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Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.30, the 250th episode.
So I just went back and reread what I wrote at the beginning of the hundredth episode of The History of Rome. I expressed some surprise that I was still working on the show three years after I started it and said some stuff about how I had no idea I would ever get near a hundred episodes. The transcript at that point stood at 390,000 words and 34 total hours of audio content, and apparently we weren’t even to Marcus Aurelius yet. Well, here we are now seven and a half years after the release of the first episode of The History of Rome. I am very, very surprised to find myself still doing this. The combined transcripts of The History of Rome and Revolutions now stand at 976,000 words with 102 total hours of content.
Yikes. And we’re not even to the reign of terror yet. So I’ll echo today another thing that I said then, which is how long will it take me to complete Revolutions? I no longer have any idea. I won’t make predictions anymore, but I sure hope everyone is enjoying the French Revolution because we still have a long ways to go. Though I do promise that next week we are going to break out of the infinity loop that is the spring of 1793.
This week, of course, we are celebrating the occasion of my 250th podcast episode by opening the floor up to questions – questions being asked by those good listeners who spent more than $150 during the recent fundraiser, which went great, and everyone should now have everything that they ordered. If for some reason you have not received your order yet or received the wrong merchandise, please email me back by the end of the week – that is, March 22, 2015 – so we can get it straightened out. Just email me at revolutionspodcast at gmail dot com. After March 22, we are going to smash the print screens to ensure that this round of shirts remain the limited-edition collector’s items that I promised they would be.
Okay, we have a lot of questions to get to today, so let’s get to it. Presented here in the order in which they were received – Mike Manfred, that means you are last. So first question is from Robert Prigg – given the choice of any historical figure, whom would you want as a dinner guest, and why?
So I’ve probably gushed way too much about Talleyrand already, so I won’t say Talleyrand, even though he’d be a really good answer. By all accounts, he was a magnetic conversationalist, and I’m sure dinner with Talleyrand would be epically entertaining. But I wouldn’t want him to be my guest so much as I would want to be his. Talleyrand was famous for his devotion to fine dining, and he actually played a pretty huge role in the advancement of modern French cuisine. He would sure give me a better meal than I would ever give him.
So Talleyrand aside, I think an evening with David Hume would have to be the answer. As I’ll discuss more in a little bit, I studied political theory and philosophy as an undergrad, and as I plugged my way through the history of Western philosophy – Plato and Aquinas and Locke – I always absorbed the various arguments and made sure I understood them. But as interesting as it all was from a historical perspective, none of it really ever captured me. And then I got to Hume. David Hume was the first guy I ever read and said, holy crap, I think this guy might be onto something. No one can cut through bullshit faster and with more precision than David Hume, and he’s as close to an intellectual hero as I’ll ever have. The world would do well to read a lot more David Hume, so I would love to just sit and talk with him about whatever happens to be on his mind. And of course, being an 18th-century Scotsman, he probably won’t complain about the food.
Okay, next question is from Louis. We have all heard that those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. Can you point to an example where today’s revolutionaries, reactionaries, etc. are repeating the mistakes of history unlearned? Any examples of lessons that appear to have been learned, thus leading to more successful revolutions, counter revolutions, or defenses against revolutions today?
Well, I don’t know which exact mistakes per se are being repeated, but you can see all over the Arab world right now how quickly an uprising opposed to despotism and vocally promoting democratic participation slides seamlessly into ultra-radical cliques grabbing power and instituting their own preferred brand of despotism. I think, for example, that everything that has happened in Egypt over the last few years has been painfully easy to predict.
As for the reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries, there is a real danger to putting off necessary and obviously needed reforms for too long. I think a lot about the last few generations of Roman senators, how intransigent and hostile they were to making even the slightest nod in the direction of addressing the vast array – social and economic and political complaints that were sweeping through Italy in the first century BC. If you make a few voluntary reforms early in the process, you can utterly deflate brewing insurrections, and even get credit for your enlightened benevolence.
But wait too long, and suddenly you’re a villain who must be destroyed. I think there is a major test coming for the elites of the post-industrialized West about the very real problem of growing economic inequality. And economic inequality is not a problem because it’s not fair, it’s a problem because it’s starting to become a major drag on the world economy, and a major hindrance to the continued legitimacy of the system. The preposterous imbalance of the distribution of global wealth is going to have to be dealt with eventually. The only question is how drastic and violent the solution will be. So will the elites give a little today to keep a lot tomorrow, or do they give nothing today, and find themselves lined up against a wall tomorrow? Right now, it’s their choice. Down the road, it probably won’t be.
Dave Webster asks how come you’ve never sold the show, for example, 99 cents per episode or $10 per revolution? I imagine your fanbase is quite substantial, and this type of costing approach would bring in a pretty healthy income. Have you considered this as an option for the future to keep you in the podcasting business?
When I started The History of Rome, I had a full-time job. The podcast was a hobby. There was no need to make money at it. Then I started getting some ad revenue, and The History of Rome became half a job, and I was able to cut back my hours at the day job, and I was perfectly content with that. I always wanted to err on the side of not wrecking the listener base by throwing stuff behind a paywall. I still think putting episodes behind a paywall is a quick way to kill everything I’ve built. But that said, I am getting better at the monetization thing. The ads are working, the fundraiser worked, the tours are working. The option of putting select bonus material up for purchase is always a viable option, and I’ll almost certainly do that this year, but I’ve always run into problems finding the time to write the bonus material. I put a lot of time into each episode. So I can’t change the past, nor do I want to, but going forward, I will be a better capitalist, I promise.
John Newton asks, who influenced you in the design, presentation, pace, style, and humor in podcasting for both The History of Rome and Revolutions? Was there a new source of inspiration in Revolutions? Were there earlier history podcasts before The History of Rome, or did television and radio from PBS or NPR or the BBC influence you?
Longtime listeners of the show know that the first podcast I listened to that knocked my socks off and really got me into the game was 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth, so I won’t repeat myself on that. Instead, I’ll talk about two TV shows I discovered more than a decade ago that really influenced my approach to presenting history. The first is Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. I stumbled across it one weekend back in 2001 when it was running as a marathon on the History Channel, back when the History Channel actually showed history, and I didn’t leave the couch for like two days. I was hooked. The idea of telling a huge historical story in one continuous narrative with one single voice clearly got into me, because that’s essentially what the history of Rome turned out to be. In that same vein, there is also this totally obscure old series from the late 1980s called The Western Tradition, produced by Annenberg and hosted by UCLA professor Eugene Weber. It covered the entire history of Western civilization in 52 half-hour-long episodes, so it was the same thing. Huge historical story, one continuous narrative. It used to come on Oregon Public Broadcasting at super random times, sometimes in mid-afternoon, other times at like three in the morning. Any time I managed to hit it, it was like winning the Channel Flipping Lottery. You can Google it and watch them all for free now. It’s called The Western Tradition. It is highly recommended.
