Overview - The History of Rome

I just finished listening to The History of Rome podcast, and it is a listen worth every minute of the 73+ hours its almost 200 episodes run for. Created by Mike Duncan, this podcast is a thoroughly researched, well written, and extremely engagingly narrated journey through over 1000 years (753BC-476AD) of the history of one of the greatest empires to have spread its influence over a vast area and sizable fraction of the world’s population of its time. Starting from the legendary (mythical?) establishment of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC, the podcast covers the period of Rome as originally a small kingdom in Italy, to its transition into a strong republic, which controlled large swathes of territory surrounding the Mediterranean, to the Roman Empire, to its fissure into Eastern and Western halves, finally culminating in the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD.

The first stage of this history consists of the rule of the seven kings of the Roman Kingdom, lasting almost a quarter of a millenium between 753-509 BC, as Rome expanded, warring with other Italian tribes in the area, over time defeating and incorporating them into Rome. This period of history gives way to the Roman Republic, where a Senate of elected representatives served as the apex governing body of Rome, appointing Counsuls to lead the armies into battle. While this gives the appearance of the presence of an enlightened democracy over two and a half millenia ago, the Senate consisted only of the members of the nobility, restricting membership by birth, rather than any true form of democracy. Over time, the Assembly was introduced, with the election of Tribunes, from the common people, to allow them some say in the governance of the republic as well.

The Republic saw the war with, and final defeat of, Carthage, the kingdom led by the legendary general, and major Roman bugbear Hannibal Barca. This period culminated in the rise of rulers of tremendous stature like Julius Caesar, Marc Antory, Cleopatra, and finally Octavian, who, as Augustus, became essentially the first emperor of Rome, leading to the fall of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Over the course of its five century run, the empire agressively expanded, at its height during the rule of Trajan covering most of Britain and Europe, large swathes of land in Western Asia, and most of North Africa. Towards the end of the Empire as a single unit, Christianity became an emergent force, and through the will of one of Rome’s greatest Emperor, Constantine, was set well on track towards becoming the dominant religion in the empire. At the end of the 4th Century AD, the empire split into two halves, never subsequently finding rulers of comparable strength, and the Western Empire collapsed less than a century later. The east, on the other hand, became the Byzantine Empire, which was a major force in world politics for another millenium.

In this podcast, Duncan not only goes into great detail regarding the factual history of what happened when, but also discusses the political, cultural, and religious landscapes which were the settings, and likely catalysts for each of these events. The many kings, consuls, and emperors who ruled Rome, as well as the many senators, tribunes, army generals, and [in the later stages of the empire], Christian bishops who were major players in the political landscapes of those times are discussed in great detail, but also the lives of the common people, the free [but poor] citizens, the slaves, the allied and enemy tribes all are discussed in great depth. Rome’s most famous enemies like Hannibal Baraca and Atilla the Hun make their appearances, but so do the various smaller kingdoms Rome fought, or made alliances with. The Barbarians, Goths, and Vandals; the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid Empires all played important roles in both, the stability and destabilization of the Empire, at various points in its history.

The podcast tells of rulers great and small, some who managed to expand the empire, stabilize the interior, and make the lives of people better, and some who did the exact opposite. It covers the major roles played by the military, bureaucracy, and the religious establishment in directing the trajectory of this massive empire. Another interesting facet is how some of the women of the royal and noble families, realizing that they had no chance of wielding actual power, became the powers behind the throne, installing their sons, younger brothers, or in some cases, puppet husbands on the throne, enabling them to run the government from the shadows.

I was impressed over the course of the podcast as I realized just how much information from a period that long ago is still available to us from primary sources who lived either at the time, or soon after, documenting all these momentous events and towering personalities. It also is startling how many parallels there can be found in Roman history and other periods of history, or even the present, but maybe all that says is that there is a constant underlying human nature, irrespective of what period in the human timeline we are looking at.

In summary if you are interested in any aspect of history, and Roman history in particular, I cannot recommend this podcast strongly enough. It is long, covers a lot of ground, features a lot of names, has a lot of events taking place, but is one of the most educational and entertaining bit of media I have consumed in quite some time.