The Ancients

By History Hit Network

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 Jul 18, 2020


A podcast for all ancient history fans! The Ancients is dedicated to discussing our distant past. Featuring interviews with historians and archaeologists, each episode covers a specific theme from antiquity. From Neolithic Britain to the Fall of Rome. Hosted by Tristan Hughes. 

Episode Date
Sophocles' Lost Plays: Solving the Puzzle

The Big Three. In antiquity it could mean a whole host of different things, the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus for instance. But for many, ‘The Big Three’ means the three great tragedians of Ancient Greece we know so well today: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Today’s podcast is all about Sophocles, the creator of famous plays such as Oedipus Rex, Ajax and Antigone.

Seven of his plays survive in full, but believe it or not this is but a morsel of the many works that Sophocles created. Fragments of more than 100 other plays written by Sophocles have been uncovered. Though only snippets survive, and in various forms, they have provided valuable insights into Sophocles’ career and how he wrote much more than just tragedy. Even more extraordinary, to this day new fragments continue to be studied. They continue to reveal more about Sophocles and his works, slowly adding more pieces to the puzzle that is this famous dramatist - and ancient Greek drama as a whole. Sophocles may have been living over 2,500 years ago, but his story is far from over.

I was delighted to be joined by Dr Lyndsay Coo, a leading expert on Sophocles and his lost plays, to talk through the life and legacy of this famous dramatist. We first talk about Sophocles and his seven surviving plays, before going on to the many, many fragments that survive and their significance. This was an enthralling and eye-opening chat. Enjoy.


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Oct 18, 2020
69 AD: Rise of Vespasian

69 AD was a tumultuous year in Roman history. 4 Romans assumed the title of emperor; only one remained standing by the year’s end. His name was Vespasian, veteran of Claudius’ invasion of Britain and the builder of the Colosseum. Jonathan Eaton (@DrJEaton) joined me on the podcast to talk through the rise of Emperor Vespasian. In particular, we focus on what this father of the Flavian Dynasty was doing during 69 AD and assess how influential soldiers across the empire were in his bid for power. Jonathan is the author of Leading the Roman Army: Soldiers and Emperors, 31 BC – 235 AD.

Jonathan's Twitter: @DrJEaton

Tristan's Twitter: @ancientstristan


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Oct 15, 2020
The Defeat of Rome: Crassus and the Battle of Carrhae

Gareth Sampson, author of Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC came on the podcast to provide an in depth account of Marcus Crassus’ disastrous campaign east of the Euphrates River in 53 BC. Gareth sorted the fact from the fiction. He dispelled the idea that Crassus was this incompetent general, highlighting the questionable impartiality of our surviving sources that are at pains to suggest the campaign was plagued by disastrous omens from start to finish. In fact it was quite the opposite.

Gareth is also the author of Rome and Parthia: Empires at War, his most recent book.

Quick note:

The Seleukid Empire: A Hellenistic Kingdom that once ruled much of the ancient Near-East. One of its key kings was Antiochus III, also known as Antiochus 'the Great'.


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Oct 11, 2020
Septimius Severus in Scotland

This week's episode from the History Hit archive features Dan Snow talking to Simon Elliott about Septimius Severus, the first Hammer of the Scots, about his Northern Campaigns, and the true story of this savage 3rd century invasion of Scotland.

Simon is the author of 'Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots.'


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Oct 08, 2020
Nero the Antichrist?

The Emperor Nero is one of antiquity's most infamous figures, having a particularly hostile relationship with the Christians. But did the early Christians associate Nero with the Antichrist mentioned in the New Testament? Joining me to sort the fact from the fiction is Shushma Malik, Lecturer at the University of Roehampton and the author of The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm. Shushma explains how this association between Nero and the Antichrist was invented in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries by later Christian writers of antiquity. We also explore how this association was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries and how widespread this revival's influence became. Including its influence on the 1951 American epic historical drama Quo Vadis.

