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Podcast / The History of Rome

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"Hello, and welcome to The History of Rome."
—The introduction to every episode.

The History of Rome ("THoR" to its friends, 2007-2012), is a podcast by Mike Duncan. As you might expect, it covers the history of The Roman Empire from the founding of Rome to the deposal of the last Western Emperor in 476.

From humble beginnings, the show built a sizable and loyal fanbase, winning an award in 2010 for Best Educational Podcast. Duncan combined detailed, accurate research with impressive storytelling ability, a dry sense of humor and well-structured episodes, resulting in a podcast that proved as entertaining as it was informative.

Duncan followed The History of Rome with a sequel podcast, Revolutions, that began in 2013 and ended in 2022.


  • Anti-Climax: Because Duncan ended the podcast with the deposition of the last western Roman Emperor, thus stopping well short of the Byzantine Empire and the very dramatic The Fall of Constantinople, the end of the Western Roman Empire and the podcast as a whole is quite the anti-climax. The final episode is even titled "Not With a Bang, but With a Whimper."
  • Alas, Poor Scrappy: In-universe, this is Duncan's basic take on Didius Julianus, the guy who actually bought the Empire when the Praetorians auctioned it off. Septimius Severus killed him after taking over, and allegedly Julianus's last words were, "What evil have I done? Who have I murdered?" Duncan acknowledges he had a point — besides the fact that Julianus was only in charge for a few months and didn't have time to do much of anything, he was, by all accounts, a decent enough person without any hint of insanity or bloodthirsty tendencies. But he was the guy who bought the Roman Empire, and so that makes him The Scrappy of history.
  • Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity: Duncan describes Septimius Severus campaign against the Caledonians in northern Britain as a father-sons bonding trip, due to bringing both Caracalla and Geta with him in a attempt to get them to cooperate with each other and to get them away from Rome.
  • Babies Ever After: Shortly after the last episode, "Mrs. The History of Rome" gave birth to a baby boy.
  • Black Comedy: Indulges in a bit of this at times. Particularly notable when discussing Valentinian's death from a stroke he worked himself into during a furious rant. He even refers to it as the "very serious and not at all hilarious death of Valentinian."
    • Also notable when describing the assassination of Pertinax and the auctioning of the Empire to Didius Julianus.
  • Breather Episode: Duncan did a few of these, including question-and-answers and exploration of daily Roman life.
  • Butt-Monkey: Poor Claudius could not catch a break, between being widely mocked for a speech impediment, being bullied by Caligula, one engagement being broken off for political reasons, his first wife dying on their wedding day, his fourth wife openly marrying another man while still married to him, and his final wife (probably) having him assassinated to make way for Nero. A shame as Duncan considers Claudius to probably have been in the top ten greatest Roman emperors.
  • By "No", I Mean "Yes": "There weren't seven kings of Rome, but there were seven kings of Rome." By this Duncan means that Rome almost definitely did not actually have only seven kings (that would require improbably long reigns for all of them), but it had seven kings who were important to its cultural and social development and who we know about.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Caecina betrays in turn Galba for Vitellius, Vitellius for Vespasian, and then attempts to have Vespasian assassinated. Titus finally orders him executed.
  • Civil War: A frequent topic. Duncan even notes in the episode dealing with the final civil war between Octavian and Antony the sympathy he feels for the last generation of the Roman Republic, having suffered some form of continuous civil war or social turmoil since Marius and Sulla's first Civil War some 70 years prior.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Duncan is a master of sarcasm and irony. He even snarks about it in his episode of Julian the Apostate, noting that he's not sure if it's ironic by some definitions, but he thinks it's ironic that the last Constantinian Emperor tried to halt the spread of Christianity when the first did the most to marry the state to the growing Church.
  • Dramatic Irony: We all know how the Roman story ends up, but Mike tries as much as possible to put the narrative in the Romans' shoes, creating quite a lot of this.
  • The Dreaded: The Celts become this after they sack Rome in the early fourth century BC.
    • Hannibal would take on this mantle when he invaded Italy.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first few episodes are much less polished and substantially more variable in length. His delivery also sounds much less nuanced and stresses are much less notable compared to his later work and especially compared to Revolutions. Part of this is due to inferior audio equipment during the first few episodes. In one of his Twitter Q&As he denied specifically training his storyteller voice and said it came about organically.
    • The early episodes are also much shorter than the runtimes fans would come to know, clocking in at just over 10 minutes apiece. The History of Rome and his sequel podcast, Revolutions, would settle in at around 25-30 minutes per episode, with the occasional epic length episode thrown in for good measure.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Caligula was deeply attached to his sister Drusilla, and refused to leave her side when she was stricken with the illness that ultimately claimed her life.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Sure, the early Christians were often ostracized by the Romans, and the Romans were willing to accept Nero's claim that they had burned down Rome in the Great Fire, but when Nero began to persecute Christians en masse and went to far as to crucify them, then burn them alive as they were crucified so they could serve as torches for his nightly parties, the Roman population was horrified.
  • The Ghost: Duncan's girlfriend, later fiancĂ©e, and then wife, known as "Mrs. The History of Rome" after they got married in 2010. She finally appeared on the 100th episode in a two-second cameo.
