I have, over the last five or six years, spent a tremendous amount of time listening to podcasts. Many hundreds of hours. I like to be entertained while I’m cooking, driving, rowing, skiing… if I can listen to a story while I’m doing it, I’m doing that. Sometimes, I’m listening to hockey podcasts (M v W, anyone?) or nerdy, statistically-obsessed podcasts (Fivethirtyeight Politics, I’m looking at you – and Planet Money, too). When I have wanted to find a podcast on a topic in which I’m interested, I have often done web searches in search of what other people recommend. This post is like that, and is focused entirely on history podcasts. So here’s a list, in no particular order, of ten great history podcasts. Some are deep and dry, while others are shallow and… on to the list!
The Fall of Rome (Patrick Wyman)
On behalf of history podcast lovers everywhere, I extend my hand in welcome to the new kid on the block. The Fall of Rome is a well-planned, well-informed take on the fall of the Western Empire – the last two hundred years or so, and finishing up sometime in the 6th century. I have listened to the first five or so episodes, and I’m really impressed with Patrick’s unique perspective: a smart fellow with a lot of books in his library can make a horrid storyteller, but he’s certainly not that. A Ph.D. who can speak practical English, Patrick Wyman knows his stuff and is interesting simultaneously. Want to know more about the gothic invasion (if it was an invasion) of Roman territory in the fourth and fifth centuries? Patrick explains what it might have looked like from the perspective of a single Goth, an amalgam of researched and inferred history reified and brought down to earth. Whereas guys like Duncan and Carlin are great at the big-picture storytelling based on thoroughly ancient sources, Patrick illuminates the big picture by getting down to the nitty gritty for what it may have been like for individuals involved in the events of the era – and it’s informed by current work in the field. His work is surely worth checking out; I have high hopes for the rest of the series. He’s got 14 episodes out to date, and he seems to put out about two per month.
Spycast (International Spy Museum – Peter Earnest and guests)
You might be surprised to find this on my list of ten history podcasts, but I’d be remiss to leave it out – though it does occupy a peculiar niche in the world of history podcasts. Peter Earnest introduces us to his friends in the world of espionage, with a heavy emphasis on past events (the present ones are still classified). Interested in spy disguises, rescuing hostages, or how what we see in the movies relates to (or inspires) actual spy craft? This is a great podcast for you. It’s never heavy in terms of content, and the episodes come in bite-sized chunks. Give it a whirl. I’ve listened to about 20 of the episodes so far, starting at the beginning, and I’m entertained.
The History of Rome (Mike Duncan)
This is where the flames of my obsession with history were sparked, and I’ve been through the series four or five times now, from episode one and the founding of Rome to episode 179 and the abdication of Romulus Augustulus. Mike gets (so) much better as he goes along, and he really hits his stride with the Punic Wars as well as the life and times of Julius Caesar. (Forgive his sound quality in the first ten or so episodes – he was just figuring things out as he went along, and the level of production quality increases dramatically after these first fledgling attempts at podcasting technicalities.) His storytelling is insightful, his wit is dry and witty, and his sources are ancient as they come. A non-expert turned expert, Mike seems the picture of a calculating obsessive with a knack for great storytelling. His delivery is professional and tuned, (though I cringe at every vague or improper pronoun), and his editing/production is notably better than most of the others in this bunch (again, after those first few episodes). Listen to all of the episodes, which are about a half-hour long apiece, and listen to them all two times.
Life of Caesar (Cameron Reilly and Ray Harris)
For those of you who find the other podcasts on this list to be too stuffy, and for those who love jokes about the male anatomy, frequent F-bombs, and for folks who don’t mind a little self-parody and political banter, these guys are for you. Their delivery is unprofessional in tone (and this is not an insult) but is thoroughly entertaining and informative. They read the ancient sources and give us the highlights, connecting the dots as they understand them. They’re worth a listen. I have listened straight through all of their episodes about Julius Caesar and many about Caesar Augustus. They lost me, however, on the pay-to-listen episodes on Alexander and the Cold War (despite my love for the latter topic, I just can’t summon the will to fork over money to non-experts so long as my reading eyes and insightful brain work as well as they do right now and so long as so much free (support these shows’ sponsors!) infotainment is out there for the scooping).