Shushma also taught me at university a few years back, so it was great to catch up!


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Oct 04, 2020
Agrippa: Rome's Forgotten Hero

There are few men in Roman history that can claim to have been as influential as Marcus Agrippa. The right-hand man of Octavian / Augustus, his career is dotted with powerful positions. And yet, what was arguably so remarkable about his life was his stalwart loyalty to his friend Octavian. Together they irreversibly transformed the Roman Empire. Joining me to talk about Agrippa's remarkable career is his 21st century biographer Lindsay Powell. In this first of two episodes, Lindsay talks me through Agrippa's career up to the climactic Battle of Actium and the key role he played in bringing about the end of the last civil war of the Roman Republic.

Lindsay is the author of Agrippa: Right Hand Man of Augustus. Part 2 of this podcast, on Agrippa's life from Actium down to his death, will be released in the near future.


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Oct 01, 2020
The Polynesians: Ancient Mariners of the Pacific

The ancient Polynesians remain the greatest seafarers in history. Already by the time of the legendary founding of Rome on 21 April 753 BC, Polynesian voyagers had crossed huge parts of the Pacific Ocean and settled on isolated islands such as Tonga and Samoa. Mind-boggling and incredible. Later they would voyage even further into the Pacific, settling the likes of Easter Island, Vanuatu and New Zealand. So how did they do this? How were they able to reach these far-flung islands in their iconic canoes? What were the keys to their success? And perhaps most fascinating of all what drove groups of Polynesians to want to set sail in their iconic canoes into the vast and treacherous Pacific?

So many questions still surround the ancient history of Polynesia and their unparalleled voyaging across the vast Pacific Ocean and in this podcast I was delighted to be joined by Christina Thompson to talk me through this 'Puzzle of Polynesia'. From the iconic outrigger canoes to the canine animals they brought with them, she explains what we do know (and what are the theories) about the ancient Polynesians and their incredible voyages across the Pacific Ocean.

Christina is the author of: 'Sea Peoples: The Puzzle of Polynesia' and 'Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All'


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Sep 27, 2020
The Battle of Salamis

We've had the Battle of Thermopylae with the brilliant Paul Cartledge; we've had the Battle of Artemisium with the great Owen Rees. And I'm delighted to say that we are today fulfilling the 2,499 Persian War 'trilogy' with the Battle of Salamis. One of the most famous naval clashes of antiquity, it saw a small (largely-Athenian) fleet square up against the mighty Persian armada of King Xerxes. It occurred around this time (c.22 September), 2,499 years ago.

I was thrilled to be joined by Professor Barry Strauss to talk through the Battle of Salamis. In this podcast he provides a thorough account of the clash and explains why the battle became so important to the Athenians. Barry is the author of 'The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece - and Western Civilisation'. He is also the host of the Antiquitas podcast.


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Sep 24, 2020
The Rise of Constantine

The Emperor Constantine I, better known as Constantine the Great, is one of the most significant emperors in Roman history. His later Christian biographers lauded him as an icon, the man who set in motion Rome's dramatic transformation into a primarily Christian empire. And yet Constantine's own beliefs were deliberately ambiguous, as Professor David Potter explained. He learned from Diocletian, he witnessed the mistakes and the successes. He figured out how to heal divisions in the empire, but at the same time restore it to one man rule through blood and battle. 

Constantine's military and administrative successes are often-overlooked, but these in themselves were extraordinary. In this podcast David and I chatted through Constantine's remarkable life, his legacy and why you wouldn't rate your chances of survival if you were part of his family.

Some notes from the pod:

Galerius - A Roman emperor between 305 and 311

(Valerius) Severus - Galerius' preferred candidate to become the new Augustus in the west in 306, following the death of Constantius (Constantine's father). He was opposed by Constantine.

