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on 4 November 2012
I like Marr as a presenter: he has this cheeky way and I had hoped his series on the history of the world would be original, but it is the opposite: political correct and superficial. Take for example the episode/chapter on the Renaissance in this series. Marr regurgitates uncritically the view that all knowledge from the Classical Greeks came to us via Muslim Spain, whilst the reality is much more nuanced. He peddles stories like that the muslims under the Khalif of Bagdad were the first to measure the circumference of the earth: Erathostenes did that 1,000 years earlier and he was only 2% off the correct number. He says that Da Vinci for his painting of the Last Supper used muslim inventions on perspective. This is more than remarkable: even the ancient Greeks had notions of perspective and perspective was fully developed in Northern Italy without any muslim impact. How many painting by muslims at that time do we know which have perspective ? Then he mentions a pilgrimage in 1324 to Mekka by king Mansa Musa of Mali. Why this is relevant in world history is a mystery, because the only effect this pilgrimage had was a drop in gold prices for a few years. I guess somehow every continent had to be mentioned, lest this programm to be too Euro-centric for the BBC. Finally, Marr claims that Europe only emerged on top of the battle with Islam thanks to the conquest of Bagdad by the Mongols. Whilst it is unquestionably so that the Mongols destroyed Bagdad, the muslim world consisted of far more than the Qualifate of Bagdad. Europe did not flounder either because the Turks conquered Constantinople. No mention of the role of Al-Ghazali, the hugely influential 12th century muslim scholar who wrote that the practice of science was redundant since Allah decides the rules of nature anyway. Clearly Marr could not state that perhaps the relative decline of the muslim world is due to internal reasons and had to resort to blaming external forces. And this is just one episode. I laud the attempt to do a popular series on world history, but this effort pales in comparison with efforts like J Roberts' sublime Triumph of the West broadcast by the BBC some 20 years ago.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 October 2012
Andrew Marr says in his opening to this book that:'Writing a history of the world is a ridiculous thing to do'. He is right.
Many have tried to do the same, for example H G Wells, Richard Overy and John Roberts. Two of these writers are renowned historians while one was a brilliant story writer with an unbelievable ability to foretell the future. Andrew Marr is not an historian and it shows.
His book is an entertaining read,and well written but key events are treated very superficially as one would expect given the task.The book is particularly weak on the period since 1918. He is clearly not aware of much of the recent research on, for example,on what was the USSR,the turmoil that nuclear weapons caused in the military establishment or the Cold war. Military matters in general are passed over rapidly resulting in misleading statements and conclusions.
Marr spends an inordinate time discussing royalty and politicians to the exclusion of important events that involved the lower orders. This results in a book that lacks objective balance.
The book is yet another book of a BBC film. As such it smacks of the 'coffee table'. It adds nothing to our understanding of world history. I would not recommend it to students.
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on 2 February 2013
Mr Marr is a very competent tv presenter/occasional political commentator: They are carefully crafted skills in their own right and he has deserved recognition for his aplomb in those areas.
Unfortunately, presenter/commentator does not automatically bring the intellectual rigor and analytical skills required of a first-rate Historian.
Marr's book is largely a surface discourse in already well established and copiously covered History and amply demonstrates the shortcomings of a person who may know a great deal and entertain with their discourse at the dining table, but fall very short of composing a narration of those components that go to make up a genuine 'History'.
He covers many topics in a light, at times almost frothy manner that may well suit a television audience however it is way below the thoroughly researched, in-depth, scholastic perspective needed to be taken seriously as a contribution to the sum of knowledge of Human progression: Add to that a profound lack of original 'insight' into the topics and personalities covered and the conclusion is Mr Marr should not give up his day job in anticipation of a career in academia!
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on 1 August 2014
This is the book of an eight one hour BBC series written and presented by a senior political journalist. He is a not a historian and, quite frankly, it shows. Mr Marr has presented other mini-series dealing with more recent British history which I have enjoyed but I believe that in this work he has over-reached himself.
In covering such a vast subject I would hope the presenter would cover the important topics e.g. the birth of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, the main religions, the advances in science and technology, exploration, political thought, etc. rather than the story of this or that king or queen. At the same time a geographical and civilizational balance should be struck.
Mr Marr manages to achieve some of this but he could have done a lot better. A lot of his narrative is taken up with the stories of good and bad men and (a few) women whereas I prefer a history with more technical detail.
The writing style is clear and easy to read if occasional marred by an error that a fact-checker could have eliminated (e.g. on pg.135 we're told that after Cannae Hannibal was urged to march south - that should read north. On page 199 we're told that Chaucer celebrated the astrolabe in print. It's a wonder he didn't celebrate the time machine he must have had to bring him forward to the invention of the printing press!).
As this book has received a lot of two-sentence, five-star reviews, I'll concentrate on two major negative criticisms.

