A Family History of the World

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor met Simon Sebag Montefiore in 2022 to talk historical events and families, interspersed with current affairs such as Ukraine and Iran.
Alexander of the Argead family
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On the day I meet with Simon Sebag Montefiore to discuss his new book, The World: A Family History, the Russians have plundered the body of Prince Grigory Potemkin who was the subject of Sebag’s breakthrough book in 2001. Catherine the Great & Potemkin (Aspects of History’s first Book of the Month and originally titled The Life of Potemkin) was a hit when it was published, with fans including Mick Jagger, Antony Beevor and none other than Vladimir Putin. Sebag was invited to the Kremlin to look through Stalin’s papers, the research of which formed his next book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

He’s excited to learn about the news, because he had spent time in the late ‘90s and early 2000s looking for various body parts of Potemkin, as they were being finally reunited and laid to rest at St. Catherine’s cathedral in Kherson. Added to this his first book, there is a strange symmetry about the news, when he’s just published The World.

 “I went to Kherson which is where his tomb was..I chased around Eastern Europe looking for bits of his body because all of his heart, his innards, his viscera and his bones were all put in different places…It was a fascinating trip which took me through Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania to collect all the parts of Prince Potemkin…Prince Potemkin is someone who is very fascinating to Putin and always has been. When George W. Bush visited in 2000…St. Petersburg, he talked to Putin about Potemkin.”

The Shah

Simon Sebag Montefiore was born in 1965, and after Harrow School (where he interviewed Margaret Thatcher for The Harrovian – more on that later), he studied history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. After a brief period as a banker, he became a war correspondent and then chose to write about Catherine the Great which was why he came across the bones of Potemkin. Now he has written The World, his eighth work of non-fiction (he’s also published three historical novels). It’s a history of the world, written through the lens of family, and before speaking to him it had occurred to me that despite it being an unusual way of looking at global history, dynasties are at the heart of so much of it.

“They are in some ways. It’s a bizarre thing that no one’s done it before because it’s quite an obvious thing to do, but obviously the basic idea is exactly as you’ve explained. I mean, world histories are vast things with an endless span of many millennia that cover economic statistics and birth figures and trade products. And often don’t have too much of the human in them. Biographies, which I’ve always written, are sometimes too intimate, too close. And I guess examples of that are the recent biographies of Kissinger, Stalin, Churchill or Ulysses S Grant are all longer than my world history, which covers 15,000 years. But the point is to combine the intimacy of biography with the span and diversity of world history.”

He’s certainly done that – when reading The World, my book of the year, I was quickly drawn into the stories because each family is presented in such a fascinating, and in some cases mischievous way. Whether reading about the sexual predilections of 18th century Hawaiian house of Kamehameha, or the sacrificial tendencies of the Maya, the book races along, written with plenty of wit and elan. But it’s not just a book on those in power, and Sebag is quick to point out that there are other families too: “some of them are historians; there are doctors; there are artists; there are all sorts of people actually among these families; there are novelists…this book is written for anyone; you don’t have to be a history buff to read it, but also as a way to really get into the life and how life was really lived.”

It is a hugely diverse book, and I delighted in reading about the aforementioned Maya, a civilisation based in Central America that is little known in Britain, and where I had worked as an archaeologist in 1995. I’m gratified that such a high-profile history book (it was recently nominated as The Times’ Book of the Year) covers history in the Americas, prior to the arrival of Columbus, and that history does exist beyond Europe, Asia and Africa. Sebag is clearly proud of that diversity: “it does have the history of the great powers that you’ll know about: the Persian Empire, China, the Mongols, the Zulus…the Incas. But it also has lots of places that are not enormously important but are interesting, like for example, Albania, the Maya, the Palmares Slave Kingdom of Brazil, and smaller places: Tibet, Cambodia, Hawaii, Haiti. So that’s one of the great joys of this book, I think.” Now, I would argue strongly the Maya are important, but of course I’ve already declared my interest.

Of all the families, which is the most successful? Sebag is pretty clear it’s that of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, whose descendants can be traced to the current Hashemite family still ruling in Jordan, “[Muhammad] was a military theocrat and he created a state which was…the greatest state in Arabia by uniting many different tribes, peoples and religions. Apart from his other qualities, he was also a very successful political and military leader and his family produced one of the greatest empires of the day, which was the Arab Empire starting really just after his death in the 630s. They very nearly took Constantinople, but they brought down the Persian Empire and they soon ruled an empire that extended from Spain to the border of China.”

Speaking of the Persians, contemporary events have again intrude on our conversation. Since September, a powerful movement in Iran has sought to overthrow the fundamentalist clerics in charge, sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini, whilst in custody, accused of wearing her hijab (head covering) ‘improperly.’

Iran’s previous regime, and Mohammed Reza Shah, the last Shah of Iran overthrown in 1979, are presented sympathetically in the book. This is despite the Shah’s supposed role in the Western backed coup of 1953 when the democratically elected Mossadegh (himself part of the Qajar dynasty) was ousted. Many Iranians including my wife’s family, would place the blame squarely at the door of the US and Britain. “[Reza Shah] is a fascinating character… I try and look at things that are…regarded as conventional wisdom, that everyone accepts and just look at them and say, ‘is it true?’

