BOOK OF THE WEEK
The World: A Family History
by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld £35, 1344pp)
There is reason to think about the very first of this magisterial book’s 1344 pages; to ponder the despairing words quoted there from the Latin poet Vergil – ‘So many wars, so many forms of crime… Unholy Mars bows to his mad will; The world is like a runaway cart’ — and next to this, Communist leader Lenin’s simple, cynical truth that ‘The whole question is: who controls whom.’
And so, from the beginning, our brains are engaged as this marathon of a book attempts to encapsulate the entirety of human history in a single volume – from the first footprints on a sandy beach 950,000 years ago to Kyiv under fire from Russian missiles today . In between is an endless saga dominated by sex and wildness, punctuated by periods of peace and prosperity that never last.
How do you embark on such a daunting journey with a scholarship? And why? I think the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore was inspired by another quote he places on page 1 – the poet Dante’s admission that “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark forest where the right way was gone” – and he firmly determined to steer a path through the tangled undergrowth, to make some sense out of the chaos of world history.
Simon Sebag Montefiore tries to encapsulate the whole of human history. The author covers everything from the first footsteps of a modern beach war
He has done so magnificently and meticulously by choosing as his framework all the dynasties we know of that have ever held (and inevitably lost) power or distinguished themselves. ‘The family’, he writes, ‘remains the essential unit of human existence. ‘History is made of the interaction between ideas, institutions and geopolitics. When they come together, big changes happen. But even then, it’s personalities who roll the dice.’
People – “complicated, fallible, inspiring” – are the bedrock of history. Some you’ve heard of – the Caesars, Medicis, Habsburgs, Rothschilds, Churchills and Assads – but they’re just a sprinkling.
Many more are strangers we meet for the first time.
Take Sneferu, one of the earliest kings of Egypt in 2613 BC, who was clearly no modest man when he styled himself as the Lord of Truth and Justice, the perfect God—and expected to be treated accordingly.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks with French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu
He knew how to enjoy himself, his earthly indulgences including having his palace lake rowed by 20 girls wearing nothing but fishing nets.
But for others, it was cruelty and unspeakable brutality that made them float. The Assyrian king Sennacherib wrote with glee of his destruction of Babylon in 689 BC: ‘I caused their gullets and their entrails to slide along the earth. I tore out their genitalia like the seeds of summer cucumbers.’
It did him a lot of good. He was kneeling in the temple at Nineveh when his eldest son, impatient to succeed, hacked him to death. Families, right? Jealousy and loathing have run through them since the dawn of time. “It is one of the ironies of power,” writes Sebag Montefiore, “that the kings of the world struggle to cope with their own children” – an observation which, with our own King Charles and Prince Harry, is equally timely and on the pitch. that you can get.
It cut both ways. In 16th-century Russia, Tsar Ivan the Terrible disapproved of his son and heir’s choice of wife, lost his notorious temper with her, and when the young man intervened, smashed his head. The daughter-in-law, who was pregnant, had an abortion, so Ivan managed to lose two heirs at once.
Massacres were often family affairs. When the Byzantine Emperor Maurice was overthrown in AD 602, he was forced to watch as his six sons were beheaded before he himself was killed, followed by his wife and three more children. Even for those days, this was considered on the excessive side.
Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena, presenting Emperor Frederick III with his future wife Eleanor of Aragon, (16th century), detail of fresco by Pinturicchio
In general, since the year dot life has been cheap, wars frequent human sacrifices a regular practice and revenge, of the cruelest kind, a feast for the imagination.
In this real-life Game Of Thrones, why simply dispose of a beaten enemy with a tap on the head when you can tie him to five horses and tear him to pieces – the fate decided by Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China, on a rival?
Two millennia later, a royal assassin in Bourbon France was similarly dispatched, his sinews pre-cut to make disassembly easier.
Plus one change…
Overkill, it seems, was never a problem. A Chinese empress got rid of an overambitious concubine in her son’s household by cutting off her hands and legs and then paralyzing her with poison so that she died a lingering death.
An 18th-century shah of Iran killed a rival by filling his crown with molten lead, then proceeded to invade Russia, where in a captured city he had the eyeballs of 20,000 people ripped out.
Not that it’s all killer. Dive into this book anywhere and the details of the story jump off the page. Who knew that Habsburg Emperor Frederick III’s hobby was collecting mouse droppings?
Or that the Great Pyramid of Giza, built around 2570 BC, at 481 feet remained the tallest building in the world until topped by the Eiffel Tower nearly 4,000 years later? Also delve into the author’s copious footnotes and there are gems to be mined. We learn that between 1918 and 1950 Ukraine was “the most murderous place on earth”, with five million people slaughtered, one million of them Jewish. They included almost the entire Zelensky family, only one managed to escape – to become the grandfather of the country’s current, heroic leader.
Sebag Montefiore compiled all this during the Covid lockdown and weaved it into a compelling narrative, chained to his desk as a famous predecessor, the Tudor/Stuart adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who started a History Of The World while imprisoned in the Tower Of London for treason but never completed it because he was beheaded. Montefiore crossed the finish line with his head intact, if sore from the enormous effort of researching it, shaping it, and turning it into storytelling—often cheeky, always entertaining—of the first order.
The book has garnered praise in the highest intellectual circles. Former top power player Henry Kissinger was amazed by its scope and erudition, calling it “a brilliant synthesis that gives new insights to even the most erudite readers”. Television historian Simon Schama describes it as “a staggering achievement” and “an enormous gift”.
In my opinion, it above all gives perspective, from which comes understanding and no small amount of wisdom. ‘If this world history proves anything,’ the author writes in his last chapter, ‘it is that man’s capacity for self-mutilation is almost unlimited.’
In some sense, homo sapiens have never been healthier than they are in the 21st century, and have generally lived longer and better lives. The poorest countries today have higher life expectancies than the richest empires of a century ago. But otherwise we are determined to turn our luck around and shoot ourselves in the foot. The number of autocracies is increasing again, and the ‘flint-hearted ferocity’ of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a return to normality in a way that the warlords and despots of the past would find routine – ‘normal disorder has resumed’.
The internet is a mixed blessing – “cesspool, treasure chest and relic of hate and hobbies, truths, coincidences and pleasure, slander and conspiracies”. Addiction to it is out of control, and so is “the unelected, invisible power of the computer despots”.
Events are moving at unprecedented speed and the danger of nuclear disaster, combined with Covid and global warming, is fueling fears of apocalypse. This is nothing new. Throughout history, the fear that doomsday is just around the corner has been part of the human character.
“But the effort today makes End Of Days ever more possible,” concludes Sebag Montefiore.
Just because we’re the smartest monkey ever created, just because we’ve solved a lot of problems so far, doesn’t mean we’ll solve everything. Human history is like one of those investment cautionary clauses – past performance is no guarantee of future performance.’
Nevertheless, he chooses to end on an optimistic note. “The hardness of humanity has been constantly saved by our ability to create and love. Our limitless capacity for destruction is matched only by our genius for recovery.’
Just like World’s very first page, his latest also has glowing quotes. “Think of all the beauty that is still around you and be happy.” Astonishing and inspiring are the words of Anne Frank.