A&E, Opinion, Podcast Review

Ra-Tan Lines: Podcasts of Mike Duncan

Julius Caesar - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Music from another era swells

Hello, and welcome to Ra-Tan Lines. Episode 21: Mike Duncan.

When we last looked at the podcast scene in late 2019 AD, we were considering the intersections between podcasts and other media. While that theme remains relevant for today’s topic, to really understand Mike Duncan we’ll need to go back… really far back.

Our story begins in the distant year of 753 BC, when a man named Romulus founded a city, which he named after himself. Just kidding, our story actually begins in the closer but still distant year of 2007 AD, when Mike Duncan couldn’t find any good podcasts about ancient history. Shocking to modern ears, I know, but the medium was much smaller and more obscure in those days. His first podcast, The History of Rome, started in July 2007 and ran until 2012. It starts with Romulus and ends with the fall of the Western Empire (as often happens, the Byzantines got left out). After that, Duncan made another podcast called Revolutions, about major revolutions in Europe and the Americas. The specific revolutions covered are:

  1. The English Civil War
  2. The American Revolution
  3. The French Revolution (from the Ancient Regime to Napoleon becoming Emperor)
  4. The Haitian Revolution
  5. Revolutions in Spanish America (especially those involving Simon Bolivar)
  6. The French Revolution of 1830
  7. The Revolutions of 1848 (in France, Austria, Germany, Italy and Hungary)
  8. The Paris Commune of 1871
  9. The Mexican Revolution of the 1910s
  10. The Russian Revolution(s)

Mike Duncan’s voice is fine. I do enjoy his tone of voice when he’s intentionally trying to emphasize something or sound sarcastic. Be warned that he’ll sometimes be sarcastic without changing his tone of voice at all, then reveal the truth, which provides a good way for listeners to make sure they’re still paying attention.

Duncan’s style has changed over the years. The first few episodes of The History the Rome had poor audio quality. As the series progressed, the audio quality improved but there were only a small number of factions and names to keep track of in each episode. At the start of Revolutions, which covers the English Civil War, Duncan had to introduce a bunch of factions most listeners had never heard of before and their various grievances. It was pretty hard to keep track of, but things got more comprehensible when covering later revolutions. The revolutions of 1848 were another low point for comprehensibility, because while each individual episode was clear there were five different revolutions to cover. It would be kind of like if I tried to squeeze two very different podcasts into one podcast review.

Duncan’s podcasts are focused on the politics of the time periods he covers. While battles are frequent, they are not described with the gory detail of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Similarly, philosophy sometimes creeps into the podcast, but not with the depth of The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. The daily lives of Romans (in The History of Rome) and interesting anecdotes of people lacking political power (in Revolutions) appear in ‘special’ episodes.

Mike Duncan tends to stick to historical consensus, not nationalist propaganda, which is why he’s sometimes willing to point out how certain brave revolutionaries would have never got anywhere if the monarchs in charge were competent. It is also a sad fact that many of the changes brought upon by revolutions ended up being reversed afterwards. The infighting between various radical groups, European colonies, and imperial generals is another common topic. At least in the case of The History of Rome, there’s nobody who cares too much about anyone’s image being tarnished. When the ancient historians and modern ones disagree, Mike Duncan points out the conflict, and the biases of the ancient sources. Sometimes the Romans liked to use recurring motifs and tropes in their histories, sometimes they tried to make already terrible people seem even worse, and all their histories were written by and for their senatorial elite.

Duncan has to read a lot of books for each season for research purposes: you can find the “partial” bibliographies for both Revolutions and The History of Rome on his sites. He detailed his research process in an FAQ episode: one interesting trick is that he reads about the historiography of an event before the histories of it, to figure out how the story of an event has changed over the years.

In addition to reading books, he writes them. The Storm Before the Storm covers the generations before the fall of the Roman Republic and founding of the Roman Empire. There is an audiobook version narrated by Duncan but I, like a fool, bought the text version instead. It’s pretty good, but takes a surprisingly long time to get to the juicy parts where Marius and Sulla start competing with each other. Currently, Duncan is writing a book about the Marquis de Lafayette, which sounds like an excellent idea. However it is not a choice without sacrifice.

In order to focus on this upcoming book, Mike Duncan has put the Revolutions podcast on hiatus from April all the way to October. His story of the Russian revolution has stopped at 1905, and the events between 1905 and 1917 will only be covered after the book is complete. Prior to going on hiatus, Mike Duncan would release new 40-ish minute episodes every week like clockwork, so there’s a massive backlog to check out. Each revolution was covered in massive detail, and you’ll probably need to listen to certain episodes multiple times (I know I have to). The Russian Revolution of 1917 will be the final revolution covered in the series. The History of Rome is of course complete, though Duncan sometimes randomly makes new episodes as appendices. Actually continuing the narrative is not on the table.

One unique twist on Duncan’s podcasts is the existence of Revolutions and History of Rome tours, where Duncan and paying listeners travel to historically important sites. I mention this only to disappoint you because you probably missed them all. Maybe there’ll be another such tour many months from now, when travelling the world and new episodes of Revolutions are both considered normal.

1 Comment


    I feel so lucky that I live in such wonderful times to have access to the learned and sharing people such as Mike Duncan. I have enjoyed and benefited from quite a few of his podcasts and am looking forward to more and reading / listening to his books. He is a fantastic narrator as well as storyteller.

    Thank you Ratan Varghese for such a wonderful expose that others may be made aware.

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