The Wall - Hadrian's Wall

The Chi Rho - a Christian symbol, but also a symbol of good fortune

Lactantius - an early Christian author who talked about the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Maximinus Daia - ruled alongside Licinius in the east. Formed an alliance with Maxentius against Licinius and Constantine. Defeated by Licinius.

Licinius - ruler of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Co-ruled the Empire with Constantine for a while (doesn't end well!).


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Sep 20, 2020
Jason and the Argonauts

This week's episode from the History Hit archive features the brilliant Tom Holland telling the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, an epic story of honour, adventure, dangerous women and a golden fleece. Told with wit, verve and passion, this magical tale of the first group of super-heroes will be a treat for all, whether young or old. This was recorded at the 2016 Chalke Valley history festival and first released on the Chalke Valley History Hit Podcast.


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Sep 17, 2020
Alexander the Great: Through Persian Eyes

Conqueror. Destroyer. Convert. Legendary king. It's fair to say that Alexander the Great's relationship with ancient Persia was complicated. Despite conquering the Persian Empire, Alexander admired and adopted many aspects of Persian culture. Despite sacking the prestigious Persian centre of Persepolis, he honoured the great Persian king Cyrus and married a Persian princess. Alexander may have conquered the Persian Empire, but ultimately this conqueror became a willing 'captive' of Persian culture.

Alexander was extraordinary - one of the most written about figures in history. But what did the ancient Iranians think of him?

I was delighted to be joined by Professor Ali Ansari in this podcast to chat through the complicated history of Alexander the Great in the Persian narrative. A once-hated figure, overtime he was adopted into Iranian legend. This was a fascinating chat. Alexander Romance, Immortals, Persepolis, Persians, Parthians – it has it all.

Some definitions from the pod:

The Alexander Romance - a legendary account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great that remained popular into medieval times. Various versions exist (Greek, Syrian, Armenian, French, Jewish, Persian and more).

Zoroastrianism - the central religion of the Persian Empire (e.g. the Zoroastrian priests at Persepolis).

The Seleucids - one of the Successor kingdoms that emerged in the aftermath of Alexander the Great's death. Named after its founder, Seleucus / Seleukos. Controlled Persia for over 100 years.

The Parthians - an Iranian / Hellenistic culture that ruled ancient Persia after the Seleucids. They remain the longest single dynasty to have ruled Iran (c.500 years).

The Immortals - the 10,000 strong guard of the Persian Achaemenid King.


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Sep 13, 2020
The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum, also known by its Latin name Forum Romanum (Italian: Foro Romano), is a rectangular forum (plaza) surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the centre of the city of Rome. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum.

For centuries the Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of triumphal processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city's great men. The teeming heart of ancient Rome, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history. Located in the small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum today is a sprawling ruin of architectural fragments and intermittent archaeological excavations attracting 4.5 million sightseers yearly.

This episode was first broadcast on Darius Arya Digs.


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Sep 11, 2020
The Vestal Virgins

Priestesses of Vesta, Goddess of hearth, home and family, the College of Vestal Virgins were Rome’s only full-time priesthood. They numbered only six and were selected from noble Roman families at an early age, between six and 10 years old. They would tend the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta and remain virgins for the duration of their tenure, which would stretch long into womanhood, lasting at least 30 years. Their importance to Rome was paramount and throughout this ancient civilisation's pagan history, the Vestal Virgins remained right at the heart of Roman society. But things were not always plain sailing for the Vestals during their 1,000 year history... I was delighted to be joined by a leading light on this subject Peta Greenfield to talk through the history of the Vestals. From the importance of fire and water for the cult to the infamous Vestal punishment of 'incestum' Peta explained the history behind all in this brilliant chat.


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Sep 06, 2020
Pax Romana

Time for a delve into the History Hit ancient history archives! In this podcast Dan Snow sits down with the brilliant Adrian Goldsworthy to ask the big questions surrounding the success of Imperial Rome. Why did the Roman Empire last so long? What were the keys to its success? Why were its soldiers so effective? And so much more. This podcast was initially released on Dan Snow's History Hit, for the publication of Adrian's book 'Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World' in 2016. But it has certainly not lost its quality!

