The Storm Before the Storm: An Interview With Historian and Podcast Superstar Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan couldn’t find a good podcast on the topic of ancient history, a subject he had fallen in love with, so he made his own. That show, The History of Rome, which began as a hobby, would go on to be downloaded more than 100 million times, and is one of the most popular and beloved podcasts of all time. Now, more than ten years after first starting the podcast, Mike has written his first book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which examines the events that set the stage for Rome’s fall. We invited Mike for an interview to learn more about his perspective on the Stoics (whom he had studied extensively for his episodes), the role of philosophy in turbulent times, recommendations of his favorite history books, how he started the podcast and much more. Enjoy our interview with Mike Duncan below!

***

Your start in podcasting is fascinating. You essentially have no history training, no broadcasting experience, and reading history was a hobby of yours. And you somehow managed to produce one of the most popular and beloved history podcasts out there. Can you tell us how you started, and what were the most important personal lessons that you’ve learned in those 5 years of producing History of Rome and then starting Revolutions?

I have always read voraciously and had a passion for history. Around 2006, I fell in love with the ancient histories written by Livy, Polybius, Thucydides et al and devoured everything I could get my hands on. Shortly thereafter I discovered podcasts, but when I went looking for a Roman history podcast, no such thing existed. So with a love of writing and storytelling in my blood, a pile of amazing material buried in the ancient histories, and a new medium that offered no barriers to entry, it all just came together. I released my first episode of the History of Rome in July 2007 expecting it to be not much more than a hobby—I certainly had no idea it would become so popular and that I was actually embarking on a career.

Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the only way to follow this same kind of path—to go from anonymous nobody to someone answering interview questions because he’s got a book coming out—is that you have to keep plugging away. I’ve had weeks where I couldn’t wait to get to work, but I’ve also had weeks where I didn’t feel like doing anything. I don’t have a boss, and I won’t get “fired” if I don’t put the show out on time. But once you start thinking “I’ll do it later because I don’t have time,” or “I’m busy with something else,” or “I just don’t feel like it today…” that’s when it all falls apart. Long term success as an independent writer, artist, podcaster, or whatever is built on a measure of self-discipline. You have to do the work even though no one is standing over you cracking the whip.

One of the recurring questions that you are asked in the book is a variation of “Is America Rome?” Or, “If America is Rome, where are we in that life cycle?” As you say, there are many interwoven elements between the period that you cover in the book and today, so if you had the opportunity to speak with senators and other political leaders today, what would you warn them about?

There are a couple of big lessons that I took out of The History of Rome that have been reinforced by researching the book. The first is that Rome was always at it’s best when it opened its political system to men of merit, rather than jealously hoarding power in the hands of a small clique of well connected elites. The Romans usually succeeded when the consul or Emperor won the job thanks to his talent, ability, and intelligence and usually failed when the consul or Emperor won the job thanks to mere blood-ties or family inheritance. So we should always be looking to elevate talent and avoid handing someone a job just because of their name or what school they went to.

The second point is related. The only reason Rome endured for a thousand years (two thousand counting the Byzantines) is that they integrated new groups, cultures, ethnicities, and religions with relative ease. It was one of the great hallmarks of their civilization. The Roman worldview and way of life turned out to be extraordinarily adaptable—and by the height of the Empire there were Roman Spaniards, Gauls, Britons, North Africans, Greeks, Illyrians, Syrians, and Egyptians. If the old ethnically Italian Romans had acted like it was not possible to integrate “foreigners” then there is no way the Empire persists. I see a similar dynamic at work with the “American way of life” which for more than 200 years has successfully integrated immigrants from literally every country on earth. The American way of life is idea that we have proven over and over again can be universally adopted by any ethnicity, class, or religious group. Our long term survival likely rests on embracing that reality not denying it.

