A History of the World by Andrew Marr

It was at the end of 2012 that I watched a BBC TV series entitled, ‘A History of the World’. These are rough notes I made based on the suggestions in the book that accompanied the BBC series. What I have read since suggests that this gives a reasonable picture of how Homo Sapiens may have moved across the world from Africa.

  • The last hunter gatherers were found in 1998!
  • 70,000 years of history starting in Africa – Homo Sapiens.
  • Climate changes – Volcanoes – Ice Ages – new challenges.
  • Maybe only about 1000 people moving NE across Africa – language – working together to stay alive – other tribes made the same journey – human DNA – only one tribe left a lasting legacy?
  • Island hopping to Arabia and the Red Sea around 65,000 years ago.
  • Almost all of us are related to one woman in that tribe? They slowly colonised the rest of the planet – India – East Asia – some reached Australia 50,000 years ago?
  • First crossed the land bridge between Asia and America about 15,000 years ago – then quickly through to S America?
  • From Middle East another branch headed NW into Europe about 45,000 years ago – where the Neanderthal had been living for some 250,000 years. Maybe they co-existed for between 5,000 10,000 years – maybe they were eaten – extinct 30,000 years ago.
  • Significant climate change?
  • Bone needles found from 17,000 years ago – clothes that fit – in layers – able to hunt further!
  • French Pyrennes (S of France) – hand-prints 27,000 years ago (also in S Africa, N America, Argentina and Australia).
  • River Tigris – Land of the Rivers – fertile – wild plants – planting crops – some seed saved – plant and wait (about 13,000 years ago) – foragers became farmers – bigger seeds = bigger plants.
  • Three grasses as the bedrock of the human diet – wheat, rice and corn (also found in China, India and S America).
  • When they settled down life got harder – farmers became smaller and died younger than hunter gatherers. Labour in the fields led to arthritis – a diet of sticky porridge gave tooth decay – trapped by their own population explosion (hunter gatherers had to carry their own children with them).
  • The next step – towns – ancestor worship – a network of houses like a beehive (Turkey) – the walls had been whitewashed some 400 times – no temples – just families for some 1400 years?
  • Problem of diseases – TB passed from cattle to humans about this time? Smallpox, flu and measles first came from farm animals?
  • A great flood about 4,000 years ago – including China (part myth, part history?) – 9 years of heavy rain – the Yellow River flooded an area greater than the UK.
  • Natural disasters brought river dwelling people together.
  • Chinese history begins on the banks of the Yellow River.
  • Egypt – writing in the Valley of the Kings about 5000 years ago.
  • The Nile flows N and the winds blow S. A lush green corridor – writing on pottery and limestone – thousands of items – packed with so much – each community had its own courts – the development of law and order.
  • All around the Mediterranean things were changing – trade and the battle with nature!
  • Crete – Minoans – the first civilisation in Europe – very stylish – about 3700 years ago – international trade – Knossos (excavated early 1900’s) – sophisticated frescos, women had high status, plumbing. In 1979 evidence of human sacrifice – fear of natural forces – appeasement?
  • Then nature struck again!
  • Age of Empire – with the development of civilizations came vicious civil wars that pushed the human story forward – conquer, burn and enslave . . . new rules on how to live and flourish!
  • Nineveh – Sennacherib king of Assyria – an empire building maniac – the king of Judah rebelled in 701BC – a siege ramp of 25,000 tons of earth – ruthless and pitiless! The palace of Nineveh with its carvings. The scratchings of the sailors he had terrorised – the Phonetician traders who had the alphabet – symbols for sounds = words – they were doing deals in many different languages – the Greeks adapted it – the Romans adopted it (Latin).
  • The next empire was the Persians under Cyrus – he listened to the people he conquered. The Lydians had great wealth – they refined gold coins of a reliable weight and purity. Sardis overrun in 547BC. Eight years later Babylon was overrun and the enslaved Hebrews were set free. Cyrus paid for the rebuilding of the Temple (including the Wailing Wall) – the only Gentile to ever have the title of Messiah. A long catalog of butchery and burning.
