Ancient Rome is one of the most powerful and influential pagan civilizations in history. Other pagan societies brought us many things, but Rome seems to have been a nexus for many of the European cultures. Rome folded the gods of the Greek pantheon into its own religion, but the Greeks had already folded many Egyptian ideas into its own practices.
Of course, Rome and Egypt had a trade relationship which further resulted in cross-pollination of ideas, and Roman soldiers were certain to have brought back any number of practices from their wars with German and Celtic people. Even military enemies influence each other’s cultures.
For hundreds of years, Rome was the center of the western world both geographically and politically, and it wove large swaths of religious and secular practices from enemies and trade partners alike into the fabric of its own civilization. Even today, Rome is the center of one of the world’s major religions, the basilicas of which are surrounded by the ruins of one of the most powerful pagan societies in history. Rome is, in many ways, the historical point around which the western world turns.
Now take this society that was so influential in world history and add the unique take of “history fan” Dan Carlin, whose podcast Hardcore History is riveting and provocative, just the way you wish history had been taught to you in high school. Carlin describes his own take on history as “Martian” and “outside the box,” yet his show rigorously includes both modern sources and those from the time period he discusses. It’s a volatile combination, and when Carlin turned his uncompromising eye to the fall of the Roman Republic, the result is a sprawling tale of greed, ambition, sexual intrigue, and bloodshed that puts even the violent HBO series to shame. Truth is stranger than fiction.
“Death Throes of the Roman Republic” is a panoramic, six-part epic that clocks in at roughly 14 hours long. It begins with the central theme of “ambition,” normally a good thing to have. Ambition drives us to succeed, but Carlin describes ambition as the central value of the Roman aristocracy – well above money, fame, or faith. All of those things are great, but according to Carlin the upper echelons only used them as tools, stepping stones to power and position in the bloody race to outshine your ancestors.
It’s a tale of goals gone wild as each generation’s upper class vies for superiority. Along the way they pull out as many tools as they can. Generals risk debt and death to hire their own personal armies to fight unnecessary wars. Bluebloods with no concept of the average Roman’s life take their case to the people, who somehow back their cause. Cross-dressing sex scandals threaten to take down the most august names in the republic. All to achieve notoriety. It’s a tabloid magazine drenched in Roman blood.
Part I introduces the Roman ancestor room, a room in every noble Roman’s house that was filled with sculptures of every ancestor. These were death masks cast on each corpse’s face just as the lives of the ancestor ended. The purpose was not so much to venerate ancestors as to remember their accomplishments so future generations could supersede them. From there, we learn about how Rome’s great war machine both lifted the city-state to preeminent status and planted the seeds for its downfall.
Parts II, III, and IV take the story the generations of political and military intrigue. From the progressive reforms attempted by brothers Gaius Tiberius and Gracchus to the military exploits of the rivals Marius and Sulla, we begin to see a tapestry sewn with gunpowder. As Sulla enters Rome with his army and becomes the first dictator, he opens the door to the widespread slaughter of Romans and introduces the idea of dictatorship to a land that prides itself on shared power.
In Part V we begin to hear about the names we know so well: Pompey, Cicero, Cato, and, of course, Julius Caesar. By this time, ambition is totally out of control and restraint has been destroyed by Sulla’s violent takeover a generation before. The Roman aristocracy is on hyper drive to succeed and all moral boundaries have already been crossed. It becomes a game of chicken.
Part VI is an epic by itself. In a nearly 5 ½ hour episode, Carlin tracks the machinations leading to Caesar’s dictatorship in spellbinding detail. He brings in ancient sources to describe each and every step of the way while offering modern commentary and historical theory to bring perspective. In a way the only Carlin can, each character is given life as we come to understand the full color version of their struggles, motivations, triumphs, and tragedies. Each person’s death, usually violent, is discussed in a beautifully meaningful way that puts their life, work, and contributions into perspective. Cato’s suicide, for example, is excruciating in its painful detail, yet fully supported by our understanding of the man’s unfailing dedication to his country and his cause.
All of it – all of the deaths, scandals, threats, and destruction – are then brought back to the original theme: ambition. Carlin suggests that ambition drove the Republic into the mud just as much as it elevated to a world power. He draws parallels to our society and asks the question: Is our political system fueled more by ambition than by service? Carlin makes a compelling case, based on historical sources, that we may be heading for the same fate as Pompey, Cato, and Caesar. One was betrayed, one committed suicide, and one was assassinated. Are we doing the same? Carlin leaves it for us to decide.
Dan Carlin defines history as “the autobiography of a madman.” This amazing series of podcasts certainly backs up his view. More importantly, it reminds us that history is a living thing, seemingly meaningless when it is lived but with our mistakes glaringly open to hindsight thousands of years down the road. Carlin’s greatest achievement may be that he helps his listeners feel history instead of just understand it. What we know with our heads, he helps us touch with our hearts, allowing us to see our own emotions in every step. In this way, Hardcore History’s “Death Throes of the Roman Republic” connects the hearts of Rome with the hearts of the 21st century world.