But if that is what the Romans did well, what the Senatorial elite did poorly during the late Republic was initiate political and economic reform. They were never quite able to get out ahead of problems before those problems got out of control. Either through short sighted selfishness, or a desire to deny political rivals the ability to take credit for reform, the Senate stubbornly refused to change with the times and wound up driving the Republic to ruin. There is an old saying that you can get a lot done in Washington DC if you don’t care about getting credit. There are issues that need addressing, issues that are creating an increasingly fractious, contentious, and confrontational environment. But everyone seems more concerned about partisan point scoring or protecting their own privileges than heading off what could be an existential disaster for the American Republic.

One of the big themes in your book in the lead up the events that would end the Roman Republican is the collapse of the mos maiorum. The old traditions fell apart, old courtesies, old norms, even old moral standards were no longer followed. Why is that so important? Does it matter just politically or also in individual life? Do similar collapses stand out to you today?

Yes the Romans were guided by unspoken traditions and norms because they did not have a written constitution or extensive body of written law—certainly nothing like the array of laws we have today. But what the Romans of the late Republic discovered was there was no real binding force holding an ambitious leader in check aside from mere social custom and a willingness to submit to “rules of fair play.” Once the unspoken rules of mos maiorum started to fall away, and men profited from ignoring the old rules, it was just a matter of time before politics devolved into a violent struggle for power.

All of this is important today because even though we have a constitution, it is not some giant document that outlines every contingency and point of order. No one wants to live in a hyper-totalitarian dystopia where every minute detail of life is codified and whatever is not forbidden is compulsory. That is not how humans are meant to live. So at a certain point you do have to say “I’m not going to cheat or steal or tell bald faced lies” because otherwise THAT will create it’s own dystopian nightmare where goodwill and trust have vanished. People need to choose to behave well. We can’t justify bad behavior by saying “well technically it’s not against the law.” Because you can never make laws to cover everything. There has to be a middle ground between a rigidly controlled dystopia and the brutal law of the jungle. And that is where unspoken rules of behavior get you if you respect them.

You’ve covered Marcus Aurelius on your podcast back in 2010, and we’d be curious to hear your assessment of his rule in the grand scheme of things. He is of course known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” but we’d love to hear from you on this. What of his philosophy do you find most fascinating?

Marcus Aurelius is justifiably considered one of the greatest Emperors of all time. He is obviously most famous today because the Meditations have become one of the great entries into the Stoic tradition. He is among the very few political leaders whose ideas are taught in philosophy class.

But Aurelius’s status as one of the best Emperors doesn’t come from his after-hours musings, but rather from the vigorous competence with which he approached his job. You might think a philosopher would care more about esoteric theory than the nuts and bolts of running an empire, But that was not the case for Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Empire was a formidable entity to administer even in the best of times, and by Aurelius’s day it was no longer the best of times. Among other problems, powerful Germanic tribes were combining into large confederations that for the first time could rival the legions in battle. But during his 20 years on the throne Marcus Aurelius proved himself to be a competent, honest, conscientious, and diligent administrator and, if not a military genius in the mold of Caesar or Napoleon, certainly a General who knew enough about strategy, tactics, and logistics that the legions always performed well on campaign. So his reign could only be considered a success.

His only great failure was passing the throne to his son, Commodus. But I think he gets a bit of a bad rap for this. There is a myth that the Imperial Golden Age was made possible by wise Emperors passing the throne to adopted men of worth (an example of the meritocracy I mentioned earlier). But while this is true, the unmentioned cause of these adoptions was that none of them had a son. Trajan adopted Hadrian who adopted Antonius Pius who adopted Marcus Aurelius because there was not a single living son between them—the had to adopt an heir! So these Emperors deserve credit for making good choices, but my suspicion is any one of them would have gladly passed the throne to a son had they had one. Besides that, criticisms of handing the throne to Commodus usually ignore the fact that passing over a first born son for some “worthy adopted heir” was nothing less than an invitation to civil war. Ambitious families out of favor with the new regime would have naturally rallied to the banner of Commodus, and claimed him to be the “real” Emperor. So I’m probably more sympathetic than most to Aurelius’s “mistake” of passing the throne to Commodus (though it did in fact turn out to be a HUGE mistake).

