Fall of Rome - Podcast & Mindmap

Fall of Rome - Podcast & Mindmap

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This activity has been designed to fit a 10-minute slot for your class. Based on a 5-minute podcast, students have to fill in a mind map to identify the main reasons for Rome's fall.

It is part of our Fall of Rome pack where you can find:

  • A 5-minute podcast explaining in simple terms why Rome fell (MP3)
  • A short text to fill in and a diagram to complete based on that podcast (Word, PDF)
  • The transcript and answer keys are all included (Word, PDF)
  • You also have a choice of two wrap-up activities/open questions, should you want to go further, according to your students' level of abilities (Word, PDF)

Should you need it, check out our “cheat sheets” to give your students such as tips to write a great essay or tools to make your life easier, such as marking grids.

Our Site is a non-profit organization. If you found this resource helpful, please donate to help us produce more free materials.

Roman Britain fell fast, and it fell hard. Into the ruins of this world stepped a wave of migrants from the North Sea coast of the Continent whom we know as the Anglo-Saxons. This migration, a complex and dynamic movement of people over the course of 200 years, rewrote the political, demographic, linguistic, and cultural maps of eastern Britain, transforming it into England.

Why didn’t Rome rise again? Everywhere else in the world, the appearance of one great empire was marked by their recurrent resurgence, but in Europe it happened only once. Professor Walter Scheidel of Stanford University – the author of numerous outstanding books on Rome and beyond, most recently “The Great Leveler”, on the history of economic inequality – argues that this lack of recurring empires is what laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of Europe, the Great Divergence, that underpins the modern world of today.

Ox History Blog

In my last post, I said I had been listening to two new podcasts this month. The first was Slow Burn by Slate. The second is a show called The Fall of Rome by a podcaster called Patrick Wyman – who went into sports journalism after finishing a history PhD, but still provides a state of the art view of the end of the Western Roman empire (whatever form that may take). I’ve read plenty on Rome, what makes this different?

Well, Wyman is able to approach the topic on multiple levels, from multiple angles: not just the political fall of the empire and its military causes that went along with it, but the economic and social processes that went along with it. He’s well versed in the unresolved debates and discussions that go along with the topic – were the barbarians ethnically unified peoples or mixed bands of soldiers under particular leaders what exactly did it mean when these armies settled? Going higher, what do we even mean by the Fall of Rome? Wyman’s own PhD topic was to show a decline in transport and communication, by showing a decline in the frequency of letters that would have been sent via travellers. And that is the level of detail that he can delve into. His grasp of the material feels reassuringly secure, but he’s open about having own take on some of the topic’s controversies.

He does make these ideas accessible through fictional biographies of invented characters – describing how these processes and changes would have appeared to those who were living through them. Some of these changes would have been gradual, but others (Britain in particular) had a short, sharp decline. I’ve tried reading various views on this area of Late Antiquity – Peter Heather, Chris Wickham, Bryan Ward-Perkins – but seeing the ideas compared and contrasted directly, Wyman presents a very plausible story. In podcasts, Mike Duncan is still probably the best narrative start to this topic but Patrick Wyman is definitely essential for anyone who wants a more detailed analytical approach to the end of Rome.


On the outskirts of modern Istanbul, a line of ancient walls lies crumbling into the earth…

In this episode, we look at one of history’s most incredible stories of survival – the thousand-year epic of the Byzantine Empire. Find out how this civilization suffered the loss of its Western half, and continued the unbroken legacy of Rome right through the middle ages. Hear about how it formed a bridge between two continents, and two ages, and learn how the impregnable walls of Constantinople were finally brought crashing to the ground.

This episode, we’re joined by the choir from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London, and a number of musicians playing traditional Byzantine instruments such as the Byzantine lyra, the Qanun and the Greek Santur.

You can follow the podcast on Twitter at @Fall_of_Civ_Pod, and listen to the new episode here:

The History of Rome

97- The Fall of Hercules

Commodus went off the deep end around 190 AD. He was killed two years later by his inner circle.


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Granted Commodus was one of the worst emperors ever. But it made for a great episode. Keep up the good work Mike.

I agree Hurcules, sorry Commodus, was a very intresting story. After a amazing podcast so far, Im really looking forward to the next half/3rd/quarter (delete as approiate), because I know nothing about the next part of roman history apart from a small bit on Diocletion and Constantine. So Keep up the brilliant work Mike.