In its coverage of the history of Islam I have come to expect the BBC to use kid gloves while accentuating the positive and this book and the series are no exceptions.
Quite rightly, The Golden Age of Islam is covered and as the main part of my first main criticism I've chosen a few passages from pages 194 to 202 to show where I think Mr Marr has fallen down badly.
Mr Marr tends to jump around the centuries at times but I think it's clear that the following passage relates to the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages and not to the High Middle Ages. (At least I hope not).
In comparing Al-Andalus to (Latin) Christendom he writes of Western Christians that

"They could not accurately tell the time of day, and struggled along with a defective, slipping calendar...The shape of the world outside Europe and the Near East was a mystery; but it was probably flat, and if you travelled too far, you would fall off. The Abbasids, by contrast, prided themselves on their...hard science, in a world...whose circumference they measured." (pg.195)

Western Christians - like everyone else on the planet - of their day couldn't accurately tell the time of day. We can, thanks to clocks with a mechanical escapement. An invention of those Western Christians - probably monks wanting to know the correct time to say Matins (Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines, ding, ding, dong...) - sometime around 1300 and, while Western Europe is replete with churches and town halls complete with medieval clocks I've never seen a minaret with one.
Their Julian calendar - which they had inherited from the Romans - was defective and slipping and some - such as Mr Marr's fellow Briton Bede (d.735) - knew it. Their year averaged 365.25 days long. Our current Gregorian calendar - named after the pope who oversaw its introduction - averages 365.2425 days. So they were out by 18 hours a century.
Though Marr is comparing the Islamic world to that of Latin Christendom he doesn't mention the Islamic calendar. The one used by the people who prided themselves on their hard science. It is either 354 or 355 days long. This is not exactly useful for farming purposes so the Islamic world tended to use the old Egyptian calendar for agricultural purposes. At 365 days to the year without any leap years it was more inaccurate than the Julian one.
The Islamic calendar runs from the Hijra which took place in 622 AD by the Christian calendar. Since then the earth has gone round the sun about 1392 times and so the Christian year is 2014 i.e. 622 + 1392. However by the Islamic calendar we are in the year of the Hijra 1435.
Throughout the modern world people of all faiths and none use the Gregorian calendar. It's not perfect (it's out by about a day every seven thousand seven hundred years). It wasn't designed to be perfect. It was designed to be practical and to have an inbuilt corrective mechanism.
In the Gregorian calendar there are 146,097 days every 400 years. It is accurate to within just under an hour and a quarter over that period.
In the defective, slipping Julian calendar the Christians inherited there are 146,100 days every 400 years. The defect is 3 days every 400 years.
In the Egyptian calendar used for practical purposes by the Abbasids there are 146,000 days every 400 years. The defect is 97 days every 400 years.
In the Islamic calendar there are less than 142,000 days every 400 years. The defect is more than 4,000 days every 400 years.
Who had the more defective, slipping calendar?
I'm confident that a lot of uneducated people back then, Christian and Muslim, believed that the earth was flat just as educated Chinese did c.1600 when the Jesuits arrived to advise them otherwise. But among educated Westerners - there were a few even back then - then in the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, "with...few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat". Or as Stephen Jay Gould put it "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology." If I may go back to Marr's fellow Briton, Bede, he described the Earth as being "...not merely circular like a shield...but...more a ball".
In the TV series we are shown a not very convincing re-enactment of al-Khwarizmi calculating a reasonable approximation of the circumference of the earth. An impressive feat but one managed by Eratosthenes almost a millennium before. In the book we are again told of al-Khwarizmi's undoubted achievements but I would have thought that reference to Ibn al-Haytham, generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic scientists and one of - if not the - founder of the scientific method, would have been worth a mention.
"It is hard to crusade against someone and learn from them at the same time." (pg.197)

