March 24, 2014

The Ancient World

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Available from iTunes and on the blog, The Ancient World

This history podcast originally aimed to cover all history from the earliest civilizations until the start of the classical age (around 500BC). The presenter, Scott Chesworth, just thought such a history was required and couldn’t find one – so did it himself. The series covers a great deal of material over its 36 audio-only episodes (each around half an hour in length and of good production quality). An ambitious undertaking.

The podcast starts with the invention of irrigation and the formation of the first cities in Sumer, Elam and Egypt. The next couple of episodes carry on with the beginnings of civilization in Harappa, China and Crete. There is also mention of the Norte Chico in Peru, the oldest known American civilisation, and new to me. However, after that the series focuses almost exclusively on the well documented history of the ancient Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. This is largely due to much of the history of these areas surviving through to the present day on stone monuments and clay tablets. Scott admits as much in the final episode, stating he couldn’t find enough details on individuals or events in other areas to make it entertaining and fit it with the style of the show. This means that iron age Canaan (as covered extensively in the Bible and researched by Bible-historians) is described in far more detail than China and India combined. Similarly when discussing the Persians most information is on their dealings with other civilisations, while their interactions with Central Asian societies is largely unknown.

The podcasts run in roughly chronological order. A particular region at a particular time will be presented. Followed by another region overlapping in both time and geography. It can become a bit of a tick-tock of events and people. This perhaps to be expected given the breadth of material to be covered, and that most of it comes from kings extolling their personal exploits. There is not much indication of how things worked or how life was lived at the time. Occasionally some details come through, like the discussion of the diplomatic letters traded between kings just before the bronze age collapse showing the ancient world to be very well connected. Scott livens up the flow of facts when he can with little asides or appeals to modern sensitivities. Thus the Minoans are “awesome” partly for having no discernable military; a particularly cruel act is “positively Assyrian”; and the faux-credulous manner when retelling the story of Darius I’s accession to the Persian throne. It was also interesting to hear how large the Persian Empire became under Darius (perhaps 45% of the world’s population) and how it was run in a tolerant manner with the local customs and sometimes even the leadership of a province (known as a satrapy) remaining unchanged.

While it might not achieve its lofty goal (as explained below), this series does provide a great deal of information on an underrepresented period of history (online at least). Not many other podcasts will describe ancient Sumer, Akkad or Mittani. It is definitely worth a listen, and thanks Scott for filling the gap.

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