New Ancients episodes with Tristan and guests will be released every Sunday!


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Sep 04, 2020
The Kingdom of Kush

Along the banks of the River Nile, directly south of ancient Egypt and hundreds of miles away from the Mediterranean, there was a flourishing kingdom. The Kingdom of Kush. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Nabataeans, Libyans, Romans, and not to mention countless African kingdoms - the Kushite domain boasted a remarkable history with all these ancient civilisations throughout its long history. Its existence spanned centuries; its cities were bustling centres for inter-continental trade; its art and architecture continues to amaze visitors to this day.

I was delighted to be joined by Luke Pepera, a historian, archaeologist and anthropologist with a passion for African history. In this podcast he shines a light on the Kingdom of Kush's history, particularly focusing on the ancient kingdom's often-overlooked interactions with imperial Rome. He explains how the death of Cleopatra and the demise of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt paved the way for a major conflict between the Kushites and Romans, where the Kushite warrior queen Amanirenas led her armies against the Emperor Augustus' legions. Nevertheless, despite this hostile beginning, over the following centuries relations between the Kushites and Romans improved, with both kingdoms co-existing in relative harmony until the former's demise in the mid 4th century. This was a fascinating chat and I hope you enjoy.

Luke has recently starred in two History Hit documentaries covering African history: 'The Kingdom of Benin' and 'Africa: Written Out of History'.


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Aug 28, 2020
The Battle of Artemisium

Around this time 2,499 years ago the famous Battle of Thermopylae was raging. But it is important to remember that this clash was not happening on its own. At the same time, to the east of Leonidas' defence, another battle was underway at sea between Xerxes' great armada and a much smaller Hellenic fleet plagued with internal problems. This was the Battle of Artemisium, an often-overlooked and overshadowed military encounter of the Persian Wars. Its importance, however, was sizeable. I was delighted to have Dr Owen Rees back on the show to talk through this clash, explaining its significance and how it paved the way for one of the most famous naval battles in history: Salamis. Owen is the author of 'Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World.'

This episode is the second in a small series covering 4 key clashes of 480 BC, the 2,499th anniversaries of which we are celebrating this year. Some mildly-strong language.


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Aug 23, 2020
The Battle of Thermopylae

2,499 years ago the Persian 'Great King' Xerxes launched history's largest amphibious invasion of Europe before D-Day. Accompanied by a huge army and navy he crossed the Hellespont (modern day Dardanelles), intent on punishing the city-state of Athens and any other Hellenic powers that dared to resist. It was during this campaign that one of history's most famous battles was fought, at the Pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. King Leonidas, his 300 (or so) Spartans and their Hellenic allies fought off against King Xerxes' mighty Persian army for three days. To talk through this fascinating battle I'm chatting with Paul Cartledge, a professor from the University of Cambridge and one of the World's leading experts on ancient Sparta. In this fascinating chat, Paul sorts the fact from the fiction about the doomed Thermopylae defence. He starts by explaining the conflict's background, before moving on to the battle itself. We finish off by discussing how this famous battle ultimately created what we now know as 'the Spartan mirage'.

This episode will be the first in a small series dedicated to talking about the 480 BC clashes of the Second Persian War, for the 2,499th anniversaries of these battles. Paul is the author of 'Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World.'


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Aug 20, 2020
War Elephants

Move over Hannibal. More over Carthage. This podcast is all about a much BIGGER elephant power in antiquity. A power that, at its height, stretched from modern day Bulgaria to the Hindu Kush: the Seleucid Empire. Existing for almost 250 years, throughout this Empire’s long history the Indian elephant remained right at its heart. On the battlefield these giant beasts of war became symbolic of Seleucid warfare, fighting in almost all (if not all) the major military encounters the Seleucids had with other powers: from Ipsus to Magnesia. But away from the battlefield too, these animals retained their importance, particularly for the Seleucid Kings.

