Listening to History on Audible

I love audible because like podcasts, I can listen to something interesting and informative while I’m on my daily commute. I think that learning about history can be fun and inspiring, especially for people who write fantasy. There are so many incredible stories and settings from the past, many of which are really under used by fantasy or historical fiction writers, who tend to focus entirely on Medieval Europe. So whether you like listening to history or are looking for good writing inspiration, here are three of my favorite courses from audible.

  1. Famous Romans, by Rufus Fears

I've always loved Greek and Roman history, and while searching the website, I found a series of lectures called Famous Romans given by Rufus Fears for the Great Courses. I'd heard of Professor Fears while I was a student at the University of Oklahoma--he'd been respected and loved by students there. In fact, his classes were so popular, I could never get into one! So while I missed seeing Dr. Fears while I was a student, I figured it would be interesting to listen to his lectures on audible.

In Famous Romans, Fears gives us the history of Ancient Rome via the lives of its great warriors, politicians, philosophers, and poets. From the epic battles of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, to the brilliant career of Julius Caesar, the stories of these great Roman citizens are engaging and informative. Fears narrates these biographies with passion and intelligence, and is quick to note the life lessons one can find in past. Like Plutarch, an ancient biographer he clearly admires, Fears thinks that the goal of studying history is to learn to be a better human being. In a time when it seems that so many people have little respect for the humanities, it's refreshing to hear someone so vigorously defend the study of history.

Yet, Famous Romans is as entertaining as it is intellectual. Many of these Romans lead fascinating, action-packed lives, full of epic battles, heroic virtues, and great tragedy. Others, like Nero, lead lives of utter depravity. Either way leads to a very interesting story. And that's the heart of what I like best about Famous Romans on audible; it's like listening to someone telling you a series of wonderful stories, with the added benefit of being historical. So if that appeals to you, I encourage you to give it a try.

2. The History of Ancient Egypt

While I knew quite a bit about Greek and Roman history, I knew very little about ancient Egypt, so this seemed like a good place to learn more.

Brier takes the listener through every Egyptian dynasty, from the possibly apocryphal pharaohs of the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemies, including the great queen Cleopatra. The professor, who has appeared on National Geographic and Discovery Civilizations documentaries, comes off as highly knowledgeable and deeply passionate about Egyptology. He does have a thick New York accent, but after a while I found that endearing instead of distracting, especially since his voice has a lot of warmth. As for the subject matter, it was fascinating. Egypt's culture and civilization predates the Ancient Greeks by thousands of years, and it's clear that many of their ideas influenced the cultures around them. For example, although Egyptians usually worshipped many gods, one of the 18th dynasty pharaohs, Akhenaten, introduced the worship of a single deity, one of the first recorded instances of monotheism. His son, the famous King Tut, restored the traditional religion after his father's death.

In some ways, the ancient Egyptians felt surprisingly modern. Although they respected their traditions and were often highly resistant to change, they accepted outsiders so long as they assimilated into Egyptian culture. For example, all the pharaohs of the 25th dynasty were black. They were originally Nubians who invaded Egypt during a time of chaos, then ruled for over a hundred years. Likewise, Egyptians accepted the Greek Ptolemies as pharaohs as well. Clearly, ancient Egyptians were more diverse than you might think. They also had a female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who may be the first great woman leader we know of in history.

Overall, I enjoyed "The History of Ancient Egypt" quite a bit. Egyptian history is fascinating, and the Brier's passion and knowledge of his subject made it all the more compelling.

3. The World of Byzantium

I decided to listen to Kenneth Harl's "The World of Byzantium," one of The Great Courses series. I chose it because while I've read a great deal about ancient Greece and Rome, I realized I knew very little about the latter part of the Roman empire and even less about Byzantium, the heir to the Roman empire that survived in its Eastern half for nearly a thousand years.

The history of the Eastern Empire, and its evolution from a classical Roman society to a Medieval Christian society (though one conspicuously lacking in the ignorance and feudalism of Western Europe), is a fascinating and engaging part of history that I'd never studied before. Yet without the Byzantine Empire, much of Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and culture would have been irretrievably lost. The lecture series begins by examining the divisions within the Roman Empire that lead to its split, and eventually to the loss of its Western half. Harl explores the career of the great Emperor Constantine I, who builds the great city of Constantinople in what is today modern Turkey. The wealthiest and greatest city in world for thousands of years, Constantine and his successors would use the city to spread Christianity throughout the empire and to rule the Eastern empire long after the fall of Rome.

Yet despite the vibrancy, strength, and wealth of the great city, called "New Rome" by Constantine himself, the rulers never quite have the ability to retake the rest of the former empire. Nonetheless, the power of Constantinople shapes the world as it transitions from late antiquity to the dark ages, through the crusades and the emergence of the Ottoman empire, Byzantium's successor. Much of Western culture, from the works of Plato and Aristotle, to the histories and law codes of Rome, survived in Byzantium and were only rediscovered in Western Europe during the crusades. Byzantine history is also full of fascinating characters, including the Emperor Justinian I, a brilliant man who fundamentally shaped the Byzantine state and its religious character, yet who ultimately could not reconcile the religious and cultural differences between the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire. 

I'd recommend this course to anyone who's interested in history. The Byzantine Empire and its demise had a profound influence on the modern world, and Harl depicts its wonders and its sophistication as well as its occasional savagery. As a narrator, Harl is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, which makes listening to him engaging.