Having described how the Islamic world sought out knowledge from the Greeks he presumably believes that it is possible to wage jihad while doing so.
"Had the rival Muslim world of Al-Andalus not existed, much of this precious knowledge might not have arrived in Europe for centuries to come." (pg.197)

Al-Andalus wouldn't have existed without the Islamic conquests which reduced the West's access to its main source of writing material - papyrus from Egypt - forcing it to rely on far costlier velum, a severe handicap for scholars.
Muslim raiders - like those who sacked Old St. Peter's in 846 - and privateers - who continued taking Christians captive into the 19th century - made travel across the Mediterranean for any scholar seeking precious knowledge a potentially dangerous business.
It's a bit like those people who congratulate the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA and their Loyalist counterparts for their part in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland while ignoring the fact that if the paramilitaries hadn't carried out an unpeaceful process for decades beforehand a peace process wouldn't have been necessary.
"Scholars such as...Duns Scotus brought Averroes and therefore Aristotle to a Christian audience...Aquinas absorbed his style of argument and, while disagreeing about aspects of Aristotle, found the Andalusian a vital inspiration...These early Christian Aristotelians encountered just the same kind of resistance from popes and bishops as Averroes and Maimonides from caliphs and imans." (pg.201)

It is in the section dealing with absorption or non-absorption of Aristotle's body of work into medieval Islam and (Latin) Christendom where I think Mr Marr's history falls down very badly. This is a very important topic for the two civilizations reached a fork in the road and one took one path and one the other and that in part is why the West came from behind to pull level and then further and further ahead while the Islamic world lagged and lags further and further behind.
Aquinas was influenced by Averroes - whom he referred to as "the Commentator", just as he referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher" - but he differed significantly from Averroes's Christian followers - who, it should be said in fairness, held views somewhat different from those of Averroes himself. One of Aquinas's works is titled On the Unity of Intellect, against the Averroists.
More importantly Mr Marr gives a misleading impression in the above passage. Yes the early Christian Aristotelians did encounter resistance (though, unlike Averroes, Aquinas was never forced into exile) but - and this is the key point, a point that Mr Marr doesn't make, never mind make clear - Latin Christendom not merely accepted and absorbed Christian Aristotelianism it endorsed it (to the point where Galileo would get in trouble for challenging Aristotelian orthodoxy).
As Peter Watson put it in Ideas: a history of thought and invention from fire to Freud - "Before Aquinas the world had neither meaning nor pattern except in relation to God...In Christianising Aristotle, Aquinas eventually succeeded in Aristotelianising Christianity. A secular way of thinking was introduced into the world, which would eventually change man's understanding for all time."
Avicenna and Averroes did not succeed in Aristotelianising Islam, with consequences that are with us to this day. Ibn Khaldun - to whom Mr Marr makes a passing reference as "another Arab historian", which is a bit like referring to Shakespeare as "another English writer" - wrote The Muqaddimah in 1377. Has the Islamic world made a comparable contribution to the intellectual advancement of humankind since then?
A possible insight into Marr's mind-set occurs on page 255 we are told that "the Spanish monarchs ...destroyed the last Muslim foothold in Europe...Granada." Does he not think that the Balkans, most of which was under Ottoman rule in 1492, is part of Europe? Or is it that he is so conditioned to think about the "good" Muslim rule in Europe i.e. in Iberia that he just blotted out the not-so-good rule in the Balkans?
I accept that any such work will have to skip over vast amounts of material but the really important points should be covered. Here is my second major criticism.
To my mind a serious omission has to do with his coverage - or lack thereof - of medieval Europe - apart from comparing it unfavourably to medieval Islam. Now in covering world history a presenter/writer has to strike a balance between different times and different regions/civilizations. Given the amount of coverage that the West will have to be given, particularly post-Industrial Revolution plus the coverage that should be given to ancient Greece, the Age of Exploration, the Scientific Revolution, the (re)birth of democracy etc it makes sense to leave coverage of other areas of Western history to the bare minimum to allow time to cover other civilizations.
However I believe that certain things that should have been covered weren't.
If I may quote from The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe,

"Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other...portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries. Since 1500 our civilization has not had to endure any upheaval remotely comparable with the shattering and rebirth which accompanied... the Dark Ages between 400 and 900... therefore, it has not seen any flowering of new ways of life and attitudes as fundamentally novel as those which grew up around the cathedrals and universities, the royal courts and the commercial cities in the centuries between 900 and 1500.
Most Europeans live in towns...which existed in the lifetime of...Aquinas... The modern nation state grew out of the monarchies created by kings such as Philip Augustus of France and John of England. Democratic forms of government are based on the systems of representation and consent evolved in thirteenth-century parliaments. The idea of popular sovereignty emerges first in the writings of a fourteenth-century scholastic, Marsilius of Padua, who knew the communes of contemporary Italy. Our methods of commerce and banking are derived from the practices of the Florentine Peruzzi and Medici. Students work for degrees already awarded in the medieval universities...in courses which have gradually evolved out of those followed in the medieval faculties of arts. Our books of history and our novels are lineal descendants of the works of...Bruni and...Boccaccio. Our troubled sense of the distinction between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of religion and morals derives from the dualism of Aquinas's thirteenth century when popes and universities confronted kings and parliaments and the scholastics struggled to reconcile Aristotle and the Bible."

And from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror,

"While political power centralized during the 12th and 13th centuries, the energies and talents of Europe were gathering in one of civilization's great bursts of development. Stimulated by commerce, a surge took place in art, technology, building, learning, exploration...universities, cities, banking and credit...Those 200 years were the High Middle Ages, a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and treadle loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo travelled to China and...Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established ...when Giotto painted human feeling, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design for human fate...a period when religion was expressed in...the gentle preaching of St. Francis and in the cruelty of the Inquisition, when the Albigensian Crusade ...drenched southern France in blood... while the soaring cathedrals rose arch upon arch, triumphs of creativity, technology, and faith.
They were not built by slave labor. Though limited serfdom existed, the rights of serfs were fixed...and the work of medieval society...was done by its own members."

And what of this does Mr Marr cover? We get told the tale of the tale-teller Marco Polo, a more interesting tale than that of "the mother of machines" or how Aquinas married Aristotle to Catholicism. But not a more important one.
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on 5 December 2012
I really like Andrew Marr's take on politics. His style is easy going an interesting.
It's such a pity that Amazon sells his books but pays so little tax. I'm sure a political commentator like Marr would have something interesting to say about this!
I have bought this book for my dad for Christmas - but not from Amazon. I shan't be giving any more of my hard earned money to a company that does not contribute fairly to my country! Why don't you join me - and hundreds of others?
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on 6 July 2013
As Marr himself admits, no book, no matter whether it's titled A History of the World or not, can ever succeed in comprehensively covering the entirety of history. So, as he explains in his introduction, he has chosen to focus on "big man" history: well-known individuals who are often, though not always, rulers. This seems on the face of it a rather traditionalist approach to history, a throwback to decades past where historians only seemed to talk about kings and queens. That kind of history has fallen out of favour in the past 30 years, replaced by an interest in social history, gender history, world theory, and phenomenology; the heretofore "untold" stories. So why is Marr writing about powerful individuals? Marr explains that, like it or not, a small number of people throughout history had greater agency than others, the ability to act to change the circumstances around them. He sees these individuals as important because they drove the great changes of history, and although much of the human past is marked by consistency and continuation, it is the changes that have made the biggest difference in our social evolution.

Marr divides human history into defined eras and then selectively talks about a handful of key "change-makers" in each era. Naturally this type of history leaves out a lot, but the examples Marr chooses are, he feels, demonstrative of the most important changes of their era. By picking out key figures and identifying patterns that emerge in history, Marr is able to bring together the whole and explain the significance of the patterns he draws out. It's left to the reader to decide whether the conclusions Marr draws are insightful or nonsensical.

In my opinion, some of what Marr presents to us in this book is a little dubious. For example, Marr suggests that humans had not even left Africa by the time of the Sumatra eruption c. 75,000 BCE, but Stephen Oppenheimer (ancient population geneticist), who Marr actually refers to, presents evidence that implies that was not the case. Marr also presents the view that homo sapiens was probably responsible for wiping out the Neanderthals and megafauna such as woolly mammoths etc. In fact this is still hotly debated, and many theories are put forwards as explanations for these extinctions, including climate change at the end of the Ice Age, which have interesting points of their own. Not to rubbish A History of the World, but it's worth keeping in mind that many of these questions are still up for debate. Marr uses Orlando Figes as a source about modern history in Russia at one point - awkward, given Figes' current state of disgrace after the debacle in which he was involved.