Andy Schwartz asks, do you have any recommendations for sources of information on the history of Rome that would be appropriate for young children? That is really hard. I have occasionally toyed with the idea of writing stuff for kids myself, but whenever I do it’s always like, okay, and then what happened next is that Octavian and Mark Antony got together and decided to murder a bunch of people and take all their stuff. Or like, boy, the Punic Wars sure were exciting, 50,000 men were hacked to death in a single day.
Caracalla? Oh yeah, he was a bad emperor. He stabbed his brother to death right in front of their mother. Roman history is the stuff of nightmares. That said, I do think that the Horrible History series does a good job wrapping up all the terrible bloodiness with enough humor to keep it from being too traumatic. My own first serious encounter with Roman history came from a 1987 world book encyclopedia and that was all pretty antiseptic, so maybe you could try that.
Sam Wigginton asks, your ability to both comprehend and explain in clear terms such complex historical events causes me feelings of inadequacy. Is there anything you suck at? And I don’t mean like, I can never quite nail the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, which for the record I know I cannot quite nail. I mean, a common skill that you’re embarrassingly bad at or a subject that you’re shamefully ignorant of, it would help me feel better about myself and my own modest abilities.
I am not handy at all. I once called a repair guy because the furnace broke, he swapped out the filter, and charged me 50 bucks. We just moved into a new house and I was very proud of myself for installing some coat hangers in the mudroom. Three days later, the whole thing fell off the wall. Mrs. Revolutions is the go-to misfixit in our house. Civilization collapses and you’re looking for somebody to join your team to help you stay alive, you want her and not me. Will Weinberg asks, in your opinion, how many distinct revolutions did Rome experience before the fall of the Western Empire? And are there any similarities which you would draw with the three revolutions you have covered in the new series?
In my opinion, there were three big Roman revolutions. First, the expulsion of the kings and the founding of the Republic around 509 BC. That’s the move obviously from monarchy to republic. Second, the collapse of the republic and the rise of the Caesars. That’s the move from Republic to Principate. Third, the whole process of the crisis of the third century, culminating with the great reorganizing reforms of Diocletian. That’s the move from Principate to dominate. Clearly, of those three, the first is the most relevant to revolutions. Tossing out the king and founding a republic, though interestingly enough, overthrowing the monarchy and founding a kingless republic appears to have been the expressed intention only of the Romans. As we’ve seen, not the English, nor the Americans, nor the French were really aiming at starting up a republic from the beginning of their revolution. It’s just sort of something that happened along the way.
Steve O. from Philly asks, Could you please tell me a fun fact about the history of Philadelphia that isn’t widely known, or anything about its role in the revolution that didn’t make it into the podcast? I’d love to know more about my city.
I will probably have a way better answer for you a couple months from now once I’m back from the first American Revolution tour. But you should probably at some point drop by the Powell House, at 244 South Third Street. It’s described as the residence of Revolutionary-era mayor Samuel Powell, but I don’t really care about him. I care about his wife Elizabeth Powell, who was clearly the intellectual and social powerhouse in the family. I would guess that just about every major revolutionary figure passed through their house at some point or another, and Elizabeth became a very close confidant of George Washington when the Constitutional Convention came to town. She is also the one who allegedly asked Benjamin Franklin whether the convention had produced a monarchy or a republic. Anyway, I think Elizabeth Powell was a totally cool lady. Her old house is now a museum, and you should probably go visit it.
I think I actually just talked myself into doing the same when I’m in Philadelphia. David Whalen asks, My son and I are going to be visiting Rome in late March. What thing or things would you recommend seeing in the area of Rome that are not commonly on tourist itineraries?
My favorite part of the History of Rome tour itinerary was the day that we got outside of Rome itself. We would spend the morning at Ostia Antica and the afternoon at Hadrian’s Villa. Both are pretty incredible archaeological sites and totally undervisited. I never really saw more than a couple dozen people at either site. I mean, Rome is a fantastic city, but it’s nice to get away from the chaos, relax a bit, enjoy some fresh air, get away from the tourists and the noise, and just meander through some old ruins. So go visit Ostia Antica and Hadrian’s Villa. You will not regret it.
Cliff Gallaher asks, How much did the rhetoric of the English Civil War and the American Revolution circulate during the French Revolution? Were the Jacobins quoting the levelers, or was anyone other than Lafayette espousing the thinking of Jefferson, Madison, and the framers of the American Republic?
So far as I can tell, the English Revolution had very little impact on the French Revolution. The Jacobins were not quoting the levelers. The one recurring reference to the English Revolution that I’ve seen is that the French revolutionaries often accused each other of wanting to be Cromwell. I mean, we just saw the Girondins accused Anton of wanting to be Cromwell. Obviously that was an insult rather than a compliment, even amongst those who had just voted to send Louis to the guillotine. I did think, though, that it was really interesting how much Louis seemed to be studying up on the life of King Charles, both in trying to avoid the mistakes Charles made, and then after Louis was condemned on how to die like a king.
As for the Americans, nearly all the French revolutionaries supported the American Revolution — at least those old enough to have had an opinion about it. And there was, of course, a cohort of liberal nobles — particularly those who had served in the American War of Independence, with Lafayette being the most prominent — who admired and actively promoted American-style republicanism. As we all know, Benjamin Franklin was a rock star during his time in Paris, and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a certain amount of cachet, and he obviously helped Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But once the French Revolution really gets going after Louis is dragged back from Versailles, the American Revolution stops being a leading light. So in the early days, yeah, there were a lot of references to the American Revolution. And remember, there was some real giddiness in the National Assembly about getting the opportunity to denounce a stamp duty, just like the heroic Americans.
But after 1789, the references really start to peter out, as the French push off into uncharted waters. Tom Harrigan asks, Of the various revolutions you have covered, and those that you plan to cover, which revolution do you believe has had the greatest and longest-lasting historical significance?
Well the answer to that has to be the French Revolution. The French Revolution is the Great Revolution. But aside from all the big sweeping changes and the generation-long blunder that it threw Europe into, there is a more subtle reason that I think is worth highlighting. The French Revolution bequeathed unto the world this thing called the professional revolutionary – these cliques of intellectuals and dissidents and agitators whose whole existence is dedicated to overthrowing whatever regime happens to be in power.
Before the French Revolution, there’s really no such thing as a professional revolutionary. After the French Revolution, you find these guys loitering around every coffee shop in every country in the world, usually sporting goatees and smoking a lot of cigarettes. Sometimes, if they’re feeling up to it, they actually even get something going. Mostly they don’t, though, and just talk a lot of talk. But the French Revolution is the reason those guys exist. Berlin would not have been Lenin had Danton not been Danton.
Jake Lurch asks, Do you have a favorite anecdote, myth, rumor that you found funny or interesting that couldn’t fit into the narrative, either the history of Rome or revolutions?
