Culture Trips

‘An escape from dark times’: how ancient history podcasts bring comfort and clarity | Podcasts

Fans of Paul Cooper’s podcast Fall of Civilizations will know that it usually begins in a particular way. A traveller, often far from home, encounters a ruin that hints at a vast and forgotten story of the past.

Hiding from bandits in the desert, the Italian nobleman Pietro della Valle takes shelter in the shadow of the crumbling Ziggurat of Ur. Clambering through the rubble of a once magnificent site of Roman Britain, an unknown poet of the eighth or ninth century writes an elegy to the broken “work of giants”.

With the scene set, the piano theme plays and the listener is on their way, transported – if only for a while – from the 21st century, with its crises of economics, climate and Covid, to the time of the Aztecs, the Sumerians or the Vikings.

History – perhaps particularly the history of the ancient world – provides an escape from our own times.

“I get a lot of comments from people saying they have found it really helpful over the lockdown, especially because the show vaults across the world between episodes,” Cooper says of his podcast, which tells the stories of civilisations that rose to great power before falling into ruin. The episodes are often more than three hours long – and usually recorded in one take. More than 12 million people have watched the episode on the Sumerians on YouTube alone. Cooper, who takes six to eight weeks to write each episode and has more than 2,000 sponsors on Patreon, makes a good living from the podcast.

Two of the greats ... Alexander and Whitney Houston
Two of the greats … Alexander and Whitney Houston. Composite: Getty Images

Huw Lemmey, a co-host of the Bad Gays podcast, which profiles “evil and complicated queers in history”, says the listener experience can be “escapist or transporting”. Bad Gays is the source of my favourite historical comparison – between Alexander the Great and Whitney Houston. “Good podcasts are, by their nature, intimate types of broadcasting and I think people have appreciated that, especially during Covid,” Lemmey says.

My need for podcast escapism precedes Covid. Over one week in the summer of 2019, my son was born and my mother-in-law was taken suddenly to hospital, where she was later diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. We left London in a rush, staying at her home in a village in the west of England. I didn’t own a car, but suddenly I was driving to and from hospital most days. When I wasn’t there, I was pushing a buggy around Bristol or taking my tiny child on three-hour round trips to see his godfather in Oxford.

It was on these drives that I started listening to Fall of Civilizations, Bad Gays and The History of Rome, one of the pioneers of the ancient history genre. That podcast’s creator, an American called Mike Duncan, was working as a fishmonger when he started it in 2007. He is now an author and full-time podcaster.

Like Duncan, Cooper is not a professional historian. He describes Dan Carlin, the creator of the podcast Hardcore History, as “the real master of the form”, and also praises Patrick Wyman’s The Fall of Rome. Lemmey lauds One from the Vaults, Morgan M Page’s “brilliant trans history podcast”.

When I began those drives, I worried that music would keep my baby awake, but I didn’t want to listen to news or current affairs programmes. I had never listened to podcasts. Rather than keeping him awake, stories of antiquity lulled my son into a contented sleep. At the wheel, the pressure and pain of life seemed to lift as I travelled with my new companion to faraway places. I recalled that Iggy Pop had found some respite from the “meanness, tedium and depravity” of his life on tour in the early 80s by reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – an experience he later recounted in a peer-reviewed journal.

“When you are a young boy, what appeals to you is Caesar or Alexander the Great, or travellers like Herodotus,” says Phiroze Vasunia, a professor of Greek at UCL. “Transportation to an alternative world, a fantasy world that is similar and different at the same time, is part of the appeal of ancient history. The romance of it has been built up over a long time by Hollywood, by TV, novels and plays.”

Cooper says: “Oral storytelling is the most ancient form. Our most ancient stories, like [The Epic of] Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, all derive from stories that began before the invention of writing. They were memorised and read by heart, changing with each telling. Podcasting has brought oral storytelling into the digital world – and it’s just as popular today as it was in the time of Homer.”

While the ancient world can provide an escape from our dark times, it can also hold up a mirror to them. The ruined cultures of the Fall of Civilizations tended also to be affected by climate change (albeit not manmade climate change) and ravaged by inequality, colonialism or both. Our democracy can be compared, favourably and unfavourably, to that of the Greeks. The shape of our world can be seen in theirs. As Vasunia says, we can enter the fantasy land of the ancient world and then “realise that it comes with its own boundaries and repressions”.

Oscar Rickett and his son at Hartland Point in north-west Devon.
Oscar Rickett and his son at Hartland Point in north-west Devon. Photograph: Morwenna Ferrier

Listeners to Cooper’s podcast are forever joking that he should do an episode on modern-day Britain or the US. But comparisons with the present day can be helpful.

“I get a lot of messages from people who listen to the podcast who say it gives them a sense of melancholy, but also a sense of comfort,” Cooper says. “I think it makes them realise that the feeling that you’re living through a uniquely disruptive or chaotic time, the feeling that things are coming apart and that the structures you relied upon are failing … that’s not a unique feeling; people have felt that throughout history.”

We had been looking after our baby and my partner’s mother for more than half a year when the first Covid lockdown began. Fantasies of escape were ever present and have been in our culture for quite some time. People wanted to escape Brexit or Trump – or they wanted to make America great again or bring back the British empire.

In the end, fantasies of escape are just that: fantasies. My mother-in-law died. A month later, my grandma and then my uncle died. I had another long drive to make, this time to my grandmother’s funeral, this time on my own. I looked into the back seat of the car for my companion, but he wasn’t there.

I had our stories, though, and in them there was relief.

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