The above caveat aside, the whole work is smoothly written and very readable, I found it an enjoyable read, but it definitely comes under the category of popular history than serious academic work.
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on 17 October 2014

Andrew Marr A History of the World

It is, as Andrew Marr is the first to insist, a ludicrous undertaking. Professional and amateur historians will carp endlessly over this detail, that generalisation, this conclusion and the whole tenor and methodology of the book. And they will be right. But Marr's achievement remains impressive. Forget the National Curriculum, were every teenager in Britain to read A History of the World, we'd all be living in a more enlightened place. There would certainly be a surge in the numbers opting to read History at university. And standards of written English would markedly improve.

How strong is your grasp of the history of the last twenty thousand years? If it is shaky, you could do much worse than spend a month, or several, reading and re-reading this brave attempt to bring some clarity and coherence to everything that's happened to the human race. Of course Marr has his ideological blinkers: he's a human being. His fiercest critic will have his own set of prejudices and blindspots. Any attempt to sketch the larger picture will sacrifice accuracy and balance for a sharp outline, a direction of travel.

Marr believes, all things considered, that liberal capitalism is a triumph over the dark forces, that the world is moving towards the light. He does not paint an uncritical picture of the process but, especially when it comes to the last century, the territory is so complex that in order to say anything, he is forced to simplify at the cost of plausibility and, frankly, intellectual honesty. Were Mao, Hitler and Stalin, for example, the pantomime villains that he presents, it's difficult to understand why they did not self-destruct at birth, impossible to imagine how they galvanised millions of men in the cause of nihilistic folly. Conversely, Marr is far too easy on the Americans. Perhaps because the sinister work continues, he is largely silent on the sins of capitalism: for example, the epidemics of ill health due to the tobacco, alcohol and junk food industries, the damage to the world's climate, the gross abuses of money-power, the mockery of democracy which is Washington politics. American foreign policy, in Viet Nam, Central and South America and the Middle East is left virtually unscrutinised. Forced to sup with one devil or another, Marr throws in his sceptical intelligence with the forces of money. A better book would have raised more questions than it answered.

But what an achievement this book is. I'm giving copies to everyone I know. Many will move from this introduction of so many rich and complex issues to more searching histories. Not least impressive, is Marr's expressive fluency. He may well be the last great stylist in English, thanks to years of journalistic training. His narrative is lucid and transparent, extraordinarily free of self-regard and self-indulgence. If his punctuation is eccentric and the book full of typos, those are faults to be laid at the door of the sloppy, presumably inebriated or illiterate, editor.

The reading of the whole book on CD is a wonderful companion on long journeys. David Timpson is no match for Marr himself (sadly, Marr reads the introduction only) but Timpson has impeccable delivery, intelligence and an engaging sense of direction.
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on 9 September 2013
Like "A History Of Modern Britain" (2007) by the same author, this large book (it is almost 600 pages) is based on a televsion series (it was broadcast in 2012) and, in both cases, I enjoyed the series before reading the book. Like the previous book, this one consists of a small number of long chapters (there are eight) broken up into a series of mini-essays of typically five or six pages. A history of the world from 70,000 years ago is clearly even more ambitious than a history of one nation over six decades and Marr could easily have overwhelmed the reader with dates & names and facts & figures, trying to cover as much as possible. Instead he is very selective and composes many of his mini-essays in the form of narratives or even stories, using "a kind of history-writing that is currently very unfashionable, the 'great man/great woman' school of history". Marr is a good writer and his approach works well. He shows considerable knowledge and insight, constantly makes cross-references to other historical periods or developments, and is not averse to making his opinions known on such horrors as slavery and colonialisation.

Part One covers the time from humankind's departure from Africa to the early Mediterranean civilisations. Marr describes the rise in agriculture along the great rivers - the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow River - before writing about the first European civilisation, the Minoans (around 3600-1160 BC) who, most scholars now believe, were not wiped out by a single cataclysm as previously assumed.

