Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Death Throes of the Republic by Dan Carlin--Review of a Podcast

A few weeks ago a co-worker came in talking excitedly about Dan Carlin's series on the Persian Empire.

I had never heard of Dan Carlin before, but I've always been interested in ancient history, so I engaged in the conversation, and pretty soon we were trading recommendations.

At the time, I was watching the Gracchi Brothers series by Extra History (see my review here), so I mentioned that.

"Oh, right Dan Carlin's got an episode on the Gracchi brothers too," my co-worker said.  "In fact he's got a whole series on the end of the Roman Republic."
(The class conflict surrounding the reforms of the Gracchi Brothers are generally looked at as the beginning of end of the Roman Republic).

"I would love to hear that," I said.  "That's one of my favorite periods of history."

"I'll lend you a copy," my friend said.

And so, here I am, reviewing it.

Where Can I Find It?
I was lucky because my co-worker lent me his copy.  But unfortunately, this series is not freely available on-line.

To listen to it legally, you have to go to Dan Carlin's website and pay $9.99 [LINK HERE].  In my opinion--totally worth it.

If you want to get a taste for Dan Carlin before you make the purchase, some of Dan Carlin's other stuff is freely available on Youtube.   His channel is here.  In addition to the Death Throes of the Republic, I have personally listened to (and found absolutely fascinating) Prophets of Doom [LINK HERE] and American Peril [LINK HERE].

Who is This Dan Carlin Guy Anyway?
I had never heard of this Dan Carlin guy before my co-worker started raving about this podcasts.  But since I've gotten hooked, I've been asking around with other history geeks, and it seems like everyone else has heard of this guy but me.  So I guess I'm just out of touch.

He's not a professional historian--he's a broadcaster by trade.  But he's obviously a huge history nerd (You can really hear his love for the subject material come through in the podcasts) and he and his team do their research.

He's got an A.M. radio type voice.  His voice, tone, and cadence all remind me of Rush Limbaugh.  (I'm speaking only of his voice here.  None of his politics resemble Rush's).

He's primarily a narrative history story teller, which I like, but his podcasts aren't always exactly like a novel.  Rather, here again is more of the style and format of an A.M. radio DJ. He sounds like a talk show radio host who is giving out the daily news.  He tells a bit of the story, then he stops to comment on its importance, or to say why he thinks it's remarkable.

If you're a history nerd, you'll eat this stuff up.  Trust me, give it a listen.

Why I'm Interested in this Period of History
In addition to Dan Carlin's natural talents as a story-teller, I really love this period of history, so I was predisposed to like the podcast before I even started it.

I've been interested in ancient history since I was a boy.
Most boys are interested in ancient history if they're interested in history at all.  I'm not sure why.  I guess because it's old enough that it has an air of mystery to it.  It has tons of drama and battles and violence.  And it raises some interesting questions about human nature.  (Were these barbaric peoples really from the same race of humans as us?)

The last 100 years of the Roman Republic has all those elements, but it's also surprisingly, eerily, modern.  And so I've been able to maintain my fascination with it even as my interests have changed.

As I wrote before, the political quarrels of the end of the Roman Republic--the radical populist reformers versus the aristocratic conservatives--are similar to the politics of modern history.

Add to this that the end of the Roman Republic is one of the most documented periods of ancient history.  For much of ancient history, historians are only reliant on one single source, but there were numerous ancient historians writing about the end of Roman Republic.  (This is something Dan Carlin brings up in his podcasts.  He mentions the numerous sources make it possible to speculate about a lot more things.)  We even have private correspondence preserved from this period.  (The gossipy letters of Cicero, which Dan Carlin will occasionally make use of to tell his story.)

All of this, plus I have nostalgia for this period because I was hooked at a young age by Colleen McCullough's epic Masters of Rome - series which covers this same period.   (Most of my knowledge of this period still comes from Colleen McCullough's historical fiction, so I occasionally like to double check this knowledge against more fact based history format.)

The Review
Going into this series, I was slightly worried Dan Carlin wouldn't do it justice.  (It's apparent from looking at his body of work that he covers way too many diverse time periods to expect him to be an expert in all of them.)
But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he does this complete justice.  He and his team have obviously done their research, and he really dives straight in, and gets into a lot of the juicy details that we history nerds love.
It's not exhaustive by any means.  History nerds will be able to pick out lots of stuff that Dan Carlin leaves out.  (One example of many--the Sertorian War (W) is completely omitted).  But then it would be impossible to be exhaustive.  Dan Carlin is covering a period of 150 years of history, and on top of that it's the most well-documented period of ancient history.  No one could do an exhaustive history.