  • The Jews believed in one God – why? They were able to write it all down.
  • Isaiah – ‘there is no God but me’ – no God formed before or after me. Without war and exile monotheism may never have happened.
  • India – similar time – the meaning of life? – compassion, tolerance and non-violence – 5th century BC – massive social change based on iron – ploughing – forests torn down – towns appearing – vicious little wars – a hunger for new ideas – Caste system – Siddharta – sickened by an easy life – abandoned family and went searching – face to face with poverty, pain and illness – wandered for six years but holy men didn’t have the answers he was looking for – almost suicidal fasting. To discover passion, wisdom and insight he needed to meditate – he sat under a tree and waited – he let go of the world’s distractions – his mind became clearer – a state of inner peace – spiritual liberation – enlightenment – 49 days and nights – the Buddha – the awakened one – a temple next to where the tree was – small and quiet – how do we know? – group chanting – so that things not distorted or forgotten – oral history – turned inward – no hierarchy – no aggression – open to everybody – an unpolitical reply to an unfair and painful world.
  • In a corner of Europe about the same time politics became central – in Greece – how shall we live together? In Athens they had had enough of the tyrant of the day and threw him out – the first democratic revolution was at the Acropolis. All males had complete freedom of speech in public and they could vote on almost everything – DEMOS (people) KRATOS (power) – the rule of the people – democracy – 6000 Athenian citizens who would sit and listen to arguments. Greek democracy excluded women and slaves – a slave owning society – the Athenians just sat and listened and chose? But the a life and death struggle with the Persians. The armies met at Marathon in 490BC – the most important battle in the ancient world – a free citizen army against a despot – that still influences how we think today.
  • They were overwhelmed by at least 2 to 1 but the Greeks did not surrender – they attacked with a pincer movement – 6000 Persians died and 200 Greeks (buried on the battlefield under a modest mound that is still there) – so unlike monuments raised to tyrants! The Persians returned to their ships and set sail for Athens – the exhausted Athenians had to race back – the 26 mile run – the Persians turned tail. The Parthenon as an offering of thanks! If the Persians had won Greek culture would just be a footnote. There was an outpouring of confidence and cultural brilliance – a golden age!
  • At a similar time in the East – 500BC – China was at risk of fragmenting into small rival states(?) – Confucius – a bureaucrat who liked his food and drink – one of the old school who yearned for the stability of the past – standards were slipping – no respect – 3000 different rules of culture? – an essential moral crusade – a campaign of reform – he left the court in his mid 50’s sure he was a failure – he walked out to change China – encouraging ancient rules of good behaviour – respect – he died aged 72 – his followers wrote down his sayings – the Analects – a cult developed that was eventually embraced by the rulers of China – teachings that were drilled into generation after generation of civil servants – an incredibly efficient and just bureaucracy – 2400 years later Confucian ideas still endure (morality and good conduct are still important lessons).
  • But in the Mediterranean there was the opposite – a clash of rival civilisations. Alexander was born in 356BC – brought up on stories from the Trojan wars – a child of the Greek golden age – taught by Aristotle intensively for three years – entranced by stories of the Persians – especially Cyrus the Great. His father told him to ‘seek out a kingdom worthy of yourself – Macedonia is too small for you’. He became king at 20 after his father was assassinated – marched through Turkey into the Middle east, Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan and the borders of India. War and conquest – 70 Greek style towns across N Africa and Asia. Greek became the new common language. Alexander was fascinated by the people he conquered (like Cyrus) – ideas of a multicultural empire – mingling Macedonian Greek customs with Persian customs – started wearing Persian clothes and Persian royal crown and making people prostrate themselves in front of him in the Asian manner. His Macedonian generals became outraged at his increasing foreign habits. He married two Asian princesses and applied the same logic to his troops – mass weddings – way down – hoping children would become rulers for his new empire – a literal marriage of East and West – a new warrior people? But within a year of the mass wedding aged 32 he was poisoned or died of typhoid.
