So, being a commuter I spend a lot of time on trains. Some of this time I endevour to spend profitably, some of it I waste. I’ve recently ventured into the world of podcasts in search of entertainment during the long hours, and so I thought I’d do some reviews of some of my recent discoveries.
12 Byzantine Rulers
Available through ITunes or from the author’s website.
This series of podcasts are labelled as ‘lectures’ and right from the introduction the author (Lars Brownworth) makes it clear that he doesn’t like modern history methods, and that he thinks history is actually made by individuals and has very little to do with ‘movements’.
Everyone has a right to their own approach to history (that’s one of the advantages!), but I have to admit to finding these podcasts a little irritating. For starters the author repeatedly refers to what the emperors were thinking or feeling, which we just can’t know, and makes incredible leaps of assumption for which only hindsight really justifies. He glosses over or only gives a brief nod to significant debates (for instance, the extent to which Constantine might be considered a Christian), following the old-fashioned approach of presenting history as truth, rather than as constantly evolving opinion.
I assumed that this was because the author is an enthusiast with perhaps little, or out-dated, historical education. I mean, his approach is essentially Victorian in its focus on ‘great men’, dates and battles. But apparently Lars is actually a high-school teacher. I guess this explains why he calls them ‘lectures’, which seems a little incongruous. Though the New York Times does say that he is self-taught amateur, he actually has a bachelor’s degree in history, so one might expect a little more rigour. But I assume he has decided to forgo that in order to popularise the period and make it more accessible.
What is particularly worrying about this set of podcasts is how people have really jumped on it. It’s great to see Byzantine history getting a bit more attention (I too knew nothing about it until studying it at undergrad), but the author’s approach is old-fashioned and doesn’t encourage critical thought or interpretation.
If you like old-fashioned dates-and-battles history and can tolerate widespread assumptions and ‘personalising’ of the emperors then I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s reasonable entertainment for everyone who likes historical romances or murder-mysteries. But let’s face it, podcasting is self-indulgent, and whatever the New York Times thinks, this isn’t good educational material.
Though I can’t recommend it for anyone who’s studied history, it does have one very strong advantage. The 12 Byzantine Rulers covers a time/place that saw the birth of the west’s relationship with Islam, and considering the current situation, we could all do with more knowledge of that.