Blood splatters from the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s New World History

Be careful with fireworks and don’t have bar fights: if you behave properly in the Netherlands, there is little chance of dying on New Year’s Eve. How different was the celebration of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) at the court of King Xerxes (519 BC – 465 BC), this king led a turbulent love life: he shared a bed with his brother’s wife Masishta and his daughter. Xerxes’ wife heard of this, and her displeasure was spilled at a New Year’s Eve party.

When her husband allowed the queen to make a wish, she knew it: she had claimed the life of the entire Macishta family. Xerxes chose the eggs for his money and agreed. Then the aggrieved princess ordered Masishta’s wife to die a traitor: her nose, ears, tongue and breasts were cut off and fed to dogs.

Moral of this story: Even in the best families, quarrels sometimes happen. Indeed, in the families of kings, politicians and the rich, it is often remarkably noisy. This should at least be the conclusion after reading the scientist. family history by Simon Sebag Montefiore, the book from which the above scene comes.

Montefiore, a British historian who has previously published books on Joseph Stalin, the Romanovs, and Jerusalem, has not been idle during the Corona years. Human history books, from the invention of writing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This resulted in a 1,467-page book (a bibliography of another 137 pages can be found on his website) full of interesting and often frightening stories.

the scientist It is, in a sense, an old-fashioned book. Montefiore chose to tell the five thousand years of human history through the experiences of important people and their families. They’ve been getting off badly for decades, especially in academic historiography. For example, a world history based on climate change or labor relations would be more modern, but Montefiore states in his preface that this type of historiography is essentially “a panacea for confusing times.” Its advantage is that it gives an idea of ​​perspective, and its disadvantage is that it creates too much distance. World history is often about subjects, not people; A biography is about people, not subjects.

In his new book, Montefiore attempts to combine the best of these two genres, he writes. “I have woven history together by telling the stories of many families on every continent and era, and used those stories to connect the progress of human history. It is the biography of many people rather than one person.

The history of the family world that unfolds after this introduction is not appropriate for readers who think most people are good–and like to maintain that illusion. Blood splatters from the pages. Everyone is trying to seize power by any means available.

A small quantitative analysis speaks volumes. The word “war” appears in this book 1,089 times, “murder” 949 times, “beheading” 129 times, “torture” 104 times, and “coup/coup” 95 times. By comparison, there are 300 mentions of “sex,” “love” 257, and “peace” only 196. Montefiore approvingly quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “Madness is rare in individuals, but the norm in groups, parties, countries, and ages.”

golden age

It is customary to summarize the contents of a book in a few paragraphs in a review, but it makes no sense to retell 1467 pages in 146 words. So, in short: those who care about the joys and sorrows of, among many others, the Ramses, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Carolingians, the Ottos, Genghis Khan and his descendants, the Borgias, the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, the Rothschilds, the Kennedys and the Trumps can indulge in this the book.

Dutch also such as Willem de Zweger, Rembrandt van Rijn, Regent of Amsterdam Jacob de Graef, Jan Jansson (pirate convert to Islam, who, through his granddaughter, was the ancestor of the American billionaire Vanderbilt family), Claes Martinzen van Rosenvelt (ancestor of the presidential Roosevelt family) and Jan Peterson Quinn and Johan de Witt (“The Imperial Mastermind”) make an appearance. It is clear, according to Montefiore, when the Netherlands had importance on the world stage: in the golden age.

For those who know a little about history, the aforementioned monikers won’t come as much of a surprise. But Montefiore did his best to tell many stories from outside the West, too. Melancholy and gloom strike the clock here, too. For example, anyone who believes that the Americas were an idyllic paradise until the arrival of European explorers will be shocked by the chapter on the Incas.

Machu Picchu

In present-day Peru, the Inca prince Yupanqui got into a fight with his father in the early 15th century. He had named Yupanke’s brother as his heir to the throne, but the younger son thought him better suited for the position. He proves himself skilled in war, but that is precisely why his father ordered the Yupanqui to be killed. There was nothing left for the prince but a successful seizure of power. He gave himself a new name – Pachacuti (world shaker) – and conquered all of Peru in forty years. He also built the Machu Picchu complex in the mountains.

His son Tupac Inca Yupanqui expanded the empire along the Andes to Ecuador, built a new capital, Quito, and moved to the Pacific Ocean. The coronation of the king, Sapa Inca (only the Incas), was celebrated with the strangulation of two hundred children between the ages of four and ten; Saba’s death rites consisted of two thousand lamas while “a thousand boys and girls would be taken to the place where I slept or entertained and buried,” according to Pachacuti.

Needless to say, the Incas needed a huge army to expand and guard their empire. The soldiers sang a cheerful song during their marches. We will drink from the skull of a traitor, adorn ourselves with a necklace of his teeth, play the melody of the pink on flutes made of his bones, beat the drum made of his skin, and so on. We dance!’

their legs

in a the scientist He is an amazing amount of interest in the history of China. Now this country is on its way to becoming the most powerful on earth, so there is no harm in writing this down. Sources permitting, Montefiore puts as many women as possible in the spotlight. He does the same with Cixi, the daughter of a Manchu officer and a member of the lower nobility. The Manchus did not tie their wives’ feet, but Cixi nonetheless found favor with Emperor Quing Xianfeng, also known as the Crippled Dragon. He took her as an eighth concubine and named her Yi.

Cixi became pregnant by Xianfeng and bore him a son in 1854, which meant promotion to the fifth rank. At the same time, she maintained good relations with Empress Zhen—nicknamed the fragile phoenix—which eventually led to her ascension to Noble Concierge Yi, number two after Empress.

Xianfeng was at war with the British, who sold opium in China. In 1860, the Europeans captured Beijing, and a year later the humiliated Xianfeng died. The throne belonged to his five-year-old son, with the support of Cixi and eight rulers led by the Manchu prince Sushun.

These gentlemen were not satisfied with a supporting role and wanted to seize power, for which they would kill Cixi. She stopped it by taking the lead during her husband’s funeral. Sushun, who was in charge of the coffin, was caught with two concubines – behavior inappropriate at royal funerals. He was beheaded. Rulers were given a “silk”: a white shawl to hang with.

After that, Cixi remained on the throne for decades. Every day she came with Zhen (with whom she nominally ruled for twenty years) to sit behind the young emperor, while they discussed affairs of state. A beautiful example of girl power.


Montefiore has done an extraordinary job describing the lives of Cixi and hundreds of others, though a few caveats should be noted. facts density the scientist huge. This creates a rich buffet full of stories, but sometimes also leads to the mental equivalent of heartburn. You probably won’t read this book all at once, but anyone who has turned the last page will never lack for a tale again.

Another problem of a more fundamental nature. the scientist is a smoothly written narrative history, but what do we learn from this book? And what do we learn about the nature of families and strains? What are the advantages and disadvantages of concentrating power in the hands of a small group of individuals? What are the dynamics within families that ultimately ensure everyone gets into trouble with each other? Such an analysis would have given the book an extra layer, and it is unfortunate that Montefiore did not turn to sciences such as sociology and political science for the answers.

And in conclusion, Montefiore looks at the future of the world with great anxiety. Climate change, population growth, migration, epidemics, and overcoming authoritarian regimes will pose major challenges in the next century. It remains to be seen whether Western democracies can withstand this. Montefiore does not close on a minor note, praising love and the human capacity to restore what has been destroyed. He gave the last word to Anne Frank in his book: “Think of all the beauty that remains in yourself and around you and be happy.”

Leave a Comment