Peter Frankopan: ‘I’m a historian, not a prophet’

The UK’s ‘rock star historian’ Peter Frankopan talks to Matthew Reisz about his ambitious follow-up to his Silk Roads chronicle and the perils of being seen as a modern-day sage

March 16, 2023
Source: David Harley/Shutterstock

History today, Peter Frankopan once wrote, “is in danger of becoming a circular story where more and more is known about fewer and fewer topics”.

Instead, it “should be about broadening horizons, widening perspectives, giving greater context to help us understand others, and to better understand ourselves”, he argued in a chapter he contributed to a 2021 collection titled What Is History, Now? (edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb). Frankopan, professor of global history at the University of Oxford, has put these ideals into practice once again in his latest ambitious book.

His 2015 best-seller The Silk Roads: A New History of the World was all about broadening geographical horizons, recentring human history on the Middle East and central Asia. It covers the whole period from Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by way of the Crusades, the Mongols and the Ottomans. This month sees the publication of an even more wide-ranging study of how humans have interacted with the climate and the natural world: The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury).

So what is the link between these two books – and how has a Byzantine historian come to produce a work of environmental history that goes back to “the origin of our species” and beyond?

Frankopan’s background and education no doubt contributed to the free-ranging and epic scope of his output. He grew up in a multilingual family, born to a Swedish mother – a human rights lawyer and professor – and a barrister father descended from Croatian nobility. Because he went to Eton, Frankopan got a chance to learn Russian and then Classical Arabic while still at school.

“I grew up in a sharply changing world,” he recalls. “I was in Leningrad, as it was then, in 1987, 1989 and 1990, seeing the Soviet Union change and fall apart. I felt I was living through a period of profound global change.”

But although he has always remained interested in trying to understand “the world I was living through”, Frankopan decided to study Byzantine history, a field that he believes requires historians to “think globally, inter-regionally, multi-linguistically and multi-ethnically”. After an undergraduate degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, he continued with a PhD at the University of Oxford, where he is now senior research fellow at Worcester College. “You’d be looking at 4th-century pots from Tuscany one week and then music and liturgy from Samarkand the next,” he reflects on his doctoral studies.

His first book, 2012’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East, received some warm reviews but his eclectic range of interests often left people baffled, he admits. At drinks parties, he would “try to explain what I work on – Central Asian nomadic peoples, the Byzantine world and the codification of the Koran – and people’s eyes would glaze over. They would think I was mad spending my life doing something like this.” One solution would have involved focusing on narrow topics, as he did for his 2004 paper “Byzantine trade privileges to Venice in the eleventh century”, but instead he made the bold decision to try to present the full range of his thinking to a wider, non-specialist readership.

The concept of “the Silk Roads”, invented by the 19th-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, is (usefully) vague, but basically refers to the trade routes that have long linked Asia with the Mediterranean and beyond. These were crucial in transporting silk and many other commodities, but also for the transmission of diseases and ideas. Frankopan’s Silk Roads book drew on original material that he can read, to a greater or lesser extent, in “about 20 languages”, including all the major European languages, except Hungarian, and Asian languages “about up to the Himalayas”. 

Most ordinary readers, if we can judge by online comments, have found the book stimulating as well as fluent. But some are unhappy with the balance of material and would have liked more about the fall of Constantinople, for example, or less about the Persians. Others have more fundamental objections, dismissing it as “shallow survey history” that relies too much on secondary sources. Indeed, some feel there is something dilettantish or even arrogant about the whole project. (It probably doesn’t help Frankopan’s cause, in some quarters, that he is obviously posh, is married to an heiress from the Sainsbury family and has a sideline as the chairman of a group of boutique hotels.) Yet he has faced “no pushback from angry scholars” of particular historical periods, he reports, “although I am sure there are people who were annoyed about The Silk Roads’ visibility. I have never had that territorialism pushed in my direction or been told I should know my place. If there are people muttering under their breath, I’d rather not know about it.”

After the huge commercial success of The Silk Roads, Frankopan followed it in 2018 with a sharper, more polemical volume, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. Much of this focuses on China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, which explicitly evoked the idea of reviving the Silk Roads. “Evaluating China’s motivations, actions and their outcomes not just in Africa or along the Silk Roads but around the globe,” the book argues, “is perhaps the single most important challenge for policy makers in every country.” At the time he was writing that book, he suspects that Western countries were largely “asleep about the level of threat coming towards us from Moscow and Beijing”.

Even those who were dazzled by The Silk Roads are likely to be startled by both the scale and seemingly unrelated focus of The Earth Transformed. The book is designed to “reinsert climate back into the story of the past” and to “set out the story of human interaction with the natural world” – and so, once again, to “expand the horizons of how we look at history”.

The scale could hardly be grander. Most coal deposits, for example, were laid down about 300 million years ago. Yet some scholars, writes Frankopan, believe that their location provides one of the major explanations for “the Great Divergence – the point where Europe leapfrogged past states such as Qing dynasty China and elsewhere in Asia”. Because its coal fields were closer to manufacturing centres and labour pools, they could be “exploited both more quickly and more cheaply”, he writes. Even today, American politics is deeply shaped by such ancient geological shifts because “pressure on jobs in the coal-mining industry” has led to “a strong rise in support for pro-coal Republican party candidates”.