There is a great little story in H.W. Brand’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. Around the time of the Treaty of Paris negotiations, Franklin was playing a game of chess. His opponent checked Franklin’s king. But instead of doing anything about it, Franklin ignored the check and made a move elsewhere on the board. The opponent said, Hey, you can’t do that. You have to deal with your king, to which Franklin replied, I see that he is in check, but I shall not defend him. If he was a good king, like yours, he would deserve the protection of his subjects. But he is a tyrant and has cost them already more than he is worth. Take him, if you please. I can do without him, and will fight the rest of the battle en republiquant.
Aaron Kotkin asks, You sometimes mention that you study political theory as an undergrad. As a political theorist myself, I was wondering, who is your favorite political theorist and, of course, why? I have a great deal of affection for the Utilitarians — Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, properly modified by John Stuart Mill, of course. Of all the great theorists, they seem to be the ones actually trying to do something besides just sit around philosophizing. They were practical reformers trying to build up an intellectual apparatus to move society in a positive direction. I really admire what they were trying to do, and I think that they did a lot of good.
The other guy that I should mention, though, is Montesquieu. Though not for the stuff he is generally celebrated for — the separation of powers and all that. Once you get through all the well-tread bits of the spirit of the laws, you get into this relatively neglected section, where Montesquieu attempts to link political and social variations to environmental climate. The Swiss act like this because they live up in the mountains, the Italians act like that because they live out on a temperate peninsula, the Dutch live below sea level and that’s why they’re all bankers. My brain really latched onto this idea, and I’ve never really been able to let it go. Even though when you actually try to truly isolate the variables, it all falls apart. Because you wind up talking, not about people, but cardboard cutouts. These excitable Italians are always gesticulating wildly because it’s sunny outside. I still think there’s something to it in theory, but it never seems to pan out in practice. And I’m now far more interested in the effects of the built environment on political culture than regional distinctions. If I were told that I had to guess a total stranger’s political views based off of one variable, I would not say, oh, do they live in a valley or do they live up on a mountain? I would say, do they live in a rural environment or an urban environment? That isn’t going to guarantee a correct answer, but knowing that gives you a real solid shot at at least guessing in the right direction.
Nathan Clifford says, I don’t have a question, but if there is a question you wish somebody had asked and nobody did, feel free to pretend like I asked it. I wish somebody had asked me if it’s true that I dream of resurrecting Steve Allen’s old show Meeting of Minds. The answer is yes. Yes, I do. The first episode featuring Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, JP Morgan, and Diane Fosse discussing the meaning of power. Mark Armstrong asks, what sort of preparation is required so that you can narrate each episode clearly and smoothly without a stumble?
The answer to that is that I write everything in advance. The vast majority of my work is writing and editing the scripts. Actually reading it and recording it only takes about an hour. And for the record, I stumble all the time. I should really put together an outtake reel sometime because I get pretty colorful about the fourth time I can’t get a sentence right.
Okay, the next question is from Chris Jones, who purchased my copy of Eusebius’s Church History. And I wrote in it that I never realized how endlessly fascinating early Church history was, which is true. Early Church history never ceases to entertain me. So Chris asks, have there been other subtopics you’ve run across when preparing both the history of Rome and Revolutions that had depths that interested you that you did not expect? And was there anything that you were really looking forward to learning about that was disappointing, or not as interesting as you had hoped?
Well the crisis of the third century is the big one. Going into the history of Rome, I was very well versed in the entire Republican period and most of the early imperium. But the later you got, the less I knew. And like most people, all I ever really knew about the period between the Savarins and Diocletian was that it got pretty messy for about 50 years. Once I started unpacking it, I was blown away by how interesting it was. There is just so, so much good stuff that happens. Truly. That period from AD 235 to 284 was the great find of the series, and will forever be one of my favorite periods in all of human history.
As for something I was disappointed in, honestly nothing big jumps out at me, but the closest thing I can think of is that the trial of Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, wound up being some pretty extraordinarily weak sauce. I knew that his trial and execution was central to the beginning of the English civil wars, but once I got done studying it in detail, I was like, I mean, that’s it? That’s all you have? All you’ve got on him is one lame quote deliberately taken out of context and misrepresented? The case against Strafford was pathetic. I am so glad that bills of attainder are just not a thing anymore.
Fred Keys asks, Listening to the podcast has reminded me that I learned and remember very little about European history between the end of the Napoleonic period and the outbreak of World War I. Do you have any suggestions as to good books, audiobooks preferred, that will cover what you will not? It has been a long time since I have been able to do any reading on that period, what with the history of Rome consuming my brain for five years and now revolutions doing the same thing. I don’t really have time to read off-topic. But whatever you read, you should get yourself a good understanding of the Franco-Prussian War. The Franco-Prussian War is really, really important.
Nick Bastow asks, Looking back over Rome plus the English, American, and French Revolutions, what are your top three what-on-earth-were-they-thinking moments? I.e. your top three, because duh King Charles, moments. Okay so setting aside Charles, the first would have to be the assassination of Aurelian. That was the dumbest assassination in Roman history. I’m actually like still a little angry about it. I’m getting angry now just thinking about it. Second has to be Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train. The Greeks have been trying to teach us all about hubris for 2,000 years and nobody ever seems to get it.
Third, I’ll say the entire buildup to the war between Austria and France in 1792. That was just a running contest to see who could out-blunder who. Both sides thought the other was on the verge of collapse and could just be pushed over with a feather. Nobody understood what the hell was really going on, except maybe Robespierre, and so everyone rushed into a war that was supposed to last a few weeks and wound up engulfing Europe for 20 years. Oh, also, it probably destroyed whatever chance the French Revolution had of resolving itself peacefully. When people tell you that a war is going to be quick and easy and cheap and fun for the whole family, don’t listen to them.
Kevin Barrett asks, how do you go about researching a topic? Do you have go-to books or websites that recommend sources? Do you ask friends and experts? I tend to have trouble knowing where to start digging on particularly complex subjects, something that you seem adept at.
When I started building up the reading list for revolutions, the approach that I took was to Google the topic followed by the word historiography. So English Revolution historiography, American Revolution historiography, and so forth. That should take you to articles that will address not just the topic itself, but also the history of how the topic has been studied, and contained therein will be references to every important book that has ever been written on the topic, how they adjusted previous interpretations, and what their influence was on future scholarship.
Once you’ve read a few of those, you’ll probably have a little list of books that are clearly must-reads if you’re going to consider yourself well-versed in the subject. So for the English Revolution, that meant that I had to read The History of the Great Civil War by S.R. Gardner, The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill, Fall of the British Monarchies by Conrad Russell. Once you’ve read the seminal influential works, you’re going to have a pretty good foundation of knowledge and a variety of ways to think about the subject. After that, you’re free to investigate whatever details and subtopics that you find particularly interesting, and hopefully, you’ll then get to enjoy both the forest and the trees.