I loved this episode and how Mike just told it so perfectly. I would love to see an episode on Gladiators and the other games. Keep doing the great work Mike

especially loved the beginning Maximus Decimus Meridius one of histories most important figures LOL

Hey Mike,
I'm currently finishing my sophomore year of high school and I have to say that I love listening to this podcast on my bus rides to and from school. So far I've taken Latin for 2 years and am planning on taking it for another. This podcast has really helped me with the culture part of the course and I've impressed my teacher, who is also a Roman history buff, with the knowledge that I've gained from this podcast. Thanks for the hard work and keep it up. --Parker

The Part about Commodus as a Gladiator was a little scary but Mike did a great job on this episode. It was intresting escpacially the assaniaton. How did he get that close right after a botched assassination. It is also intresting that Commodus went so crazy and managed to make it 12 years as emperor. Why was he not stopped early? How did they botch 2 attempts? Commodus just went crazy after 190 AD. I guess that is what happens when you give a 19 year old become emperor. What style of gladitorial did Commodus practice? Why did he not serve in the legions if he loved combat so much? He was crazy enough to begin a gladiator.
Thank You Mike for another Great Episode
Can not wait for the next one

Can anyone recommend a good book about the fall of Rome?

Hi All!
I was surprised that such a terrible emperor lasted as long as he did. On reflection though, there would be modern despots that lasted longer, so that says something about modern society. we're no more clever or braver than the average Roman, if anything, we may be less so. For Chris and others.
While not just about the "fall" of the empire, Robin Lane Fox's "The Classical World" did put the ups and downs into perspective for me. His chapter near the end of the book, "Presenting The Past", is an interesting take on all the other history writers who covered the topic. As for Mike's podcast, it is up there with the best, and he is just getting to the start of the decline phase, so keep listening. This work will be referenced in other major works in the future.

"I strongly predict. that your histories will be immortal. so I want to be included in them." Pliny to Tacitus Letters 7.33

Posted by: Luise (Tasmania,Australia) | June 08, 2010 at 06:33 PM

For those interested in historical fiction, you may want to try "Caesar Dies!" by Talbot Mundy (worth reading for the title alone) about the assassination of Commodus. It manages to mix Bulwer-Lytton style writing with pulp-fiction themes, but manages to be fairly accurate in its historical points.

"You stay classy, commodus" !laughing!

Can you give out the names of the books that you used for this podcast? Thsnks

Kevin, it seems that Gibbon's work is mentioned a bit, his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" might be worth a read. I have purchased a copy on the net, can't wait to get it.

Posted by: Luise (Tasmania,Australia) | June 11, 2010 at 02:52 AM

Hi - an apt time to post a link of a recent discovery in York, just down the road (A19), from myself, of possibly the world's best preserve Gladiator Cemetery, discovered only recently.

Posted by: paul from middlesbrough,england | June 11, 2010 at 04:14 PM

Mike, you mentioned that Commodus drove the empire into debt, meaning that all reserves in gold were spent and borrowing ensued. My question is who was lending the money after all the gold was gone? Did Commodus give them IOU's. -) If Rome controlled all the sources of wealth, it would perhaps be wealthy individuals from the Empire/Senate, who probably lost their claims after Cleander took their estates thru prescriptions. Thus wiping out the debt figuratively and literally. Is that the case?

I think the reason people like Commodus, Domitian(if you see him as a cruel tyrant) and Nero lasted so long was because their rule was never in doubt or illegitimate. Commodus was part of an imperial succession dynasty going back 90 years. It would be hard for people to accept a usurper, as his muderers would be over him. The same goes for Domitian and Nero. Caligula I think was the craziesst of them all. He and Commodus just seem to have been insane. Nero at least was not all bad, and like Domitian, concerned himself with governance.

The same air of legitimacy continues today in North Korea with Kim Jong Il, and it was the same in Iraq. Inertia is the great friend of tyrants as people never want to change the status quo.

I've enjoyed the videos on YouTube from the lectures on "Roman Architecture" by Professor Diana Kleiner. The coverage is fantastic and exhaustive architecturally, but the history at times seems a bit suspect. She has been on various PBS and History Channel presentations before, so she might be familiar to some of you.

For example, in Lecture 17: Bigger is Better, Professor Kleiner discusses the death of Commodus.

Here is the link, and the relevant statements start at minute 47:40 (

Specifically, Professor Kleiner states that it was the "famous gladiator" Narcissus killed the Emperor in gladiatorial combat in the arena itself.