  • The empire was divided up between feuding successors – the spread of Greek language and culture continued – gradually shaping the culture of the West.
  • War however horrible is one of the great change makers.
  • 400BC – Athens was not a happy place – wars had drained away its wealth – social conflict (as today?) – the voice of poorer citizens had been suppressed. Socrates was a contemptuous critic – the father of philosophy – seen as a dangerous influence to this embattled democracy – ‘question everything! Political leaders lacked virtue – some folk were too stupid to choose well. Some of his students would later turn against democracy – turning tyrants themselves. Alexander had swept away all remnants of Greek democracy.
  • How does an open society deal genuinely with subversive critics? Socrates was challenging the Athenian democrats to come up with answers. When do you give up censorship? – repression? Authorities had had enough by 399BC!
  • The difference between Confucius and Socrates still haunt the modern world!
  • Some questions are too dangerous to ask!
  • When you feel your own liberties are challenged do you lock them up or shut them up? There are no answers!
  • Ashoka – 304-232BC – one of India’s greatest emperors – ruled most of the continent. As the victor he stood among the corpses and didn’t feel triumph – the only victor remembered for his remorse? He gradually turned to Buddhism – striving to understand and improve life here on earth. He transformed empire – outlawed slavery – schools – wells – trees for shade.
  • The story had been lost until messages were decoded in the 1800’s.
  • Almost pushed out of India by more aggressive religions. Ashoka was a great inspiration in modern India – a symbol of tolerance and pride – an inspiration to Ghandi.
  • China – 3rd century BC – a cauldron of warring states – the first Emperor of China in 221BC ruthless unification of 50 million people? Old cities were wiped from the planet – vast armies – the Great Wall started in 220BC – the first single system of writing for all of China.
  • Also an interest in the spirit life – ‘if I go I’m going to take it all with me’ – an underground mausoleum built by 700,000 slaves – the Terracotta Army (found in 1974) covering 22 sq miles.
  • Legalism – law and order. The Emperor despised Confucius’ humanity – the great burning of the books in 213BC. A year later 460 scholars found in possession of banned writings – all were buried alive – but the legacy lives on. The Emperor given an elixir to live for ever that contained mercury?
  • He gave the Chinese a sense of themselves – a single country – a single leader – a genuine earth shaper!
  • At this time half the world lived in one of two great empires – China (57 million) and India (45 million) – they both thought they ruled the world. Both were great engineering cultures – their armies were equally deadly – but separated by 4,500 miles!
  • 48BC – Egypt – Julius Caesar – slaughtered 1 million. Under the Greeks it was still a storehouse of ancient learning – science – but it was weak and deep in debt. Alexandria was considered the greatest city on earth – 700,000 volumes – so much wisdom – a centre for the study of everything. Cleopatra spoke nine languages – author – trained in philosophy and the sciences – a ruthless survivor – struggle with little brother Ptolemy – she needed Caesar – she had one night to win him over. Next morning when brother broke in they were together – she was back on the throne – at 21 sole ruler of Egypt and pregnant with Caesar’s son – a potential leader of both Egyptian and Roman worlds!
  • Caesar decided to become a god – painted face red – back to Rome – Jupiter Julius – the living god! Rome had rejected the rule of kings some 500 years before – Caesar’s bid to be a god would be his undoing – when declared dictator in perpetuity some senators trapped and killed him (the last stab said to have been by his friend Brutus – March 15th 44BC. The empire was torn apart by civil war for 14 years. Cleopatra on the losing side – too dangerous to be allowed to survive – as she died so did Egypt – just another Roman province! Every one of Caesar’s successors was worshipped as a divine emperor.
  • Rome was dominated by the super rich with corruption and emperors playing at being god – divinity had been corrupted by political power – it was ripe for spiritual revolution.
