‘The World: A Family History’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

2022, 1263 p.

Thank God that’s over! Never have I complained so much about a book that took me so long to read. So long, in fact, that it is massively overdue and the library has blocked my account. But once I had committed to about 500 pages, I felt that I had to keep going partly out of obtuseness (no big fat 1200 page book was going to beat me!) and because, flicking ahead, I’d find parts that interested me and wanted to reach them. But after probably six weeks of reading, was it worth it? Probably not.

It started well. I was interested in the book after reading an interview with the author, well known as a Russian historian, and the sheer scope of the endeavour impressed me. Starting off with the footsteps found in Happisburgh, England, of a man and four children, dating from between 950,000 and 850,000 years old, Montefiore looks to the family – “the essential unit of human existence”- as a way of linking great events with individual human dramas. By focussing on individuals, families and coteries, he admits that the families and characters that he follows in this book are exceptional, but they also reveal much about their era and place.

It is a way of looking at how kingdoms and states evolved, at how the interconnectivity of peoples developed, and at how different societies absorbed outsiders and merged with others. In this multifaceted drama, I hope that the simultaneous, blended yet single narrative catches something of the messy unpredictability and contingency of real life in real time, the feeling that much is happening in different places and orbits, the mayhem and the confusion of a dizzying, spasmodic, bare-knuckle cavalry charge, often as absurd as it is cruel, always filled with vertiginous surprises, strange incidents and incredible personalities that no one could foresee


One of the things that I very admired in this book was his attempt to cover the whole of human endeavour, looking at all the continents across time. Admittedly, Australia gets pretty cursory treatment but both Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe are all dealt with in his chronological swirl throughout human history. The book itself is divided into twenty-two chronological acts, identified not by dates but instead by world population size. Within each ‘act’, there are a number of sections identified by family surname, often conjoining ruling families from very different parts of the globe. Taking Act Eight, for instance, when the world population was 360 million, its four sections set in the 1100 and 1200s are:

  • Genghis: A Conquering Family
  • Khmers, Hohenstaufen and Polos
  • The Keitas of Mali and the Habsburgs of Austria
  • The Tamerlanians, the Ming and the Obas of Benin.

Its final ‘act’ 22, with a world population of 4.4 billion takes us right up to the present day with:

  • Yeltsins and Xis, Nehruvians and Assads, Bin Ladens, Kims and Obamas
  • Trumps and Xis, Sauds, Assads and Kims

I had expected more of an emphasis on dynasties, which certainly do appear in this book, maintaining a presence across several ‘acts’ (e.g. Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns). Nonetheless, quite a few of his actors are not part of a multi-generational power base (e.g. Yeltsin and Obama in Act 22) but are instead individuals who flame up and then events move beyond them. He does not particularly consider ‘the family’ as a unit of analysis, or identify ways in which it changed in any great depth. However, as he points out in his introduction, by taking ‘the family’ as his frame, it is possible to pay more attention to the lives of women, both as shapers of the men who dominate the main narrative, but who also formed the sinews of dynastic control, stepping in as regents, and as court powers in their own right.

There were some rather surprising omissions. I would have thought that the War of the Roses might have been dealt with, given that family and dynasty were fundamental to it. Perhaps Australia could have got a look in with the Murdoch family that we have inflicted on the late 20th-early21st century Anglo-sphere.

But the book is already overwhelming in many ways. Not only is there the kaleidoscopic effect of shifting from one continent and culture to another, but there is just so much. I gave up trying to keep it all straight, and just let it sweep me along, not even attempting to create my own internal mental narrative while reading.

I was also disconcerted by infelicities that I could detect that undercut my confidence in him as a historian somewhat (and who knows how many went undetected). He starts with Egypt, Africa, Athens, Persia and India, and I must admit that this part read a bit like the ‘begats’ section of the Old Testament. For me, it was only really with the arrival of the more familiar (to me) Romans that the narrative seemed to become more human-based instead of “one damned thing after another”. Now, I am no expert on Rome, beyond listening regularly to two podcast series on Ancient Rome, but one thing that the historians in these podcasts have highlighted is the slanted nature of the remnant narratives available to us today, shaped by the agendas and perspectives of their classical authors. There was no hint here of the cautiousness with which these historians embroider every statement: instead contested events and interpretations were presented as fact. So, likewise, I found myself reading of the truly horrific cruelties imposed by powerful men on the powerless with a similar twinge of skepticism. While not at all doubting man’s ability and perverse imagination in torturing other men, what was the purpose of counting and recounting these chilling punishments?