Of course, there are various and often contradictory stories of the Emperors from the ancient sources, but it is strange to see such a tremendously skilled Professor make such a definitive statement that contradicts with the podcast. Therefore, I was wondering if Mike could direct us (or, anyone else reading) to the sources that back the story in the podcast (i.e. that the Emperor was strangled in his private bath by his wrestling partner Narcissus). Also, Mike's description makes more sense in that a private assassination fits nicely with the fact that Pertinax's conspiracy to take over required speed, secrecy, and presentation to the army and Senate as a "fait accompli". A public slaughter in the arena does NOT further these ends.

I just wanted to mention it for comment - as it threw me for a bit of an historical loop.


3.45- The Fall of Mantua

Bonaparte almost gets beat! But then he doesn't. Also don't invade Ireland in December.


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Rabble rabble continue to 1815 rabble rabble.

If not now, maybe as a possible project once you cycle through all of the revolutions up to [the Arab Spring?] whichever revolution you decide to end with, or after Haiti since it ends in 1804 anyway.

Mexican War of Independence. 1810-1821
Grab bag of Latin American Independence Wars? 1810-1833
Greek War of Independence 1821-1829
Belgian Revolution 1830
Obligatory 1848 Revolutions
Meiji Restoration 1866-1868
Paris Commune 1871

If anyone's looking for a good audiobook, Napoleon - A Life is on Audible and it's a great, comprehensive yet easy listen with a very good narrator.

It's even-handed, making use of all the evidence that has come out in the past 15ish years (we'd been working till recently with only like 2/3 of the documents from his regime, for instance). It's no apologetic, it doesn't hide the seedier side of the reign (the treatment of the Haitians for example, which even Nappy called his own greatest mistake) but it also disputes and debunks the things that don't stand up to scrutiny (not really a proto-Hitler when your the one attacked or Declared war on twice as often as not).

It's a great first bio on the topic, with enough new info and perspective to keep an old grog nard like me interested. I give it five Liberty Hats.

Stupid phone auto spell. There's a your that ought to be a you're up there.

Oh, the author is Andrew Roberts. Probably should e mentioned that.

sooo when are you going to start those lynda tutorials mike?

In both the American and French Revolution podcasts, there is a lot of talk about 'columns' in the military battles. What is this? I'm imagining some narrow band ifs oldies stacked up behind each other and moving forward, like a column. But this would seem very easily flanked.

Columns were good for rapid movement of troops and were also used sometimes in attacks/charges. It's not quite as well known these days as the more traditional line formations of the same period.

Have I told you I would love to hear about Ataturk?

Thank you so much for your podcast. I am learning so much!!

Congrats. You actually gave a better description of Napoleon's early Italian campaign than the Napoleon Podcast. It's even more complimentary which is saying a lot since you call out his mistakes and the Napoleon podcast is unapologetically pro Napoleon. But in their defense they go into the salacious details on what Josephine was doing during the campaign you can't.

Columns in Napoleonic warfare were masses of men in a rectangular formation typically thrown a to punch through na enemy line. Think of a car hitting a picket fence and you get a good visual. They were hardly a Napoleonic idea but he did favor them. If the column was supported by effective artillery, had a reasonably covered/concealed route, and the enemy troops/dispositions shaky it often won the day - like at Austerlitz. But if those conditions were not met using columns could be a fiasco – like Waterloo.

BTW, Ataturk would be cool. But what he actually did for Turkey could be debated as not actually being a revolution. When he died (way too soon, IMO) most of his work stopped. All his successors sought to do was maintain his new status quo. The current Turkish regime is working it's butt off trying to reverse even those changes. That said, the changes he worked in Turkey more profound. How much so? For starters he changed the Turkish language so much when the government broadcasts his speeches from the ཐs and ཚs the modern Turks can't understand him. The government has to provide translation. Think on that. If we had recordings of Pres. Washington we could understand him even though he lived over 200 years ago.

Was the German occupations of Jersey and Guernsey not an occupation of UK territory?

In-Depth Podcast on the Fall of the Roman Empire

Hi, Reddit! My name is Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD in history at USC a couple of months ago on the fall of the Roman Empire. It's pretty frustrating to me that academic historians don't spend a whole lot of time talking to the interested public, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was and do a podcast on the topic I spent a decade working on. I'm up to date on the latest work in archaeology, archaeoscience (genetics, stable isotope analysis, things like that), paleoclimate, and paleoepidemiology, in addition to the standard texts.