  • It started on the edge of the empire in 36AD
  • Saul had been supplying tents to the Roman army – a Roman citizen and a devout Jew. He had watched the stoning of Stephen (the first Christian martyr) who had said that Jesus was the son of God – intolerable blasphemy.
  • But Saul had a change of heart – he was hunting Christians in Damascus – when according to the Bible he was struck down by the voice of Jesus – blind for three days – Annanias – the scales fell.
  • Paul tried carrying the news not simply to Jews but to Greeks, Romans and Egyptians – anyone who would listen – one God and one set of rules for everyone on the earth! He started South into the Arabian desert and convinced thousands that Jesus had come to save everyone.
  • There are some 15 million Jews today and about 2 billion Christians?
  • Perpetua’s dream – Carthage 203AD – the woman who would not renounce her beliefs – a victory over death – cult of martyrdom – a victory for faith – the promise of heaven attracted many – within 100 years it had spread across the empire.
  • 337AD – Constantine – a political assassin announced his conversion – Christianity would never be the same again – Christianity became a fighting religion – like Perpetua they had been pacifists – but the cross became a sword! This was a pragmatic, shrewd response by Rome – they assimilated even this revolutionary cult and made it Roman. Should we admire it or despise it? A merger that became a basic foundation of the Western world.
  • Other cultures around the world were still trying to appease nature.
  • 535-536AD – the year without sunshine – a catastrophic year – crop failures – Rome, India and Chine just shivered, but it was catastrophic for the Nazca culture on the Pacific coast in Peru – incredible ‘lines’ between 200 and 600AD from hundreds to thousands of metres in length – many only understood from the air as if drawn for gods to see – pyramids – holy city – skulls shaped as kids – buying off the gods? – victims were their own people – sudden increase in sacrifices – lack of water – irrigation – trees torn down – its deep roots were important.
  • History is littered with civilisations that didn’t last.
  • Mecca – 620AD – Islam – Bilal an emancipated slave from Ethiopia – a companion of Muhammed – dragged into the desert and laid out in the burning hot sand – he refused to submit – God is great!
  • Violence couldn’t stop spiritual rebellion – it failed in Rome and in Arabia – news soon spread and Bilal’s freedom was bought. Tribal chiefs drove them out of Mecca and the Muslims fled to Medina – he had a good voice and was the first to call them to prayer?
  • There was one victory after another across the Arabian Peninsula – spiritual and military struggle was bound together – invasion became a religious duty – one language – Islam exploded – within 120 years of Muhammad’s death they had spread from Central Asia to Spain – bigger than the Roman empire – now 1½ billion obey the call to prayer – a tradition begun by Bilal.
  • The power of the sword and the power of the spirit are both strong – together they represent a fearsome force.
  • Europe’s rise from the Dark Ages:
  • Europe had been outclassed by Chinese and Muslim civilisations, but profited from the misfortune of others. There was explosive brutality far away – oriental inventions – titanic sieges!
  • Civilisations aren’t just shaped at the centre but on the edges and empty spaces when something unexpected happens. After the fall of Rome in 5th century Europe huddled – optimism froze – learning was forgotten.
  • From the edges the Vikings were colonising Britain, Iceland, France and greenland – evenm reached N America. Then headed deep into the heartlands of E Europe.
  • The powers of Islam were mining silver in Afghanistan.
  • The Europeans saw the Vikings as marauders without mercy – the fury of the Norsemen! They had a talent for settling down. They arrived in Kiev in the Ukraine in 882AD. There was a labrynth of cells and underground churches – last resting place for mummified monks. Early in 1oth century some of the monks wrote what became known as the Russian Primary Chronicle.
  • There was a stranglehold on all trade running N and S – furs and slaves went S while silver went N.
  • At the mouth of the Kneiper was the Black Sea – entrance to Constantinople – the greatest city in Europe – a source of trade and ideas – also home to the Greek Orthodox Church.
