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

Fans of Paul Cooper’s podcast Fall of Civilizations will know that it typically starts in a selected method. A traveller, incessantly a long way from house, encounters a spoil that hints at a limiteless and forgotten tale of the previous.

Hiding from bandits within the wilderness, the Italian nobleman Pietro della Valle takes refuge within the shadow of the crumbling Ziggurat of Ur. Clambering during the rubble of a as soon as magnificent web site of Roman Britain, an unknown poet of the 8th or 9th century writes an elegy to the damaged “paintings of giants”.

With the scene set, the piano theme performs and the listener is on their method, transported – if just for some time – from the 21st century, with its crises of economics, local weather and Covid, to the time of the Aztecs, the Sumerians or the Vikings.

Historical past – most likely in particular the historical past of the traditional global – supplies an break out from our personal instances.

“I am getting numerous feedback from other people announcing they have got discovered it actually useful over the lockdown, particularly for the reason that display vaults internationally between episodes,” Cooper says of his podcast, which tells the tales of civilisations that rose to nice energy sooner than falling into spoil. The episodes are incessantly greater than 3 hours lengthy – and typically recorded in a single take. Greater than 12 million other people have watched the episode at the Sumerians on YouTube on my own. Cooper, who takes six to 8 weeks to put in writing every episode and has greater than 2,000 sponsors on Patreon, makes a just right residing from the podcast.

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

Huw Lemmey, a co-host of the Unhealthy Gays podcast, which profiles “evil and complex queers in historical past”, says the listener enjoy may also be “escapist or transporting”. Unhealthy Gays is the supply of my favorite historic comparability – between Alexander the Nice and Whitney Houston. “Just right podcasts are, via their nature, intimate kinds of broadcasting and I feel other people have liked that, particularly all through Covid,” Lemmey says.

My want for podcast escapism precedes Covid. Over one week in the summertime of 2019, my son was once born and my better half’s mother was once taken to health facility, the place she was once later recognized with an competitive type of most cancers. We left London in a hurry, staying at her house in a village within the west of England. I didn’t personal a automobile, however I used to be riding to and from health facility maximum days. After I wasn’t there, I used to be pushing a buggy round Bristol or taking my tiny kid on three-hour spherical journeys to look his godfather in Oxford.

It was once on those drives that I began paying attention to Fall of Civilizations, Unhealthy Gays and The Historical past of Rome, one of the vital pioneers of the traditional historical past style. That podcast’s author, an American referred to as Mike Duncan, was once running as a fishmonger when he began it in 2007. He’s now an creator and full-time podcaster.

Like Duncan, Cooper isn’t a qualified historian. He describes Dan Carlin, the author of the podcast Hardcore Historical past, as “the true grasp of the shape”, and in addition praises Patrick Wyman’s The Fall of Rome. Lemmey lauds One from the Vaults, Morgan M Web page’s “sensible trans historical past podcast”.

After I started the ones drives, I frightened that song would stay my child unsleeping, however I didn’t need to concentrate to information or present affairs programmes. I had by no means listened to podcasts. Quite than retaining him unsleeping, tales of antiquity lulled my son into a cheerful sleep. On the wheel, the power and ache of existence looked as if it would raise as I travelled with my new better half to far off puts. I recalled that Iggy Pop had discovered some respite from the “meanness, tedium and depravity” of his existence on excursion within the early 80s via studying Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – an enjoy he later recounted in a peer-reviewed magazine.

“When you find yourself a tender boy, what appeals to you is Caesar or Alexander the Nice, or travellers like Herodotus,” says Phiroze Vasunia, a professor of Greek at UCL. “Transportation to another global, a fable global that is the same and other on the similar time, is a part of the enchantment of historical historical past. The romance of it’s been constructed up over a very long time via Hollywood, via TV, novels and performs.”

Cooper says: “Oral storytelling is essentially the most historical shape. Our maximum historical tales, like [The Epic of] Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, all derive from tales that started sooner than the discovery of writing. They have been memorised and browse via center, converting with every telling. Podcasting has introduced oral storytelling into the virtual global – and it’s simply as standard these days because it was once within the time of Homer.”

Whilst the traditional global can give an break out from our darkish instances, it could additionally grasp up a replicate to them. The ruined cultures of the Fall of Civilizations tended additionally to be suffering from local weather trade (albeit now not artifical local weather trade) and ravaged via inequality, colonialism or each. Our democracy may also be when put next, favourably and unfavourably, to that of the Greeks. The form of our global may also be observed in theirs. As Vasunia says, we will be able to input the fable land of the traditional global after which “realise that it comes with its personal obstacles and repressions”.

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

Listeners to Cooper’s podcast are eternally joking that he must do an episode on modern day Britain or america. However comparisons with the existing day may also be useful.

“I am getting numerous messages from individuals who concentrate to the podcast who say it offers them a way of despair, but in addition a way of convenience,” Cooper says. “I feel it makes them realise that the sensation that you just’re residing thru a uniquely disruptive or chaotic time, the sensation that issues are coming aside and that the constructions you relied upon are failing … that’s now not a singular feeling; other people have felt that all over historical past.”

We were having a look after our child and my spouse’s mom for greater than part a yr when the primary Covid lockdown started. Fantasies of break out have been ever provide and feature been in our tradition for reasonably a while. Other folks sought after to flee Brexit or Trump – or they sought after to make The united states nice once more or convey again the British empire.

In spite of everything, fantasies of break out are simply that: fantasies. My better half’s mother died. A month later, my grandma after which my uncle died. I had every other lengthy force to make, this time to my grandmother’s funeral, this time alone. I seemed into the again seat of the automobile for my better half, however he wasn’t there.

I had our tales, although, and in them there was once aid.

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