I'm now four episodes into the show, and so far I've done an introduction and three segments on the Goths' journey from barbaricum, the territory beyond the frontier, to the sack of Rome itself in 410 AD. In the future, I'll be covering the Roman economy in great depth, communications and human mobility (my particular specialty), and how the fall is best approached as a regional phenomenon that affected different places in different ways at different times.

If that sounds interesting to you, give The Fall of Rome a listen on Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, or any other platform of your choice. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have, too, either here or on Twitter (@Patrick_Wyman).

Are We Rome Yet?

Are we Rome? It’s a question people in the United States have been asking for almost as long as there’s been a United States. It’s also the title of a 2007 book by Cullen Murphy, editor-­at-large of the Atlantic and—full disclosure—­my dad. The book struck a nerve at a time when the United States was mired in two unending wars, beset by growing inequality, and on the verge of economic collapse. But a lot’s changed since then now we have the wars, the inequality, the threat of economic collapse plus a global pandemic and a president who was once the star of The Apprentice. So with the fall of Rome on everyone’s minds again, I called up my paterfamilias a few months ago to ask a variation of another age-old question: Are we there yet?

Have you read the essay we’re running? What did you think of the premise?

I agree with it 100 percent. I think people have a wrong sense of what the quote-unquote “Fall of Rome” actually was. The date for the Western Empire is always given as 476 A.D. And there’s a particular event that occurs and that is taken as the marker for when the empire ended. But if you were alive at that point and you asked someone in Gaul, or Hispania, or Africa, “Hey, did you hear about the fall of Rome?” no one would know what you were talking about.

It wasn’t a single catastrophic collapse. It was a slow, lumbering, messy deterioration. When you look at what is happening to the United States right now you see something very similar. It’s not being caused by one single silver bullet of a threat. It’s many things happening at once, whether it’s lack of investment in core activities, whether it’s diminishing trust in institutions, whether it’s growing corruption, whether it’s inequality.

I remember once asking a great scholar of Rome, Ramsay MacMullen, if he could sum up the history of the Roman Empire in a very limited number of words. His sentence was, “Fewer have more.” It’s not hard to look around you and see something similar.

Is there any late-stage Roman emperor who you see as a Trump-type figure?

Well, part of me always goes to Emperor Commodus.

From Gladiator?

Yes. He was the son of Marcus Aurelius, and the transition from Marcus Aurelius being the “philosopher king” to Commodus being this awful, decadent, brain-dead ruler—I can’t help but think of it in present circumstances.

There’s a wonderful contemporary bust of Commodus. It’s him dressed up as a gladiator, and he’s got animal skins on his head, and he’s carrying a club in one hand—you might want to google it and take a look. And whenever I see that bust of him presenting himself to the world as he wants to be presented, I can’t help but think of that Mar-a-­Lago portrait of Trump in tennis whites.

[Googling] He was looking pretty good! I thought you might argue that he was like a Visigoth or a Vandal.

That’s selling the Visigoths and the Vandals short! Take Alaric. He was a Goth, and he’s responsible for the sack of Rome in 410. But he came from a part of the empire that had once been Roman. He spoke Latin, as well as his own language. He was given positions of responsibility in the Roman military. He was well connected with imperial institutions. The view of the “barbarians” as people who simply wanted to wreck stuff is often very wrong. In many ways what they wanted more than anything was to be part of the ongoing good thing that they saw the Empire as being.

Have you caught yourself thinking of different analogs as the Trump administration has gone on?

I don’t make narrow, specific comparisons too often. I do find myself thinking of America and Rome repeatedly and wondering whether, if I were to write the book now, I would write it differently. I think I would not, because the issues that the book brought up were not really tied to the deeds or misdeeds of any one president or party they were things that were built into the very nature of the way our country is built and is positioned in the world.

Those are things like the vast military overextension around the world, or the hollowing out of public institutions. That’s a long-term phenomenon, and it has the effect of reducing the capacity of government to do things. You see examples of that occurring all the time—Robert Kraft sending a plane to China to bring back medical supplies to be used in Massachusetts. Great. But this is just a classic example of relying on the ad hoc generosity of the private sector to do something that the government ought to be doing anyway.

Gronk seems to have late-Roman energy.

Gronk would have made a very good sculpture. That can be your last line of the piece.