  • Kiev was still as pagan as its Viking founders – the ruler Vladimir the Great was a fornicator. He needed a new religion and invited the four main religions to convince him. No way was he going to give up alcohol – he chose Greek orthodox – the first stone church with onion domes. What started with trading in furs and silver resulted in a new culture, architecture and religion.
  • By 10th century Europe had an Eastern Christian border drawn by Vikings that has lasted to the present day.
  • Inside the border – unsophisticated – so much developing under Islam such as accurately measuring the circumference of the earth – to show the huge extent of the Islamic empire. This had been commanded by the Kalif of Baghdad in 827AD.
  • Islam had 30 million – bigger than the Roman empire – Pakistan to Spain – a vigourous young Islam trying to bring it all together – science and maths – Islam’s golden age!
  • Christian Europe was surrounded by Islam
  • Cordova in N Spain – vast libraries compared to a few hundred Christian books – the place where East met West and where ideas were exchanged!
  • The future wasn’t scientific and Muslim because of another story from the edge.
  • Temujin (born 1162?) who later (in 1206) took the title ‘Genghis Khan’ united the tribes of the Steppes and offered them unity and a share in the spoils of future wars. He expanded beyond Mongolia and in 6 years swept across N China – ransacked Beijing giving Mongols weapons they had never seen – awesome new technology – battering rams – scaling ladders, monster size crossbows, catapults that could launch fire bombs. He then turned W to face the forces of Islam, and in the Spring of 1220 reached an Eastern outpost. A siege lasted 15 days – scorched into submission – no mercy – first pick of captured women. One by one the Muslim cities were annihilated. By 1223 the destruction of the empire in Central Asia was complete – in 20 years it spread almost to the gates of Vienna.
  • In 2003 scientists found a specific genetic marker in men in Europe and Asia that originated a little less than 1000 years ago suspiciously close to a Mongol empire – 16 million men alive today really did spread from the loins of Genghis Khan.
  • Genghis Khan left the chance for Christian Europe to grow. Trade flourished between East and West in the century after Genghis Khan died – an era of peace – Pax Mongolica.
  • The Silk Road – opened to outsiders – it set the imagination of Europe aflame – the smell and taste of the East! In Genoa in 1298 two political prisoners share a cell – Rusticelo of Pisa – a writer – and a talkative Venetian with a fabulous story! Marco Polo had found his perfect ghost writer. Venice was becoming the essential hub between Europe and the rest of the world. Its prosperity built on ruthless commercial attitudes and an enormous navy – its own shipyards – Arsenali.
  • Best deals by looking East. A huge trade network dominated by the Muslim world – not just slaves but timber, fur, salt and incredibly valuable spices.
  • Marco Polo had dreamed from an early age of following the Silk Road and in 1271 aged 17 set out for the East from Venice with his father bearing greetings from Pope Gregory 10th – the most powerful man in Europe. The trek took more than three years and reached the court of Kubli Khan in 1275 – an earthly paradise – a flow of ideas – fascinated by visitors and message from the Pope – briefly considered turning Christian. Invited to tour – money made of paper – astonishing things – burning of black stone for fuel – eating snakes and dogs – but no mention of chop sticks or the Great Wall. He returned after 24 years. He dictated himself into history. In 1298 copies began to circulate as Marco Polo’s description of the world – fabulous wealth and opportunity beyond Europe.
  • Seven years after Marco Polo’s death the Black Plague started killing people in China in huge numbers – spread into the Mediterranean probably from ships. Across Europe bustling markets became ghost towns – literacy retreated and authority tottered. Europe was too weak to respond – the stand off between the two great religions would go on – but trade continued especially between Venice and Cairo.
  • July 1324 – 60,000 soldiers and 500 slaves carrying sceptres of gold – led by an African king Mansa Musa on a pilgrimage to Mecca – 2000 miles from Mali in a year – three month stay – welcomed by ruler – handing out gold to astonished residents.
  • Cairo at the time was the world’s largest gold market – he had so much that the price of gold plummeted – the economy of Cairo took ten years to recover.

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