World history

Are all great civilisations doomed?

To quote Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, ‘We’re doomed, doomed!’ That seems to be the message of Paul Cooper’s eminently readable series of essays about how and why 14 civilisations rose to greatness and then collapsed. He begins with the Sumerians in the fourth millennium BC, at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, and he finishes with Easter Island in the 18th century. He then concludes with dark prophecies about how a few centuries from now an overheated planet will look in a simpler post-industrial age. The style is informal, based on a series of popular podcasts, and one can almost hear the spoken word as one reads. Yet

Conrad Black adheres firmly to the ‘great man’ view of history

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,

Learned necromancers and lascivious witches: magic and misogyny through the ages

Curses, conjurations, magic circles, incantations, abracadabra, gobbledygook… Why would any serious historian want to write a history of magic books?  Owen Davies issues a robust defence: magic is as old as human history, while a study of grimoires is a study of the book itself and its changing format over time. Through the lens of the grimoire (a book of magic spells and invocations), the parallel histories of religion and science are shown in an eerie new light. Perennial human desires, anxieties and aspirations for love, money and protection from harm bring people of the far past close to anyone today who reads a newspaper horoscope or consults the Tarot.

The emperor as ruler of heaven and Earth

Geography, climate, economics and nationalism are often seen as decisive forces in history. In this dynamic, original and convincing book Dominic Lieven considers emperors and their dynasties as motors of events. Defying constrictions of time and space, ranging from Sargon of Akkad, the ruler of what is now northern Iraq (r. 2334-2279 BC), to the Emperor Hirohito of Japan (r. 1926-89), he believes that ‘for millennia, hereditary sacred monarchy had been the most desirable and successful form of polity on Earth’. (Inhabitants of city states, from Athens to Venice, might not have agreed.) Emperors could create and extend states more easily than impersonal forces, as Lieven shows in chapters on

Pink for boys, blue for girls and a worldwide mania for mauve

It would seem, if recent publications are anything to go by, that we have an insatiable appetite for this subject. A quick search of books on colour throws up six titles in just the past three years, a further half dozen published as a set in February this year, another volume in a series by the Sorbonne academic Michel Pastoureau and now these two. For James Fox, Cambridge academic and television art historian, a fascination with colour came when, as a six-year-old, he saw a squashed iridescent insect, and one gets the feeling that this book has been quietly simmering at the back of his mind ever since. ‘Read it,