Depending on the time, place, and identity of the observer, this process could look and feel much different. Let’s say you were a woman born in a thriving market town in Roman Britain in the year 360. If you survived to age 60, that market town would no longer exist, along with every other urban settlement of any significant size. You lived in a small village now instead of a genuine town. You had grown up using money, but now you bartered—grain for metalwork, beer for pottery, hides for fodder. You no longer saw the once-ubiquitous Roman army or the battalions of officials who administered the Roman state. Increasing numbers of migrants from the North Sea coast of continental Europe—pagans who didn’t speak a word of Latin or the local British language, certainly not wage-earning servants of the Roman state—were already in the process of transforming lowland Britain into England. That 60-year-old woman had been born into a place as fundamentally Roman as anywhere in the empire. She died in a place that was barely recognizable.

Let’s consider an alternative example. Imagine you were lucky enough to have been born the son of an aristocrat in Provence around the year 440. If you survived to the age of 60, your life at the end would not seem drastically different from what it was at the beginning. You paid your taxes, assuming you couldn’t dodge them, to a Burgundian or Visigothic king rather than a Roman emperor. Other than that, your life was pretty much the same. You still had your fancy villa with its bathhouse and library and comfortable furniture. You still wrote letters to your aristocratic friends and relatives in an educated Latin style so tortured that it was more of a status-signaling device than a means of communication. You still played politics in the nearest city, which was mostly as it was at the time of your birth: fewer people maybe, a local bishop with more influence, the buildings a bit more run down, but still recognizable. In your more self-aware moments, perhaps you recognized that the world had changed since your youth, but it wasn’t a huge concern. That aristocrat’s life changed little in material or ideological terms.

Yet even in the most extreme cases of rapid transformation, like Britain, northern Gaul, and the Balkans, the day-to-day experience of living in a falling empire could be surprisingly banal. The tax collectors didn’t show up, which meant lower revenues for the provincial administration. A crumbling bridge and road never got the necessary repairs, so a formerly prosperous town was cut off from the transport network. Without revenues, pay and supplies of grain and wine never arrived for the local soldiers, who decided they would no longer carry out patrols to protect against marauders. That was when the banal might suddenly become much more serious: Without soldiers, a talented barbarian war leader on the other side of the frontier decided to try his hand at raiding formerly protected territory. After some successful pillaging, that barbarian came back the next time with an army.

The fall of an empire —the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue. Supply carts failing to arrive at some nameless fort because of a dysfunctional military bureaucracy a corrupt official deciding to cook the books and claim taxes were collected when they really weren’t a greedy aristocrat bribing that official instead of paying his bill, an aqueduct falling to pieces and nobody willing to front the funds to repair it.

Consider the city of Rome, no longer the capital as the empire wound down but still its symbolic heart. It suffered two dramatic sackings in the 5th century, the first at the hands of the Visigoths in 410, the second carried out by the Vandals in 455. But neither of those famous plunderings did the city in. By some estimates, Rome still had at least 100,000 inhabitants well into the barbarian Ostrogoths’ period of rule. What shrank Rome to a few tens of thousands by the middle of the 6th century was the end of the annona , the intricate state-subsidized grain shipments that brought food to the city from North Africa and Sicily. The megacity of Rome was an artificial creation of the Roman state and its Roman-style Ostrogothic successor. Rome faced sieges and a plague outbreak in the 530s and 540s, but Rome had dealt with sieges and plagues before. What it could not survive was the cutting of its grain supply, and the end of the administrative apparatus that ensured its regular delivery.

Those were small things, state-subsidized ships pulling up to docks built at state expense, sacks of grain hauled on squealing carts and distributed to the citizens, but an empire is an agglomeration of small things. One by one, the arrangements and norms that enabled those small things fell away not all at once, not everywhere, but slowly and inexorably. That’s the reality, far more than a climactic battlefield defeat or a deranged emperor single-handedly ruining a stable structural arrangement.

None of this is to say that there weren’t climactic battlefield defeats and wild disasters as the Roman Empire in the west and the Roman world came apart in slow, tortuous, almost imperceptible fashion. Incompetent rulers and psychopathic powers behind the throne did their part. Plagues appeared out of nowhere, killing millions. The climate slowly worsened, growing less stable and colder, with more frequent droughts and a less dependable growing season for key staple crops. The late Roman Empire faced enormous challenges, both natural and human-made. There’s no doubt of that.

Yet every state and society faces serious challenges. The difference lies in whether the underlying structures are healthy enough to effectively respond to those challenges. Viewed in this light, it’s less the massive earthquake than whether the damaged infrastructure is rebuilt not the crushing battlefield defeat, but whether competent new recruits and materiel can be found to replace what’s lost not the feckless, unclothed emperor, but whether the political system can either effectively work around him or remove him from power altogether. Successful states and societies are resilient when faced with serious challenges. Falling empires are not.

