Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Twelve Byzantine Rulers"

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Editor's note: long-time listener and freelance journalist Ian Brill will be contributing a weekly podcast review to the blog called "Podthoughts." I've decided to institute this feature because I feel there's a great vacuum of useful information about podcasts, and a lot of folks who want to make informed choices about what they download. This week, Ian covered "Twelve Byzantine Rulers," a history podcast produced by Lars Brownworth of The Stony Brook School.

Lars Brownworth announces in the introduction to his podcast that he will explain the history of the Byzantine Empire by telling the stories of its rulers. He rejects the idea that history should be told from the point of view of the common man and instead focuses on individual achievements.

I was skeptical of this approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read my share of Howard Zinn, but I prefer when history is told with an eye towards to daily lives of average citizen. That way that we get the temperature of the times and understand what the mindset of the general populace was. Once we realize how a segment of people in time and space chose to see the world, what they believed was right and wrong, how they saw themselves on the world’s stage, then we get a good sense of why their leaders got away with what they did.

With roughly 1,000 years of history to deal with, I see why Brownsworth, a history professor at The Stony Brook School on Long Island, New York, decided to take a different tack. With the so much time to cover it’s important to have clear markers. Granted, one of the appeals of podcasts is that there are no limits on running time. As long as your voice doesn’t give out you can go on as long as you want for as many episodes as you want. But I presume Brownsworth wants his podcast to be accessible and to appeal to the bite size chunks of information podcast listeners are used to. Profiling 12 distinct rulers is a smart way to attack this subject matter.

Brownsworth presents these podcasts in the simplest way possible. He lectures into a microphone for 15 to 30 minutes, detailing the chronological events of these leaders’ lives.

Brownsworth comes across as the knowledgeable and patient history teacher he probably is at Stony Brook. He never reads too fast and his voice is always clear. It’s effective, if a bit dry. The introduction had some liveliness to it because there was some drama in the way Brownsworth described the different approaches to history. Of course there’s plenty of drama in the life of Constantine, to whom Brownsworth devotes two installments, but the academic approach, while informative, can be a bit austere for my taste. Granted I’m the type of student who never warmed to up to just sitting in a desk and hearing lectures. If you are you’ll probably have an easier time with “12 Byzantine Rulers” than I did.

There are still moments in the podcast that fully captured my attention. The profile of Basil II includes an incredible moment of mass eye gouging. Hearing such violence told in such a clam and assured way really jolts a listener. It was actually the end of those segments where Browsworth put this leader’s life into perspective that I was most interested in. It’s there that Brownsworth’s telling of history meets that populist approach I prefer. There the big themes of power or religion are contemplated and we can apply the lessons learned on this podcast to our own lives.