Andrew Marr’s Last Eight Minutes of the World
Two weeks ago, I posted a blog about episodes one and two of Andrew Marr’s History of the World. Last week, I forgot to watch the third episode but caught up with it on the BBC’s iPlayer during the week. Having now watched the fourth episode, as was just broadcast, I am going to comment here on both episode 3 and 4. First though, a quick recap… Despite the rather grandiose title for the series, it is a history of the World from the perspective of Homo sapiens only:
— Episode 1 – from 70 to 7 thousand years ago (i.e. up to the invention of agriculture and cities).
— Episode 2 – up to approximately 400 BC (i.e. the birth of democracy and the death of Socrates).
— Episode 3 – up to approximately 600 AD (i.e. the birth of Mohamed and the invention of Islam).
— Episode 4 – up to approximately 1500 AD (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper).
Therefore, if we were to represent the entire 4600 million years of the Earth history by one calendar year, the 70 thousand year history of Homo sapiens covered in this series of programmes would begin at 23:52 hrs on 31 December!
Having secured permission to make eight episodes of almost an hour in length, Andrew Marr apparently decided that this would give him sufficient time to tell no more than about 60 stories; and so set about choosing 60 significant events in human history. In the second episode, the most significant event was the Greco-Persian battle of Marathon.
In the third episode, the most significant event was probably the life of the man who would become known to Christians as St Paul. Marr spent quite a long time telling his story and, arguably, with good reason: As with the battle of Marathon, things could have turned out very differently for Western Europe (and therefore modernity) if Saul had not become Paul on the road to Damascus in about 35AD.
The remainder of the episode was not without incident; returning briefly to both India and China – to note the spread of Buddhism to much of south east Asia thanks to Ashoka; and to cover the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, whose legacy includes the Terracotta Army in Xian. However, by far the most traumatic event, alluded to at the start of the episode, but dramatised in full towards the end, was the martyrdom in Carthage in 203AD of Perpetua and Felicity. Much of the story seems to have been recorded by Perpetua herself but, having refused to renounce her faith in Christ – and having handed over her baby to the care of her parents – her death at the hands of a young gladiator is described by those who witnessed it. This whole thing made me feel very uncomfortable, as I find martyrdom very scary (but not for the reason you might imagine): I am worried that there may not be that much difference between the bravery required to die rather than renounce your faith; and the brainwashing required to kill as many “non believers” as you can by killing yourself.
Moving swiftly on, Andrew Marr fitted in a visit to the Nazca Lines in Peru, to see how that civilisation came to an end, in similar fashion to the Maya in Central America, in an accelerating frenzy of human sacrifice in an attempt to appease their gods (who they thought were unhappy with them). Yet again, it seems (to me at least), Marr gave cursory acknowledgement to the potential for human mismanagement of the environment to have unintended consequences; and emphasised instead his favoured meme that climate change is natural. This time, the change in question being the year without sunshine of 535-36 AD. Again, Wikipedia has a good summary and, within this, the key source (alluded to by Marr) appears to be a 1999 book by David Keys, entitled Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World, in which is presented evidence for 30 years of heavy rain followed by 30 years of drought. The strange thing is that, although the evidence for the long-term effects seems to be straightforward, there seems to be remarkably little agreement about which volcano was responsible. However, to my mind, the whole thing just serves to underline the seriousness with which we should view a potential eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland.
Andrew Marr then finished the episode by cheerfully noting that the chaos caused by this eruption (wherever it all emanated from) was global; and probably facilitated the Arabic conquest of Jerusalem (637AD) and, once the Koran had been written and agreed upon, the consequential spread of Islam.
At this point, things start to get more familiar (to me here in the UK at least). In episode 4 Marr covers the period the Vikings to the Renaissance; from the vacuum left behind after the fall of Rome – to the rediscovery of classical knowledge and the foundations of modernity. Along the way, we are regaled by tales…
— Of the Viking leader Oleg who took control of Kiev (and then re-wrote their history for them to make it sound like he was invited in); and who then invited a whole range of religious leaders to try and convert him; chose to become Greek Orthodox; and then promptly re-fashioned it to make it more to his own liking – the Russian Orthodox church was born.
— Of the brilliant work of Muslim scholars and astronomers such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, (who accurately determined the circumference of the Earth in the ninth Century) and whose name is reflected in what we now call Algebra.
— Of Genghis Khan who forged the greatest Empire form a band of people who bucked the trend by not settling down and building cities – but remained nomadic – simply because the grasslands they called home were not fertile enough for growing crops.
— Of Marco Polo who spent 24 years travelling around Asia and the rest of his life telling highly exaggerated stories all about it.
In all of this there was very little in the way of mention of climate change; but plenty in the way of environmental mismanagement and an early forerunner of the Law of Unintended Consequences – the Black Death (an inadvertent import from China to Europe) being a case in point. There was also the fascinating story of the arrival in Cairo (in 1324 AD) of an African King, Mansa Musa who, quite literally, put Mali on the map (i.e. the Catalan Atlas) by bringing with him so much gold – and handing it out so freely – that the price of the precious metal plummeted (was that an unintended consequence too?).
Running through the entire episode was an almost paradoxical juxtaposition of religious tension (if not outright war) and trade (i.e. mutually beneficial economic development). For example, both before and after the great siege of Constantinople (1453 AD), the Venetians happily traded with their Muslim counterparts in the East. However, it seems that with the creation of Istanbul, the Middle Ages came to an end: It was replaced, of course, by the Renaissance; borne out of the indulgences of the nouveau riche of the City States of northern Italy. One of the greatest beneficiaries of all being possibly one of the greatest polymaths of all – Leonardo da Vinci. And the rest, as they say, is history…