The Earth Transformed is full of astonishing statistics, such as the “almost 13 million metric tonnes of guano [or bat shit]…exported from Peru’s islands and coastline” over a 40-year period in the 19th century, or the “estimated nine trillion microplastic fibres shed from synthetic clothing being discharged from washing machines every week in the UK alone”. Equally compelling are the links between apparently unconnected events. When the British navy realised that citrus fruits were effective in treating scurvy, it caused the production of lemons in Sicily to soar, creating a hugely profitable but unregulated industry that helped to spur the rise of the Mafia. The Spanish flu epidemic played an important role in the rise of Hitler because “areas most affected by the pandemic, and where per capita spending by local authorities was low in the following decades”, were much more likely to vote for the National Socialists. We even learn just how much the humble potato changed the world.


So what sort of link does Frankopan see between his two big books?

Those who work on the Silk Roads (or other forms of global history), he replies, “are always thinking about big questions around disease, climate, demographics, energy, food consumption and risk…Pathogens and emerging infectious diseases are highly sensitive to changes in climate.” We also find religious and other ideas about the natural world “shared between Africa, Asia and Europe. So some of the big questions in The Silk Roads are being posed in a different way here.”

At the same time, Frankopan acknowledges that the success of his earlier book gave him the intellectual confidence” to expand his horizons. The Earth Transformed required him both to look at places he had previously known little about, from the pre-Columbian Americas to the Australasian world, and to get to grips with genetics, statistical modelling and other scientific topics alongside texts and material culture.

Unlike the rather marginal disciplines of Silk Road and Byzantine studies, environmental history is now, according to Frankopan, “an extremely accelerating field, partly because of the scale of new data released”. His book points to an astonishing range of evidence – “fossilised pollen from Oman”, “chemical analysis of a cemetery in southern Mexico”, “records of cherry blossom festivals in Japan”, even “registers kept by the harbour authorities in Tallinn in Estonia” – that can now be used to illuminate climate change or the spread of diseases.

After 24 chapters of history, The Earth Transformed concludes by looking at where we are now. Although it is scrupulous in presenting the “good news”, including programmes to help control greenhouse gas emissions by training cattle to use latrines, it is equally clear about the vast challenge we face, and the myopia of political leaders who offer “solutions” to the climate crisis such as encouraging men not to wear ties at meetings or couples to take showers together.

In the introduction, Frankopan argues that history can “teach valuable lessons that help formulate questions and sometimes even answers relating to some of the big issues that lie ahead of us”. He points to the disastrous impact of cities on “environmental degradation” and “anthropogenic climate change” (even if it is often people far away who bear the greatest costs). And he suggests that “peasants, pastoralists and nomads, indigenous peoples and hunter-gatherers”, although often dismissed as “barbaric, erratic and primitive”, have learned – and so could presumably teach others – how “to understand the limitations of the land”.

These points are well taken but largely undeveloped. So does Frankopan have any suggestions about where we go from here?

He is occasionally consulted by UN agencies and policymakers, including some from the UK government, he says, “keen to learn from what had happened in the past, and to avoid the same mistakes”. Although he can see “why the merry-go-round of global leaders is intoxicating, it’s a carousel of its own. Every now and then you get a ride round the circus and then you come back home and it’s back to the nitty-gritty.”

In his books, however, Frankopan stresses that he is “a historian, not a prophet. That’s my job. If people pick up The Earth Transformed, get halfway through and think ‘I’ve only got up to the 7th century and all this stuff is old names, people I can’t relate to and have no interest in’, that’s the price of doing business. But people seem to have enjoyed The Silk Roads, and I hope they’ll give it a go.”

For those “trying to engage with the world of tomorrow and work out how many children they should have or how they should change their lifestyle”, Frankopan admits that there are probably better books to turn to. What he hopes to convey, instead, is a deep sense of “the serendipity of how nature has dealt the house of cards”. As he puts it in the book, “environmental factors” should not be seen as “actors in the story of our species”, even if they sometimes “bring down empires” or “lead to societal collapse”. Rather they are “the very stage on which our existence plays out, shaping everything we do, who we are, where and how we live”. 

To take this seriously on board is indeed to see history, and perhaps the environment itself, in a radically new light.

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Reader's comments (1)

It is gratifying to see how young researchers like Professor Peters decided to listen to that silent intuition, which once meditated by his own professional practice as a historian, gives off such illuminating flashes when they dare to connect blind, forgotten or neglected points of the human odyssey. There is no doubt that access to sources of information and material infrastructure conditions for research are fundamental, but also, in the case of those of us who come from parts of the world less favorable to supporting their researchers, we are still capable of recognizing the effort of historians, in various corners of the planet, who have managed to preserve that flame of curiosity and intellectual honesty, which distinguishes their academic work.