It is difficult to say which is the best anecdote of the many that Simon Sebag Montefiore (London, 57 years old) tells in his new book, The world, a history of families (Crítica, 2023), an ambitious universal history centered on the great families (the Ramessides, the Habsburgs, the Manchus, the Romanovs, the Bourbons, the Hashemites, the Rothschilds or the Vanderbilts) and deliciously prone to the lurid, to “the dark matter of history”, as the author says. They are anecdotes that make a journey through four thousand years very stimulating (particularly attentive to women) and that allow us to fix the dance of names, places and dates. Here are a few: Ptolemy II Filadelfos (quite a program, from the nickname, “brother’s lover”, since the family was so prone to incest) had among his lovers Belistique, a champion chariot racer who even won in some Olympic Games.
Forced by Emperor Wu to choose between suicide or castration, the Chinese historian Sima Qian chose to become a eunuch to finish his work (and long live History); The emasculation, which in the Han dynasty was complete (then one had to urinate through calamuses that were kept in the hair), was carried out in the silkworm chamber because the sterile environment helped prevent infections. The Almoravid emir Abu Bakr had the terrible luck of dying from an arrow fired by a blind Soninke warrior. The young women selected by the lascivious Napoleon III waited for him naked in the palace with the slogan “you can kiss her Majesty anywhere but on the face”; his last extramarital affair was with a circus acrobat. Industrialist Alfred Krupp, the king of cannons, was obsessed with enemas. The Egyptian Khedive Ismail gave the Empress Eugenia a gold pot with an emerald in the center and blurted out with what he considered gallantry: “Always watching you.” Baron Louis de Rothschild is probably the only Jew who, when an SS came to visit him, had the butler tell them to come back after dinner. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was a client of Madame Claude’s refined Parisian brothel, had the idea of asking for a girl “like Jackie, but horny” during his visit.
From the Akkadian empire (with a prologue to the family of five who left their footprints on a beach in what is now England more than 800,000 years ago) to the Trumps and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world’s unlikely family history of Sebag Montefiore, grouped under titles as striking (and they are not the most shocking) as Riúrik and the Vikings: combative fury, group sex and human sacrifices; Who do you get tough with: Cleopatra, Caesar and Antonyeither Mimi and Isabel: your little archangel’s ass (due to the passion that Elizabeth of Parma and her Habsburg sister-in-law lived and expressed in letters), spans eras, continents and dynasties. Along with the families that one would expect —in addition to those already mentioned, the Achaemenids, the Julio-Claudians, the Ming, the Valois, the Medici, the Braganza, the Rockefellers, the Assads, the Nehru, the Obamas—, some guests appear unexpected and their kindred, such as the Comanche Quanah Parker, the Zulu Chaka (who, by the way, killed his mother), Lobengula of the Matabele, or TE Lawrence.
In its lively pages, full of intrigues, fratricides, torture and how sex is said in abundance (even a precocious Mozart comes out with his little cousin), the historian makes us enter the bedroom of the Catholic Monarchs. “Last night in the service of God, we consummated the marriage,” Fernando announces. Being so pious did not prevent them from catapulting the body of a Moorish prisoner to Malaga. He also takes us into the heart of the darkness of the Columbus: he says that “the tropical colonies had become a sexual playground for the Spaniards.” And that the admiral “admitted pedophile depravity: ‘You can have a woman for a hundred coins,’ he wrote, ‘and there are many merchants looking for nine or ten-year-old girls, which right now is the most expensive group”. You can imagine what he writes of the Borgia. Even Charlemagne, “who enjoyed his concubines without restraint,” attributes “indications of incestuous relations” with his seven daughters, known as “crowned doves” and “famous for their adventures, groping, and sexual games.” Now that is selling history and not the list of the Gothic kings.
Strangulations, beheadings, poisonings, and castrations abound in the book: as familiar as it is, Sebag Montefiore’s story is hardly exemplary. Is the author aware of how violent it has come out? “Yes, violence is an intensifier and accelerator of history, and it is everywhere,” he points out in the interview with this newspaper. “But my book, the product of a lifetime of reading, is also full of poetry, artists, historians, kind things. It is true, however, that I like to hold the reader’s attention and the lurid episodes are very interesting. It is a challenge to lead people through a universal history; Anyone can write a boring story.” In this regard, he appreciates that The Economist used in his positive criticism of the book the expression of Anglo-Saxon journalism marmalade dropper, in the sense that on every page there is something that so grabs the reader’s attention, surprises, shocks, and astonishes them that the jam falls from their breakfast toast. For example, the scene in which the caliph Al-Hadi (Harun’s brother) is brought a tray covered with silk; upon removing it he discovers the severed heads of two beautiful young women “whose perfumes still filled the air.” They were from his harem. The caliph asked what they had done. “They fell in love with each other. A eunuch discovered them under a blanket, making love, and we killed them.” Al-Hadi was undeterred: “Take the heads with you.”
