By Sam Lieberman
About a month ago I went on a short camping trip with some friends in Vermont. While I could write (and have written) endlessly about the importance of nature for personal wellness and health, that is not the point of this post. Rather, I will be writing about the podcast I listened to on the ride back from the hike. As a history buff and longtime podcast listener, I had been aware of Mike Duncan’s seminal ‘The History of Rome’ since probably 2013, but for whatever reason I never took the ~180 episode plunge. That is, until a friend of mine recommended the show during the small talk one finds themself in after realizing they’ve hiked miles upon miles in the wrong direction.
First, a warning for any prospective listener of THOR (As I will be referring to it in this essay): this is a podcast from 2007 and for the first dozen or so episodes, sounds like it. The show does not begin with the slick high-quality audio production that we are used to in our podcasts. Do not let this fact dissuade you from listening to the show! What unfolds will make a few hours of low-budget microphone recordings worth it. The story of Rome endures not just because of ‘greatness’ or influence, but also because it truly is a story. While there are real and valid critiques of transforming human history, in all its vast complexity, into a narrative experience, Roman history lends itself so well to storytelling. Duncan masterfully weaves together dynastic struggles, military conflict, and socio-cultural shifts into one coherent story which has gripped me for months.
In my thinking there are two central different (but related) reasons for Roman History’s continued relevance. First, all history is ALWAYS relevant. Regardless of time and place, every human life forms a piece of one broader whole: from a 9th century monk in Cambodia to a seamstress in 1840s’ France, every person to walk this planet has led a life of poignance (and in almost every life one can gleam a piece of advice or wisdom). Second, Roman History, especially during the late republican period bears so many similarities to The United States today. In THOR Duncan identifies both of these truths and works them to his (and the listener’s) advantage. In any given episode of the show Duncan will tell a story that you can engage with and relate to -- he presents every emperor, general, and average person more or less the same -- a human with their own story. Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome is a must-listen.