Mark Fullerton asks, The English and American Revolutions remained fairly, only fairly, without the same level of internal bloodletting as the French. On the other hand, both of those became fairly major civil wars, whereas the French had smaller breakouts e.g. the Vaudet.
Why? That is a really good question, and at the moment, I don’t think I have a really good answer. The first thing I ever read back in college that was concerned with a general theory on revolutions as opposed to just one particular revolution was Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. One of her big points concerning the different levels of violence in the American and French revolutions was that the American colonies had a very large middle class and basically no poor urban masses. Even in the quote-unquote big cities like Boston and Philadelphia, there were poor laborers, but unemployment and complete scarcity of goods and abject poverty were just not really a thing. So without that desperate pressure pushing up from below, things didn’t get so bloody.
And certainly, most of the extreme violence that we’ve seen so far—the lynching surrounding the fall of the Bastille, the massacre of the Swiss guards, the September massacres—well, those have all been perpetrated by, or driven by, the lower classes in Paris. Now, I’m not sure that that’s right, though, and this is going to require more research to get to the bottom of. When I’m done with the show, there’s obviously going to be a huge compare-and-contrast session of all the revolutions that I’ve covered, and the question of the different levels of violence and terror will have to be thoroughly investigated.
Dirk Hoffman-Beching, on behalf of Emma Hoffman-Beching, age 11, asks, At what age did you get excited about history, and what history was the first that you focused on? I think I have always been excited about history. I’ve always enjoyed it. But when I really got turned on to it was probably Mrs. Farrell’s fifth-grade class. That was the year that American history was a big focus, and her approach was to say, OK, put your pencils down and just listen. I am going to tell you stories. And then she would tell us stories. And it’s hard to not look at what I’m doing right now and not see me doing just that—telling stories.
My first great history love, though, was the American Revolution. And it would not be out of line to say that I started revolutions in part because I wanted to go back and hang out with my old friends again. Paul Hart asks, What do you think happened to the disappeared 9th Legion? I do not have the foggiest idea what happened to the disappeared 9th Legion, and I don’t think anyone else does either. When I’m done with the time machine, then I’m going to get a few questions, hence I’ll let you borrow it. You can go back and check it out, and please report back. Robert Williams asks, Would you consider the Glorious Revolution in England a revolution?
Absolutely I would. But I do think it’s interesting that these days the Glorious Revolution is considered the true English Revolution, while what I call the English Revolution is merely the English Civil Wars. Even though the Glorious Revolution more or less resembles every dynastic royal struggle in history. Yes, it inaugurated true constitutional monarchy, but it played out as one branch of the family fighting the other branch of the family for control of the throne. Meanwhile, the entire struggle between Parliament and the king, which resulted in the king getting his head cut off, and monarchy being abolished, and England being a republic for ten years, it’s like, no, that wasn’t really a revolution, that was just a civil war.
Charles Lovett asks, Who are the five greatest generals in human history and why? So, this might come as a bit of a surprise, but I don’t really have a good answer. My primary interest is political history. I study wars and battles because eventually that’s where political leaders go to settle things. These wars and battles wind up being important hinge points in the development of kingdoms and states and empires. But military history per se isn’t anything I’ve really studied broadly enough to be able to accurately compare Rommel to Tokugawa to Crazy Horse. That said, I can definitely weigh in on the best generals from the periods that I have personally studied.
So for Rome, obviously Hannibal and Scipio emerged from the Second Punic War as all-time great strategists and tacticians. Hannibal’s first few years in Italy, Scipio’s Spanish campaigns are both works of art. I also just spent some time revisiting the period between the Gracchae and the dictatorship of Sulla, and was reminded how brilliant Marius was. I think his reputation gets dragged down because he went off the reservation there at the end, but he single-handedly reformed the entire Roman army, and then went up to Gaul and smashed the biggest external threat to Rome since the Carthaginians. He was absolutely one of the greatest military minds in Roman history.
Julius Caesar is of course one of the greatest generals in all of history. I would put Aurelian on that list because of everything he was able to do in just five years, and then Aetius was clearly the best general of those last few generations of Romans. In the English Revolution, things obviously start going really well for the parliamentary cause once Sir Thomas Fairfax gets into the game.
Thomas Fairfax deserves a lot better than he gets in terms of his historical standing. Cromwell was obviously no slouch, and then John Lambert was, like, unbeatable. The royalists didn’t really have anyone of that caliber. Maybe Sir George Goring if he hadn’t been so drunk all the time. Prince Rupert certainly had a lot of promise, and people liked to talk him up, but he kept not coming back.
The American War of Independence is pretty famous for its major lack of truly great generalship. I wonder a lot about what Richard Montgomery could have done had he not been killed in the Battle of Quebec in 1775, and then, aside from hypothetical Richard Montgomery, Daniel Morgan was almost certainly the best pure military man in the Continental Army. On the British side, Cornwallis was for sure the most capable of the senior generals, but that really isn’t saying much. As for the French Revolution, well, that kid Bonaparte sure is about to make a name for himself. Larry Betts asks, are revolutions that revolutionary? They are fun and informative to study, all in their own unique way, but they all seem to involve 15 to 20 years of pain and violence and end with everyone agreeing that the new guy’s mustache is way nicer than the old guy’s. Then they get on with paying taxes and trying to find enough to eat in the ruins. I suppose I am suggesting that small-step evolutions tend to get overlooked because they are not very exciting, but they lead to way more change than the thrilling, noisy flag-waving, beheading types of revolution that we all love to read about.
I think it’s broadly true that revolutions tend to overhaul society a little bit less than we might suppose, that it’s more like a big wave that crashes up on the beach but then recedes, and it turns out that the tide has really only come in a few inches. It would be nice if everyone could just agree to move those few inches without inflicting those years of pain and violence on each other, but sometimes those with power just get too rigid and inflexible, so instead of accepting gradual reform, things snap. Some conflicts, unfortunately, can only be settled in blood.
As I mentioned earlier, there will eventually be a big compare-and-contrast session for all the revolutions, and clearly one of the big issues at stake in all the early modern revolutions was can the sovereign expropriate property from citizens without their consent? After the wave crashed and receded in each of the revolutions, the answer that remained was a resounding no. Even with both the English and French revolutions resulting ultimately in restorations, the monarchies that were quote-unquote restored were very different from the monarchies that had been pulled down. It was about way more than just the quality of their mustaches — there were limits placed on those kings that their predecessors did not have to deal with, and the horrible experience of revolution, with all its noisy beheadings, was a big reason they were forced to accept those shackles.
Chris Burke asks, how important do you think the control of the issuance of passports by the revolutionaries was to the French Revolution?
