Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World

E. H. GOMBRICH
TRANSLATED BY CAROLINE MUSTILL
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nppvs
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Little History of the World
    Book Description:

    E. H. Gombrich's bestselling history of the world for young readers tells the story of mankind from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb, focusing not on small detail but on the sweep of human experience, the extent of human achievement, and the depth of its frailty. The product of a generous and humane sensibility, this timeless account makes intelligible the full span of human history. In forty concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colorful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science. This is a text dominated not by dates and facts, but by the sweep of mankind's experience across the centuries, a guide to humanity's achievements and an acute witness to its frailties.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13207-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xv-xx)
    Leonie Gombrich
  4. 1 Once Upon a Time
    (pp. 1-4)

    All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And that’s just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time. Once you were so small that, even standing on tiptoes, you could barely reach your mother’s hand. Do you remember? Your own history might begin like this: ‘Once upon a time there was a small boy’ –or a small girl – ‘and that small boy was me.’ But before that you were a baby in a cradle. You won’t remember that, but you know it’s true. Your father and mother were also small once, and so was your...

  5. 2 The Greatest Inventors of All Time
    (pp. 5-9)

    Near Heidelberg, in Germany, somebody was once digging a pit when they came across a bone, deep down under the ground. It was a human bone. A jawbone. But no human beings today have jaws like this one. It was so massive and strong, and had such powerful teeth! Whoever owned it must have been able to bite really hard. And must have lived a long time ago for the bone to be buried so deep.

    On another occasion, but still in Germany – in the Neander valley – a human skull was found. And this was also immensely interesting because nobody...

  6. 3 The Land by the Nile
    (pp. 10-16)

    Here – as I promised – History begins. With awhenand awhere.It is 3100 bc (that is, 5,100 years ago), when, as we believe, a king named Menes was ruling over Egypt. If you want to know exactly where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow. Every autumn, when it gets cold, swallows fly south. Over the mountains to Italy, and on across a little stretch of sea, and then they’re in Africa, in the part that lies nearest to Europe. Egypt is close by.

    In Africa it is hot, and for months on end it doesn’t rain....

  7. 4 Sunday, Monday ...
    (pp. 17-21)

    There are seven days in a week. I don’t need to tell you their names because you know them already. But have you any idea where and when it was that the days were each given a name? Or who first had the idea of arranging them into weeks, so that they no longer flew past, nameless and in no order, as they did for people in prehistoric times? It wasn’t in Egypt, but in another country which was no less hot, but where, instead of just one river, there were two: the Tigris and the Euphrates. And because the...

  8. 5 The One and Only God
    (pp. 24-28)

    Between Egypt and Mesopotamia there is a land of deep valleys and rich pastures. There, for thousands of years, herdsmen tended their flocks. They planted vines and cereals, and in the evenings they sang songs, as country people do. But because it lay between those two countries, first it would be conquered and ruled by the Egyptians, and then the Babylonians would invade, so that the people who lived there were constantly being driven from one place to another. They built themselves towns and fortresses, to no avail. They were still not strong enough to resist the mighty armies of...

  9. 6 I C-A-N R-E-A-D
    (pp. 29-30)

    How do you do it? Why, every schoolchild knows the answer: ‘You spell out the words.’ Yes, all right, but whatexactlydo you mean? ‘Well, there’s an I, which makes “I”, and then a “C” and an “A” and an “N”, which spells “can” – and so on, and with twentysix letters you can write anything down.’ Anything? Yes, anything. In any language? Just about.

    Isn’t that amazing? With twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write down anything you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked. It wasn’t anything like as...

  10. 7 Heroes and their Weapons
    (pp. 31-36)

    Here are some lines to be chanted aloud while tapping their

    rhythm,

    Lines that were used by the poets of Greece in their stories

    of warfare,

    Telling the contests of gods and of heroes in earlier ages.

    (Verses like this, with six beats to each line, were called ‘hexameters’ by the Greeks. The rhythm suits the Greek language, but it sounds a little unnatural in English.)

    You will have heard of the war that arose when Paris, the

    Trojan,

    Sided with Venus and gave her the apple of gold in the

    contest,

    How, as reward, she helped him to seize...

