Ra-Tan Lines: History on Fire

“Whether you like history or not, if you care about bravery, wisdom, passion, larger-than-life characters, and some of the most emotionally-intense moments of the human experience, you have come to the right place. Daniele Bolleli is a university history professor, writer, and martial artist, and he shall be your your guide in a journey to the place where history and epic collide.”

Much like Daniele Bolleli’s “History on Fire” podcast, this article will squander that incredible, if wordy, opening. In the case of this article, the introductory paragraph is already clearly devoid of wisdom and bravery. The podcast meanwhile slams the listener with about ten minutes of advertising before any larger-than-life characters are introduced, with the possible exception of Bolleli himself.

As soon as Bolelli opens his mouth, it becomes clear that he has a thick Italian accent. He’s quite self-conscious about this: as he puts it, the reward for contributing to his Patreon at the $100 level is to have your name totally mangled at the start of each episode. Some might not appreciate it, some might find it sexy. I personally don’t mind the man’s voice so long as it’s being used to explain the cult of Dionysus instead of waxing poetically about hemp fanny packs and workout gear. To be fair, Bolelli has some of the most unusual sponsors in all of podcasting, so it might actually be worthwhile to listen to those ad reads at least once. I, and many others, have become inclined to skip them altogether. As we’ll see in this article and possibly this issue’s PCP, there have been consequences to the egregious adverts, and peoples’ annoyance at them.

Well, that’s everything immediately apparent from the first ten minutes of each episode. Without further ado, let’s set podcasts on fire.

Bolelli was not the first history podcaster, nor is he the king of the genre. He knows this: hardly an episode passes without him gushing about how amazing Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” is. They seem to be good friends who sometimes coordinate efforts, make podcasts together and gift each other swords. However, for all of Carlin’s explanatory brilliance, he isn’t a historian. Bolelli’s professional status is not merely used as a marketing tool: he knows about all manner of strange incidents that Carlin lacks the knowledge to cover. The most recent episode covers one such topic: the life of the Zen monk Ikkyu Sojun, who had plenty of sex and alcohol but did not commit violence.

Which leads to another aspect of “History on Fire”: it has a more experimental spirit than “Hardcore History”. The appearance of a pacifist-focused episode after forty or so episodes of covering incredibly violent stories is just one example. Bolelli had a series of three episodes comparing and contrasting two American mass murders (Sand Creek and My Lai), where he collaborated with another podcaster and an American veteran. Some episodes, such as the recent one about the Melian Dialogue, are quite conceptual: focused more on the feelings and ideals than on specific events and people.

Of course, like other history podcasts there is still a great deal of monologuing. What really sets Bolelli apart here is his dark sense of humor. Consider the point when Bolelli is explaining the different reasons that samurai practiced seppuku and says “Last but not least for the reasons for seppuku is my personal favorite. Okay I just heard the words that came out of my mouth and that really did not come out well. I think it’s safe to say that by the time I’m picking favorites for the best reasons to disembowel oneself, I’ve probably spent too much time researching this stuff.” There are usually a couple of such tangents per episode, seconds of levity among many minutes of exposition. He often makes Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and MMA references. References to Taoists texts and zen koans also sometimes pop up.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about Bolelli’s speaking, it’s the times when he needlessly reiterates. Let’s go over that again: if there’s one thing I don’t like about Bolelli’s speaking, it’s the times when he needlessly reiterates. Sometimes it can be hard to keep track of all the names and details he’s throwing around. However most of the time he’s quite easy to follow.

At some point in the past, I was very fascinated by Bolelli. In an effort to support his work and find out what makes him tick, I bought his Taoist lecture series. Whether his words accurately described the ancient Chinese sages, I cannot say. What I do know is that it actually explains a lot about why Bolelli is the way he is, if anyone is interested.

“History on Fire” episodes can last anywhere between 40 minutes to 3 hours. There have been fifteen or so episodes per year for a while, but big changes are on the horizon. At the end of the most recent episode, Bolelli revealed that he can’t support the podcast’s current rate of production. He’s still a full-time teacher, which combined with the podcast led him to a 14-hour workday and a 7-day workweek.
After years of ad reads and calls for Patreon support, Bolelli still didn’t have the necessary funds to hire a proper assistant. So a podcast subscription service made him an offer: put all but two episodes per year behind our paywall, and we’ll fund you.

Two free episodes per year probably doesn’t seem like much for some people. However given that most of Bolelli’s audience are accustomed to Dan Carlin’s rate of production, that is probably not a problem in
and of itself. The real question is whether the other 13 episodes of History on Fire are worth paying for, and what will happen to Bolelli and his podcast if the subscription firm crashes and burns.

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