Obviously most of the more famous Roman Stoics fall outside the timeline of The Storm Before The Storm, but it would be fascinating if you could provide any insight into what the philosophers were thinking and saying as they watched their country torn to pieces, as they saw the Gracchi pander to the masses, Marius and Sulla fight for power and so on.

Typically if you had philosophical training or tendencies of any kind you were a part of the upper class optimate establishment and were mortified by the collapse of morality. They all lamented the deplorable state the Rome was falling into: disorder, vice, corruption, violence, disrespect, immorality all seemed visibly and nauseatingly ascendant. So they were not fans of what was happening.

But while we’re on the subject I will mention that one of the preeminent stoics of the late Republic was Publius Rutilius Rufus and he does enter the book. Rutilius was at the center of a major controversy that wound up triggering the Social War. In 94 BC, Rutilius was sent to the province Asia (western Turkey) to help fix the corrupt tax farming system. Incredulous that Rutilius was messing with their profits, the powerful tax farming companies back in Rome conspired to have Rutilius brought up on charges for corruption and extortion. The charges were ludicrous as Rutilius was a model of probity and would later be cited by Cicero as the perfect model of a Roman administrator. In the face of this farce, Rutilius refused to even offer a defense so as not to acknowledge its legitimacy. So he was convicted and exiled. But the location he chose for his exile was Asia, where he lived among the people he had allegedly abused, but who actually loved him because he had stopped the abuse. The unjust prosecution of Rutilius escalated partisan tensions back in Rome that ultimately triggered the great civil wars of the 80s BC.

On that note, it is interesting that Stoicism tends to have these moments of resurgence turning particularly turbulent political moments. Cato standing up to Caesar, Marcus Aurelius in the twilight of the empire, in America we see it pop back up in the Revolution, the Civil War, Vietnam and now today. What do you think the relationship between Stoicism and those trends are?

I’m no expert on the topic, but I think anytime the world starts to feel like it’s being engulfed by entropy, chaos and noisy disunity, the mind naturally seeks out something that offers cohesion, order, and quiet unity. We can get carried away by events and certainly feel our passions leading us into behavior that we might upon reflection regret. Stoicsm offers a solid place to plant your feet and say the winds may howl but I will not be swept away.

History suffers from the same predicament as philosophy as many people have initially experienced it as a very dry and boring subject and cannot imagine themselves studying it as a hobby. Your podcasts can be a great entry point, but if you had to recommend 1-3 fantastic and readable history books to get someone immersed in a particular moment in time, which ones would you recommend?

On of my favorites to recommend is March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. People have a misconception that the course of history is driven by genius, daring, courage, and brilliance whereas it is in fact driven as much (if not more so) by cowardice, mistakes, stupidity, and miscalculation. I think that insight alone brings history down to a relatable level. There are plenty Presidents, Kings, Generals, and Popes who had no more idea of what they were doing than any of the rest of us. The book begins with the famous quote from a great Swedish diplomat to his son, who was nervous about going off to negotiate the Treaty of Westphalia because he would be among so many great statesman. His father re-assured him by saying: “Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?” Once you understand that, history is brought down to the human level.

I also honestly think that great historical fiction is a solid point of entry. Books like Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series or Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books, or even something like the Hamilton musical are a wonderful foot in the door. They make history much more human and engaging  (even if the facts per se are massaged in the service of a better story or rap battle). Plenty of people have had their love of history sparked by some book, or movie, or comic book which then compels them to go off and the REAL story—and they are usually delighted to discover that the real stories of history are even better than the fiction that got them hooked in the first place.

But the most important recommendation is getting people to choose whatever they think is interesting. If you’re into the history of trains, read about the history of trains. If you are curious about Chinese military history, go read about Chinese military history. The social life of families in Victorian England? Knock yourself out. I don’t care about any of that stuff but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t—and you are far more likely to be engaged with a book if you’re reading it because you’re curious about the topic not because someone said you should be interested. Listen to what the voice of curiosity in your head wants you to learn more about and then LISTEN TO THAT VOICE.


Explore Our Daily Stoic Store