The World: A Family History of Humanity

  • By Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • Knopf
  • 1,344 pp.

A staggering work of scholarship that also delights in the naughty bits.

The World: A Family History of Humanity

Simon Sebag Montefiore knows how to keep our attention. Perhaps understanding that facing down 1,300 pages of human history might cause even the most committed reader to quail, he makes certain to pepper The World with enough inventive gore, twisted villainy, and seriously kinky sex to keep those pages turning. This book may be huge, but the author ensures it is thoroughly accessible.

Broken into “acts,” then chapters, then subheads that frequently highlight the lurid elements within (“Star Wars, Pierced Penises, Sex Slaves and Steam Baths” is just one example among hundreds — though the salacious details diminish significantly as we approach the modern era), Montefiore’s history rolls rollickingly along from one ruling dynasty to the next. Along the way, he illustrates that no Bond villain could ever outdo early leaders in their inventive ways of killing their enemies, who often were blood relations.

It would be hard to overstate the scholarship this undertaking must have required, to cover epochs and minutiae (the author describes it as an “intimate, human history”) starting from the first recorded ruling dynasty in 2200 BC, led by “Sargon, king of the Four Quarters of the World,” and flowing continuously through to the opening salvo in Vladimir Putin’s wildly misguided war against Ukraine, now in its 16th month. The narrative ends in an ellipsis, because, of course, history continues to unfold.

For Montefiore’s purposes, “History started when war, food, and writing coalesced to allow a potentate…to harness power and promote his or her children in order to keep it.”

The details are always striking. Take the very beginning of the book, and the author’s assessment of Enheduanna, Sargon’s favorite daughter, “the first woman whose words we can hear, the first named author, male or female, the first victim of sexual abuse who wrote about her experiences, and a female member of the first dynasty whom we can know as individuals.”

The conceit of starting each act by noting world population at that point tells its own story. Given the extent of the mass human die-offs via epidemic, famine, and slaughter, one can only wonder at what any given population might otherwise be. It’s interesting to note that in the tiny amount of time covered by Act Thirteen — one of the book’s shortest, encompassing 1786-1793 — the global population plummets by 200 million. Even more mind-boggling, that population eventually leaps from 4.4 billion to 8 billion in just over 30 years’ time (from the late 1980s to the present).

The more I read, the more I wanted to understand how Montefiore managed to write this history in less than a lifetime. He describes working through the covid lockdown, which, although feeling endless in the moment, was hardly long enough to capture all this detail. As a reader (of a certain age), it’s hard enough for me to keep the names and exploits straight from one subhead to the next; how he was able to synthesize this much data into a coherent tale is beyond my comprehension.

I’d also be interested to hear assessments from experts on the various slices of this history about the extent to which Montefiore got the story “right” as he selected what to include and what to leave behind.

Choosing the “what to leave behind” seems to have been especially difficult, in fact, given the breadth of the author’s footnotes, which can summarize entire epochs, contain an in-passing reference to a world-altering event, or offer the tiniest details of an historical backwater or brutality — too intriguing for Montefiore to drop altogether, apparently, and too intriguing for a reader to skip over. (Certainly, we all needed to know the fate of Valentinian’s enemy-eating bear, Innocence, who was returned to the wild for his good service. What happened to his ursine partner, Goldflake, is lost to antiquity.)

Speaking of skipping over: While it’s possible to jump to a section of particular interest, a reader will undoubtedly then find herself in the middle of a discussion that demands flipping back to understand the historical elements that led into this next era. And so backward again and again until it becomes clear — as though any reminding is necessary — that everything is connected to everything that came before.

Indeed, there is a sense of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once throughout, given the often small hinges on which humankind’s path swings. One battle between Octavian and Antony decided that a good chunk of the world would speak Latinate languages; one wife’s jealousy engendered a permanent schism within Islam; and a mere tiny shift would’ve established Manichaeism, not Christianity, as the world’s dominant religion. Also, there’s a reason we hear so much about Charlemagne; “virtually every monarch in Europe down to 1918 was descended from him.”

Delights abound here, from being reminded of things you may (or should) have learned in high-school world history to — every writer’s favorite — discussing the origins of words. Refreshingly non-Eurocentric, nor biased toward the big civilizations, the author embraces all the locales where family dynasties were taking root at any given point along the human timeline.

More than anything, though, as I read, I wanted maps. Surely, this would’ve added considerable bulk — as well as time and cost — to an already outsized undertaking, but maps would’ve added immeasurably to the context of each epoch, allowing readers insight into how the people at that time and in that location understood their world, and possibly increasing the staying power of the narrative being related.

Nonetheless, Montefiore’s accomplishment here is nothing short of breathtaking. It is no mean feat to create a comprehensive timeline of human history that is deeply researched, illuminating, addictively compelling, and — quite simply — a rowdy good time.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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