About three years ago, when Mike Duncan stopped producing his ‘History of Rome’ podcast, thousands of podcast listeners mourned in silence. A lot of like-minded listeners toyed with the idea of continuing the history of the later Roman Empire (Byzantium) from where Mike Duncan had left off. Unfortunately, no one was brave enough to tackle a thousand years of decline and recovery, palace intrigue and debauchery, state religion and iconoclasm, and the rise and dangers of Islam on its existence. That was until Robin Pierson became everyone’s savour at the eleventh hour. You’ll forgive me for being so melodramatic, but I cannot see anyone else other than Robin Pierson taking on such a tremendous project and doing it in style. He is thoughtful, well researched and not above criticism, if you have any questions for him.
For a while in the early months of the podcast, it was probably touch and go for Robin, and he even alludes to the fact that how important listener’s support was for him to keep pushing forward with the podcast. We all probably breathed a collective sigh of relief as he established himself ‘first among equals’, comparably with today’s important history podcasters. Interestingly, it has now been three years since he plugged in his microphone and cleared his throat. Robin, himself, would tell you he is definitely glad to have made it this far.
It is without further ado that I would finally like to introduce my interview guest, Robin Pierson. He has been very generous to give up his time in between producing his show to be interviewed by me.
For those who will undoubtedly stumble across your podcast and this interview, can you briefly tell us all where did the inspiration for your podcast come from?
“My inspiration came very specifically from “The History of Rome” podcast. Mike Duncan did a wonderful job with that show. He has such a skill in explaining complicated topics in a way which keeps you fully involved in the story. I had always been interested in Roman history but when I heard that show I thought “this is what I’ve been missing all of my life!” I think a lot of us hear cool historical stories or see a good film but never put all the pieces together. Here was an audio narrative that told you everything I needed to know about the Roman Empire. When he announced he was stopping in 476AD I wrote asking him to continue.
When it became clear that he wouldn’t I wondered if it was possibly something I could take on. I had been podcasting (about US TV shows) for several years so the technical side was no hurdle. But I wasn’t sure if I could do the research or find the sources or make the show nearly good enough. I think I’ve gotten better over time but there are certain things Mike does that I will never replicate. Hopefully I bring different things to the table which can compensate.”
One of my favourite episodes is No.27 ‘The Walking Dead’. Just to let the reader in on what happens, you spend an amazing 40 minutes covering the plague during Justinian’s reign. Not only do you tell it as a gripping narrative, you include gory detail of its medical effect and how it lives and survives via its host. That episode alone will stand the test of time! Is there a favourite episode or period of Byzantine history that you are proud of that you have covered so far? And why?
“I think the most mysterious period is definitely the rise of the Arabs and Islam. I spent months reading about it and yet there remains this giant gap in our knowledge. The tribes of Arabia had been disunited for a millenia and then suddenly they turn on their neighbours with ferocious tenacity and keep expanding their power base until they’ve supplanted both Byzantium and the Sassanid Persians.
It sounds so logical to suppose that Islam transformed them. That they had a major religious conversion and everyone was excited to go out and conquer in God’s name. But when you read more about it that just doesn’t make sense. It’s far more likely and far harder to explain that they conquered by accident and then found a common culture to explain their extraordinary success. I spent six episodes trying to explain why the Arabs overthrew Byzantium and I’m still not sure I covered it fully. I think you could spent your whole life studying it and still not be sure what happened.”
Episode 72 aired recently and I believe you have just completed the seventh century. What do you look forward to with the remainder of the podcasts life?
“The reason I think I’m well suited to telling the Roman story is that I have so many questions I want answered. How were the Byzantines able to survive? How did they see their future? How were they able to expand in the 10th and 11th centuries? Why did they then suffer another great loss to the Turks? Could the Crusades have reversed the situation? I think the story will be as dramatic and entertaining as ever up to 1204.
After the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders I think it may become a tougher job. Listeners are used to the story of a world superpower. To see instead a small, disunited Kingdom slowly disappearing may turn some off. I hope it will teach us something important about human life though. The fall of Rome in the West is in many ways an easier story, emotionally. The Franks, Goths and Vandals took control of the Empire but they didn’t destroy the culture of the conquered people. Instead French, Spanish and Italian grew from the new fusion and the Roman Empire became part of their shared past and identity. Byzantium is the other half of that story. A people who were physically and culturally removed from their homelands. Very few people today see Byzantium as a direct part of their inheritance. I think there’s a warning there to all of us.
With such a busy schedule juggling work on theTVcritic.org and the podcast, how do you find time for both?
“I don’t. TheTvCritic.org is slowly being moved into retirement. Right now “Game of Thrones” is keeping it alive and that has the added benefit of being a series set in the same era as Byzantium. But once it finishes the site will go to sleep until a time when I can give it more attention. “The History of Byzantium” takes so much time to research that I’m aiming to make it my full time job. I’m not sad about that situation. I can still enjoy TV without needing to write and podcast about it and history is so complicated that it deserves my full attention. Thankfully the listeners have so far supported me to make this possible.”
Could you tell me a little bit about how you research for the podcast?
“Unlike Mike I don’t begin with primary sources. The Byzantine authors (like all ancient sources) are written from such a specific perspective that if I started there I would simply repeat their biases. Instead I start with an outline and then go deeper with secondary sources. There are three books which are probably the most vital to begin with.
Warren Treadgold’s “History of the Byzantine State and Society” – a wonderful overview of the whole story.
JB Bury’s “History of the Later Roman Empire” – gives you a good summary of what the primary sources say.
Mark Whittow’s “The Making of Orthodox Byzantium” – the best introduction to Byzantium with a bibliography you can use to go deeper.