My wariness was increased further when I learned that:

The first outsiders to reach Australia were not Europeans (the Dutch landed there in 1606), but African sailors from Kilwa [near Tanzania], as evidenced by the discovery of copper Kilwan coins, inscribed in Arabic with the name of an amir of Kilwa, dug up on Marchinbar Island, Northern Territory.

p. 268

What???? Thanks to Google, I found that indeed copper coins, inscribed in Arabic were indeed found in the Northern Territory, but even though their origin remains a mystery, there is little credence given to the idea that they were brought by African sailors in the tenth century CE. Who was he reading? I wondered, to come up with this rather out-there hypothesis, but there was no bibliography. I only found out once I finished the book that there was an online bibliography available so as not to add to this already lengthy book.

Of course, a book focussing on the family is going to deal with sexuality, which was often only tangentially linked to marriage and the passing-on of DNA. But I did find myself wondering what was the point of frequent tales, especially in the footnotes, of perversion and sexual oddity, and the narrative and political purpose such anecdotes served in the histories from which they were drawn. In fact the footnotes, while often interesting and quirky, seem to act as a bit of a catch-all for the facts that he had uncovered that he couldn’t bear to leave out, even if they were only obliquely related to the text.

However, one thing that came through clearly was the distorting effect of slavery – probably the most anti-family activity man ever invented. Not just Atlantic slavery, but across all societies and often as a by-product of warfare, slavery enriched some families and dynasties, and the consequences of that wealth stretched across centuries, furthering further empire-development and discovery.

This book was published in 2022, and particularly the last chapters are narrowing in on Ukraine and Russia, the author’s specialty. I suspect that events yet to come will render these chapters out-of-date and possibly downright wrong. In a book which has travelled so far, across so much time and geography, I am surprised that he is risking rendering his scholarship obsolete by such presentism. His frequent coy references to “this author” in referring to his own interviews with influential political actors remind us that his work has not just been desk research, but that he has been a player in present-day politics as well. That said, I was interested that in a footnote in the closing pages, he rebutted Putin’s argument about Ukraine’s Muscovite and Russian origins by pointing out that Ukraine has, over time, been ruled by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Polish kings and Lithuanian dukes, and peopled by Cossacks, Tatars, Poles, Jews, Italians and Greeks, as well as Russians and Ukrainians (fn. p.1231)

This book was written “during the menacing times of Covid” (p. xxviii) and perhaps that accounts for its length. I was drawn to keep reading but I found myself resenting the sheer weight and length of the book, and the relentless piling on of actors and actions. I found myself wishing that he would take a break from the narrative, to take stock and analyze for commonalities and change, before continuing on.

Am I glad that I read it? Probably, in that I will probably take away flickers of recognition of names and cultures, and from the effect of seeing events that occurred contemporaneously that I had only seen in isolation previously. But it was damned hard work and I just don’t know -yet- whether it was worth it.

My rating: My God, how does someone rate a book about the whole of human written history? 7/10?

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Please, YPRL and the borrowers waiting for me to return it, forgive me for holding on to it for so long. But I bet that few future borrowers will be able read it in four weeks either.

4 responses to “‘The World: A Family History’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

  1. Far be it from me to lock horns with real historians, but there is plenty of credible evidence that the first visitors to Australia came to the north from the Indonesian islands. They were trading sea cucumbers, and anthropologists have found tangible evidence of their presence, and there are also ‘loan words’ in both the First Nations languages and in the local Indonesian languages. It was a longstanding well-established trade.
    Add to that the known presence of Arab traders in Indonesia as long ago as the 7th century plus Greeks, Turks, Tamils and Persians in the 10th century… and they’re just the ones I know about from (pre-Internet!) research for my little book about Indonesia… it doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that those traders may well have included Tanzanians. After all, if there were well-established pre-First Contact trading routes all over Australia, all existing without the benefit of horse or wheel, why wouldn’t there have been a network of traders all over Africa, some of whom took sail for the Spice Islands and elsewhere?

    • The multiple forms of evidence for northern trade make this isolated discovery of coins even more questionable. I think that there are many scenarios by which a coin from Tanzania might be brought to the Spice Islands (part of trade, souvenir, good luck) without jumping straight to the assertion as fact, that Tanzanian traders reached Australia. Apparently such objects are called “ooparts” (out of place artifacts) and I would have thought that a professional historian would have been more wary.

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    I don’t want to commit myself to read a VERY large book, but I do like to listen to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his tv series. His voice is sublime and he doesn’t fill his sentences with filler words (eg you know, like).

    Getting back to the book, you note he rebutted Putin’s argument about Ukraine’s Russian origins by pointing out that Ukraine has been ruled by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Polish kings and Lithuanian dukes, and peopled by Cossacks, Tatars, Poles, Jews, Italians and Greeks, as well as Russians and Ukrainians. I find this difficult as well, even when talking about my own family – proud Russian citizens who lived in Ukraine for decades.

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