History podcasts are, in general, far superior to their technology counterparts in that they usually consist of more than a glorified phone call between a couple of dudes about their new phones. I’m sure there are some history podcasts like this, but I haven’t listened to them and won’t be talking about them here. History podcasts tend to be better prepared, better researched, and more tightly focused on topic. If you like history, I highly recommend giving podcasts a try. Here are my top four, with the caveat that this is not an exhaustive list. There are certainly some great history podcasts that I haven’t heard yet because I haven’t had the time. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @don_macdonald with your suggestions.
The History of Rome
Mike Duncan’s History of Rome is where you should start. Kind of the gold standard for history podcasts, Duncan’s History of Rome blends rigorous attention to detail with a garrulous and engaging speaking style and a wry sense of humor that doesn’t grate. The first 5-10 episodes are a bit rough around the edges as Duncan finds his voice and upgrades his audio equipment, but he very quickly does so, and by the time of the Latin Wars, the History of Rome is going full speed.
Duncan does a great job of putting historical details into context, making sure the listener doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture while at the same time not glossing over historical detail and texture. I truly admire his keen editorial sense of which names and dates can be omitted in the name of clarity. He’s a gifted raconteur and this doesn’t hurt his cause either. If there is any criticism I can make, it’s a mild one: I wish he had spent more time on the early history of Rome. But honestly, I can’t fault him too much for this; the historical record is sparse and as I mentioned, he was still just finding his feet.
Duncan keeps his podcasts short, well organized, and information rich. It’s a good sign when you find yourself wishing the episode were longer rather than praying for the sweet release of death that the two-hour phone call format can produce. For this reason, his podcasts are great for binge listening. I listened to all 179 episodes of The History of Rome in a three month period without ever getting sick of it, which is incredibly remarkable when you think about it. Sadly, The History of Rome is completed, but do not despair too much, for next you can move on to
After finishing The History of Rome, Duncan took a break and then dove into a new podcast called Revolutions. Unlike the earlier podcast, Revolutions does not focus on an individual state or era, but as the name suggests covers various revolutions through history. The podcast is divided into chapters, each about 50 episodes long, covering a different historical revolution. He begins with the English Civil War, then moves on to the American Revolution, then the French Revolution. All of my praise of Duncan’s ability to present rigorous research in an engaging style is in full effect here.
I especially loved the English Civil War episodes, because it’s an area of history I’m not very familiar with. My areas of expertise are the Renaissance and the History of Art in general, so Duncan’s tour through the 17th century Civil War was new and fresh to me. He also deserves plaudits for making some sense of the French Revolution (well, as much as is possible). I’m eagerly looking forward to the Haitian Revolution, which is next up.
History of English Podcast
Kevin Stroud’s History of English podcast takes the listener from the Eurasian steppes and Proto-Indo-European right up to The Norman Conquest (where we are as of this writing) with attention to detail and gives the listener an excellent sense of larger historical trends. It’s a great companion to The History of Rome because it covers a lot of subject matter that is out of scope for that podcast, like the details of pre-and post-Roman Britain and the prehistoric Indo-European migrations. Stroud’s work on the migrations and his analysis of Proto-Indo-European is spectacular. I cannot overstate how awesome the early episodes of this podcast are. Stroud gets into details of individual words in the language, how they changed in the Latin, Greek, Celtic, and Germanic branches while never losing sight of why this is important for the understanding of English.
Stroud’s podcast is well-researched, concise, and bursting with information. That said, the History of English Podcast is not ideal for binge-listening (this may actually not be a criticism). I find that there’s so much to digest with each episode that I’ll need a break because my brain is full.
The British History Podcast
Jamie Jeffords covers similar territory in his British History Podcast, although in greater detail. The podcast begins around 50 BCE and the Roman invasions and is (understandably) less concerned with prehistory. The greater detail can sometimes come at the cost of concision and focus, and I often get the sense that the podcast would benefit from stricter editing. Jeffords has an informal, gather-around-the-fire speaking style which is engaging, but his dad jokes and puns frequently elicit audible groans from me as I listen in the car. That said, dad jokes are a matter of taste, and Jeffords’ research is unimpeachable. What I find cringeworthy, might have you laughing.
Jeffords also seeks out subject matter experts to interview in the podcast, which I think is wonderful and I wish more people would do it. When covering Anglo-Saxon history, he interviews the archaeologists and curators of the Staffordshire Hoard and the Sutton Hoo burial. It’s a wealth of information from the very people working on these Anglo-Saxon treasures, and Jeffords does a great job bringing it to us.
I know Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is hugely popular, but I didn’t include it here because I haven’t had a chance to properly evaluate it. I listened to part of one episode, found it to be bombastic and overdramatized, and didn’t listen further. But that’s not really giving it a fair shake. I may return to it, we’ll see, but I’m hoping this post will elicit some more suggestions from Machiavelli readers that I hadn’t considered yet. Cheers!