Part Two is what is called "The First Great Age of Empire" from the Assyrians to Alxexander the Great. Underlining that history is not a continuus line of progress, Marr writes that "Around 1000 BC some great disaster or string of disasters hit the eastern Mediterranean, causing a dramatic depopulation". But then we have the Phoenician invention of the alphabet, the development of monotheism by the Jews, and the first multicultural empire of Cyrus the Great, followed by a 200-year experiment with democracy in ancient Athens, followed by the creation of the great empire under the war leader Marr calls "Alexander the ...Quite Good". Meanwhile, over in the east, Buddhism and Confucianism emerged as a result of the teachings of Siddartha and Kongzi respectively.

Part Three covers from 300 BC to around AD 600 and the Classical Empires in China, India and Europe. As Marr explains: "By the time of Jesus's birth, around half the human beings alive on the planet lived under one of two great empires" - Imperial Rome and Han China. The third great empire, which embraced perhaps a quarter of the world's people, was that of Mauryan India. In the case of all these empires but the Roman Empire especially, war was a regular feature and Marr briefly speculates about how history would have been different had the Romans not won the Third Punic War against Carthage and notes that the Roman occupation of Gaul resulted in the disappearance of up to a third of the Gauls which he calls "a slaughter rate that rivals the worst butchers of the twentieth century". Meanhile, in "The Other Quarter", civilisations like the Nazca were emerging in the Americas that were several thousand years behind Eurasia in their development. Marr summarises the consolidation of Christianity throughout Europe and later the astonishingly rapid spread of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.

Part Four is what is characterised as "The Great Age of Islam" from AD 700 to 1480. While the population of the later Roman Empire was halved by the 'plague of Justian" (bubonic death) and then the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed between a third and half of all Europeans, for many centuries Europe became "a comparative backwater". In contrast, Islam enjoyed a Golden Age of science and discovery and China attracted the admiration of the likes of Marco Polo. On the other hand, Marr points out that during this period African slavery was widely practicised long before the arrival of European colonists and comments: "The Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without a strong previous tradition of slavery, as much part of Muslim history as the slave ships are of Christian history". This was also the age of the Mongol invaders and Marr highlights that: "In just twenty-five years, Genghis Khan conquered more of the earth's surface than the Romans managed in four centuries, creating (however briefly) the biggest land empire in history".

Part Five covers the period 1492-1640 when "Europe erupts in all directions, while the rest of the world struggles on". New ships and global trade led to the Europeans taking over more and more of the rest of the world. Marr is clear than 1492 did not represent the 'discovery' of America but "an invasion" and points out that "The arrival of Europeans, from the viewpoint of its orginal inhabitants, was one of the greatest disasters in history", as the population of the Americas - originally on a par with that of Europe - was reduced by up to 95% by a range of diseases brought by the Europeans. Meanwhile Europe itself was convulsed by the religious arguments and wars of the Reformation led by Martin Luther and other dissenters. This was a time when Russia was taking on the size of modern times, led by the infamous Ivan the Terrible, and European mercantile expansion was started by the Portuguese and Spanish and then followed by the Dutch and English.

Part Six runs from 1609-1796, the time of Englightenment and revolution. The period started with the age of absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV who ruled France for 72 years and Peter the Great who ruled Russia for 43 years, but a new type of constitutional monarchy later developed, led by the 'Glorious Revolution' in Britain in 1688 which Marr insists was actually an invasion by the Dutch. India had its own convulsions with noted leaders like Babur, Ashoka, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb who eventually ruled almost a quarter of the world's people. Over in the Americas, the Thirteen Colonies protested about a tax on tea before winning a war of independence. Down under, the first convict ships arrived in Australia - a journey from Britain of 36 weeks. Then the French Revolution descended into 'the reign of terror' before the arrival of the Napoleonic Empire - "a military dictatorship that would drown half of Europe in blood while choking the other half with gunpowder smoke". More widely, this was the time of the Atlantic slave trade, begun by the Portguese and embraced by the British and others in an atrocity that spanned nearly four centuries and involved an estimated 12.4 million Africans.