10 American Presidents (Roifield Brown and guests)
This is an interesting one, and though its appearance on my updated-podcasts list have dropped from “infrequent” to “never,” every episode Roifield has posted has been fascinating and of surprisingly high production value. What has stood out for me have been the drop-ins of sounds such as genuine KDKA Radio recordings from 1930s election results, selections of speeches from the Nixon era, and dramatic readings of older primary sources (if memory serves me rightly, it’s been a while). The show is mostly what it sounds like – it covers American Presidents and does so biographically and politically as well as in great detail. There have been a few spin-off episodes on other topics (the 1964 election has been my favorite spinoff episode so far – go George Romney!). The episodes are extremely long, and if you don’t like stopping stories in their middles, then make sure you save these for long car trips. High production value maintains across 12 episodes, and the first two feature two other favorites, Dan Carlin and Mike Duncan. Have a listen!
Hardcore History (Dan Carlin)
Wow. Somehow spanning enough topics and episodes that I’m regularly learning about ones I hadn’t even known about is an epic collection of massive episodes and mini-series that everyone probably already knows well. Dan does a tremendous amount of research in all of the right places (or, I imagine, his research assistant does) and reads widely before putting out meticulously-produced mega-episodes. His one-off shows (favorite: the anabaptist takeover of a small town in Germany during the Lutheran revolutions or the “American Peril” episode about growing U.S. power and gunboat diplomacy (though it didn’t get into filibustering, my favorite topic related to shows of American power)). The World War I series of episodes is mind-bogglingly disturbing and enthralling. Listen to Hardcore History now.
The Ancient World (Scott Chesworth)
I listened to perhaps a dozen of these before moving on when Revolutions was first released, and if you want to know more about how Babylon was replaced by Assyria, or if you are interested in the ancient Minoans, this podcast is for you. Yes, it’s dry. It’s informative. I like it.
Revolutions (Mike Duncan)
Thank goodness Mike Duncan decided to return to podcasting after an absence of a few years following the completion of HoR, and he has returned with great successes tracking the histories of the English Revolution (I skipped it), the American Revolution (not a ton new info, but a great telling of a classic tale), the French Revolution (50+ episodes, makes the potentially incomprehensible comprehensible), the Haitian Revolution (the only successful slave revolt in history), the revolt of Mexico and the Central American states against Spain (Simon Bolivar, right? I didn’t listen all the way through yet), and – most recently – the Restoration in France. I’m so excited for this that I will save up a few episodes or a group of them at a time so that I can have ten or twelve hours to listen to straight through. I took his French Revolution on the road with me to Europe in 2015 and listened to the first forty or so episodes repeatedly. If Mike ever starts a touring company in Europe, I want to be on his staff (you hear me, Mike?).
12 Byzantine Rulers (Lars Brownworth) and the History of Byzantium (Robin Pierson)
Okay, so I’m not so well up-to-date or informed about the style of these two, but I’d be remiss to leave them off the list. 12 Byzantine Rulers is the predecessor of History of Rome, and History of Byzantium is its descendent (as cited specifically by Robin Pierson – and including a nifty interview with Mike Duncan on the occasion of its 100th episode). If you haven’t listened to either, give them both a listen. And the latter podcast continues onward, with new episodes appearing every week on my podcatching app.
(I’m counting these two as taking up one spot – mostly because I only want to have ten items on my list of ten.)
Lectures in History (CSPAN)
Looking for a show that’s more academic? CSPAN takes those recorded-for-tv history lectures on all topics and from universities across the country of which we’re all so fond (right?) and makes them available in podcast form. I recommend them heartily.
So, you can probably tell at this point that I have some favorites and some fallbacks, but these preferences are just that – preferences based on my own taste. All of these shows are truly excellent, and I’m sure you have your own favorites. What do you think? Am I missing a podcast I need to hear? Which is / are your favorite(s)?