George Orwell has a story that when Sir Walter Raleigh published the first volume of his projected history of the world while in prison, he witnessed a brawl outside his rooms in the Bloody Tower which resulted in the death of a workman. Despite diligent enquiries, Raleigh was unable to discover the cause of the quarrel. Reasoning that if he could not even ascertain the facts behind what he had observed he could hardly accurately report what had happened in distant lands centuries earlier, he burned his notes for the second volume and abandoned the entire project.
No such doubts assail the 79-year-old Conrad Black, sometime proprietor of The Spectator, who, like Raleigh, has written the first of a projected three-volume global history. The book embraces those civilisations and empires of which there exist written or archaeological records from Old Testament times until the death of the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
Even eschewing (as Black does) social and cultural aspects in favour of political and military history, this is a vast undertaking. Any reader approaching this massive, closely printed volume must admire Black’s energy, erudition and ambition. Small wonder, then, that his historian friends including Andrew Roberts, Victor Davis Hanson and the late Henry Kissinger have heaped praise on him, even hailing him as the new Edward Gibbon. Black has certainly produced ‘another damn thick, square book’, as the Duke of Gloucester called the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on its publication in 1781, but it is a very readable one.
Also like Gibbon, Black is not shy about inserting his opinions into his narrative. A proponent of the deeply unfashionable ‘great man’ view of history (apart from Cleopatra, very few women intrude on these pages); his heroes – Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Julius Caesar – are the real movers and shakers of the world, rather than impersonal socio-economic forces.