But despite this, it feels like it's a complete story when you're listening to it, because when Dan Carlin does choose to focus in on an event, he has a keen knack for lingering on all the little details of a scene that make the story seem real.

The first several episodes are about an hour and a half each.
Dan Carlin spent so much time on the Gracchi Brothers and the age of Marius and Sulla, that we were 5 episodes in before we even reach the age of Julius Caesar.
When I got to the end of the penultimate episode, and realized there was only one episode left to go before the series ended, I thought, "there's no way he's going to finish everything in one last episode."  But then the final episode turned out to be about 6 hours long.
By the final episode, Dan Carlin is expressing a desire to just get the story wrapped up so he can move onto something else--which is why he says he does one long final episode instead of continuing with several more smaller episodes.  And yet, the final episode still doesn't feel rushed at all.  Dan Carlin still takes time out to linger on the details--for example he devotes roughly 20 minutes to talking about Clodius's generation and what appears to be a beatnik/bohemian generation popping up in ancient Rome.

The only point where the story does feel rushed is that Dan Carlin doesn't really have much interest in anything that happens after Julius Caesar died.  He tends to view Caesar's assassination as the end of the story, and everything that happened afterwards is just quickly summarized.
In reality, everything that happened between the death of Julius Caesar and the final end of the republic under Emperor Augustus could probably have filled another 5 hours easily.  But Dan Carlin just quickly summarizes all that as if it was just an afterthought.
I've seen some people complain about this on Goodreads (see here).  Personally I don't mind too much, because, like Dan Carlin, I find the most interesting part of this history is the period leading up to Caesar's dictatorship.  But anyone who is hoping to get information about the age of Octavian or Antony and Cleopatra should be forewarned ahead of time.

In addition to the story telling, Dan Carlin's commentary on this period is very interesting as well.

There are a lot of different ways you can frame this period of history, but Dan Carlin seems to share my interests because he focuses on the class war aspect of the story.
Not exclusively.  He has a good story-teller's love of the digression, so he allows himself to get sidetracked by other things (like some of the juicy scandals going on in this period.)

But mainly he presents the story in almost Marxist terms as a series of popular reformers who, one after the other, challenge the power of the Senate oligarchy.

First there were the Gracchi Brothers.  The Senate killed them.  Then there was Saturninus.  The Senate killed him.  Then Marcus Livius Drusus.  The Senate killed him.
Then came the period of the Civil Wars, in which the populist reformers like Gaius Marius, Sulpicius, and Cinna fought against Sulla and the oligarchs, and ultimately lost.
And then finally came the last populist reformer: Julius Caesar.
(I'm drastically oversimplifying the story.  Go listen to the podcast for the full version.)

Dan Carlin describes uses modern political vocabulary to describe these struggles, calling the populist reformers: radicals, liberals revolutionaries, and sometimes even proto-Marxists and socialists.   The Senate oligarchy is described as conservative and aristocratic.

My old Latin professor would have been horrified at this modern use of vocabulary--he believed that modern political ideas about equality did not exist in the ancient world.

But I rather like it.  It may be anachronistic, but it makes the period a lot more modern and relateable.  (And besides, I'm not 100% sure my old Latin professor was right anyway.)

There are two ways of viewing these populist reformers.  One way is to view them as genuine idealists, the other way is to view them like opportunistic populists.  Different historians present different views of these populists, and Dan Carlin does an expert job of exploring the ambiguity.  He suggests possible comparisons on one hand with Gandhi and Martin Luther King on the idealist side, but also with Huey Long on the opportunistic side.
Or, he says, it could be a combination of both.  They could have been extremely ambitious, but also believed they were doing what was best for their country.

And then we get to Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar is best remembered for being a tyrant, but there are again two different ways to view his legacy.  As Dan Carlin reminds us, Caesar was from a populare family, and as a young man publically embraced the populare legacy at a time when it was dangerous to do so.  ("populare" is the ancient Latin term for the populist faction, a term which Dan Carlin also frequently makes use of.)
Caesar was dictatorial and often resorted to extra-constitutional measures to get his populist laws passed, but Dan Carlin suggests that this may be because all the previous populare reformers were murdered.  So when Caesar allies himself with Pompey and Crassus and forms the first triumvirate, Dan Carlin suggests this extreme show of force might have been a defensive act to prevent the usual fate of populare reformers.

When Caesar became dictator, he continued populare reforms, leading Dan Carlin to speculate that this may have been a dictatorship from the Left.  (At one point Dan Carlin uses the anachronistic term "dictatorship of the proletariat").
It's all interesting speculation, but Dan Carlin keeps things balanced by including the other side as well, and quoting some historians, such as H.G. Wells, who thought Caesar was just a tyrant and a thug.

