this is what a scandal unfolding looks like.
In the days immediately after the Watergate break in, there were bizarre and disturbing stories in the news, with Martha Mitchell the wife of the Attorney General being tranquillised and imprisoned by hired goons; cheques from the break in being linked with republican donations. Then came investigations, some stymied by Nixon. Then the oval office tapes became known. The information is interesting, and not necessarily in the main narrative of Watergate as it is told. Sometimes it would be nicer to have the main narrative before spinning off on a tangent, but it should be a fresh take for even those familiar with the story.
Direct comparisons to the events surrounding Trump are made, and the many figures in the current Republican party are involved enough to not come across well. It does steer clear of commenting too deeply however – largely limiting its analysis to presenting both governments as having a similar tendency towards chaos and sleaze. We can’t say that Trump is going to end like Nixon, but if he was this is probably what it would look like from the sidelines.
Season two will be on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Not as interesting a topic for me, but Leon Neyfakh did delve into some of the unfounded conspiracy theories (mostly by Mae Brussell) on Nixon – so I have no doubt that he can do similar for Clinton. The podcast is smooth and professionally produced, and I’m definitely happy to get more of it.
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.
Mike 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.
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.
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!
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.
Continue reading Post 63: History of Rome/Revolutions Fundraiser