Critical Essay

Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast shows how history repeats itself

His ongoing exploration of political instability feels excruciatingly relevant.

Podcaster Mike Duncan pauses briefly in front of his microphone, just long enough for a gentle implied sigh, after he has dispatched King Charles I. Charles was, “let’s face it, a terrible leader.” Unable to judge people or politics, he was so obstinate that he “almost forced his own subjects to behead him” after many chances to save his life and crown. But he wasn’t a monster. He just “fell into traps that no one had actually laid for him.” It didn’t have to end this way. He did it all to himself, and it cost him his head. Pause. Implied sigh. Then the story of history moves on without him.

Over seven years and more than 300 episodes of Duncan’s gripping and well-researched Revolutions podcast, he has seen off many crowned heads and erstwhile revolutionary leaders. These valedictory moments assess, with poignant but unsparing clarity, both the rulers who ultimately couldn’t save the old order and the revolutionary firebrands who couldn’t stay atop the new. Every time he closes the book on one of the dead, alternative histories hang in the air. What if Louis XVI had been consistently either aggressive or accommodating? What if Robespierre hadn’t emerged from a month’s seclusion in a paranoid and fanatic state? What would have happened to Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean if Napoleon had accepted the deal offered by Toussaint Louverture instead of destroying him? Could Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata have pressed their momentary advantage and led Mexico instead of dying in ambushes? We’ll never know.

Revolutions has no guests, no audio clips, and no transition music except a few bars of a Haydn symphony at the beginning and end of each episode. It is simply the engaging, earnest voice of Duncan reading his scripts. And it is, at least by the standards of general history publishing, very popular. Starting with the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, the show has covered the American, French, Haitian, and South American revolutions; the July Revolution in France in 1830; the 1848 revolutions across all of Europe; the Paris Commune of 1871; the Mexican Revolution; and the Russian Revolution. He has put out substantial episodes almost every week, with brief hiatuses between revolutions. And during these years, Duncan has also written two books: The Storm before the Storm, on the period before the collapse of the Roman Republic (Duncan’s previous podcast was The History of Rome); and Hero of Two Worlds, on the Marquis de Lafayette, which is out this month. It is a huge body of work compiled in a strikingly short time.