The history of Seleucid elephant warfare is fascinating and it was a great pleasure to be joined by Dr Silvannen Gerrard to talk through this topic. Silvannen explained how these elephants were trained and used in war, but she also stressed their importance away from the battlefield - their prestige value, the logistics of looking after elephants and how they epitomised a vital trade slink with ancient India. She also answered the all important question: did the Ancients send elephants into battle drunk?

Oh, and make sure you listen RIGHT to the end!

A few notes:

Eumenes, Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus were all prominent players fighting after Alexander the Great’s death.

Ptolemy was the founder of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom, centred in Egypt.

Sarrisas were very long pikes – roughly 6 metres long.

The Galatians: a conglomeration of Gallic tribes that settled in modern day central Anatolia.

We (I mainly) go back and forth between 'Seleucid' and 'Seleukid'. Same kingdom!


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Aug 16, 2020
'Killing for the Roman Republic'

In 281/280 BC, the Hellenistic King Pyrrhus ventured to southern Italy to aid the Italiote-Greek city of Tarentum against a rising power based in central Italy. This enemy was the Romans. Over the next 150 years this civilisation would rise to become the Mediterranean superpower, winning wars against the Carthaginians, the Antigonids, Seleucids, Ptolemies and various other enemies. But why were the Roman soldiers so effective? I was delighted to be joined by Dr Steele Brand who brilliantly answered this question. Steele explained how the Roman Republican military was far from invincible. Indeed what is so striking from this period is how many devastating defeats the Romans suffered in the process - from Heraclea to Cannae. What made the Romans so extraordinary, however, was their mindset: the Roman civic ethos that was ingrained in its citizens from childhood. Steele explained how the household farm served as an ‘incubator’ for habituating citizens to Roman virtue, which in turn ensured that citizens remained willing to serve even in the wake of catastrophic military defeats. In short, it was these part-time ‘soldier farmers’ that became the nucleus of antiquity’s most famous empire.

Steele is the author of 'Killing for the Republic: The Roman Way of War'.


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Aug 13, 2020
Combat Trauma

From the 2000 historical blockbuster 'Gladiator' to the Total War series, brutal hand to hand warfare is something we commonly associate with antiquity. But do we have any ancient cases of psychological injury as a direct result of military service? Joining me to discuss this topic, focusing on cases from the Classical Greek Period (c.500 – 323 BC), is Dr Owen Rees. Owen is a historian of ancient warfare and society. He has also written papers about the possibility of an equivalent phenomenon to PTSD in ancient Greek warfare and how that trauma manifested itself differently in ancient Greek culture. In this podcast, we focus on the cases of two specific individuals from the Classical Period: Epizelus the Athenian and Clearchus the Spartan.


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Aug 09, 2020
Stone Circles

From Cornwall to Orkney, stone circles are scattered throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. Their history stretches more than 2 millennia, varying from the earlier huge stone circles such as Castlerigg, Avebury and the Ring of Brodgar to the smaller and more regional circles that emerged after c.2,000 BC. Their remains continue to attract great amounts of visitors right up to the present day.

To learn more about these extraordinary prehistoric structures, I'm chatting with Timothy Darvill OBE, a professor from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University and the author of Prehistoric Britain.


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Aug 02, 2020
Agrippina the Younger

Agrippina the Younger was one of the most prominent women in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Born during a time of radical political change in the Roman Empire, she had a very powerful pedigree. Great granddaughter of Augustus. Niece of Tiberius. Daughter of Germanicus. Sister of Caligula. She was also a wife of the Emperor Claudius and the mother of the infamous Nero. Today she is remembered as one of the most notorious women of ancient Roman history, thanks largely to her negative portrayal in the works of Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus. But how much of what they say is true? Joining me to help sort the fact from the fiction is Carey Fleiner, Senior lecturer in Classical Roman History at the University of Winchester. A brilliant communicator, Carey convincingly explains how the material record reveals a very different Agrippina to the infamous power-hungry murderess depicted by Roman writers. This was a fantastic chat and it was great to have her on the show to chat all things Agrippina. 