Whatever date you pick for the fall of the Roman Empire—perhaps you’re a 476 traditionalist, or maybe you’re like me and you prefer the turbulent wave of downturns in the 530s and 540s—the relevant fact is that the die was cast long before then. The same will eventually be true of the fall of the United States, assuming there’s anybody left in our climatically uncertain future to write that history. All empires think they’re special, but all empires eventually come to an end. The United States won’t be an exception.

The popular story version of this particular falling empire might focus on a twice-divorced serial philanderer and bullshit artist and make him the villain, rendering his downfall or ultimate triumph the climax of the narrative. But it’s far more likely that the real meat of the issue will be found in a tax code full of sweetheart deals for the ultra-wealthy, the slashed budgets of county public health offices, the lead-contaminated water supplies. And that’s to say nothing of the decades of pointless, self-perpetuating, and almost undiscussed imperial wars that produce no victories but plenty of expenditures in blood and treasure, and a great deal of justified ill will.

Historians will look back at some enormous disaster, either ongoing now or in the decades or centuries to come, and say it was just icing on the cake. The foundation had already been laid long before, in the text of legislation nobody bothered reading, in local elections nobody was following, in speeches nobody thought were important enough to comment on, in a thousand tiny disasters that amounted to a thousand little cuts on the body politic.

It took a long time, decades, for the true reality of the change to hit the Romans whose writings have survived. Aristocratic Roman officials in Italy maintained the same kind of bureaucratic structure their fathers and grandfathers had, writing the same kinds of administrative letters for Ostrogothic kings of Italy that they had for emperors beforehand. The pull of the past is strong. The mental frameworks through which we understand the world are durable, far more than its actual fabric. The new falls into the old, square pegs into round holes no matter how poor the fit, simply because the round holes are what we have available.

We don’t have to wait decades for all this to sink in. The nature of the problem and its scale are clear now, right now, on the cusp of the disaster. Maybe those future historians will look back at this as a crisis weathered, an opportunity to fix what ails us before the tipping point has truly been reached. We can see those thousand cuts now, in all their varied depth and location. Perhaps it’s not yet too late to stanch the bleeding.

Patrick Wyman is the host of the Tides of History podcast and the former host of The Fall of Rome Podcast. He has a PhD in history.

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: The Torch Podcast

Here to discuss the lessons The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has to offer is Leo Damrosch Ph. D, Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard

This transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Ed Leon: [The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire] This is a book that was written over 200 years ago, how is it still relevant today?

Leo Damrosch: I think modern historians of the ancient world agree it’s quite amazing how well he told the story. There are some angles that in those days weren’t taken so seriously—economic pressures, the lives of common people, certainly, modern historians have added a lot—but everybody says, just to tell the story of a thousand years with the rich detail, but also the kind of novelistic energy that he does, has never been matched.

Ed Leon: Is it even accurate, still, as history?

Leo Damrosch: Absolutely so. It’s not considered factually wrong it’s a matter of interpretation whether people would argue with it now.

Ed Leon: I know this course will really dive deep into this book. It’s 2500 pages long—as a work, it’s pretty epic.

Leo Damrosch: A million and a half words.

Ed Leon: Do we need to read it all to really get its impact?

Leo Damrosch: No, by no means. There are some good abridgments. I think people who do decide to make the long march from beginning to end are glad they did it. Winston Churchill did that when he was a young man, a cavalry officer in India, he started reading The Decline and Fall and he said “I rode through it triumphantly from one end to the other.”

Winston Churchill when he was a young cavalry officer in India, he started reading The Decline and Fall and he said “I rode through it triumphantly from one end to the other”.

Leo Damrosch: The first half of it is as far as he originally thought he would go, which is in the 5th century. The Roman Empire in the West collapsed and gave way to the Goths, the vandals and people eventually became Frenchmen and Spanish. Then, he thought, the Eastern Empire in Constantinople went on calling itself Roman and why not follow it all the way up to 1453, which is when the Turks finally took Constantinople.

Ed Leon: As you examined it, are there lessons that we can take for modern day society?

Edward Gibbon, Author: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Leo Damrosch: I think so. Edward Gibbon thought one of them was the terrible danger of a single autocratic ruler, which he thought was the poison that destroyed the Roman Empire. You might get a wise and good Emperor, but you might get a pathological, one like Caligula or Nero. There was that. But the largest theme—I know he was thinking of his own time, because the British Empire was still growing—he thought the Roman Empire finally fell mainly because it was just overextended, they could not govern so many people so far away without an enormous army, which was sapping their economy and finally just too many firestorms. He thought England was doing the same thing, trying to govern the world.

