“The world is too much with us,” William Wordsworth lamented in a sonnet. “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” I recalled these lines as I powered through Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The World,” an encyclopedic, unwieldy and yet mesmerizing survey of humanity as told through millennia of rulers and their blood-drenched empires. It’s a towering work of imagination, somehow successful as it teeters beneath the awesome weight of names, dates and interpretations.
Montefiore roams the globe, from the first green shoots of civilizations in east Asia to the European colonization of the Americas and Africa, displacing millions who had already carved out their own thriving societies. He structures “The World” in 23 “acts” that span over 1,200 pages. Is “The World” too much with us, indeed?
Fortunately, the sections are composed of chapters and subheaded paragraphs that come together, mosaic-like, to illuminate who we are and why we behave as we do. As Montefiore notes, “Part-science, part-literature, part-mysticism, part-ethics, history has always been important because the past, whether gold-speckled splendour or heroic suffering, however imagined, possesses a legitimacy and an authenticity, even a sanctity, that is built into us.”
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The tale is long and bloody. The Egyptians were fond of incestuous marriages and human sacrifice. In ancient Persia and Rome, fathers routinely killed sons they perceived as threats. Montefiore highlights, too, the women who were red in tooth and claw, such as the “monstress,” Dowager Empress Lü, from the Han Dynasty, who seized her son’s concubine, cut off the young woman’s limbs, gouged out her eyes, and tossed her into a cesspool with a message: “Meet the human swine.”
Violent impulses persisted with the emergence of nation-states and the slave trade. (Montefiore’s sketch of “the doors of no return” is particularly moving.) The writer hits his stride in the modern era, seasoning “The World” with lavish portraits of charismatic potentates, including Shaka Zulu, Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, Napoleon and wiry, aristocratic Simón Bolívar, who united warring factions to create a South American empire that rivaled Alexander the Great’s.
Montefiore writes that Bolívar “had tempered his slight body in order to compete with hardened cowboys, once mounting his horse with his hands bound behind his back and another time riding into a river with both his hands tied to show his virtuosity: ‘Don’t think this sort of thing isn’t useful in a leader.’”
These anecdotes guide us through the historical jungles as Montefiore approaches familiar figures and events from the past century. The scale of his project is more than ambitious; it frames the story of humanity as a ceaseless struggle between the powerful and powerless. He expands on the theme of the Romantic poet’s sonnet, underscoring the tumult inherent as tribes battle for control.
“The World” may be a daunting doorstop, but it offers invaluable precedents as we navigate our own uncertain present.