Is it true, I ask Mike Duncan, that his 189-part podcast chronicling the history of Ancient Rome has been downloaded 56 million times?
“No, it’s more than that,” Duncan says with the erudite, cool-guy delivery that’s helped make his The History of Rome podcast a stunning success and turned Duncan into a kind of hipster Edward Gibbons. In fact, together with Duncan’s ongoing Revolutions series, which narrates the stories of the English, French, American, and Haitian revolutions, Duncan’s podcasts have been downloaded over 100 million times.
That’s a lot of downloads, and it drew the attention of a literary agent and a publisher who clearly know a platform when they see one.
This brings us to The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which debuts this week as number eight on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Duncan’s new book chronicles the violent upheavals in the half-century before the celebrated ancients Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony bloodied the Mediterranean soil working out their political and personal beefs.
“People are quite familiar with that period,” Duncan says of Caesar and company. “But if you’re jumping into that story, you’re jumping into the movie in the third act. There was an entire generation or two before Caesar comes along that sets up everything that went wrong in the generation of Julius Caesar.”
The Storm Before the Storm is set between 133 and 80 BC. Rome, having won its war with Carthage, was struggling to manage a vast military empire. On the domestic front, Rome was coping with economic inequality, an influx of immigrants that challenged Roman ideas of citizenship, and a breakdown of political norms that resulted in vicious political disputes and political paralysis.
Yet at a moment when it’s commonplace to say that the American empire is well on its way to an inevitable decline, Duncan is reluctant to draw exact parallels between Ancient Rome and America today.
“Despite what some hysterical commentators may claim,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “the (American) Republic has not collapsed and been taken over by a dictator. That hasn’t happened yet.”
The parallels, however, do mount up. And it’s hard not to think of Donald Trump when Duncan writes about “a time when a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true.”
Rome got into trouble, Duncan says, when the elites began to…