Tag Archives: history

My Goodreads review of The Penguin History of the World

The Penguin History of the World: Sixth EditionThe Penguin History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I read this book in increments over 13 months — I could have read it in 12, but I took this February off because I was getting wearied by the tome. If you read 3 1/4 pp per day, you will finish this book in a year. If you don’t–if you read it like a normal-sized book, I think the sheer mass of it will make you throw in the towel fairly soon. But 3 1/4 pp are manageable.

It’s hard not to give a magisterial volume like this 5 stars. I liked it because I like history. Here you have the whole sweep of human achievement, from the first stone tools and cave paintings to the Arab Spring. Our technological advancement and cultural changes are tracked in the broadest ways. The movement from small, isolated communities to broader nations and states to integrated polities and economies to the new globalised world is on display in this book.

Along the way, you meet the individuals, the stories that are the other aspect of history that keep people like me coming to read and reread the grand saga of human achievement, sorrow, and struggle. Ashurbanipal. Ramesses II. Plato. Alexander. Confucius. Siddartha ‘the Buddha’. Julius Caesar. Constantine. Mohammed. Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel. Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther. Winston Churchill. Mao Zedong. Mohondas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. Loads and loads of South and East Asian persons I’d never met before but whose acquaintance I was glad to make.

I recommend this book, with its Egyptians and Saxons, its Indians and Mayans, its Romans and Chinese, its Mongols and Americans, its East Africans and Japanese.

My problem — and this is a separate, wider rant, so I’ll keep it short — is epitomised in the following fact: the entire ancient world, from Mesopotamia to the Middle Ages, including the Mediterranean, South Asian, and East Asian worlds, takes under 300 pages, and the final 300 pages cover life from the First World War onwards. I don’t expect equal coverage of the ancient and modern, but this is an extreme case of the usual disparity. (Rant over.)

There are a few other moments throughout that I either disagreed with or felt could have been spun a bit differently, but overall the book is worth the read.

View all my reviews

Roma Aeterna

Capitoline She-Wolf. She was there to suckle Rome’s founder. (I saw her yesterday!)

Rome, according to tradition, was founded in 753 BC. Archaeology, I’m given to understand, thinks that’s not far off from the truth. This city has had continuous human habitation ever since, and for a very considerable portion of that time, Rome has been a major city. It was the largest city in the ancient world, with 1 000 000 inhabitants — not to be matched again until London in the 19th century. Although there was population decline in the last decades of Empire and much of the Middle Ages, the papal presence meant that Rome remained a major city, and is now a giant megalopolis as the capital of a modern, united Italy.

Rome, then, is a city of juxtapositions (people say this sort of thing all the time about European cities, I know). This fact first struck me on the bus ride in from Ciampino Airport along Via Appia Nuova. The speakers were blaring some sort of horrific modern popular music. Everyone was on a phone or whatnot. Modern buildings lined our course. And there — an aqueduct out the window. Sometimes other ruins. Sometimes 19th-century buildings with 20th-century shops languishing in the bottom floor.

The people who live in the region of Rome must get used to seeing antiquity at every turn. The novelty has yet to wear off on me — I have loved turning corners from modern streets to ancient monuments. Around a corner, and Marcus Aurelius’ Column! The Pantheon! Ooo, Republican era temples! Oh, down those steps is Trajan’s Column! Right next to all sorts of ancientness! Sweet deal.

My first view of Trajan's Column

Column of Trajan

What sets Rome apart, as noted above, is that it’s not just ancient. Through this door — a Gothic church! Here, a Renaissance one. A Mannerist church. A Late Antique Church. A Renaissance palazzo. A Baroque piazza. A Baroque church. From the terrace at the Capitoline Museum, the domes of Rome’s churches pop up amid the roof tiles everywhere.

While Rome’s population may have declined at the close of antiquity, the Eternal City never diminished into a village clustered around some ruins the way Athens did. Athens feels like it has no life between Pericles and Byron. Rome’s ongoing life is everywhere, in the ancient monuments, mediaeval and Renaissance churches, Baroque fountains, and modern monsters (Il Vittoriano, anyone?).

It makes for an almost overwhelming city to visit. I like all of these things (Il Vittoriano gets old, and the Museum of the Ara Pacis is hideous). So much beauty, so much wonderfulness.

You start to feel small.

And you remember that your own place in this world is finite, temporal, gone in a blink of an eye.

So it is imperative to soak in a city like Rome while you can, before you are gone. Carpe urbem.

Ozymandias, Charlemagne, and the sands of time

On Sunday, I reread this classic poem of 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The theme of this poem — or, at least, its general sentiment — is the transitory nature of most human endeavour. You may think yourself a big man or woman in your time, but what are the chances that your memory will live on beyond the next generation?

Rameses II

Initially, I wanted to contest this poem. Ozymandias is no longer a nobody, no longer a cypher in the sand. He is Rameses II, one of the most powerful New Kingdom Pharaohs. His temples and his tomb are known. We know the stories of his reign. He is likely the Pharaoh of the biblical Exodus. Thanks to archaeology and historical linguistics, we can read the stories of Rameses and other powerful men lost in antiquity, whether through text or artefact.

Ozymandias has been rediscovered! Rameses shall live eternal in the memory of humanity!

As I was plotting out this post, however, another memory from Sunday came flooding in. On Sunday morning at church, a friend asked how my week had been. I mentioned the Charlemagne commemorative lecture. He said he did not know who Charlemagne was.

Charlie Who?

Charlemagne is a much bigger figure in the cultural memory of Europe than Ozymandias/Rameses II. He is much more recent. He is European. He did all sorts of stuff. Some European schoolchildren learn about him in their history classes. I have no doubt that he is an important part of First Millennium Studies.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Edinburgh accountants know who the man is.

And so we come full circle back to Shelley’s poem — the memories of the great are feeble and weak things, even when they have the infrastructure of Europe to help keep them alive.