Dan Toler’s Relevant History
The Fall of Rome: A deep-dive in 3 parts
How did the Roman Empire fall?
The long-time listeners of The History Voyager Podcast will know that I have an appreciation for the study of History. History, I have come to see is not a noun.
History is something you make. You have to decide what history is and what history is not. You have to decide if new historical trends are applicable on a case-by-case basis. Another important thing to do is to remove what historians call “presentism”, or the tendency to graft modern mores, customs, costumes, and modern-seeming or modern-looking people into movies and television. We can see this with popular movies and television.
Hulu’s The Great an has Afro-English, American, and a white English cast for example. It has so many inaccuracies that it actually has chosen, I think correctly, to run towards the inaccuracies. Choosing to ham up the show as a conscious choice. I also think this is a wise choice given that a comedy about Catherine the Great’s rise to power would not play well to modern audiences if it were historically accurate. Why shouldn’t the most diverse and globally conscious generation be represented on screen? I don’t speak modern Russian, let alone a medieval dialect of Russian. It is show business after all. The Great is a good show. It’s fun and funny. Let it happen, I say! Any presentism in the show is essentially harmless, and I would argue that it is needed. In entertainment, presentism, is a useful tool for engagement.
A multi-lingual, multi-racial, and multi-cultural audience wants to see themselves represented on screens large and small. A show like The Great can be dangerous. Dangerous because it can almost subconsciously bleed into the discourse as well as wider perceptions of society.
I think we are beginning to see a similar type setup around the discourse of the fall of the Roman Empire.
History is a Verb.
THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE has also been dramatically reappraised using the lens of historical and environmental forces. Fascinating studies have been done around an increase in volcanic activity, tree-ring growth, and other environmental factors on the Italian peninsula. There are also very intriguing studies done about a gradual morphing into a much more fractured sphere of cultural influences across what we today call Europe. Historians can very easily fall into the trap of a gradual process which brought a much more Germanic-flavor to a vast empire, but which nothing truly changed.
As fascinating as these studies can be and indeed, often are, they have to play some mental gymnastics with a sequence of events.
A Golden Age is Here
But actual historical scholarship is different. Podcasters such as Relevant History’s Dan Toler are helping to usher in a golden age of historical education. By educating interested persons around the world on important aspects of history, Dan Toler is increasing literacy in a very important—and often neglected in our era of standardized testing— topic. Namely that humans are both actors in and acted upon by historical forces. Nationalism, especially after the Franco-Prussian War, has been a very important feature in the lives of virtually every human on the planet.
Where The History Voyager is more of a chronicle of our present and future as a world Relevant History is much more of a road map of how we have gotten to our Westphalian moment. A moment where, if only in theory, we are organized in geopolitical camps. Borders have become much brighter and more meaningful in the lives of the average person than it was during the collapse of the Roman Empire. Just ask a British person about Brexit to get a bracing reminder about the importance of nationalism in the present day. Dan Toler’s Relevant History implicitly argues that this process began with the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Dan Toler’s Relevant History
Dan Toler’s podcast Relevant History has thus far taken a look at nationalism as it has come into being around the world. Many people, Dan included, have positioned the Fall of the Roman Empire as one of the key events which brought in a wave of nationalism across the globe. Many historians have heard the siren song of nationalism and coupled that with our own era’s love and reliance on hard science as an arguement for a much more scientifically based study on way and how Rome fell. Throughout his three-part series Dan Toler wisely ignores these studies.
It is essential for any modern audience of a study of the ancient world to understand that they live in a very unique time in human history. We live in a world that has benefited greatly from the Scientific Revolution. We live in a world where all but the most simplistic people use logic and reason daily. This was not true in the late-Roman Empire. Roman Citizenship was never widespread. Most people in the Roman Empire had little interaction with the overly simplified model of government. The Roman Senate had been transformed into a self-serving clique. But the real power, as Dan Toler walks us through at great length, is the military. Emperors must serve at the pleasure of an army that needed conquest to satiate its thirsty members.
Historical scholarship as well as historical reporting can not ignore the facts on the ground as they were understood at the time. Over the decades the Fall of The Roman Empire has been reexamined in dramatic fashion by scholars literally around the world. For some reason the fall of an empire a continent away has fascinated scholars, novelists, and podcasters around the world and across time.
The scholarship surrounding historical forces has dramatically increased in the last 30 years.
I have often thought that we in the 21st Century happen to live in the very connected world. We are able to have friendships with people across the globe. It’s important to say that this is not just for the fortunate elite in America. Many people all across the globe are able to create and maintain relationships with average people from around the world.
This phenomenon has undoubtedly shrunk our world while expanding both our awareness and our consciousness. In reality, our modern situation has sprung out of the proliferation of the steam engine and mass literacy. Once you create a situation where literate people can cross wide areas and meet other literate people, ideas can be easily swapped, new ideas can be easily created, and relationships can be formed.
We see the fruits of this all around us. We have the opportunity to be smarter, better informed and with rich and deep connections with people all over the world!
But it can create interesting blind spots.
Those blind spots are never more evident than when we examine ancient cultures.
This is where Dan Toler parts company with an armada of scholastic output. In his 3-part series Ex Unum, Pluribus Part 2 and Ex Unum Pluribus Part 1, and the finale The King and The Emperor Mr. Toler offers up a solid theory over approximately eight hours which is mainly confined to events on the battlefield and the throne room.
This is a refreshing take!
It’s refreshing for an obvious reason, but a reason I feel needs to be stated over and over again in the face of the perpetual reappraisal:
IT’S WHAT HAPPENED
Virtually every scholar of the late-Roman Empire flatly states early in their mainline scholastic output that the Roman Empire, a political entity which went from Scotland to Syria or modern-day Iraq was run by and for a clique of well-connected men. As sophisticated as the Empire was geographically, its political structure was simple to a fault. It was a rotten house teetering. The modern connected world theory simply does not work.