“History books keep reappearing…saying Britain and France appallingly mishandled the Middle East, and were to blame for everything that happened there..The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was appallingly mismanaged for centuries and the Ottomans really lost interest in improving their empire after 100 years…that really hollowed out society in the Arab world and has to be…one of the contributing factors for state of the Arab world today.

“So with the Shah and the coup against Mossadegh…it fitted so many people well…You only have to look at what was happening in the Mossadegh regime, to see that the coalition [of ayatollahs and communists] was falling apart. Yes, the British and Americans were plotting a coup, but it’s pretty clear that the coup that succeeded wasn’t the coup that they were backing, and happened in spite or in parallel to them.”

Ayatollah Khamenei, desperate to retain power, is killing protestors in the streets, but as Sebag says, “these regimes…will really only fall when something makes the security forces start to defect.”

There are two assassinations of major dynastic figures that feature in the book, and which I am fascinated by. The first is that of Philip II of Macedon. There is a suspicion of the 18-year-old Alexander’s hand in the killing. Then fast-forward 2,500 years and JFK in Dallas in November 1963. What does Sebag think, because his book’s wording suggests a certain scepticism of the official suspect in both cases?

“Alexander had the most to gain and he was most threatened by Philip’s new wife, new children, all these sorts of things. So, it is likely that Alexander had Philip assassinated, possibly with the help of his mother, Olympias. But equally, these Macedonian courts were incredibly messy. [Philip] was first among equals with a group of families, all interconnected with very macho, ambitious generals.

“And then you come to JFK, and again, from what we know, it was a single killer. All I would say about that is, looking at it, it’s a hell of a lucky shot. It was a hell of a good shot, if you think about it…one shooter getting the President and got him twice, in the throat and in the head. Anyway, we’ll never know.”

Of course, we can’t have a world history and families without women, and rather obviously are vital throughout – this isn’t a book of men fighting among themselves and in battles. He speaks of the recent debate in historical circles, and it’s one we’ve seen in this magazine from Margaret MacMillan, which is: surely the world would be a better place if the women were in charge? Not so, says Sebag: “Women are just as brilliant as men and they are just as ruthless and brutal and foolish as men, too. Families work in such a way that matriarch female leaders are hugely important, whether it’s Catherine de Medici, who’s a big character in the book. Most people don’t realise that the Mongols thinks it’s such a natural empire. But you have people like Sorghaghtani, who really dominated the Mongol Empire for 20 to 30 years and was the most powerful woman in the world ever, probably. How many people have heard of her?

“But there’s also Margaret Thatcher, who I knew.” This deserves a pause. As I mentioned earlier, Sebag had interviewed the Iron Lady in the aftermath of the Falklands War. The conversation is on our website and is worth a read. Sebag, going through a schoolboy Marxist phase at the time, asks questions about jingoism during the conflict. There is a footnote in The World that the Prime Minister described the interview as ‘cheeky’.

Sebag continues,” one of the most interesting is Kösem of the Ottoman Empire, who was a contemporary of Charles I, James I and Cromwell. So, a period we feel we know terribly well: the most powerful person in the world was a woman and we’ve never heard of her, she is never mentioned, she dominated the Ottoman Empire…It’s interesting because of the interest today in slavery, which is very much reflected in the book. And not just Atlantic slavery, but Mediterranean slavery, Black Sea slavery, East African slavery, Indian Ocean slavery, all of these are massive movements of people like coercion, but someone like Kösem again, similarly to Roxelana…who was the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, these women were kidnapped by slave traders…and sold from person to person until their beauty was noted and they were sold to the Sultan’s harem…some of them were spotted, introduced to the Sultan, had children with the Sultan. And if they were really clever and events aligned in a certain way, they could become the Empress, which is quite a thought.”

As our meeting concludes, I’m left with the thought that the old-fashioned theory of the Great Man in history should be replaced with a new one: The Great Family.

The Editor’s Top Ten Families of World History. Disagree or have your own list? You can email history@aspectsofhistory.com or get hold of him via the Twitter.

  1. Khans: Genghis & Kublai
  2. Borgias: Rodrigo, Cesare & Lucrezia
  3. Medici: Catherine, Charles IX, Henri III & Margot
  4. Ptolemaics: Ptolemy I, Cleopatra & Cleopatra Selene II
  5. Alcmeonid: Megacles, Cleisthenes, Xanthippus, Pericles & Alcibiades
  6. Achaemenid: Cyrus the Great, Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes II, Cyrus the Younger & Darius III
  7. Sioux: Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Young Man Afraid of His Horses & Sitting Bull
  8. Zulu: Shaka, Mpande, Cetshwayo & Buthelezi
  9. Kennedys: Joseph, JFK, RFK & Edward
  10. Argead: Alexander I, Philip II, Olympias, Alexander the Great & Alexander IV

The World: A Family History by Simon Sebag Montefiore is out now. You can listen to an extended interview with Sebag on the Aspects of History Podcast, along with a bonus episode on the Editor’s Top Ten.