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The Value of History Podcasts: An Interview with Historian and Podcaster Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan is both a podcaster and a New York Time best-selling author. His podcasts include the award-winning “The History of Rome” and “Revolutions”, while his written works are The History of Rome: The Republic and The Storm Before the Storm.

What sparked your interest in history, both Ancient Roman and in general?

I have always been interested in history. It goes all the way back to childhood. I can't point to anyone thing that sparked my interest. It's just always been there. It's in my blood. I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun and the old civilizations were especially fascinating: The Romans, Greeks, Mayans, Egyptians, or Incas. They were like aliens from a whole different world. And I’m as fascinated by them today as I was when I was a kid. 

What inspired you to create the award-winning History of Rome podcast?

It was combination of two things. First, I personally discovered podcasts back in 2006. I was inspired by all the shows I was listening to back then, but particularly by Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast. It was simple, informative, and readily available at the click of a button. It made me say to myself, “I would like to make something like that.” At the same time, I had gotten really into reading the ancient historians like Plutarch, Livy, and Polybius. The stories I was reading were fantastic, but they were locked up in very dry texts that most people never read. So I sat down one day and decided to start a podcast where I take all of this wonderful information that is buried in those ancient histories and repurpose them to tell a complete narrative history of the Roman Empire from beginning to end. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

What do you think makes podcasts effective in getting people interested in and learning about history?

Mostly it’s a matter of accessibility. You can listen to a podcast while you're stuck in traffic, on the subway, doing chores, or exercising. Podcasts fit into the times in our daily lives where we would dearly love our brains to be be engaged with something far more interesting than whatever mechanical chore we’re doing. Then of course there is the magical fact that we all have smart phones now podcasts are ready and waiting to be listened to all the time. There's no barrier. If you see something that interests you, you can just subscribe and listen. And let’s face it, it can be hard for people to carve out time to read a stack of books about history. This is modern life. Podcasts are easy, free, and fit into our lives. 

With new technology and new mediums of communication, how do you think the field of history Is best suited to adapt to changing times?

History is always going to be well-suited to any new media come along. Great history has been produced for every major advancement in media and communication. From cave paintings, to ancient scrolls, to handwritten books, to modern mass-produced books, radio, television, feature film, and now to all forms of digital media, YouTube videos and, of course, audio podcasts. Whatever the next thing is that comes along—neural interface plug-ins or Holodeck style virtual reality or whatever—there will be a place for history.  Someone will always say: how can I use this to teach history? Someone else will say: how can I use this to learn history? So wherever we’re headed history will always thrive.

What lessons did you learn from the History of Rome that have helped you with your Revolutions podcast?

It was mostly just a matter of being able to start fresh with all tricks and tools and methods that I fumbled my way to acquire in the early days of The History of Rome. My narration was stronger and more confident. The writing was better. The research methods were better. Revolutions was launched from a foundation of five years worth of trial and error from doing the History of Rome. But also, I just wanted to keep doing what worked in The History of Rome: Don’t worry about frills and gimmicks, produce an episode once a week, put it out on time, and then keep doing that forever. It worked then. It still works now.  

You have also written two books on Ancient Rome. How different was the process for writing your books from creating your podcasts?

There were a couple of big differences. With the podcast, I am writing and publishing a discrete chapter each week. It is not a system that leaves much room for going back and revising earlier work in light of things I say later on. So a great thing about writing the book was when I finished the manuscript, I could go back and revise earlier sections. To make better connections and introduce ideas or characters at times that fit more naturally. There was more opportunity to make specific changes after reflecting on the totality of the work. The other big difference is that when I write for the show I know I will be personally narrating this material. So if a particular sentence is convoluted or confusing, I’ll be able to read it to the audience so it makes sense. But with the book, I had to rely on the words themselves to do that work without me—to carry the story forward without me. So I was much more careful and precise about the language, so the reader never drifted away from confusion or boredom. 

What books are you currently reading?

Not counting books I’m reading for either Citizen Lafayette or the Revolution podcast, I’m currently reading Population Wars by Greg Graffin. It’s a reflective book about geography, evolutionary biology, human culture and how populations interact with each other. I have learned a lot about the geological layers under the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Also how plumbing works. 

What is your favorite story, anecdote, or lesson from your studies of history?

When we study the English Revolution it is clear King Charles I got his head chopped off because he was too inflexible and uncompromising. So we take a lesson from that: don’t be so hard. Be willing to negotiate. But then we get to the French Revolution and it’s clear King Louis XVI got his head chopped off because he was too flexible and compromising. He had no backbone. He was too easily swayed. He kept changing his mind and giving mixed signals. So we take the opposite lesson: Don’t be so soft. Don’t just back down all the time. The point being…there is no monolithic LESSON OF HISTORY. History has a million different lessons to teach us and they are often contradictory. It is never going to be 100% clear which lesson we should be learning. We just have to do our best. 

We understand you are writing a new book on the Marquis de Lafayette. What else is on the horizon for you?

Citizen Lafayette will come out in the summer of 2021 and that will coincide with the end of the Revolutions podcast. I have at least a dozen ideas for what I might do next, but I’m not going to reveal them here because I don’t want to lock myself into anything or set expectations for a project that doesn’t pan out. I’ll keep telling everyone about the past, but I’ll let my future remain a mysterious mystery.

Lastly, do you have any advice for historians interested in starting a podcast? 

I think you should do it. That is my advice. If you are passionate and knowledgeable about a subject, please share that knowledge and passion with us. Bear in mind that nobody will listen to you for at least a year, but if you work hard and do a good job, your audience will find you. And we will all be better off with your voice in the mix.