  11. 8 An Unequal Struggle
    (pp. 37-43)

    Something very strange happened between 550 and 500 bc. I don’t really understand it myself, but perhaps that’s what makes it so interesting. In the high mountain chain that runs north of Mesopotamia a wild mountain tribe had long been living. They had a beautiful religion: they worshipped light and the sun and believed it to be in a state of constant warfare with the dark – that is, with the dark powers of evil.

    These mountain people were the Persians. For hundreds of years they had been dominated, first by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. One day they...

  12. 9 Two Small Cities in One Small Land
    (pp. 44-50)

    I said earlier that Greece, when set against the Persian empire, was no more than a small peninsula, dotted here and there with little cities of busy merchants, a country of barren mountain ranges and stony fields, able to sustain only a handful of people. And also, as you may remember, that the Greeks belonged to a number of tribes, the most important of them being the Dorians in the south and the Ionians and the Aeolians in the north. These tribes differed little from one another, either in appearance or in language. They spoke different dialects, which they could...

  13. 10 The Enlightened One and his Land
    (pp. 51-56)

    And now let us go to the opposite end of the world. To India and then to China, so that we can find out what was going on in these vast lands at the time of the Persian wars. Like Mesopotamia, India also had a very ancient civilisation, and at about the same time as the Sumerians were holding sway at Ur – that is, around 2500 BC – there was a mighty city in the valley of the Indus. (The Indus is a great river which flows through what is Pakistan today.) It had well-drained streets, canals, granaries and workshops, and...

  14. 11 The Great Teacher of a Great People
    (pp. 57-61)

    When I was a schoolboy, China was to us, as it were, ‘at the other end of the world’. At most we had seen the odd picture on a teacup or a vase, so that we imagined a country of stiff little men with long plaits down their backs, and artful gardens full of hump-backed bridges and little turrets hung with tinkling bells.

    Of course there never was such a fairyland, although it is true that for more than two hundred years, until 1912, Chinese men were made to wear their hair plaited in a pigtail, and that we first...

  15. 12 The Greatest Adventure of All
    (pp. 62-72)

    Greece’s age of splendour was short-lived. The Greeks could do everything but live in peace with one another. Above all, it was Athens and Sparta who could not put up with one another for long. By 430 bc the two states were locked in a long and bitter conflict. This was the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans marched on Athens, savagely laying waste to the countryside all around. They uprooted all the olive trees and this was a terrible misfortune because it takes years for a newly planted olive tree to bear fruit. The Athenians hit back, attacking the Spartan colonies...

  16. 13 New Wars and New Warriors
    (pp. 73-79)

    Alexander only went east. Although ‘only’ may not be quite the right word! But the lands that lay to the west of Greece did not tempt him – just a couple of Phoenician and Greek colonies and a handful of densely wooded peninsulas inhabited by tribes of stubborn and unruly peasants. One of these peninsulas was Italy, and one of the peasant tribes, the Romans. At the time of Alexander the Great, the Roman empire was no more than a little patch of land in the heart of Italy, and Rome a tiny city of twisting streets within strong walls. But...

  17. 14 An Enemy of History
    (pp. 80-82)

    If you have always found history boring, you are going to enjoy this chapter.

    At about the same time as Hannibal was in Italy (that is, shortly after 220 bc), an emperor was ruling over China who hated history so much that, in 213 bc, he ordered all history books and all old reports and records to be burnt, along with all collections of songs and poems and the writings of Confucius and Lao-tzu – in fact everything he considered to be useless rubbish. The only books he permitted were ones on agriculture and other useful subjects. Anybody found in possession...

  18. 15 Rulers of the Western World
    (pp. 83-91)

    It would never have occurred to the Romans to do what Alexander the Great had done. They had no wish to turn the lands they conquered into a single, vast empire in which everyone was treated equally. Certainly not. All the lands the Roman legions conquered – and their conquests came thick and fast – became Roman provinces, their towns occupied by Roman troops and Roman officials. These occupiers looked down on the native inhabitants, even when they were Phoenicians, Jews and Greeks – all peoples of very ancient culture. In the eyes of the Romans they were good for just one thing:...