The irony of the passport controls was that one of those enlightened civil rights that was so much a part of the early revolution was the freedom of movement, both within the realm itself and coming and going from it. Telling a man where he can and cannot go was a mark of despotism, and not worthy of a free people. But this was tossed aside, as fear and paranoia swept through the country as it was faced with the dual threat of foreign agents crossing into France, and then enemies within France making good their escape. So in that sense, it’s just another example of the revolution tossing aside its principles in the name of expedience, because no man can reign innocently.
The other thing that it did was create an abstract national identity that was somehow detached from place of birth, or language, or ethnicity. Your ability to secure a passport now rested on your ability to prove that you adhered to the most current patriotic dogma, and failure to do so meant that you weren’t just a royalist, but that you weren’t even a true Frenchman anymore, and you were therefore ineligible for a passport. And without the passport, you were trapped, now essentially a foreign alien inside your own country.
In that sense, I think the control of passports helped determine who was safe and who was fair game when the heads started to roll, because killing an enemy alien is a lot easier than killing your fellow countrymen. Mark Heilman asks, OK, so Lafayette. It’s fascinating how differently he’s viewed in the US and France. How do you see him as a historical figure?
Lafayette is indeed an interesting case. For a long time, I only knew him from the American Revolution, as this young pup eager to please, he refuses to take a salary, he says, I’m here to learn, not teach. He was legitimately brave in battle, and did a pretty good job when he finally got an independent command. So from the American perspective, the Marquis de Lafayette is nothing but a heroic young man who we adore. The French, meanwhile, see him as this vainglorious buffoon who lived in a fantasy world where he was the star of the show, and when reality hit him full in the face, that he wasn’t, he had to slink off the stage in disgrace.
Now I think the potshots leveled at Lafayette by the French are unfair, but not necessarily wrong. He did live in a fantasy world of his own making, and it’s not hard to argue that all of his exaggerated deference to Washington was just Lafayette playing out this story arc that called for him to start as the student so in time he could return home and become the master. But at the end of the day, I think it’s pretty clear that Lafayette did have noble intentions. It wasn’t just about his own ego. I mean, he wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man, for God’s sakes. So the bottom line is, I like Lafayette. I think he was pointed in the right direction, and if I saw him on the street, I would shake his hand. Ingrid Helsing-Almas — hopefully I’m pronouncing that right — asks, I would like to know more about the shape of your week. How much do you read up during the week? How much do you know already? And is every episode scripted, or do you ad lib? And the world is big, and there are a lot of books. How do you select your sources?
So as I mentioned, I script everything. And for revolutions, I’ve taken a historiographic approach to my book selection. As for the particulars of my week, I work between 830am and 2.30pm every day. That is when the boy is off at daycare. Monday and Tuesday are usually consumed with compiling a super-detailed outline of what I want to cover and what order I want to cover it. Wednesday and Thursday is usually writing and editing. Episodes are now getting up around 4,500 words. Friday is more editing, particularly my world-famous speed edit, where I read the transcript out loud as fast as humanly possible to pick up any hidden tongue twisters or awkward sentence transitions. Then I record. That takes about an hour. Then I have to listen to the recorded episode to make sure there’s nothing wrong with the audio, which I have to say is the worst part of the whole thing. I mean, I just spent days writing it and rewriting it and then recording it and now I have to listen to it all over again. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it torture, but I’m pretty much ready to be done with the episode by now.
Then I post the episode, I have a drink, and start worrying about next week’s show. James Ruff asks, My interest was piqued during a recent episode where you mentioned Thomas Paine’s election as an honorary delegate of France’s national convention. What were the positions, actions of the other paragons of the American Revolution towards the revolution in France, and how did these views change over the tumultuous course of the revolution?
The French Revolution was a major sticking point early on in American politics. The Federalists surrounding Alexander Hamilton were pretty pro-British and anti-French, while the Democratic-Republicans surrounding Thomas Jefferson were pretty pro-French and anti-British. Jefferson in particular was very enthusiastic about the French Revolution and was eager to help it succeed. Your attitude about the French Revolution was, for a few years there, a pretty good litmus test about which side of the political fence you were on.
George Washington, of course, wanted to keep America away from any European entanglements, and pointedly declared neutrality when everyone in Europe started declaring war on everyone else in early 1793. The popularity of the French Revolution went into steep decline once reports of the Reign of Terror started crossing the Atlantic, and by 1798, the U.S. was in an undeclared war with France. John Loughran asks, When we look back in a hundred years’ time, which of the most recent and the current conflicts in the world do you think will prove to have been the most significant revolution?
Assuming that we’re now somehow so far removed from the collapse of communism that it no longer counts as recent, obviously the Arab Spring is the answer. It will always be a part of explaining the history of the early 21st century, though what it winds up meaning is still up to us. Stephen Mawson asks, If you could interview one individual from each of the revolutions you’ve covered so far, who would you interview, and what question would you ask them?
Since I started working on revolutions, I have become very interested in the men who were overtaken by events. The guys who started out on the leading edge of the revolution, and then found themselves solidly in the political middle, then denounced as reactionary conservatives, and then maybe run out of town.
So my candidates for the panel discussion on this topic would be from the English Revolution, the Earl of Essex, who was an uncompromising opponent of King Charles in the early days of the long parliament, then he led the parliamentary armies, then he wound up being dubbed insufficiently committed to the cause and shown the door. The self-denying ordinance could very easily be called the Dump Essex Ordinance. From the American Revolution, I would invite John Dickinson, whose letters from a Pennsylvania farmer put him way out in front, but he is generally remembered today for his opposition to independence in the Second Continental Congress.
From the French Revolution, of all the guys who get overrun, I think Antoine Barnaud is probably the most emblematic, the most radical voice down in Dauphiné during the Day of the Tiles, then a key leader in the National Assembly, a founding member of the Jacobins, and then suddenly he’s a reactionary apologist for aristocratic swine, and is soon enough going to get his head chopped off for being a counter-revolutionary. The question to all of them would be the same. So what was it like to go from radical to moderate to conservative, all without really ever changing your opinion about anything?
Katrina Setterholen asks, what is your favorite fiction and non-fiction book to date? I thought a lot about this, because obviously picking one of each is borderline impossible. But for non-fiction, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 by Hunter S. Thompson just cannot be beat. Anyone who has any interest in American politics must read it. As for fiction, I would be lying through my teeth if I said anything but Illuminatus by Robert Shay and Robert Anton Wilson. Anyone who has any interest in what’s really going on must read that, too.
Hail Eris. Niels Christiansen asks, among all the historical figures you’ve covered, who would you have most liked to have been, and why? Of all the Romans, it’s kind of tough to not want to have been Antoninus Pius. That guy had a sweet life.
