The Emperor’s Right Hand
Bringing Belisarius to YouTube as a Consultant
In October 2021, I discovered, purely by happenstance, that a YouTube channel named Epic History TV had started a series of documentary videos about the sixth-century Roman general Belisarius. Since I was currently writing a book about him, I watched the first episode and was impressed by the use of primary sources from the period, as well as the artwork and visual aesthetic of the video. There were, of course, some things I would have done differently. I have long engaged in a type of micro public history by using my Twitter account to broadcast some of my research, and so I tweeted a good-natured critique of the episode. My Twitter account is modest, and tweets about my research were not reaching many people. Still, I thought that, without a larger megaphone, this was the best I could do with limited time.
Twenty minutes after my tweets, I was surprised to receive an invitation from the founder and producer of Epic History TV, Toby Groom, to come on board as a consultant for the remainder of the series. Groom worked for the History Channel before he launched Epic History TV in 2015 to offer short, dramatic, and well-researched online history documentaries; the channel has more than one million subscribers, and many of its more popular videos have well over that number of views. I realized this was an opportunity to engage in online public history about my research with significant impact in terms of the number of people that I could reach.
I gladly accepted the offer to become a series consultant, and Groom and I worked out an arrangement to ensure that I received credit for my work. In lieu of compensation, I would be credited both visually and audibly in each episode to help promote my Twitter account and, eventually, my book. In the first episode on which I consulted, I served primarily as a historical fact-checker. I received the script for the episode prior to production and read through it, correcting numbers such as the size of Belisarius’s army and making suggestions for additional primary source quotes. After receiving my comments, Groom modified the script and then brought the episode into production. Since then, I have consulted on each new episode of the Belisarius series and, over time, my role has grown.
In subsequent episodes of the series, as I became more familiar with the production process and my working relationship with Groom blossomed, I was more involved in the planning of each episode, providing the historiographic framing necessary to write the script. For instance, in the episode that covered the Justinianic plague, I pointed Groom to recent arguments over the impact of the plague on the sixth-century Mediterranean world, including Peter Sarris’s 2022 article. I also started to assist in creating the art brief, a document used by the series illustrator to define the parameters of the artwork they create for the episode. In this brief, I provide historical examples to guide the modern artist, such as pointing out the clothing of the figures on the famous imperial panel mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna. Once the episode has been created, I watch the completed product and check for any inconsistencies between the narration and the artwork and maps that appear on the screen. For instance, in a recent episode, the narration mentioned a sum paid as ransom for a city being 200 pounds of gold, but the notation on the map in question listed the sum as 500 pounds of gold. This is the kind of small inconsistency that might be fixed at this very last stage before the video goes live.
My interaction with the Belisarius series does not end when an episode airs on YouTube. I typically follow up each episode with further historical analysis and behind-the-scenes information, which I tweet and post as a comment on the YouTube video. For the plague episode, I discussed the lack of firm evidence for the size of Belisarius’s army in his 541 campaign against the Persians, and what this suggests about the absence of his former constant companion and historian, Procopius of Caesarea. This additional engagement is my own personal effort at doing online public history rather than a direct part of my consulting work, but it is inspired and made possible by the interactions I have with Groom during the production process. It is valuable to show the viewers of the series that a historian is involved and that there is more to each episode than what makes the final cut.
Consulting on this series with Epic History TV has been extremely rewarding for me personally. It has helped me to think about my research in general, and my book on Belisarius in particular, in terms of what may be of interest to nonacademic readers. There have been many occasions in which, after reviewing the material for an episode, I have returned to the same event in the draft of my book and revised what I had already written. In this way, my consulting influences my research, just as my research influences my consulting. I also see my work with Epic History TV as a way for me to do public history on a large scale. Through the Belisarius series, my research reaches hundreds of thousands of people, far more than I reach through Twitter and far more than are likely to read my book when it comes out.
Within the confines of YouTube and other platforms like TikTok, there lurks a voracious appetite for interesting, well-produced historical content. And there are many channels responding to this demand and creating that content. By offering to consult for these content creators, historians might make a difference in the historical videos that get produced without creating their own channels to compete for attention. Consulting for an established YouTube history documentary channel gets our specialized research in front of potentially millions of people and ensures that the history going viral reflects best modern practices of historical research.
It is especially important for historians to engage in this work because it is a way to not only promote our own research but to cut down on misinformation and misuse of history. We should help and promote content creators who make use of primary sources and are keen to incorporate modern research into their productions. Doing so is a way to combat others that might misuse history. In my own field, white supremacists occasionally coopt representations of Byzantium for their own ends. By consulting for and supporting channels that responsibly and accurately place history in front of millions of potential viewers, we undercut irresponsible and ahistorical uses of our discipline. If content creators are going to make online videos on historical topics, and if viewers are going to flock to those videos, should historians not make every effort to ensure that this content reflects our research?
David Alan Parnell is an associate professor of history at Indiana University Northwest. He tweets @byzantineprof.
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