Tastes and interests may vary, of course, but I found this attempt to view the ancient world through the lens of modern politics all very fascinating.

The other thing that I've always thought was very interesting, and which Dan Carlin also picks up on, is Clodius Pulcher and the appearance of what Dan Carlin calls the "cool crowd" in ancient Rome.
This is something I also have always found interesting.  (I first picked up on this from Colleen McCullough's historical fiction--she also paints a colorful picture of Clodius and his young aristocratic followers, although she presents them more as degenerates than romantics.)
Once again, Dan Carlin uses anachronistic terms to describes Clodius and the "cool crowd".  This would probably also have horrified my old Latin professor--but it makes the history seem a lot more real and relateable.  Dan Carlin talks about a "generation gap" in ancient Rome, and uses the terms "beatniks"  "bohemians" and "counter-culture movement".

I found it all quite fascinating, but I do have one nitpick.
Dan Carlin claims that the this kind of beatnik romantic movement was very rare in the ancient world, and because of this, it took until the 20th century before historians realized what was going on.  Dan Carlin claims Will Durant, writing in the 1940s, was the first historian to recognize Clodius's crowd as a counter-culture movement, whereas earlier historians writing in the 1800s couldn't recognize it because they had nothing to compare it with.
I think this over-exaggerates somewhat. There were other counter-culture movements in history.  For example just off the top of my head, there was the Romantic Movement in England in the 1790s, with  counter-culture poets like Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge.

Various Links and Other Connections

As mentioned above, my main point of connection with this period is Colleen McCulloughs' Masters of Rome series.

The first 4 books in that series I read in my youth and were not reviewed on this blog.
But the 5th book, Caesar, is here, and the 6th book  October Horse, is here.

It's a masterful series, but there are some gaps in it.  For example, Colleen McCullough starts with the rise of Gaius Marius, so she completely skips the whole story of the Gracchi Brothers.
Also, each book in the series jumps ahead a few years, so some stuff gets skipped over.  For example, the period of Cinna's dictatorship period in Rome and then Cinna's assassination gets completely skipped over.  (It occurs in the time gap  between the 2nd and the 3rd book in the series.)
For this reason, I was glad that Dan Carlin actually spent a lot of time talking about Cinna's dictatorship.  It filled in a gap in my knowledge.

But that being said, the parts of the history that Colleen McCullough did cover are forever seared into my memory.  A lot of the events that Dan Carlin talks about, like Saturninus, or the assassination of  Marcus Livius Drusus, are events I remember vividly from Colleen McCullough's books.

Politically, Colleen McCullough presents a history that's biased in favor of the populare faction, and she's very pro-Caesar.
Dan Carlin toys with the idea that Caesar didn't really want to end the republic, he just wanted to be the populare version of Sulla--i.e. he wanted to fix the problems with the government, and then once all his reforms were in place, he eventually planned to step down.  Colleen McCullough explicitly endorses this view in her fiction.

On the other side of the political aisle, for a much more cynical view of Caesar and the populares, see Robert Harris's historical fiction trilogy on the life of Cicero. I've so far reviewed Imperium and Conspirita.  

Moving away from historical fiction, a good narrative history book on this period is Rubicon by Tom Holland.
Dan Carlin is apparently also a fan of Tom Holland, because he quotes from this book frequently during his podcast.

Moving over to my other blog: Papers I Wrote:

Like Dan Carlin, I found Clodius to be one of the most fascinating figures in the whole story, and so I wrote one of my University papers on him here.

And I wrote a high school paper on the Catiline Conspiracy in which I was heavily influenced by Lester Hutchinson, who argued that Cicero's charges against Catiline were so ridiculous they couldn't possible be true.  Dan Carlin takes a similar skeptical view when discussing the Catiline Conspiracy.

Also, I've mentioned these above, but for some fascinating youtube videos on this period see the Extra History series on the Gracchi Brothers (here) and the videos of Historia Civilis (here).

Link of the Day
Noam chomsky on freedom of speech and Anti - fascism


Darrell Reimer said...

Carlin and/or his researchers & writers have a good eye for the compelling storyline. But, it pains me to say: I would rather listen to three hours of someone running their fingernails over a chalkboard. It's that "AM radio" quality you mention -- good analogy, and a huge turn-off. My loss, I know.

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for the comment. It's good to get a counter-point here to keep these reviews balanced. For me, the AM radio voice took a bit of getting used to, but I was fascinated enough by the history that I didn't really mind so much.

And after a while, the AM radio voice grew on me. It's a bit abrasive, but it also commands attention.

Often when I listen to a podcast or an audio book, my attention can wander in and out. But with Dan Carlin's voice, his intonation really focuses your attention on the story, and makes it impossible to ignore.