But really, I think my answer to this question is John Lambert. I love John Lambert. He was a great soldier, a great general, a great leader, a deep thinker. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who basically won every battle he ever fought and composed the first written constitution in English history. He’s basically George Washington and James Madison combined. Now the whole dying insane after 23 years of solitary imprisonment isn’t ideal, but Lambert is the man. Jan Willem van Dalen asks, I was wondering if you ever considered discussing the Dutch Revolution against Spain in the 16th century in your podcast.
Yes, I did. I really did consider starting the whole series with the Dutch Revolt. I am really super interested in Dutch history, as you’ll see in a second. But the process of Dutch independence unfolds over like 80 years, and that seemed just too unwieldy to kick the show off with. Of course, then I started with the unfailingly convoluted English Revolution, so you know, what the hell do I know about anything? George Pratt asks, if you count the establishment of the Republic as a revolution, then why is there a 2,000-year gap between European revolutions where a monarchy is replaced with a representative form of government?
Well, to start with, I think you can knock the first thousand years of that off, because it took that long for the whole history of the Empire to play out. After that, early feudalism entrenches itself, and the ties that started binding everyone together more or less demanded a monarch at the center of all circles. So I think that gets you to at least the high Middle Ages without there really even being an opportunity for a monarchy to be replaced by a representative government.
The little city-state republics that cropped up along the way — and here I’m thinking about Venice, which I think got going in like the 700s — well, those were more or less born that way, rather than involving the overthrow of a king. There were also lots of free imperial cities out there in the Holy Roman Empire that functioned as republics, but they were all technically subordinate to the emperor, so we can’t really count them. But once the high Middle Ages kicks in, you do start to see more Italian city-states — like Genoa and Florence and so on — kicking out whatever noble lord happened to hold sway and then reform themselves as republics. The Republic of Florence, for example, was founded in the year 1115.
So it’s really only about 1,500 years after the expulsion of the Tarquins that you start seeing monarchies — or some version of monarchy — being replaced by a representative government, rather than the full 2,000 years. And then when you go back and think about it, really until the Americans come along, Western history has basically never seen a king who reigned over a large territory replaced by a representative government. Even in the Roman case, the King of Rome was really just the glorified mayor of a city-state when he was toppled. No one had ever tried to take a huge swath of territory and convert it into a republic until the American colonies took a stab at it. The concern that it would never work was actually something James Madison had to explicitly address in Federalist No. 10.
Once the Americans showed that it could actually work, that’s, I think, when you get the Europeans back in the old country, thinking that maybe they could get away with ditching their kings too. Rachel Lynn Underwood asks, You’ve mentioned in the history of Rome that you believe Livia’s reputation as an evil conniving poisoner was probably informed more by existing Roman archetypes — the evil stepmother who murders everyone — than by historical fact. Is there a similar case where archetype trumps accuracy in the revolutions you’ve been reading about? What historical figure does the popular narrative most misinterpret in your opinion?
In my opinion, I think the British have got Oliver Cromwell all wrong. In my — albeit limited — exposure to the general British popular image of the man, it seems like he is portrayed as a literally puritanical military dictator, mostly to be deployed as the butt of jokes and then dismissed. But having gone through his career in fairly fine detail, I just don’t see that stereotype holding up.
I mean, Cromwell himself was a devout puritan, yes, and he did believe God was literally on his side. But he was also convinced that religious toleration was essential, and he was one of the first to really articulate that point and then try to put it into practice when he held power. His alliance with the ultra-activist Puritans in London — those were the guys who were literally waging a war on Christmas — that was a forced political marriage. Cromwell himself tolerated their program out of necessity.
And then his actions during the entire run of political experimentation after the execution of Charles points to a guy who was desperately trying to share power, not gobble it all up for himself. As I said, one of the things the French accuse each other of a lot is trying to be Cromwell. But the funny thing is that I don’t think that Cromwell himself was ever trying to be Cromwell. It was just something he was kind of forced into.
Benjamin Davidson asks, why didn’t Parliament settle the whole direct-versus-indirect taxation-slash-parliament-right-to-tax-the-colonies issue by notifying the American colonies of the amount of goods or sums they hoped to procure via taxation and then allow the colonial representative bodies the difficult — and likely alienating — task of working out the nitty-gritty details of what foreign taxes should take and upon whom they would be imposed? It seems like Parliament and the ministry got themselves into a staring contest when they ought to have been sowing discord in the colonial ranks. In your opinion, would this policy have done anything to prevent the breakout of the revolution?
So my basic understanding of this question is that Parliament just could not handle a scenario where Parliament was not the one creating taxes. So saying to the Virginia House of Burgesses, we need X amount of money from you per year, go create the taxes that meet that requirement, that would have been an unthinkable breach of parliamentary sovereignty over the right to tax.
Were they dug in too deep on that point? Yes, I think they were. I think they took Parliament’s right to tax far too literally. The point was that taxes had to come from a body that represented the taxed, and the Americans were not represented in Parliament. It wasn’t that literally Parliament was the only body that should be able to issue a tax. And I have always thought that letting the colonies tax themselves would have completely defused the crisis.
That said, I just read the most fascinating thing about the financial history of the Dutch Republic — something that I never knew before. In the Netherlands were Spanish possessions, the Spanish crown did exactly as you suggest — they demanded subsidies from the various Dutch provinces and left it to the Dutch themselves to raise and collect the money as they saw fit. What happened is that Holland started raising taxes pretty efficiently, and then they were able to start floating bonds based off of that tax revenue.
Pretty soon people in Europe with money to invest noticed that Holland was really super dependable about paying back its debts, and before too long the Dutch had better credit than the Spanish Habsburgs who were by that point totally overextended. So when the United Provinces decided to revolt, they were able to finance the uprising pretty easily, specifically because they had once upon a time been granted control over the levying and collection of taxes. Now I don’t think that the Dutch and American cases are exactly equal, but it is interesting to note that one of the great roads not taken by Parliament as they dealt with the colonies was taken by the Spanish, and it resulted in a successful revolt anyway.
Janet Oblinger asks, if time travel were possible, which era, country, or event would you like to go to?
So I’m now thinking that what I would do is zoom way back before civilization ever took root. There are a couple of firsts that I would really like to witness when it comes to the dawn of humanity. I’d like to watch the first human make a fire. There was some specific person in some specific place at some specific time that had to have been the very first one to do it. I’d like to watch it happen. Or see the first time one person used a written symbol to convey an idea to another person. Or then, you know, more cynically, it’d be really fun to witness the first lie that was ever told, since lying is such a fundamental part of human social interaction, you know. Does this bearskin make me look fat? Um… no?
Dylan asks, let’s say I was the kind of person who likes to dive into an area of history and devour anything and everything I could find about it. What is an often overlooked yet incredibly interesting historical subject, person, place, thing, or time that I could sink my teeth into and find lots of good sources about? Since I was just thinking about the 19th century and the Franco-Prussian War, I think I will point you to everything that goes on between about 1870 and 1896.