  19. 16 The Good News
    (pp. 92-96)

    Augustus ruled from 31 BC until AD 14, which tells you that Jesus Christ was born during his reign. He was born in Palestine, which was then a Roman province. You can read about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible. You probably know the essentials of what he taught: that it doesn’t matter if a person is rich or poor, of noble or of humble birth, a master or a slave, a great thinker or a child. That all men are God’s children. And that the love of this father is infinite. That before him no...

  20. 17 Life in the Empire and at its Frontiers
    (pp. 97-103)

    If you weren’t a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman empire could be peaceful and pleasant. You could travel from Spain to the Euphrates, from the Danube to the Nile on wonderful Roman roads. The Roman postal service made regular visits to settlements at the empire’s frontiers, carrying news back and forth. In all the great cities like Alexandria or Rome you could find everything you needed for a comfortable life. Of course, in Rome there were whole districts of barrack-like buildings, crudely built and many storeys high, where poor people lived....

  21. 18 The Storm
    (pp. 104-109)

    Have you ever watched a storm approaching on a hot summer’s day? It’s especially spectacular in the mountains. At first there’s nothing to see, but you feel a sort of weariness that tells you something is in the air. Then you hear thunder – just a rumble here and there – you can’t quite tell where it is coming from. All of a sudden, the mountains seem strangely near. There isn’t a breath of wind, yet dense clouds pile up in the sky. And now the mountains have almost vanished behind a wall of haze. Clouds rush in from all sides, but...

  22. 19 The Starry Night Begins
    (pp. 110-114)

    You will probably agree that the peoples’ migrations were a sort of thunderstorm. But you may be surprised to hear that the Middle Ages were like a starry night. Let me explain. Have you ever heard people talking about the Dark Ages? This is the name given to the period which followed the collapse of the Roman empire when very few people could read or write and hardly anyone knew what was going on in the world. And because of this, they loved telling each other all sorts of weird and wonderful tales and were generally very superstitious. ‘Dark’, too,...

  23. 20 There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet
    (pp. 115-122)

    Can you picture the desert? The real, hot, sandy desert, crossed by long caravans of camels laden with cargoes of rare goods? Sand everywhere. Just occasionally you see one or two palm trees on the skyline. When you get there you find an oasis consisting of a spring with a trickle of greenish water. Then the caravan moves on. Eventually you come to a bigger oasis where there is a whole town of white, cube-shaped houses, inhabited by white-clothed, brown-skinned men with black hair and piercing dark eyes.

    You can tell that these men are warriors. On their wonderfully swift...

  24. 21 A Conqueror who Knows How to Rule
    (pp. 123-129)

    Reading these stories may make you think it’s easy to conquer the world or found a great empire, since it happens so often in the history of the world. And in fact it wasn’t very difficult in earlier times. Why was that?

    Imagine what it must have been like to have no newspapers and no post. Most people didn’t even know what was happening in places just a few days’ journey from where they lived. They stayed in their valleys and forests and tilled the land, and their knowledge of the world ended where the neighbouring tribes began. Towards these...

  25. 22 A Struggle to Become Lord of Christendom
    (pp. 130-136)

    The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again. And so it was that, barely a hundred years after Charlemagne’s death, in times of chaos and misfortune, hordes of mounted warriors from the east invaded yet again, as the Avars and the Huns had before them. Not that there was anything remarkable about that. It was easier, and therefore more tempting, to take the path which led from the Asiatic steppes towards Europe than to launch raids on China....

  26. 23 Chivalrous Knights
    (pp. 137-143)

    I am sure you have heard of knights of old from the Age of Chivalry. And you have probably read books about knights and their squires who set out in search of adventure; stories full of shining armour, plumed helmets and noble steeds, blazoned escutcheons and impregnable fortresses, jousting and tournaments where fair ladies give prizes to the victors, wandering minstrels, forsaken damsels and departures for the Holy Land. The best thing is that all of it really existed. All that glitter and romance is no invention. Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure,...