Once I’ve read about a topic in these books and about half a dozen others I will go to the British Library to read the most up to date scholarship ont the subject. I have read so many superb historians who dissect a topic like a detective looking at a crime scene. Once I’ve learnt everything I can about what happened I write the episode. Sometimes I only put a tiny fraction of what I’ve read into the podcast. So much of it would make the narrative needlessly complicated but I feel I owe it to the story to know everything I can.”
A small section of Robin Pierson’s personal Byzantine history library.
What has surprised you the most about Byzantium that you didn’t know?
“I think when you study an ancient people you go through a strange back and forth on how much they are like us and how different they are. There are times when Byzantine justice seems so progressive by medieval standards. The idea that you can take your case all the way to the Emperor feels impressive. But as soon as you dig a little you find that if you weren’t a somebody then you could be subject to the most appaling treatment and corruption. It offends our modern sensibilities to see how nakedly power and wealth could influence state policy. And yet the more you learn about how our world works you question whether anything has changed that much? I don’t think I’ve really touched on this in the podcast much.
To give a more complete answer I think it’s the ideology, the mindset, the way the Byzantines understood the world that has surprised me most. In part just because I didn’t give it much thought. It takes a long time to “forget” your modern perspective on how people think and feel and truly appreciate the mindset of someone from a thousand years ago. The Byzantines thought about the world in strictly religious terms. But rather than reading the Bible and then applying it to their world you often see them bend Christianity to fit the realities they faced each day. Blinding and disgfiguring your political enemies to avoid murdering them was seen by many as showing mercy. It’s hard to imagine what Jesus would have thought of that.”
My podcast heroes are luminaries Mike Duncan and Lars Brownworth, who I incidentally interviewed earlier this year. What sort of reception have you received from those who have come before you? Have you inspired others to follow in your footsteps?
“In the months before and after I launched “The History of Byzantium” it felt like there was a wave of new history podcasts appearing. I think many of us had been inspired by “The History of Rome” and with its end date in sight it felt like the right time to try it for ourselves. I should say that Dan Carlin, Nate DiMeo and Lars Brownworth were inspirations too.
I haven’t yet spoken to Mike but hope to at some point. Lars’ brother was very kind and sent me a message of support. As for the new generation of history podcasters, they have been really kind. There is a facebook group that anyone can join called “History Podcasts” where we all share ideas and interact with listeners. I have now met Jamie Jeffers (British History podcast) and Jamie Redfearn (A History of podcast) and spoken to Jordan Harbour (Twilight Histories), Roifield Brown (Ten American Presidents) and Peter Adamson (The History of Philosophy) on skype which has been great.”
I think its safe to assume that we both love Romeo-Byzantine history. Can I ask what other history in general fascinates you?
“I’ve always been interested in ancient history so the Greeks and Persians etc. I also studied the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War at school and university so they will always be something that pulls me back. But like a lot of people I probably know a little about lots of other historical periods without ever having gone in depth on them. I would love to learn more about dozens of times and places. But now I’m looking for that “History of Rome” immersive experience. I can’t just read one book anymore, I want to know everything!”
A detailed fresco of Heraclius army and the Persians under Khosrau II by Piero Della Francerca.
I ask all my interviewees this question, however, is it too early for me to ask you who are your five favourite Byzantine emperors? Can you elaborate on one?
“It probably is too early just because I couldn’t speak to anyone beyond Leo III with any authority. But perhaps to stir debate I might give an interesting top five from the ones I’ve studied so far.
1. Anastasius (491-518) 2. Maurice (582-602) 3. Heraclius (610-41) 4. Leo III (717-41) 5. Constans II (641-68)
I won’t say that list is written in stone but I like it right now. It’s definitely a reflection of my own view of politics at this moment. I think war should be about the last resort and rarely leads to anything but misery. I understand that it is the most dramatic story in the human experience and I too love learning about it. But the Byzantine story is one of ruinous war and I sympathise greatly with Emperors who avoided it or managed it well.
That’s why Justinian isn’t on this list. I don’t believe he single handedly began Byzantium’s decline but I think he could have downsized after the plague and refused to do so. Heraclius is third on the list because he did begin a civil war when the Persians were breaking through in the East and that cost the Empire. The fact that he had to lead such an amazing campaign to win it all back was partly his fault. In retrospect Anastasius was an ideal Emperor, he saved well and when war came he dealt with it swiftly and decisively. Maurice is a hugely sympathetic figure and worked very hard to stabilise a teetering state. Leo and Constans were both clever and capable but faced an uphill struggle.”
Hexagram of Constans II.
It is a thrill to occasionally hear you interview those you have contributed to the history of Byzantium. Tom Holland, David Gyllenhaal and Sean Munger are many of the first to be a part of your podcast. Will you continue to do more of the same? Did they have some insight or advise that you can share?
“I hope I can find others who will make such good interview subjects but each of those came about slightly by accident. I will definitely invite others to speak when the time is right and I have had other interview requests turned down. If any listeners have ideas for interview subjects I would be happy to hear them.
David was a listener and so was ideally placed to pitch his thesis at the right level. He has been very kind and helpful with ideas. Sean has been very generous too. I was thrilled that Tom was willing to be on the podcast. He has an amazing mind because he told me before we started that he hadn’t been working on the subject (of Islam’s origins) for several years and might be rusty. Of course he was as sharp as ever!
Finally, do you have any advice for those interested in creating their own podcast?
“I definitely want to encourage more people to podcast. In part because it can be a lot of fun but in part because I want more good things to listen to! Podcasting is becoming more popular and the amount of shows on particular topics is multiplying. So if you hope to get a large audience then you really need to think about what will make your show special or different. I think the first step would be to listen to as many podcasts as you can. You should understand the marketplace before you jump into it. Putting together a good show is time consuming too so make sure you know what you’re in for.”