That period deserves serious attention these days. This is an era that is simultaneously known as the Second Industrial Revolution, the Long Depression, and the Gilded Age. There are huge parts of the modern world that are born in those years, and lots of lessons to be learned about what is going on right now. There is also more than enough information about all of it to drown in, if you so choose. Deborah Wilson asks, what is your favorite outdoor sculpture on the Western Washington University campus and why?
For those of you who don’t know, I did my undergrad at Western Washington University in Bellingham, and Deborah is a fellow alumnus. The campus is fantastic. There is lots of really cool landscape design and outdoor sculptures. It’s actually a little bit famous for it. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a little cynical when it comes to art, so my favorite pieces are both located on the South Campus.
The bed of rocks that is supposed to have steam rising out of it that then changes and swirls in different light and weather, but which I never once ever saw turned on the entire time I was there, and there were years where I literally walked past it every single day. And then, of course, the stairs to nowhere. What the hell is going on with the stairs to nowhere? Robert Mass asks, what were the biggest factors which led you to do a podcast series on political revolutions? As I mentioned earlier, the American Revolution was probably my first great historical love. But my second great historical love was the Russian Revolution. I was obsessed with the Russian Revolution when I was a teenager. So like I said, this is a lot about going back to hang out with old friends.
The weird thing, though, is that when I look back on it, I can’t quite figure out why I was so obsessed with the Russian Revolution. By the time I was really delving into it in the mid-1990s, I mean, the Soviet Union had already collapsed, so it wasn’t about trying to understand our Cold War enemy. And I may as well say out loud that no matter how hard I tried, I never could get down with Marxism and communism, even when I was young and dumb. So it wasn’t exactly about cheering those guys on. I guess I’ve just always been drawn to revolutions. Can’t really explain why. I can tell you, though, that the immediate impetus for the show, like when I actually formulated the idea, was when I wrote a paper comparing the progress of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers movement to the stages of revolution outlined by Crane Brinton in his Anatomy of Revolution. And that’s when all my old love for the American and Russian Revolutions came flooding back, and I was like, oh, man, I know what podcast I’m going to do next.
Matt Crawford asks, I was wondering if you ever considered doing an episode on Paul Revere. I know you’re past the American Revolution, but you must admit he is quite the character and is more than deserving of your personal touch for his own episode. So what, that Legend Has It episode wasn’t good enough for you? Did you not see it? I’m re-embedding it right now on the top of revolutionspodcast.com. If you haven’t watched it, go watch it. It’s funny and often makes sense.
Robert Phillips asks, I was surprised to find out that nobody knows exactly where Charlemagne is buried. Which makes me wonder if we know where any important ancient person is buried, excluding the dudes in the pyramids. So framing the question more narrowly, do we know the precise burial locations of any historically significant Romans who lived during the imperial era? I’d like to visit Aetius’s tomb.
Well, I don’t know about Aetius, but we actually do know where a lot of the emperors were buried. As you know, they were all cremated rather than buried, so we’re going to be talking about where their remains wound up. Shortly after winning the empire, Augustus constructed what is now called the Mausoleum of Augustus, and that’s where all the major Julio-Claudians went, including Tiberius and Drusus and Germanicus, Claudius, all-time great best friend Marcus Agrippa. And what’s super exciting is that despite its obvious importance, the Mausoleum of Augustus has sat totally neglected behind a fence in Rome for decades. But just last year, the Italians announced that they are going to rehabilitate it and open it back up to the public. That is really exciting stuff.
So after the Julio-Claudians, Domitian built a temple to the Flavians on the Quirinal Hill, where Vespasian and Titus were deposited. But archaeologists today only have an educated guess where it was, over now by the Church of Santa Susanna, northeast of Termini Station. Trajan, of course, went into Trajan’s Column, that’s one of the reasons it was built. Hadrian went into the Mausoleum of Hadrian, which he built, and is now known as the Castle de San Angelo. And that became the new imperial resting place, and Hadrian was eventually joined by Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, possibly Commodus, though I’m not sure about that. Caracalla was the last emperor to be buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. That skipped Septimius Severus, of course, because he died in York and was buried up there, though no one knows where, and I actually did spend a little bit of time looking into it because I was just up in York and will be there again next month. The rest of the 3rd century is too damn confusing to try to go through, but for the record, no, nobody knows where Aurelian wound up. Diocletian was buried in what is today the Cathedral of St. Domnius in Croatia. Constantine then built the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and that became the imperial resting place for most of the eastern emperors for centuries. And from the History of Rome era, that includes Julian the Apostate, Jovian, Valentinian, Theodosius. Unfortunately, most of the sarcophagi were broken into by the Crusaders, and the old church was eventually replaced by a mosque, so there’s nothing really to see there. So that’s a pretty good list, I think, and it only took a minimal amount of googling to cobble together.
Dustin Rusco asks, I will be honest, I imagine you in a toga. I am sure you don’t wear one, at least not all of the time, but I was wondering if there is any part of Roman civilization that you have incorporated into your life. Perhaps you have a herma in your garden. How about Saturnalia? Have you incorporated any customs from that into your yuletide? Or are you just fomenting revolutions in your free time?
To be honest, I cannot really think of a single Roman practice or custom that I’ve actually incorporated into my life. Although as a very light morning-eater, I was happy to discover that the Romans ate very little in the morning before heading out the door. I am baffled by their ability to eat lying down, which has always been weird and awkward for me. In broader terms, though, I have always admired the Roman willingness to assimilate good ideas wherever they found them, and I’ve always tried to live with that principle in mind. I despise it when people reject good ideas because they didn’t think of it first or the idea just comes from somebody they don’t really like. That’s silly. People shouldn’t do that.
As for fomenting revolutions, unfortunately I now know way too much about how things really wind up going to be eager to ever let the genie out of the bottle ever again. From about-to-be three-time tour alumnus Andrea Smith, she asks, do you see a history of Rome, the Gallic campaigns, or something like that in the future?
Yeah, we have always kicked around the idea of a Julius Caesar-themed tour. I should talk to Nate about it. While I’m at it, if anyone out there listening missed the Rome tours and would like us to run another one, send me an email at revolutionspodcastatgmail.com. I’d like to gauge interest because I’d love to do another one. I mean, they’re opening the mausoleum of Augustus back up, and I want to see it. Steven Britton asks, now that it has been a few years since the end of the history of Rome, looking back, what was your favorite part about producing that series, and how does it feel to have completed the entire history of the Western Empire in podcast form?
When I was young, I had a lot of dreams and a lot of ambition, and that was great. But as I got older, and the years ticked by, and I kept not doing anything, or more precisely starting a lot of different things and having them all go nowhere, I started to be haunted by a voice. A voice that usually came at night, you know, when the demons come. And that voice said, you’re supposed to be on your third great American novel by now, and look at you. You’ve done absolutely nothing with your life, and you probably never will.