  27. 24 Emperors in the Age of Chivalry
    (pp. 144-155)

    In these fairy-tale times, full of colour and adventure, there was a new family of knights ruling in Germany. They took their name, Hohenstaufen, from their castle. One of them was the emperor Frederick I, nicknamed Barbarossa by the Italians on account of his magnificent fiery-red beard. Now you may wonder why history should choose to remember him by his Italian name – after all, Frederick I was a German emperor. It is simply because he spent much of his time in Italy and the deeds that made him famous happened there. It wasn’t just the pope and his power to...

  28. 25 Cities and Citizens
    (pp. 156-162)

    In the course of the hundred years that passed between the deaths of Frederick Barbarossa in 1190 and Rudolf I of Habsburg in 1291, Europe changed in more ways than it is possible to imagine. As I have already said, at the time of Barbarossa there were powerful cities, mainly in Italy, whose citizens were bold enough to oppose and even take up arms against the emperor, while at that time Germany was largely a land of knights, monks and peasants. But over the following hundred years the situation in Germany changed beyond recognition. Many eastward crusades had already taken...

  29. 26 A New Age
    (pp. 163-171)

    Have you ever come across an old school exercise book, or something else you once wrote and, on leafing through it, been amazed at how much you have changed in such a short time? Amazed by your mistakes, but also by the good things you had written? Yet at the time you hadn’t noticed that you were changing. Well, the history of the world is just the same.

    How nice it would be if, suddenly, heralds were to ride through the streets crying: ‘Attention please! A new age is beginning!’ But things aren’t like that: people change their opinions without...

  30. 27 A New World
    (pp. 172-179)

    What until now we have called the history of the world is in fact the history of no more than half the world. Most of the events took place around the Mediterranean – in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Or not far from there: in Germany, France and England. We have cast the odd glance eastwards, towards China’s welldefended empire, and towards India, which, during the period that now concerns us, was ruled by a Muslim royal family. But we haven’t bothered with what lies to the west of old Europe, beyond Britain. No one...

  31. 28 A New Faith
    (pp. 180-186)

    As you will remember, there were popes ruling in Rome after 1400 who cared more for might and magnificence than for their role as priests, and it was they who commissioned the most famous artists to build beautiful churches. This was especially true of two Medici popes, members of the family that had already done so much for the prestige and adornment of Florence. During their reigns the grandest and most magnificent buildings rose into the skies above Rome. Old St Peter’s – a church thought to have been founded by Constantine the Great and in which Charlemagne had been crowned...

  32. 29 The Church at War
    (pp. 187-192)

    In one of the battles between the emperor Charles V and the French king Francis I, a young Spanish knight was gravely wounded. His name was Ignatius of Loyola. During his long and painful convalescence he thought hard about his past life as a young nobleman, and immersed himself in readings from the Bible and the lives of the saints. And as he did so, the idea came to him that he would change his life. He would continue to be a warrior as he always had been, but he would serve a very different cause: that of the Catholic...

  33. 30 Terrible Times
    (pp. 193-199)

    If I wished, I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won’t. It was a dreadful era. Events soon became so confused that people no longer knew why or against whom they were fighting. The Habsburg emperors of Germany – ruling now from Prague, now from Vienna – had no real power outside Austria and part of Hungary. They were pious men who wished to re-establish the sovereignty of the Catholic Church throughout their empire. Nevertheless, they did for a while allow Protestants to hold religious services. Until one day a revolt broke out in...

  34. 31 An Unlucky King and a Lucky King
    (pp. 200-205)

    The only important country not to join in the fighting of the Thirty Years War was England. Lucky English, you may say. But they too were going through troubled times even if the end, when it came, was not as devastating as it was in Germany. Now you may remember that in 1215 King John of England signed a great Charter of Liberties – the Magna Carta – in which he made a solemn promise that he and his successors would never act without first consulting the barons and the nobility. For nearly four hundred years English monarchs kept this promise, until...