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Jul 26, 2020
Horse Archery

The horse archer was one of the most feared warriors of antiquity. Triumphing mobility and fluidity, these swift skirmishers came to epitomise a feared ‘eastern’ style of warfare. Renowned historical weapons expert and avid horse archer Mike Loades joins me to chat through horse archery's ancient history. Where did it originate? How did this method of warfare come to be? What sort of equipment did they use? Mike explains all. We first focus on this warfare method’s importance among ancient Near Eastern cultures before taking an in-depth look at antiquity’s superlative horse archers: the Scythians!

Mike is the author of ‘War Bows’, an in-depth history of four iconic weapons that changed the nature of warfare. 


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Jul 19, 2020
The Antonine Wall

In c.142 AD the Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of a new wall in Northern Britain. Situated between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde it stretched the neck of modern day central Scotland and was called the Antonine Wall. Although its ‘lifespan’ was relatively short-lived, this wall beyond ‘The Wall’ boasts a remarkable history. Archaeological discoveries continue to reveal more about this monumental structure and its accompanying features. From the terrible ‘lillia’ spike pits the Romans placed in front of the rampart to the Wall’s strong stone foundations.

I was delighted to be joined by Andrew Tibbs to learn more about the Antonine Wall and why we must NOT call it the northernmost physical barrier of the Roman Empire. Andrew is the author of 'Beyond the Empire: A Guide to the Roman Remains in Scotland'.


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Jul 12, 2020
Housesteads and Hadrian's Wall

Housesteads Roman Fort is one of the great, surviving treasures of Roman Britain. Once an auxiliary fort, it occupied a dominant position on Hadrian’s Wall. The Fort has proven vital in helping archaeologists and historians achieve a greater understanding about life on Hadrian’s Wall. From the worship of peculiar deities to everyday sanitation.

To chat through Housesteads’ extraordinary archaeology and what it can tell us about life along this frontier, I’m joined by Professor Jim Crow from the University of Edinburgh. Jim has conducted excavations at several locations along Hadrian’s Wall, including Housesteads. He also lectured me a few years back, so it was great to catch up. 


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Jul 05, 2020
Biological and Chemical Warfare

The origins of biological and chemical warfare stretch far back; modern technology has not brought about these terrifying weapons. Throughout antiquity we have cases of societies using poisonous gases, incendiary materials and living organisms against their enemies. From snake and scorpion bombs to the use of ancient naphtha grenades. But how did the ancients view these infamous weapons? Did they try to refrain from using them? And if they did use them, why?

I was thrilled to be joined by Adrienne Mayor to chat through this extraordinary topic. Adrienne is a folklorist and historian of ancient science at Stanford University. She is the author of numerous books including Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.


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Jul 02, 2020
The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

In the late 4th century and early 5th centuries two massive largely-Germanic confederations arrived on Roman borders, having been uprooted from their homelands by the Huns. These were the Goths and the Vandals. Both peoples would become prime enemies of the Roman Empires in the East and West. Both would sack Rome; both played significant roles in the decline of the Western Roman Empire, inflicting terrible defeats and seizing some of the most lucrative territory in the Western Mediterranean. To talk through this ‘barbarian’ impact on the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, I’m chatting with Peter Heather, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London and the author of ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians’.


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Jun 26, 2020
The Plague of Athens

Plague in the ancient world was nothing unusual. Bouts of illness were common occurrences, but we do have accounts of some exceptional outbreaks: epidemics that brought powerful empires and city-states to their knees. One of the most infamous occurred in 430 BC: the Plague of Athens. Recently I was fortunate enough to interview Alastair Blanshard, a Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland, about this devastating episode in Athenian history.


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Jun 24, 2020