To prepare for reading The Travels of Marco Polo, I have been quickly traversing world history from the paleolithic to the rise of Venice. By this I mean sampling the history of early Indo-European migrations, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient India, ancient China, Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire, and finally the Mongol empire. I nibble on a few facts and a few key dates and then move on. This is the hors d'oeuvre approach to history. I'm not proud of being a historical dabbler, but at least it keeps me away from the television.
As my primary reference, I chose a book called History of the World by J.M. Roberts of Oxford University (1993). The book is a historical survey written with clarity and perspective and livened by flashes of dry British humor. I can illustrate this humor with a brief excerpt in which Roberts discusses the persecution of Christianity by the later Roman emperors:
"Christians noted with some satisfaction that their persecutors did not prosper; the Goths slew Decius and Valerian was said to have been skinned alive by the Persians (and stuffed). But Diocletian did not appear to draw any conclusions from this and in 303 launched the last great Roman persecution."