  • Glory Days: For Duncan, Rome's high period was the period of its founding to the victory over Hannibal at Zama. He cites this as his favorite period in Roman history.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Duncan points out that the Republic stops being republican as it expands territory yet zealously restricts citizenship and voting rights to its fellow population. Caesar was a populist reformer who tried to expand rights and bring about reforms but eroded the Republican government in his attempt to grab power.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Due to covering the entire history of Rome from its founding in 753 B.C.E. to the Western Empire's collapse, Duncan ends up covering periods of Roman history not often represented in other media, such as the Roman Kingdom period and pre-Punic Wars Republican era.
    • The clearest example is the "Crisis of the Third Century", a period he only knew about in the broad strokes, but found utterly fascinating while chronicling it. It's a stretch where the Empire nearly fell (and probably should have), only to pull through thanks to the heroic efforts of a series of Illyrian-born soldier-emperors.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!:invoked Duncan feels this way about some Emperors who died before they could fulfill their potential. He especially cites Aurelian, calling his death by assassination an incident "I still get angry about". While he's more skeptical about Julian the Apostate, he also feels that his ideas were so ambitious that historians "are never gonna stop discussing what might have been had he lived longer"
  • Irony: Discussed at length in a humorous aside, with Duncan musing that he's not sure anything meets the actual definition of irony, and it's just some completely undefinable concept that exists for the sole purpose of ensnaring well-meaning people and making them look silly.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Duncan mentioned that after completing recording an episode, he treated himself to a nice beer or other drink. (This carried onto his next project, Revolutions.)
  • Jerkass: Duncan's opinion of Romulus. He points out that Romulus murdered his brother and ordered the Rape of the Sabine Women, and says that it's enough to make him want to root against Rome.
  • Klingon Promotion: Happened a lot during the last centuries of the Roman Empire, with the assassination of Caracalla in 217 kicking off a long series of these.
  • Mission Creep: He notes that it largely happened because of a failure of the Senate to properly control its army by the end of the Punic Wars, leaving Generals like Scipio Africanus to decide how to pay for their wages, upkeep and remuneration, and forcing politicians, opportunists and reformers both, to start using offices as a path to power and slowly exceeding their command. The end result led to temporary titles like Dictator becoming Dictator perpetuo and imperator becoming Emperor.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Aurelian's assassin's regretted their actions about 37 seconds after killing the emperor.
  • Never Found the Body: The fate of Decius, his body lost in a swampy battlefield.
  • Refuge in Audacity: One of Aurelian's secretaries was facing death for some malfeasance, and in desperation he settled on a breathtakingly audacious strategy: he forged a document purporting to show that Aurelian planned to kill several of his high officials. It worked, in the sense that the panicked officials assassinated Aurelian in an effort to save their skins. It failed, in the sense that the duped assassins were indescribably angry once they realized what the secretary had done, and killed him in rather painful fashion.
  • Running Gag:
  • Sequel Escalation: Duncan humorously compares the career of Gaius Gracchus compared to his brother to this trope
  • Short-Lived, Big Impact: Discussed during the reign of Aurelian, a short-lived emperor who nevertheless was highly successful at bringing some measure of stability to the Empire until his untimely death. Duncan invokes the concept of career vs. peak value in baseball to get the point across.
  • Top Ten List: As part of the Q&A in the 100th episode, Duncan ranked his top five best emperors and top five worst emperors:
    • Top five best emperorsnote :
      • 5. Hadrian
      • 4. Constantine the Great
      • 3. Trajan
      • 2. Diocletian
      • 1. Augustus
    • Top five worst emperors:
      • 5. Elagabalus
      • 4. Nero
      • 3. Caracalla
      • 2. Caligula
      • 1. Commodus
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not Duncan himself, but rather the ancient sources he pulls the material for the podcast from. He's quick to point out that, for example, the absolute lambasting of Emperor Domitian is the result of the fact that he didn't give the senate much say in the way his administration was run, and the senators were typically the ones writing the history books.
    • This becomes a chronic issue starting in the Crisis of the Third Century, with Duncan repeatedly acknowledging that the sources he's relying on are untrustworthy, contradictory and, often, totally non-existent. Entire chronologies of incredibly important events are jumbled to the point where Duncan is reduced to the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
  • Wedding Episode: Variation. One of the breathers covers Roman wedding customs and the marital lives of Romans over the centuries. This one was precipitated by his own marriage to "Mrs. The History of Rome."
  • Wicked Stepmother: Duncan notes that the ancient Roman sources loved this trope, with Livia (wife of Augustus), Agrippina the Younger (wife of Claudius) and Fausta (wife of Constantine the Great) all being accused of orchestrating the murder of their stepsons in order for their own sons to inherit the throne.
  • Written by the Winners: Duncan notes that many of the ancient sources about various emperors were written during the reigns of their opponents or their opponents successors. An example is Vitellius (who reigned during the Year of the Four Emperors), where much of the info comes from Tacitus, who owned his rank to the Flavian emperors, and Suetonius, whose father had fought with Otho against Vitellius.
    • He makes a similar point about the emperor Domitian, who long had a terrible reputation based on the histories of the time. The problem is that those histories were written by members of the Senatorial class, and Domitian had nothing but open contempt for the Senate and ruled openly and unapologetically as a singular authoritarian figure.