and complex history of man, and encapsulate in an instant the enormity or inconsequentiality of an event in the past.
There is also something solid and indisputable about numbers, making them a useful tool for anyone hoping to convey the history of the world in one short book. That’s not to say that numbers can’t be exaggerated, massaged, or even blatantly wrong – as so often they are – and just like words, they too can distort our view of history.
With this in mind, however, numbers do help to provide a sort of filing system for the past. We love to compartmentalize history, reordering it into tidy folders, labelling them with numbers of note. By this means numbers seem to leap out of the annals of history right into our collective consciousness, to remain lodged in our minds long after other facts have fallen away. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, Henry VIII’s six wives, Marx’s six stages of history, all provide testament to the staying power of numbers.
Different types of numbers can alter our perspective on history. Vast numbers inform us how many people are living on the planet or how many millions are massacred in war. (Too often numbers convey the grim realities of life in the past – how millions have perished from disease, on the battlefield, or merely through the whims of a single deluded monarch or leader.) Large numbers can illustrate the broad sweep of history, from mass movements of populations to the expansion of empires (and often their sudden demise), the profound effects of industrialization and the growth of a global economy.
Smaller numbers, however, are no less significant: they measure the living details of history, the tiny shifts that may have vast consequences. The perfect proportions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the components of a ‘piece of eight’ silver coin, the US constitution’s thirteenth amendment, all were to have a lasting impact on the history of the world.
The nature of our past – peculiar, extraordinary, often fortuitous – can also be wonderfully illustrated by num