Ed Leon: You call this “hidden poisons” in the course. Do you think that are lessons for modern Europe or maybe even the United States today?

Leo Damrosch: Maybe not as explicit lessons, but his whole take on the ideal political order is very much like that of our American founders. Checks and balances, the various obstacles to any single kind of charismatic figure rising to supreme power. I think he would admire what the United States has made of itself.

Ed Leon: Absolutely. In the time where he wrote this, his description of Christianity was controversial: how so?

Leo Damrosch: It wouldn’t be today I think, because most believers think that Christianity…it grounds itself on faith rather than on historical factual evidence, but in Gibbon’s day, there was a very strong wish that the evidence should be historical and factual. Gibbon basically said at the beginning, “I’m not questioning people’s faith, but if you want to talk about whether those miracles really occurred, whether the persecutions were as terrible as the later Christian writer said they were, then I think we have some evidence we ought to look at.” That was quite scandalous at the time.

Ed Leon: Really. There’s so much that’s covered, but there was a time when the Roman Empire tried to return to Paganism, right? Talk a little bit about that.

Leo Damrosch: Yeah, briefly. What was more surprising, I think modern historians would agree, is that Constantine not only converted to Christianity as the first Christian Emperor, but made the entire empire Christian. If somebody else had been in his shoes, maybe that wouldn’t had happened. Very shortly after his death, the Emperor named Julian, who became know by Christians as the Apostate, tried to reinstall Paganism. It was damned to failure. Paganism was a bunch of disorganized beliefs that never had an organized structure. Christianity did have an organized structure. It was really a kind of nostalgic effort to bring back something that nobody wanted anymore.

Ed Leon: He also devotes a large amount of the narrative to the rise of Islam, can you talk about that a little bit?

Leo Damrosch: Yeah. I’m certainly no expert on that field, but people who are seem to agree that he tells the story not just well, but very sensitively. He has great respect for Islam, for the simplicity of the faith, for the sincerity of the believers his portrait of Muhammad is one of the noblest in the entire Decline and Fall. A person of genius, he thought.

Ed Leon: Why do you call it noble?

Leo Damrosch: It’s noble because he sees him (as he sees various charismatic leaders like that over the centuries) as raising above everybody else, as really exceptional. There would not had been Islam without this extraordinary founder. He understands about the split between Sunni and Shiite, which occurred very early. He describes not just the spread politically of the Islam, but its intellectual strength, the great Islamic kingdom in Spain, I don’t think there’s a negative thing throughout there. When it comes to the Crusades he’s appalled at the way the Christians behaved.

Ed Leon: Yeah. No kidding. What are some of your favorite scenes or characters from the book?

Leo Damrosch: I think some of the most appealing characters are the ones you wouldn’t expect. Like Attila, the Hun. It turns out to be not the savage that we’ve been led to believe, but actually a very able leader who managed to coalesce a bunch of feuding tribes and turned them into a major force. In fact, the theme throughout is, what the Romans called barbarians were really ethnic peoples who weren’t Roman rather than crude savages. People like that, Tamerlane the magnificent, as he was known, just fascinate Gibbon. He had a kind of almost romantic notion of exotic places and people.

Ed Leon: Do you think that, that colors historical aspect of it? Because you mentioned he wrote in a novelistic style. Talk about what you appreciate about him as a writer.

Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones

Leo Damrosch: His style is not just elegant, but incredibly organized in structuring. He always, paragraph by paragraph, makes you weigh things and see “It could be this, it could be that.” In fact, his favorite novel was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Fielding was a professional lawyer, he became a judge Fielding’s theme is: “Don’t assume that circumstantial evidence means what it seems to.” His novel teaches us that what we thought we understood might have been something very different, even though the clues were planted. Of course, in history, that is not a novelist making it all come out, but that’s how Gibbon operates. He doesn’t just tell you what happened he helps you weigh the evidence and think about how you would assess the motives of these people and when he doesn’t know, he tells you he doesn’t.

Ed Leon: Does the course also examine Gibbon as the man? About him as the author?

Leo Damrosch: Yeah, it talks about his life as a boy, he was kind of bookish, didn’t go to school much, he had tutors, he conceived the idea of becoming a historian, he just fell in love with the idea. As a young man, in his 20s, he visited Rome and claims, at least, that while he was listening to the barefoot Franciscan Friars, singing their evening vesper service in the ruins of what had been the temple of Jupiter, that the idea came to his mind, “I should be writing about what happened to the Ancient Romans.”

