Exploring History: Must-Listen Podcasts for the New Year

Want to start the new year by listening to a history podcast? Here are some suggestions.

Rather than providing links to Spotify or Apple, I’ll just supply the information so that you can find the podcast anywhere you choose; not all of these podcasts are available on every player. My player of choice is Podcast Republic, which I found for free in the Google Play store.

Just as the Beatles weren’t the first rock and roll band, but they did inspire the formation of many other bands, the modern founding father of history podcasts is Mike Duncan, with The History of Rome. The more than 180 episodes start with the founding of Rome and conclude with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Duncan then followed up Revolutions, examining in depth ten influential revolutions: the British Civil Wars of the mid-17th century in 16 episodes, the American Revolution in 15, the French Revolution in 54, the Haitian Revolution in 19, the Bolivarian revolutions of northern South America in 27, the mid-19th century European revolutions in 49 (divided into three separate units), Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in 27, and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 103. (Numbers are based on numbered episodes. Each of these podcasts has several supplemental episodes.)

While keeping up a prodigious output of weekly episodes, Duncan wrote two books. The first is The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, covering 146-78 BC. As Duncan explains, the Roman Republic self-destructed because politicians and their supporters, of diverse ideological views, all started tearing down the unwritten traditions that had made republican self-government possible and had kept political battles within reasonable bounds. While Duncan doesn’t make the point explicitly, the parallels to modern American politics are ominous. Duncan’s other book is Hero of Two Worlds, a biography of the audacious Marquis de Lafayette.

David Crowther’s The History of England is delightfully wry. Beginning with the primordial history after the collapse of Roman rule, the podcast is presently in the middle of the British Civil Wars in 1642. For any history podcast, I recommend starting at the beginning and working your way forward, just like when you discovered the existence of The Gilmore Girls in 2021.

History of the Germans, by Dirk Hoffmann-Becking, is well-named since “Germany” as a political unit long postdates the German people. Beginning in the late Dark Ages, the series has covered the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, the numerous Italian intrigues of HRE emperors trying to maintain their power there, and the rise and fall (ca. 1500) of the merchants’ Hanseatic League, based in Germany’s northern ports. Then, the podcast took a step back in time, to tell the story of Germany’s eastern front—including the wars with the Slavs and the rise of Prussia. At the moment, in episode 131, we are in the mid-13th century.

The Russian Rulers History Podcast, by Mark Schauss, began with Rurik and continued all the way to Putin. That chronology being completed, Schauss now podcasts on special topics from all over Russian history and culture.

Eric Halsey’s The Bulgarian History Podcast may seem obscure to American listeners. The podcast is an excellent starting point for learning Balkan history. Having begun with the long-age invasion of the Bulgar tribe from Central Asia, the series is now up to the Second Balkan War on the eve of World War I, in episode 198. Most listeners will be surprised to learn that there were two Bulgarian Empires, which controlled much of the Balkans, long before the emergence of the modern Bulgarian nation in the late 19th century.

Along the way, Bulgarian History necessarily looks in depth at the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, particularly their policies and wars in the Balkans. You’ll learn about Albania’s greatest national hero, Skanderbeg (1405-68) who successfully led Albanian resistance to the Ottomans for 22 years, until he succumbed to malaria.

A podcast preceding the Mike Duncan era is 12 Byzantine Rulers, by Lars Brownsworth. The 17 episodes are a fine starting point for the basics of Byzantine history.

Brownsworth followed up with Norman Centuries. Educated American listeners will have at least a little familiarity with the Anglo-French Normans who conquered England in 1066. But as Brownsworth describes in 20 episodes, the Normans ranged far and wide, conquering Sicily and Southern Italy, and becoming a major power in the Mediterranean,

The History of Egypt, by Dominic Perry, begins in prehistory and takes the listener through the litany of pharaohs. With over 200 episodes, we’re still not up to 1,000 BC. Perry also provides information about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, to the extent information is available. The podcast is steeped in archeology, and Perry provides many side episodes on interesting archeological sites, the history of Egyptian archeology, and interviews with modern scholars.

The Ancient World, by Scott C., aims to cover a vast array of material. The initial episodes were chronological, and bounced from one location to another. Since then, the podcast has focused on one particular topic, and followed it from start to finish. Currently, the podcast is nearing the end of Carchemish (C Episodes), about the Neo-Hittite kingdoms of Assyria (today, eastern Syria and western Iraq). Other series are Rediscovery (R Episodes), about archeologists and explorers who led the rediscovery of the ancient world; Bloodline (B Episodes), a ten-generation history of the  descendants of Mark Antony and Cleopatra; and Thea (T Episodes), about the Seleucid Empire, a successor state that ruled some of the territory conquered by Alexander the Great.

As the series titles indicate, the main focus of The Ancient World is the Near East, an area about which we have far more surviving written information from ancient times than we do about most other parts of the world.

A common feature of all the above excellent podcasts is that they are mainly apolitical and nondidactic. The podcasters let the events and individuals speak for themselves. This sets them apart from some other history podcasts whose underlying theme is convincing listeners to become leftists.

While the above podcasters sometimes express their own views, the expression is rarely intrusive or designed to make some point about modern politics.