Part Seven covers 1800-1918 and the rise of capitalism. Britain was the first nation in the world to have an industrial revolution and Marr suggests that it was not just because the country had large deposits of coal and iron but also due to its market system and inventors. He highlights the resultant growth in the English population: a doubling from 1780 to 1830. But he also draws attention to the human cost: almost a quarter of Victorian Britons died from lung diseases caused by air pollution. Elsewhere there were revolutions of a different kind: 1848 saw political revolutions throughout the Hapsburg Empire as well as in smaller countries like Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, while in 1856 Czar Alexander II freed the serfs who constituted more than a third of Russians. Over in the United States, the Civil War resulted in some 620,000 soldiers dead, almost as many as the number of Americans killed in every other war fought by that nation. Marr likes to personalise history and he picks out the fateful role of the Prussian bureaucrat Arthur Zimmerman whom he dubbs "the most destructive man of his generation", since Zimmerman was responsible for drawing the United States into the First World War, which in turn led to the ruinous peace treaties that provoked the Second World War, as well as being a key player in the transportation of Lenin into Russia which resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution.

Part Eight is titled "Our Times" and talks us from 1918-2012. Marr notes that the Second World War is seen by some historians "as the second half of a single conflict". It was a conflict that killed perhaps around 70 million people - twice as many of them civilians as soldiers. He quotes the historian Timothy Snyder who has described 'the bloodlands' from central Poland to western Russia where, between 1933-1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people, none of whom was a solider on active duty. Later Comminist China suffered under Mao Zedong, "the greatest killer in human history". Inevitably Marr covers the Cold War and the more recent Iraq and Afghan wars ("battlefield successes but strategic failures"), but he also describes such positive developments as the decolonisation of much of Asia and Africa, the creation of the European Union, the economic transformation of China, and the impact of fertilisers, birth control, computers and the Internet.

At one point in his impressive book, Marr asks whether it is unhistorical to compare Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin and asserts: "Once old authority - however intolerable, deaf to change, sclerotic and contemptible - has been toppled, there is rarely a new order waiting politely in the wings, more rational, more humane, more forward-looking". Such an observation is just as applicable to today's world, whether we are talking about the collapse of Communism in Russia, the 'Arab Spring' in North Africa, or the civil war in Syria. He makes the all-important point that "Democracy, it turns out, is not a system. It is a culture."
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on 28 March 2015
This is a rather idiosyncratic but very useful history. If you want something much more comprehensive, try Roberts' Penguin History of the World. Marr's world history does some odd things and you will find some famous brutes like Stalin and Tamerlane only appearing where they have relevance to something else the author is interested in. Alexander, Jesus and Lenin get succinct little snapshots, likewise Caesar, Hitler and Gorbachev. However, it is this selectivity that is the making of this book: Marr is interested in explaining why things happened, cause and effect. So long as you don't mind much coverage of your own particular preoccupation (I note a lot of other critics arguing about Islam), you will be well served by this book. For a particularly remarkable chapter, I would suggest the third, 'The Sword and the Word', particularly the influence of the Jews and the realities of Caesarism.

Throughout the book, Marr keeps an eye on our troubled present. He tries hard to ensure that we do learn some historical lessons which may serve us. While not covering much of the lives of ordinary people, he does at times acknowledge their timeless efforts, especially when considering prehistorical development. While he promotes a 'great man' style of history, he is careful to place them in their context, realising that in another set of circumstances, this and that great person would be unlikely to have emerged. He does not ignore the ebb and flow of determining factors.

Some applause and brickbats. The photographs are excellent and not the usual fare. During his coverage of the Stone Age, he does get rather boring when he discusses artefacts as symbols of the level of civilisation; I got heartily sick of the litany of vases and jewellery. At times, dates and dynasties get confused, especially dealing with Chinese dynasties. At times, the proofreader seems to have fallen asleep. Interesting coverage of Deng Xiaoping.
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on 19 October 2012
I really enjoyed this. Yes, only a page and a half on the Russian Revolution, but what do you expect in an 800 page history of the World? There are plenty of histories of that event if you want them. And the revolution is only (crucially) important for us from the perspective of the last 100 years or so, not the tens of centuries that preceded it (!). I think this is a great book to put in the hands of a young person to give them an overall perspective of World history. Looking at some of the signifant events, and hopefully sparking interest to find out more.
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