Exciting history podcasts. That’s right. I used those three words in one sentence without a hint of sarcasm or satire. They’re few and far between, but they do exist and holy smokes will they surprise you and revolutionize how you understand world history and the destinations you’re visiting.
Unless you were a history major (and even then), chances are good that you haven’t done a deep dive into a specific region or civilization’s history since you were a kid. The history you got as a kid was useful, but also likely full of holes and deeply biased. Upon landing in a new city, it’s common to do a very shallow and cursory dive into the city/country/region’s history but that rarely goes beyond “This wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD.” Who was Hadrian? Where does he fit in the greater Roman history? Why was he building a wall? Who the hell knows. For most of us those are the mysteries that are lost to time – both in the sense that even if we did know the answers we likely forgot them, and if we didn’t …. well, time is precious and even those of us with a desire to read historical texts like Meditations or in-depth period histories rarely find (or make) the time for them.
Another favorite example of this is the observation/quote that has been floating around recently and which points out that Cleopatra lived closer to you and I today than she did to the construction of the pyramids. Continuing in the Roman vein another I’ve always found interesting is just how much the year 0 has warped our perception of time. Many of us perceive Caesar as the mastermind behind the birth of the Roman Empire. The truth of it is that Rome had already risen to amazing heights and gone into a period of decline before Caesar was the smallest blip on the radar. Similarly, I find many of us view modern civilization as “starting” at year 0. We know, of course, that the Greeks and other great empires pre-dated year 0…but our minds encourage a sort of cognitive dissonance, which makes it hard to fathom the level of art, culture, architectural complexity, and grand nature of the civilizations that existed hundreds (and even thousands) of years before “0”.
This not only has implications for how we understand a location’s role in history, it also has a huge impact on understanding why some regions or destinations that don’t seem overly powerful or influential in the modern global landscape are amazing destinations with spectacular things to offer. For me, Istanbul stands out as a prime example of this. I always knew it was at the intersection of east and west and that it had played a noteworthy role in history, but I was still shocked upon arrival at all the city had to offer from both a grand architectural standpoint and a rich cultural perspective. In many ways, I found it every bit as impressive as Rome, and in many others I found it even more impressive. Why? The history makes it clear. It was the seat of the Roman Empire for centuries before later serving as home to the Ottoman Empire. Similar things can be said for other destinations like Budapest and Prague.
Sold yet? Still skeptical? Try these two podcasts. If you’re heading to Europe, you’ll find they vastly enrich your experience and understanding of the destination you’re visiting. If you’re heading somewhere else, you’ll still get an updated understanding of the world and human history. I consider myself a fairly diligent student of history and these podcasts still managed to completely upend my understanding of global geopolitics, history, and human behavior.
So, put Serial on pause and check out out these suggestions. Even if you’re not a regular podcast consumer, consider trying to listen during your daily commute or down time. If you’ve got more than 15 minutes in your day where you’re in transit or waiting for someone/something – save a podcast on your phone or computer and give it a listen.
A History of Rome by Mike Duncan
This stunning podcast starts with pre-Roman Rome. The vast majority of the podcast centers around Rome and the Roman Empire before the year 400 AD with a large chunk focusing on the period before year 0. As I mentioned earlier in the article, this gives you a much more authentic and much richer look at Roman history. It delves into amazing civilizations like the Etruscans (lightly), Ostrogoths (Modern France) and Visigoths (Modern Germans), is very easy to listen to, and does a fantastic job attempting to maintain and convey historical context. It is a wonderful blend of civic history, events, cultural reflection, and military history which is not only fascinating in preparation for a trip to Europe (and Italy in particular) but also for understanding the early days of the Abrahamic faiths and modern western cultural ideals (eg: Marriage existing between one man and one woman). Make sure you start at the very beginning and take these in chronological order.
Hardcore History by Dan Carlin
While Dan isn’t as unbiased or well researched as Mike, he still does an incredible job. I’d suggest skipping his one-off podcasts in favor of his multi-part mini-series. He is very easy to listen to, engaging, and brings the history to life in a fast-moving fashion that leaves you feeling like you’re reading a good book. On multiple occasions I’d be listening during my commute, only to arrive home, sit down in bed and continue listening for an extra 30 minutes because I was so engaged. At first he can sound a smudge like a blowhard, but within the first 30 minutes of listening you’ll acclimate to his style and he will win you over.
I strongly suggest starting with his Wrath of the Khans mini-series. It fundamentally changed my understanding of European history and how and why Asia and the Middle East ended up in the state they’re currently in. It is also one of the best illustrations of the West’s favorable re-write of history I’ve seen. He puts the Mongol invasion in a historical context that is fascinating to consider and which will leave you absolutely stunned.
His series on World War I is also incredibly informative and utterly heart breaking. There were periods where I had to pause the podcast because the content was so deeply disturbing and tragic that I found myself needing time to pause and digest what I had heard. By that same stroke, he also does a spectacular job differentiating the Germans and the German mentality leading up to WWI and in WWI from the Nazi’s and WWII. A differentiation and distinction which I think is very blurry or non-existent for many of us. It also helped me better understand and contextualize modern global conflicts and European history.
The previous two are the podcasts I’ve found so far that were easy to listen to, historically valid, and enjoyable. I’m currently on the search for a good podcast that covers Persia as well as podcasts covering India and China/Asia – if you know of any, please share your favorites!
While these haven’t sucked me in and captivated me like the two podcasts mentioned above, they are quite popular and worth checking out once you’ve worked through Carlin and Duncan’s stuff.
The BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects – Provides an interesting way of delving into history. It’s much lighter than the podcasts mentioned above, but is cool for some general knowledge. It shouldn’t be your starting point as there is no greater/overall story being told, but it can fill downtime nicely.
Stuff You Missed In History Class – I made it through a few episodes, but I find the production value too low and the women behind this podcast to be profoundly obnoxious. I also felt like it didn’t go into depth or provide proper context. It’s fairly popular but I suggest avoiding this one.
Revolutions by Mike Duncan – This is his sequel to A History of Rome and covers a more modern cross-section of history. The podcasts are equally well done and the history is very well researched and conveyed. However, I’ve found the content itself appealed to me much less and it has failed to hook me in the same way A History of Rome did. I think it may be as much my personal preference of time periods as anything. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you want a taste of more modern shifts in power over the last 600 years.
The History of Byzantium – This is a splinter project inspired by A History of Rome and created by a fan in a similar style. I’ve only started listening recently and while it is decent, it falls a bit short of Mike’s engaging and compelling narrative style and historical neutrality and edges a bit more towards the traditional overly bland history book feel. Still, I dabble in an episode or two here and there and I am finding it interesting and useful.
Have your own suggestions or experience with historical podcasts enriching your travel experience? Do let me know in a comment. I’d love to hear more!
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