The Spoils of Time

Starting with the evidence of our earliest ancestors, Dame Veronica Wedgwood recounts man’s social evolution and the development of his societal institutions in swift, sweeping details. Here, in relentlessly short declarative sentences, is a truly global chronology of the rise of cities and the fall of empires. Much of the narrative is sobering for its endless litany of strife and cruelty, conquest and destruction. Yet the nobility of human achievement is also noted as the author amply examines the gradual expansion of knowledge, the formulation of politico-legal systems, and the emergence of ethical codes, religious beliefs, and the world’s first great works of art and literature.

With an approach that is both compact and comprehensive, Wedgwood manages to identify nine great epochs of man and then condenses each into a chapter. Her reader is rushed along the track of events from the cradle of civilization in the Near East, past the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, through the tunnel of the Dark Ages and out into the light of late medieval times. Replete with accounts of the humanizing contributions of both Occident and Orient, the text avoids the bias of Western ethnocentrism.

Thus, a sample chapter of the era A.D. 50-500 includes the Han and Chin dynasties of China, and we learn of the invention of the wheelbarrow, watermill, and windowpanes. Information on the Kushan invasion of India apprises us of the reflowering of Buddhism, the benefits of the caste system, and the first governmental establishment of free hospital service. These happenings were concurrent with the struggling origins of Christianity and the flourishings of the Roman, Persian, and Byzantine Empires, whose peaks and declines are described in their farflung influences.

This whirlwind world tour, though lacking in depth, should suitably serve to refresh memories and stimulate minds.