Best Hardcore History episodes

6 minute read

Ode to Hardcore History

I find it hard to come by good podcasts. While there’s a wealth of material out there, especially if you’re after entertainment, I mostly miss works that have significant depth. By depth, I mean here the quality of systematically dissecting a topic and tackling it to the very core. The same way that bland self-help books and 10 min executive summaries of these books are overcrowding book publishing, the same seems to be happening to podcasts.

Thus I am always positively thrilled whenever I find a gem in this space. And the greatest find so far happened a year ago, when I started listening to Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. Being a history buff was the natural entry point for me. But I soon realised that HH goes much further than your average history podcast. Having been labelled one of the greatest storytellers in the world, Dan Carlin uses his experience as a former radio host to give us (ordinary) first person accounts from historically significant events. Contrary to something like the monotonous narration of Ken Burns documentaries, Dan Carlin’s stylised delivery creates drama and empathy whether the events happened 100 or 2000 years ago. A self-titled “fan of history”, he takes some liberties that true historians could not. But even this somewhat simplified history goes into an order of magnitude more depth than any history resource you would find on YouTube/Netflix.

For example, the first series I got into - Supernova in the East - has 6 episodes totalling over 26 hours (!) of audio. Who has time to listen to a 26 hour podcast, I thought. My morning commute was a mere 20 minutes. But sure enough, once I started listening, I also managed to find more activites to listen to. Having now gone through almost all episodes, I decided to rank my favourite ones.

There is a general pattern with Hardcore History: it keeps getting better over time, but the episodes are also longer. For example, the first 20 shows are mostly under an hour. I personally feel that due to this they remain more of a fun historical trivia, as the format is too short for the more advanced narrative building we get in longer episodes. They are still great shows in their own right, but don’t stand up to the heavyweight series of HH. Nonetheless, I rank short episodes in a separate category as they are just different.


It would be fair to note that “short” is defined here as relative to audiobooks, as even these episodes are longer than 4 hours.

Judgement at Nineveh

There is an almost fairy tale like quality to the HH shows about earlier eras, no doubt due to Dan Carlin having some more leeway for creative writing and story building. The one image that haunts me from this episode is the possible rate of collapse of world leading civilisations. Think finding the well preserved ruins of some great modern city in a desolate desert in the future is unlikely? Well, it already happened once before, and it happened in a few generations. The natural continuation for this topic is the three part series King of Kings on Persian history.

Prophets of Doom

This episode is just so… weird. A detailed account of the Anabaptist rebellion in Münster, an episode of history that most people have probably never heard of. Starting from the familiar story of Martin Luther and Reformation, it gradually escalates into a tale of a Woodstock-esque proto-communist enclave of barricaded insane people trying to withstand a professional army multiple times its size. There are some amazing characters in this one, in addition to the psychological case study of how delusion can reinforce itself in isolated groups.

The Celtic Holocaust

It’s becoming more accepted over time that “great men” have not necessarily been the driving forces of history and quite contrarily, some of them might have been quite nasty individuals (this is still a work in progress, as e.g. there’s still a statue of Leopold II - architect of a corporate state that dismembered kids in Africa - in central Brussels). Yet such moral standards are rarely applied to the heroes of antiquity, the Alexanders and Caesars who’ve inspired generations of latter generals and statesmen. How much can be explained away by historical context remains an open question, which Dan Carlin repeatedly tackles here. Great content for Roman history buffs, of course.


Wrath of the Khans

This series deserves a spot in the top if only for the relative underappreciation Mongol conquests receive in Western historiography. Probably relatively the strongest military ever since the 20th century, the Mongol steamroller absolutely crushed all known continents of the world at will. Especially European listeners will be dismayed by how puny and insignificant their armies were in comparison. With all the atrocities the Mongols committed, this story goes a bit in the Lord of the Rings direction on the good-vs-evil dimension. Some of the areas that were devastated have still not covered, which to me seemed unbelievable.

Death Throes of the Republic

The Roman Empire gets a lot of the highlight, but for me, the story of the collapse of the Roman Republic is more interesting. What are the fundamental institutions that will need to change as a country scales from an insignificant province to a world empire, and how does it affect the qualities that made that province so tough to begin with? The best character building of the whole show - the same Caesar you would hate after listening to The Celtic Holocaust astounds here with his sheer brilliance and work ethic.

Blueprint for Armageddon

Dan Carlin’s interpretation of World War I takes the top spot for me. On the one hand, it is probably the most significant historical event ever, but much less represented in media than WWII. A thorough walk through of the main events and the thinking behind the leaders is interesting on its own. Why would you ever charge a trench - don’t you know there will be machine guns waiting?! But I found the series inciting so many profound ideas that completely changed my understanding of WWI. For example:

  • The entire military build-up leading up to the war was essentially a game theoretic game of chicken between European states who had overstretched themselves in a complex web of alliances. And the only personal capable of managing this web has retired. This immediately reminded me of how a company might suffer if their most brilliant engineer tries to make themselves irreplaceable.
  • Meritocracy vs autocracy in government becomes increasingly important as the destructive power of weapons increases, all it takes is one idiot in one government to ruin a continent for decades.
  • The rapid deterioration of 19th century aristocratic ethics in the first years of the war to be replaced by the animalistic trench warfare was just scary. Morals are for the good times.
  • I always wondered why shell shock was such a big issue for WWI soldiers, but doesn’t get mentioned much in further 20th century warfare. It’s because objectively WWI was much worse for the soldiers, either looking at the casualty rate per day or the living conditions in the trenches near Verdun/Somme.
  • Obviously, the horrific descriptions from Verdun or Somme can create pacifist leanings in anyone, especially if confronted with the futility of how little these battles gained (and again, that the reason for these deaths was some incompetent ruler).