Ed Leon: He did not narrow his focus, he took on the whole Megillah.

First Gibbon thought he would just write about the city of Rome, then he realized “No, I’m writing about the whole Roman Empire,” then he thought, “I’m writing about the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs.”

Leo Damrosch: That’s right. First he thought he would just write about the city of Rome, then he realized “No, I’m writing about the whole Roman Empire,” then he thought, “I’m writing about the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs.”

Ed Leon: I’ll put one final question to you. As you went back and reexamined this material on the book, did anything jump out to you as new insights? I mean, you’ve studied this a long time and you’re such an expert on it, but did anything pop out fresh or just relevant to you now, as you examine this course?

Leo Damrosch: I don’t think that because I’ve known the book for years, and even written a bit about it, but I think what always strikes me as it does, when you read Anna Karenina or any great imaginative work is how fresh it is, how much you want to get back inside that imaginative world. It does feel new in that respect.

Ed Leon: It’s an epic book, it’s a fantastic book, we’re so looking forward to having you guide us through it on the course. We thank you so much for being with us today.


Duncan came up with the idea of THoR on a bit of a fluke while looking for something to entertain himself during a long plane ride and subsequent vacation. After a recommendation from a colleague, Duncan browsed through a few online history lectures in search of something to pass the time. While surfing through these lectures, through a series of links Duncan stumbled upon the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast from Lars Brownworth, listened to a few episodes, and thought “This is really cool!”. [1] However, when he searched for similar podcasts on the history of Rome, he could find none. Immediately, Mike was inspired to “do something like” Brownworth's podcast. He had had a longstanding interest in Roman history and was reading The War With Hannibal by Livy at the time. [2] He enjoyed many of the historical episodes he encountered in the book, but realized that much of the public knew little about Rome outside of Caesar’s and Augustus’ time. One of Duncan's motivators for creating the podcast was to make the whole of Roman history attractive to the public through the form of a podcast. [1] [3]

Duncan researched extensively before each episode, relying on primary sources such as Livy and Tacitus as much as possible, while using secondary or modern sources to help judge the verity and objectivity of each source. In making the podcast, Duncan read almost exclusively about Roman history. Each show required Duncan 10 to 12 hours prep time, in addition to countless hours reading source material throughout the week. Duncan would aim to keep his episodes at around 4000 words. When recording, he would run two parallel tracks in GarageBand to preempt any errors, and would do a preparatory reading beforehand. He finished each podcast with a celebratory beer. [4]

Duncan has mentioned that in making the podcast, he learned “human nature has changed very little,” and that people generally respond to the same situations in the same sorts of ways. “I don’t think we’re so completely different than any Roman was.” [5]

The soundtrack which begins and ends each podcast comes from the GarageBand snippet Acoustic Picking 18. [6]

As an extension to the podcast, Duncan has led recurring guided tours around Rome, also visiting Ostia, Pompeii, Capri, and the field of Cannae the tours walk through many sites mentioned in The History of Rome. [7]

On June 4, 2016, Duncan's book, The History of Rome: The Republic (Volume 1) was published. The book is a collection of edited transcripts from the first 46 episodes of the podcast, covering the time period from the founding of the Roman Kingdom through the breakdown of the Republic. [8]

In October 2017, Duncan's book The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, was published by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.

The History of Byzantium podcast by Robin Pierson is explicitly modelled after The History of Rome in style, length and quality Pierson said in an interview on Podcast Squared that he intended the podcast as a sequel to The History of Rome in order to complete the story. David Crowther of The History of England podcast has mentioned Duncan as an influence. [9] [10] as has Peter Adamson of the podcast: The History of Philosophy without any Gaps. Isaac Meyer of the History of Japan podcast has mentioned in a few episodes that The History of Rome podcast inspired the "A day in the life of. " episodes.

Duncan has mentioned in turn being greatly inspired by the prior work of Lars Brownworth. Duncan has said he hopes that other history podcasters will follow his mantra and stick to "just the content" without a lot of "extraneous babbling", in order to give their podcasts as professional a feel as possible - thus making the podcast an educational experience geared to learning the subject of the podcast. Duncan mentioned on Podcast Squared consistency as critical to building an audience and being respectful to their time and advises every podcaster to set a deadline and stick with it. "If you can get (people) on a routine and looking forward to (the podcast), they’ll stick around". [9]

Watch the video: Fall of Rome - Documentary (May 2022).