A Family History of Humanity
by simon sebag montefiore
knopf, 1,344 pages, $45
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World: A Family History of Humanity presents three burdens. The first: At 1,300 pages, the book in hardcover weighs several pounds. The second: its cachet. I read books in public all the time and no one ever notices. But in an airport business lounge (I had a free pass) several trim, smartly dressed male professionals in their fifties and sixties gave me knowing, impressed nods. Eventually I put aside Montefiore to read a Penguin Classics collection of D. H. Lawrence’s travel writing, to no notice at all.
Montefiore enjoys fashionable standing today as the author of ambitious and important-sounding books that combine accessibility and playfulness with grandeur and gravitas. These are the basic terms of the contemporary popular history industry, which is dominated by writers like Montefiore, Jared Diamond, and Simon Schama. There is also a bevy of catchy-clever histories of the world—in one hundred objects (Neil MacGregor), in twelve maps (Jerry Brotton), in seven cheap things (Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore), and in six glasses (Tom Standage). There are bestsellers about how the Irish, among others, saved civilization.
Montefiore has written on topics ranging from Jerusalem to Stalin, the Romanovs, and other major figures of Russian history, and has proposed that certain speeches and letters have changed history itself. Now he has written what he self-celebrates as “a genuine world history,” meaning—as he puts it, with condescending generosity—one “not unbalanced by excessive focus on Britain and Europe but rather giving Asia, Africa and the Americas the attention they deserve.” He is likewise attentive to “the lives of women and children, both of whom were slighted in the books I read as a schoolboy.” His effort, written during the pandemic and barely edited (you could fill a thesaurus morgue with his uses of “cadaverous” alone), showily attends to the experiences of women and of people outside Europe—though, ironically, in substance and insight his sustained writing on European history and alpha males far outpaces his short-sequenced, alternately romantic and myopic takes on others.
This is no comprehensive and sober-toned tome like J. M. Roberts and O. A. Westad’s The History of the World, or for that matter E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, an engagingly modest treatment for readers of all ages. To establish the distinctiveness of his approach, Montefiore describes his book as “an intimate, human history” organized around the idea that history happens to, in, and through families. He traces this familial history from the footprints of a father and four children from circa 900,000 b.c., recently discovered on a beach in England, to the moment when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife and children awoke to Russian rocket attacks on Kyiv in February 2022.
This grandiose range brings me to the third burden of the book: the difficulty of taking it seriously. Montefiore has organized his history into large sections broken up by exponential changes in overall world population. Each section in turn features chapters that are made up of pithy, anecdote-driven presentations of—invariably—the lives and machinations of emperors, royals, nobles, family dynasties, and military and political leaders from all times and places. In other words, there’s little here that hasn’t been treated elsewhere with more thoughtfulness and depth. But Montefiore promises an invigoration of our understanding of history through his focus on “both inner families and wider power families, often expanded to clans and tribes.” These families’ combinations of internal conflict and external ambition in turn made possible, on a planetary scale, humanity’s unfolding in and as “the great mass movements of families—[through] migrations and conquests.” These movements, he claims, have “created every race and nation.”
But beyond “inner” and “wider power,” Montefiore fails to offer any substantial, sustained sense of what it means to see history through the family. This means that family, as a concept, is taken for granted throughout the book—as either immediate or extended—rather than possessing any layered definitions or periodized, culture-specific distinctiveness. The latter could have been possible had Montefiore subjected his findings to conceptualizations of the family offered by various religious traditions—such as the Catholic Church’s notion of the family as the first school of love—or to definitions from modern academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Likewise, beyond making excited sentence-length connections between discrete events that happened around the same time across vast swaths of land and culture—“Polo and Ibn Battuta were unicorns of adventure,” he declares, goring both historical sense and clean writing on a mythical metaphorical horn—he seems indifferent to comparisons that could be revealing. A book of such scope and length could have demonstrated, for instance, how family life played out in irreducibly distinct ways in specific times and places, even as family life features universal structures and dynamics. But the book never offers any notable or sustained insight into why and how family life influences history’s unfolding at different paces and scales.
