The Fall of Civilizations Podcast Engagingly Explores the Collapse of Civilizations & Empires Throughout History

Now the coun­try does not even boast a tree.

—Robert Brown­ing, “Love Among the Ruins

Every empire seems to think (as much as empires seem to think) that it will be the one to out­last them all. And all of them have end­ed up more or less the same way in the end. This isn’t just a gloomy fact of human his­to­ry, it’s a fact of entropy, mor­tal­i­ty, and the lin­ear expe­ri­ence of time. If impe­r­i­al rulers forget—begin to think them­selves immortal—there have always been poets to remind them, though maybe not so direct­ly. Epic poet­ry often legit­imizes the found­ing of empires. Anoth­er form, the poet­ry of ruin, inter­prets their inevitable demise.

All the Roman­tics were doing it, and so too was an unknown 8th cen­tu­ry British poet who encoun­tered Roman ruins dur­ing the so-called “Dark Ages.” The poem they left behind “gives us a glimpse of a world of mys­tery,” says Paul Coop­er above in episode one of his Fall of Civ­i­liza­tions pod­cast, which begins with Roman Britain and con­tin­ues, in each sub­se­quent (but not chrono­log­i­cal) episode, to explore the col­lapse of empires around the world through lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture. “Every ruin,” says Coop­er in an inter­view with the North Star Pod­cast, “is a place where a phys­i­cal object was torn apart, and that hap­pened because of some his­tor­i­cal force.”

We are enthralled with ruins, though this can seem like the prod­uct of a dis­tinct­ly mod­ern sensibility—that of the poets who inhab­it­ed what nov­el­ist Rose Macaulay called in her 1953 study Plea­sure of Ruins “a ruined and ruinous world.”

But as our Old Eng­lish poet above demon­strates, the fas­ci­na­tion pre­dates Shake­speare and Mar­lowe. Coop­er would know. He has ded­i­cat­ed his life to study­ing and writ­ing about ruins, earn­ing a PhD in their cul­tur­al and lit­er­ary sig­nif­i­cance. Along the way, he has writ­ten for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, Dis­cov­er Mag­a­zine, and the BBC.

Coop­er also began pub­lish­ing one of the most intrigu­ing Twit­ter feeds in 2017, detail­ing in “sev­er­al nest­ed threads” var­i­ous “ruin-relat­ed thoughts and feel­ings,” as Shru­ti Ravin­dran writes at Tim­ber Media. His tweets became so pop­u­lar that he turned them into a pod­cast, and it is not your stan­dard infor­mal­ly chat­ty pod­cast fare. Fall of Civ­i­liza­tions engages deeply with its sub­jects on their own terms, and avoids the sen­sa­tion­al­ist clich­es of so much pop­u­lar his­to­ry. Coop­er “knew, for cer­tain, what he want­ed to avoid,” when he began: the “focus on grue­some tor­ture tech­niques, exe­cu­tions, and the sex­ca­pades of nobles.”

“His­to­ry writ­ers often don’t trust their audi­ence will be inter­est­ed in the past if they don’t Hol­ly­wood­ize it,” says Coop­er. Instead, in the lat­est episode on the Byzan­tine Empire he recruits the choir from the Greek Ortho­dox Cathe­dral in Lon­don, “and a num­ber of musi­cians play­ing tra­di­tion­al Byzan­tine instru­ments such as the Byzan­tine lyra, the Qanun and the Greek San­tur,” he explains. In his episode on the Han dynasty, Coop­er looks back through “ancient Chi­nese poet­ry, songs and folk music” to the empire’s rise, “its remark­able tech­no­log­i­cal advances, and its first, ten­ta­tive attempts to make con­tact with the empires of the west.”

This is a rich jour­ney through ancient his­to­ry, guid­ed by a mas­ter sto­ry­teller ded­i­cat­ed to tak­ing ruins seri­ous­ly. (Coop­er has pub­lished a nov­el about ruins, Riv­er of Ink, “inspired by time spent in UNESCO sites in Sri Lan­ka,” Ravin­dran reports.) There is “love among the ruins,” wrote Robert Brown­ing, and there is poet­ry and music and sto­ry and song—all of it brought to bear in Fall of Civ­i­liza­tions to “make sense about what must have hap­pened,” says Coop­er. Find more episodes, on fall­en civ­i­liza­tions all around the world, on YouTube or head to Fall of Civ­i­liza­tions to sub­scribe through the pod­cast ser­vice of your choice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Lit­er­a­ture Pod­cast Takes You on a Lit­er­ary Jour­ney: From Ancient Epics to Con­tem­po­rary Clas­sics

Watch Ancient Ruins Get Restored to their Glo­ri­ous Orig­i­nal State with Ani­mat­ed GIFs: The Tem­ple of Jupiter, Lux­or Tem­ple & More

The His­to­ry of Lit­er­a­ture Pod­cast Takes You on a Lit­er­ary Jour­ney: From Ancient Epics to Con­tem­po­rary Clas­sics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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