Focusing on families has helped him to have an innovative perspective and to sift data. “As Samuel Johnson said, every kingdom is a family and every family is a little kingdom,” he muses. “One of the questions in the book is why the monarchy, the dynasty, the power held by families is the predominant system in history until today. The answer is that continuity, stability, security are part of the objectives of politics. Every system has a cost, and democracies have the cost of being subject to constant change, while hereditary autocracies can plan for the longer term.
With the new modern types of family, is your book a swan song of traditional families? Come on, if the Ptolemies can be considered traditional. “I thought so, that the nuclear family as it has been known was doomed to disappear in the West (in Africa and Asia it has never been threatened), but we have seen how the pandemic has meant a return to the usual family. Technology is also bringing people back to their home and family life. The fact is that the family remains the essential unit of human existence.
Sebag Montefiore admits that there is a lot of sex in his story. “Well, sex and family go hand in hand.” Not in the case of JFK. The historian laughs: “It’s true.” In the book, he emphasizes that the president’s sexual life was one of “uncontained priapism” and that apart from sharing Marilyn with his brother Bobby, he had lovers like the scholarship recipient Mimi Alford, whom he ordered to satisfy orally in the Casa pool. Blanca to her friend Dave Powers. The author mentions Suetonius, with his good eye for the scandalous and gossip, as an example of a historian “who knew how to make his subject entertaining” (in the book he recalls that apart from his famous Lives of the twelve Caesars, the roman wrote some losses, and worth the polysemy, lives of famous whores).
“I have never been too concerned about being part of traditional historiography,” he stresses. But he emphasizes that in his own case everything that appears is documented, even what may seem like gossip, things like that Alexander lost his virginity to Barsine (and “at a late age for a Macedonian”), that Tutankhamen was irascible or that Tiberius I had an iguana. “I work very hard to be absolutely rigorous, and whenever I can with original documents. I have not used investigators, but have trawled through all the material myself. Then I have had the text read by specialist historians whom I trust a lot”. These experts include some as well-known as the Egyptologist Salima Ikram, the Viking specialist Neil Price or the Silk Road scholar Peter Frankopan. Also Henry Kissinger himself, who reviewed what concerns his time.
The historian continues: “What interests me is the personal in history, for too many years, influenced by Marxism, history has focused on the big issues, downplaying individuals. I do not apologize for explaining the history of people. On the other hand, “the anecdotes serve as an anchor to explain historical moments, great migrations, ideologies, climatic changes, music, art, culture; I have used individuals and families, and private lives, to tell the whole story, the intimate one as well. Not only is it thus made more accessible, but it allows us to see its continuity. Very often history is presented as an impersonal succession of battles, wars and falling empires. Talking about his father as a Habsburg official shows for example where Hitler came from ”.
What are your favorite eras and families? “Ancient Rome attracts me a lot, especially the time of the Caesars (the infidelities of Messalina and Nero’s incest with his mother Agrippina, whom he had killed) are recounted in the book, as well as the Renaissance. I loved writing about many families, some were essential like the Habsburgs, and others I had written before like the Romanovs and the Herods, there are also families like the saga of French executioners Sanson (one of them died slipping on the blood of the guillotine while working piecework); but my favorite family may surprise you: it is that of Muhammad, that of the Prophet. And I wish I had lived in Umayyad Damascus or Abbasid Baghdad, periods of great culture and literary talent, and as a Jew I could have been very free at those courts.”
To paraphrase Tolstoy, there don’t seem to be many happy families. The philosopher Han Fei Tzu already warned the emperor of him in the second century BC: “Calamities will come from those you love.” Sebas Montefiore points out: “I deal with powerful families and power is a great poisoner of family relationships. The Ptolemies, the Ottomans, the Mongols excelled at it; it was not easy to be a member of those families. Killing close relatives was essential to seize power and keep it. The competition had to be eliminated: the grave or the throne. The strongest thing is that the system worked”.
What can be done after a book like this? “Going on tour with him, for example, even if it’s in front of empty auditoriums. Anything will be better than hell in the three years of writing it.” There is a question that seems obligatory for Sebag Montefiore. Would he have made the same decision as the historian Sima Qian? “Without a doubt, but I have to say that, although it almost killed me to write it, I have finished my story intact.”
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