The Podcasts of Mike Duncan — Not Just for Dads on Road Trips

Fair warning, I’m a bit of a geek. I read biographies and think the linguistic idiosyncrasies of languages I don’t even speak are awesome. Last week, I started listening to Mike Duncan’s latest project — the history of the French Revolution — and I simply couldn't stop.

So far, the French Revolution totals about 15 hours of audio, broken up into 30-minute episodes — at the rate I listened, it took me about four days to catch up. The American and British revolutions are a bit shorter, but both still run past tenhours of audio.

What really makes the series unique is Duncan’s incredible storytelling ability — it is completely unlike reading a textbook for 15 hours. Duncan has done all the research for you, boiled the stories down to their essential elements, and presented them as a dense, witty, and very human narrative.

In 2007, Mike Duncan began a very ambitious podcasting project — he checked out some books, some historiographies, and set to work telling the whole history of Rome, from kingdom to empire, as a single contiguous narrative. When he started, it was a hobby. The audio quality was terrible — a loud static buzzing persists for so long that you start to tune it out — but Duncan’s story is nothing short of consuming. All told, the History of Rome is 179 episodes long — more than 60 hours. Seven years later, the History of Rome’s creator has become a much better capitalist — he has taken on sponsors, started selling merchandise (sporadically), and has organized multiple tours, on which fans of the podcast travel with Duncan through the ruins of the forges which once hammered out the finer points of Western society.

The really compelling aspect of these stories — the reason I listened to them 4+ hours a day without even realizing it — is the way that Duncan teaches his listeners to see history as character-driven. Textbooks and lectures in school often treat events and people separately — names and faces are attached at the beginning or the end of a story. It happened, and that’s how. Too frequently, history seems simply to justify itself — we assume that because something happened, that was the only way it could have gone. By drawing from very personal sources — correspondence between imperators, the accounts of private citizens — and by giving details about the great Classical historians themselves — which ones specialized in gossip, which ones sterilized events, and which ones hated their subjects enough to deliberately muddy their legacies — Duncan’s histories show just how often chance and choice shaped the modern world.

The experience of listening to Revolutions on the bike ride to class is like reading a chapter of a very compelling novel in which the narrator keeps passing from one character the next as each one gets their head chopped off. Great Republican leaders engage in petty competition for control of short-lived legislative committees, Catholic Bishops gamble and whore their way through pre-revolutionary Paris, and Maximilien Robespierre goes from arguing for the proscription of capital punishment to be enshrined in the Constitution of 1791 to leading the infamous Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of terror just four years later. It’s crazier than fiction.

Here’s The History of Rome, and here is Revolutions. If you’re using an IPhone then they are both available for download, both for free.