Poisoning, adultery, incest, murder and mayhem: a family history of humanity

Plenty of world histories have come out in the past few years, but this one is different. It is a family history of the world — not a global history of families, tracing how conjugal unions evolved from the loose alliances common among hunter-gatherers through the rigid patriarchy of peasant societies to the bewildering variety of 21st-century residential groups, but instead a history of the world as illustrated by the lives of particular families.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose past books include a vivid history of the Romanov family, begins with the oldest known named individual, an accountant called Kushim, who lived in the third millennium BC Middle East.

As he moves forward through time, the geographical scope of The World: A Family History steadily widens. By 1150 BC, the story has expanded to include King Wuding of China’s violent, ancestor-worshipping Shang Dynasty, who ruled along with his favourite wife Lady Hao. By 800 BC, we are hearing about King Alara of Kush, who is thought to have married his sister and built mudbrick pyramids in what is now Egypt and Sudan. In the sixth century BC, we join the greedy Alcmaeonids of Athens; around 300 BC, we meet King Chandragupta and his mother in India; and by the second century AD, we find ourselves in Tikal at the court of the bloodthirsty Maya clan of Yax Ehb Xook, or “First Step Shark”. 

By the 19th century, Sebag Montefiore’s narrative has become truly global, drawing in characters from Kamehameha of Hawaii with his 30 wives and 500-pound girlfriend/adviser Ka‘ahumanu, through King Ghezo of Dahomey, whose 3,000 “wives” fought in his army, to England’s Victoria and her prudish yet passionate husband Albert, whose 42 grandchildren went on to populate thrones all over Europe. One extraordinary story follows another, all of them extraordinarily well-told. It is hard to stop turning the pages — and that is just as well, since there are well over a thousand of them.

One of the commonest criticisms of world histories such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is that they are all about the vast impersonal forces of geography and evolution, hardly having room for the very important persons who actually made history happen. Sebag Montefiore’s family-centred alternative is the perfect antidote, revelling in the peculiarities and downright perversities of its all-too-human cast.

A large part of the challenge facing the author is that the nature of our evidence changes so much over time. Until just a few centuries ago, many of our sources were written by and most were written for rich, educated men. This requires him to focus largely on a narrow elite of wealth and birth, but he tries hard to give voice to premodern women — so hard, in fact, that our perspective perhaps becomes distorted in two different ways.

One involves the kind of women we hear about. “The greatest glory of a woman,” the Athenian Pericles is supposed to have said, “is to be least talked about by men” — which means that good girls tend to be lost to the historian’s gaze.

The women who make it into Sebag Montefiore’s pages form something of a catalogue of deviants, constantly betraying, torturing and/or doing to death their kinsfolk. Whether Olympias of Macedon or Catherine the Great really were as alarming as men said remains open to debate, but the ways men chose to write about women mean that we hear more of monsters such as Messalina, who — it was claimed — made the Roman emperor Claudius’s life so thoroughly miserable, than of delightful people like Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia, who shared wedded bliss with Pompey the Great until she died in childbirth.

Among the few things we do know about Julia, however, is that when she married Pompey she was just 14 while her new husband was 57. This is a second way in which the exceptional women who feature so strongly in the first 600 or so pages of The World might mislead us. Through most of history, most marriages — even happy ones — were mindbogglingly patriarchal.

Take Julia’s father. When not busy conquering Gaul, subverting the Roman constitution, murdering scores of rivals, reforming the calendar, penning a two-volume work on Latin grammar and composing some of the crispest prose ever written, Julius Caesar found time to seduce the wives of almost every leading man in Rome, father a bastard with an Egyptian queen and fornicate with slaves beyond number. And yet Caesar’s wife had to be above suspicion; and when she failed to meet his standards, she had to go.

Sebag Montefiore’s families are overwhelmingly unhappy. Straightforward marital misery, like Napoleon’s neglect of his Empress Josephine, is the least of it. I quickly lost count of the husbands beating wives, wives murdering husbands, and parents of both sexes killing inconvenient children.

But my vote for the most broken home in history goes to that of Temüjin, the Mongol boy who grew up to be Genghis Khan. His father, Yesugei, kidnapped his mother, Hoelun, from her original husband, impregnated her, and named Temüjin after a man he had killed. Yesugei and Hoelun then forgot Temüjin when they moved from one camp to another and didn’t get around to going back to retrieve him for a year. Yesugei’s fellow tribesmen then murdered him, threw out Hoelun, stole her animals and left her to starve. Temüjin supported her by trapping rats. Before long he had murdered his half-brother, his blood brother and the men who had kidnapped and raped his fiancée, before graduating to multiple millions of unfortunates from the Pacific to the Volga, harvesting their souls “as lines of writing are effaced from paper”, according to a Persian survivor.

However, the regularly repeated factoid that Genghis was so active in the bedroom that his blood now runs in the veins of 16mn people seems to be wrong. According to a paper published in 2018, it was the migrating Mongols en masse, not one sex-mad murderer, who spread the Y chromosome C3*-star cluster all across Asia.

Although Tolstoy thought that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Sebag Montefiore’s all tend to be unhappy in rather similar ways. No one who has watched television dramas such as Succession, or read any Shakespeare, will be surprised to read that the families of the rich and famous are awful. But where dramatists work their magic by showing us how these crazed families are bound together by loves — sick and twisted as it might be — almost as strong as their hatreds, Sebag Montefiore’s families have fewer redeeming features. As the book went on, I regularly found myself wondering why some of them didn’t murder each other even sooner.

Taken individually, Sebag Montefiore’s vignettes are fascinating, albeit often in a disturbing kind of way. But taken collectively, the hundreds of horror stories might wear down almost anyone’s faith in human nature. “Leaders who can trust no one usually trust family,” the author tells us near the end of the book, but he makes it hard to see why. There seems to be no end to the poisoning, adultery and incest, not to mention the flaying and burning; and if the book has a real shortcoming, that is perhaps it. “There is such a thing as too much history,” Sebag Montefiore observes.

It was not always obvious, as family story piled on to family story across 1,250 pages, what each new example added, other than just moving the narrative forwards. The book might have benefited from a leaner focus, with a smaller number of examples chosen to make explicit a tighter set of themes.

The World begins with a set of almost million-year-old footprints excavated on a beach at Happisburgh in England in 2013, which appear to belong to a family; and even older footprints from Laetoli in Tanzania, dating back 3.7mn years, might also belong to residential and/or kinship groups.

There is no doubting that the family is the central institution of human history, and Sebag Montefiore’s overview of its most recent five millennia is entertaining and consistently interesting. However, it apparently led him to no concrete conclusions. This enjoyable book is well worth reading, but there must be more to say.

The World: A Family History by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £35/Knopf $45, 1,344 pages

Ian Morris is professor of classics at Stanford University and author of Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000 Year History (Profile)

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