The World: A Family History, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Luke Pepera

An expansive, enlightening, and entertaining history of some of humanity’s most interesting characters.
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An expansive, enlightening, and entertaining history of some of humanity’s most interesting characters.

The first thing worth mentioning about Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s The World is that it wholly delivers on the promise of its title and its synopsis. If you are by nature a little sceptical, and might hesitate in purchasing the work because you feared that the stories of peoples from even entire parts of certain continents might be missing from its pages, I’m here to tell you that you would not be disappointed. Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Oceania, and Australia – all of them are covered.

What’s more, Sebag-Montefiore has an enviable knack for finding not just the most interesting people who lived in these different places in different eras, but also the long-forgotten, intriguing, revealing, demonstrably human, and often downright disturbing of their lives’ details – for instance, the slightly sketchy soft-spot that the towering, war-mongering empire-builder Charlemagne had for his daughters, or how, at banquets, Augustus Caesar frequently took, right in front of them, the wives of his henchmen present into another room, slept with them, and led them back into the banqueting hall, ‘with their ears red, hair tousled,’ as Sebag-Montefiore wryly puts it.

Indeed, as it is such a significant part of life – is, in fact, how life comes about – sexual relations (and, also, a fair bit of violence) feature quite heavily in The World. Yet, when reading it, you never get the sense that Sebag-Montefiore includes details of it either for their salaciousness, or to shock. Rather, the message that comes across is that, no matter who we are, where we are, or when we are, we, as human beings always, want, and do, the same things, sex being often one of these.

Through his characters whose lives Sebag-Montefiore explores in his book, ranging from the bona fide big dogs of history – Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon – to the still important, yet lesser-known, figures, like the first-century AD Queen Amanirenas of Kush (modern-day Sudan), who prevented the Roman’s conquering of her kingdom, Harun al-Rashid, the eighth-century Baghdad caliph immortalised alongside his vizier Ja’far in The Arabian Nights, and Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the first novel, The Tale of Genji, Sebag-Montefiore reminds us of the fears and desires we all share, and that define our humanity. That he also with a clear, lively, humorous, narrative-focused, and introspective writing style indubitably brings these characters to life, and succeeds in getting you often to see parts of yourself in them, makes The World an engrossing and eminently worthwhile read.

Luke Pepera is a writer and historian, and the author of Motherland: 500,000 Years of African History, Cultures & Identity.