  35. 32 Meanwhile, Looking Eastwards ...
    (pp. 206-212)

    While Louis XIV was holding court in Paris and Versailles, Germany suffered a new misfortune: the Turks. As you know, more than two hundred years earlier (in 1453), they had conquered Constantinople and established a great Muslim empire, known as the Ottoman empire, incorporating Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Greece – in other words, the whole of the ancient Roman Empire of the East, of whose magnificence and splendour, it must be said, not much remained. Under their great leader, Suleiman the Magnificent, they had then pushed onwards beyond the Danube and defeated the Hungarian army in 1526. Almost every...

  36. 33 A Truly New Age
    (pp. 213-219)

    If you could talk to a gentleman from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surprise you. The way he spoke and the many Latin and French words he used. His elaborate and convoluted turns of phrase and habit of slipping in Latin quotations that neither you nor I could place, and his grand and solemn bows. You would, I think, suspect that beneath that venerable wig was someone with a large appetite for good food and fine wines. And – if you will forgive me for mentioning it – you could hardly fail...

  37. 34 A Very Violent Revolution
    (pp. 220-226)

    All countries felt the ideas of the Enlightenment to be just and fair, and ruled accordingly. Even the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, regularly exchanged letters with the French thinkers of the Enlightenment. The only exceptions were the kings of France, who behaved as if they neither knew nor cared about the new ideas. Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Sun King’s successors, were incompetent, and content merely to imitate their great predecessor’s outward show of power. The pomp and magnificence remained. Vast sums were spent on entertainments and operatic productions, on a succession of new chateaux and great...

  38. 35 The Last Conqueror
    (pp. 227-239)

    What I have always loved best about the history of the world is that it is true. That all the extraordinary things we read were no less real than you and I are today. What is more, what did happen is often far more exciting and amazing than anything we could invent. I am now going to tell you the story of one of the most astonishing of all those adventures, which was nevertheless as real as your life or mine. It took place not so long ago. My own grandfather was alive then, and he would have been about...

  39. 36 Men and Machines
    (pp. 240-247)

    Metternich and the pious rulers of Russia, Austria, France and Spain were indeed able to bring about a return to life as it had been before the French Revolution – at least in its outward forms. Once again there was all the splendour and ceremony of courts, where the nobility paraded, their breasts covered in medals and decorations, and wielded much influence. Citizens were excluded from politics, which suited many of them very well. They occupied themselves with their families, with books and, above all, with music. For, in the last hundred years, music, heard mostly as an accompaniment to dancing,...

  40. 37 Across the Seas
    (pp. 248-254)

    Thanks to railways and steamships the world became much smaller. To set off across the seas for India or China was no longer a perilous adventure into the unknown, and America was almost next door. And so from 1800 onwards it is even less possible to see the history of the world as only that of Europe. We must take a look beyond our frontiers at Europe’s new neighbours, and in particular at China, Japan and America. Before 1800, China was still in many ways the same country it had been at the time of the rulers of the Han...

  41. 38 Two New States in Europe
    (pp. 255-263)

    I have known many people who were children at a time before either Germany or Italy existed. It seems incredible, doesn’t it? That these great and powerful nations, which play such an important role, aren’t old at all. After the revolutions of 1848 – when new railway lines were being built all over Europe and telegraph cables were being laid, when the towns which had turned into factory towns were expanding and many peasants were being drawn into them, and when men had taken to wearing top hats and funny pince-nez spectacles with dangling black cords – the Europe we know was...

  42. 39 Dividing Up the World
    (pp. 264-272)

    And now we are coming to the time when my parents were young. They were able to tell me exactly what things were like. How more and more homes came to have first gas and then electric lighting, and then a telephone, while in the towns electric tramways appeared, soon to be followed by cars. How vast suburbs spread to house the workers, and factories with powerful machines kept thousands busy doing work which used to be done by perhaps hundreds of thousands of artisans.

    But whatever happened to all those textiles, shoes, tins of food and pots and pans...

  43. 40 The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back
    (pp. 273-284)

    It is one thing to learn about history from books, and quite another to experience it oneself. That is what I wanted to remind you of just now when I likened a glimpse into the past of mankind to the view seen from an aeroplane flying at a great height. All we can make out are a few details on the banks of the river of time. But when seen from close up, with the waves coming towards us one by one, the river looks quite different. Some things are much clearer, while others are barely visible. And that’s how...