Frustratingly, Montefiore presents material that cries out for just such treatment. Whether he actually did it or not, why did Caligula claim that he had committed incest with his sisters, as part of his public profile? How significant was it that the Xianfeng Emperor, the mid-nineteenth-century ruler of China, had been chosen by his father to rule after him, given his status as the fourth of nine sons? Why did it matter that Ottoman culture fused together family standing and military standing so that Enver Pasha wasn’t just “Vice-Generalissimo” and “Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of Islam” in 1914, when these forces were allying with Germany, but also “Damad [son-in-law] of the Caliph”?
Montefiore’s lack of attention to the family in biblical history is glaring, and more so is his incuriosity, after he has devoted extended attention to the life and work of the Prophet Muhammad, about Islam’s factionalizing over whether succession was to be lineal (as in the Shi’a tradition) or determined by consultation among the religiously learned (as in the Sunni tradition) following the Prophet’s death in 632. Likewise, instead of concentrating on the family-specific stakes and implications of Siddhartha Gautama’s growing up “the son of a minor ruler” who leaves “his marital home” to become a “seeker,” Montefiore offers a few paragraphs of Buddha Wiki-biography. He does much the same in his brief treatments of the family lives of Simón Bolívar, Mao Zedong, and the Kim regime in North Korea.
Wherever we might have expected fresh insight into how family life may have influenced or inflected history through the direct experience of significant actors, Montefiore instead offers basic biographical information emphasizing family life, which then gives way to jaunty capsule summaries of already familiar information. Wherever a history of the world told through family might yield some genuinely bold or unexpected claims, Montefiore passes. China’s one-child policy has had ongoing, consequential effects on recent history and family life, and in obviously related ways, but the policy and its ongoing afterlife merit only a neutral-toned footnote. Earlier in the book, Hitler’s description of himself in 1931 as a “fully non-familial being” merely confirms that “love and family mattered little to him” rather than providing a means for understanding his monstrousness and, in turn, for understanding in new ways the consequences of his monstrosity for millions of families and for history itself.
Montefiore quotes Marie Antoinette’s response to the incest allegations made by her son in 1793 in the lead-up to her execution: “Nature refuses to answer such a charge,” she said. “I appeal in this matter to all the mothers present in court.” He then notes that Robespierre worried that she might win support if she were heard in public, given her dignity. Was there a sense that Marie Antoinette possessed dignity as a wronged and suffering mother, dignity that might prevail against her profile as a decadent and unpopular queen? A family history of the world should draw out these dynamics at some length, instead of concentrating on the naughty and messy bits. Yet here as elsewhere, Montefiore eschews such analysis in favor of a lot of sneering and swaggering about episodes of voracious elite sex and violence.
Along the way, he impugns Christian approaches to marriage and family life, while displaying pristine neutrality toward non-Christian approaches. He observes that the sixteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V treated Empress Isabella like “a breeding machine—she endured seven pregnancies,” whereas the nineteenth-century Hawaiian king Kamehameha had “thirty wives and twenty-five children” without eliciting a note of disapproval on Montefiore’s part. If this weren’t off-putting enough, there are the proudly imbecilic titles of individual sections: “Who I Screw: Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony”; “Star Wars, Pierced Penises, Sex Slaves and Steam Baths”; “The Shah, the Stuffed Emperor and the Salted Testicles”; “Roger’s Fart, Zaynab’s Magic and El Cid’s Sword.” These are taken from just the first half of the book.
The appeal of a book like Roberts and Westad’s The History of the World is its dispassionate confidence that readers seek to be authoritatively informed, not childishly entertained; Gombrich’s A Little History works so well because in its winsome way it presumes the reader wants to know about the past for its own sake, not for trite tales and lurid factoids. Contemporary popular history wants to have it both ways—the past, presented with seriousness and lightness—but this latest specimen suggests the genre is susceptible to a kind of mutual cancellation. Montefiore has written an immense book with an authoritative title that promises gravitas and grandeur but delivers sex and poop jokes.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.