'The World. A Family History' by Simon Sebag Montefiore (published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
Specialist historians have praised this 1,270-page account of the rising, failings and fallings of notable families throughout history. For the historically naïve reader, the relentless succession of names, events and their interrelationships will tend to overwhelm, as will the voluminous footnotes.
Unsurprisingly, linear sequence writing cannot covey, even if they could be remembered, the complexity of events and personalities described. Genealogy charts were not included, no doubt because historical family trees often intertwined when speculative overlaps consequent to incest and uncertain paternities were involved. Readers will also require a dictionary (what is to manumit? What are odalisques, coffies, epigones and hetmen?).
This book is a terrifying read. Many personalities and events described were appalling. Battles, slaughters and slavery were frequent. Successful leaders of large groups almost routinely transmogrified into rulers who had to be ruthlessly authoritarian and who often regarded killings as necessary to retain their status. Rulers often made rules for others but failed to measure up to these rules.
Males could ensure persistence of their family lines by having multiple wives or concubines, incest, or by limiting competitors. One ruler was asked 'How many children have you had, approximately?' Families could enhance their power or avoid conflicts by marrying off children to potential rivals. Minor non-lethal 'pre-emptive limitations' of rivals included blindings, teeth extractions and tongue excisions. Major limitations included use of every conceivable genital mutilation so that conception was inconceivable.
Eunuchs were often employed in harems (employed in most cases would be a euphemism for slavery). Suicides were often a way of avoiding painful deaths. Perhaps the 'intercourse drive' of our species was selected so that sufficient surviving offspring were produced to allow the family line to survive high infant and maternal mortality rates and impacts of natural diseases.
Politically-motivated assassinations of rivals were not unusual. Some eliminations, like beheadings, were probably pain free. Painful eliminations warned off potential competitors. Executions by various religions or version of religions were often just as brutal.
Predictably, the most likely rivals to rulers were close relatives or associates and, logically, eliminations of fathers, mothers and sons (often there were many spares) occurred. Primogeniture, in which usually the first-born son automatically succeeded his deceased father, avoided fratricidal competition.
Battles killed hundreds of millions. Examples of high mortality battles almost literally scream out of each page. Some examples. The Athenian Darius 'King of Kings' reigned from 552-486 BC and defeated opponents were skinned, stuffed, crucified or rectally impaled. Hadrian (76-138) by 136 AD had killed 580,000 Jews and enslaved 97,000. Commodus (161-192) played 'practical jokes' blinding and dissecting people and, perhaps the first example of biowarfare, used needles dipped into smallpox sores as weapons. Alexander the Great (356-323) was responsible for 800,000-1.2m deaths. Genghis Khan (about 1162-1227) massacred millions – on one occasion 20,000 Mongol soldiers were each ordered to kill 24 conquered people. Tamerlane (1336-1405) was responsible for 17m deaths, give or take a few million. There were about 20m deaths in the First World War and 35-60m in the Second World War. Within living memory, Hitler was responsible for 17-19m deaths. For 'Polonium Putin', the current and possible future numbers of deaths are uncertain.
Marx got it wrong. The problem for humans is not capitalism exploiting 'the proletariat'. Rather, it is conflicts between elites of capitalists, political leaders, or rulers by inheritance and the proletariat who allow themselves to be ruled. Indeed, even when rulers blatantly lie to them. The majority of populations seem to require rulers even when they run the risk of being cannon fodder. 'Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do or die.' Perhaps death in battle was not so bad, especially if rulers had reassured combatants that history or God was on their side.
Success in battle offered opportunities to sexually abuse the conquered population. Evolution is not just survival of the fittest but also depends on the failure of others to survive and breed. Is this why rulers implement 'a failure of others to survive policy' and this may have favoured continual selection of small numbers of authoritarian rulers and large numbers of subservient populations? Some rulers undoubtedly had genetic successes and those (mostly young men killed in battle or slaughtered without the need for battles) did not breed thereafter. Some rulers were genetically very successful. DNA evidence suggest that millions of people were descended from a single Mongol ancestor, probably Genghis Khan. Similarly, on a lesser scale, almost every monarch in Europe up to 1918 was descended from Charlemagne (747 –814).
Most battles today are non-violent, being economic, involving espionage, computer hacking, disruption of energy supplies, or encouraging disrupters. Non-battle slaughters have been a recurrent theme. Mao was responsible for 1.5m deaths during his Cultural Revolution and 35-45m during famines associated with his Great Leap Forward. Genocides are happening now.
Slavery was normal and found in all continents and racial groups, and was certainly not confined to the US. Mortality rates associated with slavery were high throughout history. Even ardent US Christians thought that slavery was not evil but a necessary good. Over the last 400 years, about 30m humans were enslaved, many dying prematurely on slave ships or by being worked or starved to death. Slavery was often marginally preferable to death.
Advice given to rulers rarely advocated benign measures. Savonarola (1452 – 1498) declared that Florence would be the New Jerusalem and richer, more powerful and more glorious than ever. He instituted an extreme puritanical campaign that illustrated how a small but determined clique of self-righteous, self-selected extremists could dominate a society. Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote The Prince
, an unpleasant but valuable manual for rulers.
In 2020, Michael Flynn, a retired US Army General advised President Trump (a moderate compared with historical rulers and even some previous US Presidents) to overturn the US election result, suspend the Constitution, silence the press, and hold a new election under military authority. Military leaders are rarely pacifist, and some enjoy waging war. So far MAD (the likelihood of Mutually Assured Destruction) has prevented nuclear exchanges. The mellifluous term 'Nuclear exchanges' is a euphemism for mass killings.
All this raises the questions: Why do some people, usually men, seek power? Why, almost without exception, do those who get power wish to retain it at all costs, even risking a Third World War? Why do empires need to expand? What goes on in the mind of rulers? Regrettably, few rulers leave accounts of their thoughts and motivations. Hitler was an exception and some of his 'master race thinking' is detailed in Mein Kampf
and should be a warning to us all.
Why were males dominant until recently? Why do normal people kill normal people? We are still hairy bipedal animals that have evolved via competition to be the apex predator, and this predation includes other humans. For humanity, killings on an industrial scale involving battles, slaughters and to a lesser extent slavery seem to be the rule rather than the exception and are arguably manifestations of the normal human condition. Unless there any new factors, we will repeat historical patterns.
New developments might give hope that human nature may be improved. Better communications? The internet provides instantly accessible information, interpretations of events and human behaviour, but it features as many negatives as positives and as many lies as truths. As Prince Harry has highlighted, personal truths may bear little relationships to facts.
Investigative journalism? A high-risk occupation in many societies. Journalists routinely uncover misdemeanours of rulers, not that rulers and ruling politicians seem to notice or care until they are exposed.
Contraception? With more women responsible for their contraception, they are more easily able to compete with males on a more even playing field. But not all women are more caring and humane than men.
Despite Trumpian claims to the contrary, the past was not great. Battles, slaughters, and to a lesser extent slavery, are still occurring. A possible theoretical solution is impartial education and instant uncensored information so that children – future adults – can gain insights to reverse the willingness of young adults worldwide to allow themselves to be used as primary aggressors in pursuit of theoretical aims of their leaders and rulers. Democracy and open societies by themselves will not be sufficient.
Philip D Welsby is a retired consultant physician