Most of my interviewing lately has been of bands and posted over at A Free Man. But I haven’t abandoned the format on this site and I’ve got a cracker for you today!
I am a huge fan of podcasts. I listen to all my favorite American radio programs as podcasts, which helps to assuage the occasional homesickness of an expatriate. I’ve found tons of other podcasts as well, radio programs all over the world to guys in their basements with a computer and a microphone.
I though it would be fun to interview one of those podcasters that falls into that latter class and has something interesting to say. One of my favorites is Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome”. I’m a little bit of a history buff, particularly the American Civil War – fascinating time. But history is not a particular passion of mine, especially the dry, humorless academic history that you often run across. So, the first time I listened to Duncan’s podcast I was flabbergasted. This fellow took what could be a really dull topic and made it not only interesting but strangely addictive. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what it is that Duncan does, but he speaks plainly and brings in the occasional pop culture reference to keep the casual listener coming back. For example, in one episode about the Roman war with Pyrrhus he describes the way in which the Romans defeated the Greek war elephants by comparing it with the the technique that the rebel snow speeders used against the Imperial AT-ATs in “The Empire Strikes Back”. Brilliant.
Mike Duncan, purveyor of “The History of Rome”, was nice enough to sit down on the virtual couch to answer some questions. We had a great interview topics ranging from which American president would have been the best Roman emperor to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Baseball Hall of Fame…
AFM: I can see by your profile that you studied politics and philosophy in university. What inspired you to make the transition to history for your podcast?
MD: The History of Rome was conceived in one of those “This is so cool, I want to do something like this” moments after I discovered 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth. I usually don’t act on those impulses (I am not, for example, a world class banjo player nor a master of Brazilian juijitsu), but for some reason the idea of producing a podcast stuck and I couldn’t shake it. I was in the middle of The War with Hannibal by Livy at the time and became enamoured with the idea of doing a weekly show dedicated to tracing Roman History from start to finish. I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into.
AFM: I’m still playing catch-up on your podcast, but I know you’re up to the Second Punic War which is in the 200s B.C.? How much longer will it take you to get to the fall of the empire? Will you take us that far?
MD: I’m committed to seeing it through to the end. We should be able to get to the abdication of Romulus Augustulus by Christmas 08 (but I only say that to keep morale up – I know it’s going to run longer than that).
AFM: I think the reasons that your podcast work so well is that you keep them short (about a quarter of an hour) use laymen’s terms and tease at the end for the next episode. How did you come up with this formula? Why do you think that your podcast has succeeded where many a Western Civ professor has failed?
MD: I don’t want to lump all history professors together, but on the whole they seem to be a dry and humourless lot. I tend to sprinkle my lectures (if you can even call them that) with jokes and deadpan pop culture references. If you can get someone laughing along with you they are far more likely to pay attention and retain the information. I cannot fathom why history classes are predominated by dry recitations of names and dates. History is fun!
The teasers at the end of each episode sprang from a desire to keep people in the loop about where the story was headed. Any dramatic flare that keeps the people coming back for more is purely coincidental ; ).
AFM: Podcasts are (wonderfully) free and I don’t think you run ads on yours. I presume then, that The History of Rome isn’t paying your mortgage. What’s your day job?
MD: The History of Rome is and will remain ad-free so I get up every morning and go to work for Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods Inc. Whole Grains for Every Meal of the Day!
AFM:Now is the time when we get to the wildly speculative part of the interview – my favorite part. In one of your podcasts, you called Cincinnatus the Roman George Washington. Which historical Roman leader is the most similar to the following contemporary politicians and why:
a. Bill Clinton: A far more shallow version of Cicero – great orator and master politician.
b. Hilary Clinton: Aggripina – the patron saint of ruthless female politicians.
c. John McCain: Pompey – the aging ex-military hero in way over his head.
d. Barack Obama: Vespasian – a conciliatory pragmatist who stabilized the Empire after a period of intense partisan strife.
e. George W Bush (say Nero, c’mon say Nero!): Sorry, I gotta go with Commodus – the failed brat son of a relatively benign Emperor. The beginning of the end…
AFM: I recently read this slightly strange article in the Globalist by Michael Lind comparing the U.S with the Roman Empire. If you were forced to compare the modern U.S. with ancient Rome, where would we be in the timeline of the Empire?
MD: I usually only get into this kind of stuff after three beers, but here we go: It seems pretty clear we’re post-Carthage but pre-Caesar. Unfortunately we have already made the critical transition from a conscription army to a professional (and increasingly private) army, so that puts us closer to Caesar than we may be willing to admit.
Plus, we are witnessing a consolidation of power in the hands of an increasingly myopic super-elite in Washington that parallels the stranglehold on power wealthy patrician Senators had achieved near the end of the Republic (which left the door wide open for a populist demagogue to step in and declare war on the corrupt oligarchs). I’m not sure if the Bush/Clinton thing is exactly Marius and Sulla, but it’s pretty dang close, which means young Caesar is running around somewhere…
AFM: Which historical Roman leader would be the best President of the U.S. in 2008?
MD: I think we need a Hadrian. He recognized the implicit danger of Imperial overreach, swallowed Roman pride and pulled back from the territory Trajan had so recently conquered. He took a beating for it, but it ensured the survival of the Empire. As a bonus – the territory he recognized as being too costly to incorporate into the Empire was Mesopotamia. The more things change…
AFM: Which American politician (living or dead) would have made the best Roman Emperor?
MD: Well, George Washington obviously would have done just fine, but he explicitly rejected the idea. I think either of the Roosevelts would have done a good job. Both had the requisite mix of vision, arrogance and political savvy to pull it off. Other than that it’s slim pickings (good Emperors are hard to come by…just ask the Romans).
AFM: What lesson that the Romans learned during their fall should we be bearing in mind today?
MD: Beware of charismatic populists leading private armies. Remember kids: today’s private contractors are tomorrow’s Legion XIII.
AFM: For your BONUS question, I know that you’re a baseball fan so which, if any, of these players belong in the Hall of Fame – “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Pete Rose or Barry Bonds?
MD: Shoeless Joe Jackson should not be in the Hall of Fame- the romance of his tragic banishment is too compelling. Justice would only destroy a much needed myth. What’s next? Admit the existence of the Iowa Baseball Confederacy?
Pete Rose should be voted into the Hall of Fame, but only after he dies. That seems like a fair compromise.
Barry Bonds (and Palmeiro, Clemens et al)… Ug. I’ve thought a lot about it and decided that if their careers warrant it (and Bonds’s certainly does) they should go in. There is just no way to know who did what and too much grey area to draw a line in the sand and say “You cheated. You’re cool. You cheated. You’re cool.” Major League Baseball did this to itself and should be forced to live with the consequences. If we start cherry picking players for non-admittance the Steroid Era will forever be an open wound and we’ll never get past it.
Thanks for playing along, Mike, particularly with the wildly speculative – and thus, most fun, part of the interview. Mike’s stellar podcast “The History of Rome” is available for free from , “The History of Rome” website or any number of other podcast sites. Definitely worth checking out!