Completing the history of Rome means that whenever that voice tries to pop back up, I can tell it to shut up. Whatever else it was, the history of Rome was something, so you can’t say I’ve done nothing, and then the voice has to go away, and I get to go to sleep. Jem Edsel asks, do you or have you played video games, and do you view them as an educational tool? I ask because my first exposure to history and ancient cultures was from the Civilization series of culture and empire building games, which led to my love of both, and eventually your work.
Okay, so I do not personally really play video games. I like Missile Command, I like Ms. Pac-Man, and that’s about it. That said, I think video games can be a great educational tool. I have a ton of friends who do play them. They play Ages of Empire, they play Total War, they play the Assassin’s Creed games, which I now hear a lot about because I’ve been running parallel to them for the last few years. The last one was set during the American Revolution, and I think the most recent one is set during the French Revolution. When I hear friends who have no interest in history come over and suddenly want to talk to me about Charles Lee and whether he was actually that big of a villain in real life, well that’s all good in my book. So by all means, everyone, please play on.
John Donnellan said that he would be happy to sponsor somebody else’s question, and so I decided to take a fun one from Roger, which was just posted in the comments section of last week’s show. You’ve mentioned that Talleyrand is one of your favorite historical figures. In that same vein, who is your most hated figure? While confining this again to the periods I’ve really studied in depth, my least favorite Roman of all time is whichever Appiest Claudius happens to be around. Those guys are terrible.
From the English Revolution, I really got sick of Arthur Haselrig’s crap at the end. That guy did everything in his power to keep the Protectorate from working, and very much succeeded in keeping the Protectorate from working, because he had deluded himself into thinking that a purged parliament elected by almost no one was somehow the true representative of the people and therefore deserved unlimited power over everything. Get a grip, Haselrig.
For the American Revolution, Horatio Gates turned out to have been quite a bigger horse’s ass than I remember. His conduct down in South Carolina was just unforgivably dumb. And then so far in the French Revolution, I’m having a really hard time not wanting to pin the blame for everything on Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Beat the drums for war, and then when things go bad, start making paranoid accusations to avoid responsibility. Brissot basically built the stage the Terror is going to play out on. So good work on being an early and vocal opponent of slavery, but the French I think would have been a lot better off if he had just stayed in London.
Christopher Kuntz asks, the English Civil Wars was like they fought over a bunch of stuff then killed the king, then Oliver Cromwell, later the monarchy was restored. The French Revolution is like they fought over a bunch of stuff, they killed the king, then Napoleon for a while, later the monarchy was restored. So my question is, what happened to all of the kings? Were the various constitutional monarchies retooled at some point so that the royals became irrelevant? At what point did all of these countries get modern governments? Do any others still have figurehead royal families? Do they have any function in government?
The answer to this question is extraordinarily complicated. But in part, the answer is that the history of Europe over the last 200 years or so is the history of taking monarchies and putting them into little tiny gilded boxes, and then either keeping those boxes up on a shelf because they are beloved family heirlooms, or chucking them out the window because who needs them?
Of the 30 countries in the EU, 12 of them remain monarchies, including Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain. The rest are straight-up republics, who all shed their king at some point along the line. France had their last king in 1848, Italy’s last king abdicated in 1946. Every country’s history is different, though World War I did turn out to be quite the kingslayer. These days, whether technically a monarchy or technically a republic, parliamentary democracy is the thing everywhere. And I genuinely wonder, though, how long that will last.
Our final question today comes from another History of Rome Tour alumnus, Mike Manfred, who clearly has no idea how to read a calendar or follow instructions, but I like him so I’ll let the lateness of his questions slide. How do you think history would have changed or shaped itself had Cicero decided to be a part of the triumvirate, or I guess quadravorate?
The first thing you have to ask is where does this hypothetical Cicero fit into the equation? Caesar was gunning to be the first man in Rome, obviously. Crassus is looking to eventually win that big military victory that will legitimize him politically. Pompey just wants his eastern settlements ratified and his fetters given land that they have been promised. But what would Cicero have wanted? What did he want? I’m not really sure he ever had a specific agenda, and that’s probably one of the reasons he didn’t think it was a good idea to join up.
But let’s say that he did. What does Cicero bring to the table? Well, Crassus brings money, Pompey is Pompey the Great, and Caesar was the rising star of Roman politics.
So what Cicero probably brings, though, is quite a bit of moral cover for the project, and he did have quite a silver tongue so he becomes the official propagandist of the alliance. So I reckon if Cicero joins up, he becomes the point man in Rome, what with Pompey dozing on a sofa these days. But how much can he keep Cato and the rest of Caesar’s enemies from doing exactly what they did? I don’t think Cicero would have been that influential. So if he can’t reconcile Caesar to his enemies, maybe he can reconcile the triumvirs to each other when they start bickering.
But of course the first time they almost split up, they wound up working things out, so Cicero wouldn’t have been needed. But then when Crassus dies, and Caesar’s daughter-slash-Pompey’s wife Julia die, the next question is can Cicero successfully prevent the final break between Caesar and Pompey? And that, I think, is a distinct possibility. Maybe he can give Pompey enough cover to work things out, be a key voice in Rome not urging Pompey to break with Caesar. But if he can’t do that, does he stay in Rome when the Senate skips town? I can’t really see him siding with Caesar against the Senate. So clearly it comes down to how much can Cicero heal the rift between Pompey and Caesar, and how much would he have actually wanted to? Because even our hypothetical Cicero was conflicted about joining the pact, it’s not like his heart would ever have been 100% into the project. So maybe as Caesar gets more reckless, Cicero re-entrenches with the Senate, tells Pompey to do the same.
So in the end, my gut says that there’s about a 10-15% chance Cicero keeps Pompey and Caesar aligned, and the Civil War doesn’t break out at that precise moment. In other words, I don’t really think that Cicero would have been that important one way or the other.
Okay, so that concludes Question Time, and we are going to wrap up by announcing the winners of the two Ansonyas from among those who purchased t-shirts during the fundraiser. The winners were chosen at random, based on the four-digit order number in the fundraiser database. To ensure the integrity of the selection process, I entrusted the picking of the winning numbers to Vice President of Letter and Number Identification, Elliot William Duncan. So Elliot, please take it away. Lucky winner number one had order… One, nine, four, seven.
Order one, nine, four, seven. That would be Calvin Locke of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Elliot, say congratulations to Calvin. Congratulations! Good work. Okay, winner number two had order… Seven, six. Order three, zero, seven, six. That would be Scott Fry of Portland, Oregon, USA. Elliot, say congratulations to Scott with exactly the same tone and inflection.
Good work. Calvin, Scott, you will be getting email shortly about arranging the shipment of your Ansonyas. As for the rest of you, I think this has gone on long enough, and I am quite ready to have to listen to it all through to make sure there are no mistakes in the audio, and then have a drink.
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If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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