65 pages 2 hours read

E.H. Gombrich

A Little History of the World

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide


First published in German in 1935, A Little History of the World tells the story of human history to children. Historian E.H. Gombrich was first inspired to write this book at age 26, when he attempted to describe the complicated nature of his studies to a child and found the challenge interesting. Though Gombrich is most famous for his expertise in the field of art history, this early work has impacted generations of children and adults with its relentless enthusiasm and curiosity for the history of the human experience. Translated into many languages, Gombrich’s history marvels at both the events of history and their implications. Beginning with the Stone Age, Gombrich summarizes humans’ most impactful moments—the good and the bad—while imparting lessons and encouraging the reader to question what it means to be human. This guide refers to the 2008 Yale University Press edition.


Gombrich begins A Little History of the World by laying out how the foundations of human society were built by the innovative Prehistoric humans. He then dedicates Chapters 3-6 to some of the earliest and most impactful early civilizations: the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Jews, and the Phoenicians. While each of these societies had its own unique culture and history, Gombrich emphasizes their shared influence on today’s world by describing what they left behind, including monuments, religion, writing, technology, and more.

In Chapters 7-9, Gombrich delves into the history of Ancient Greece and its conflicts with Persia. He introduces his history of the Greeks by telling the story of a 19th-century businessman who believed, when no one else did, that Homer’s stories of Troy were real, emphasizing his intent for the reader to find the same fascination and intrigue in history that they do in stories. He describes the culture and influence of the Athenians with great admiration.

Chapters 10-11 turn to the East, as Gombrich frames the ancient worlds of India and China through the lives of significant people: the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-tzu. He focuses on the philosophies for living that each person advocated for and compares them. In doing so, he provides context for how their ideas grew to be influential in their respective cultures. In Chapter 12, Gombrich describes how the Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens descended into conflict that significantly weakened them, thus allowing for the successful invasion of the Macedonians, who would soon be led by Alexander the Great. Chapters 13 and 15 introduce the next great empire after the death of Alexander, the Romans, and describe the political and social landscape that accompanied it. In between these chapters, in Chapter 14, Gombrich digresses to discuss the first emperor of China, Shih Huang-ti, and his futile attempts to suppress the past.

Chapters 16-17 continue to discuss life in the Roman Empire, but moving from B.C. to A.D. Gombrich marks this shift in time by dedicating Chapter 16 to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived under the rule of Rome. He goes on in Chapters 18-22 to summarize how the invasion of the Huns led to the fracturing of the Roman Empire and the advent of the so-called “Dark Ages.” He describes the changes that developed during this time period, including the spread of Christianity, and in Chapter 20 he gives an overview of Mohammed and the creation of Islam. Chapters 21-22 discuss the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the invasion of the Mongols from the East. Chapters 23-25 describe Medieval life, including the Age of Chivalry and the emergence of the merchant class.

In Chapters 26-28, Gombrich focuses on the big changes of the Late Middle Ages that would prove to change the world. First, he describes the Italian Renaissance and how it was a return not only to Greek ideas about art, but also to their ideas about philosophy and the natural world. Chapter 27 begins with Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World, and Gombrich lays out how the race for power and wealth in Europe was now increasingly dependent on global trade and exploration. Finally, Chapter 28 summarizes the Reformation and the fracturing of the Catholic Church that would lead to decades of conflict.

The immediate effects of the Reformation are outlined in Chapters 29 and 30. In order to push back against the Protestants, the Catholic Church created a movement for the rehabilitation of the old Church, calling it the Counter-Reformation. The faith of a country’s ruler and its people became a political issue, leading to conflicts like The Thirty Years’ War. Chapter 31 compares the very different fates of King Charles of England and King Louis XIV, illustrating the changing relationship between the nobility and their subjects. Finally, in Chapter 32, Gombrich addresses Russia for the first time, describing the rule of Peter the Great and his success in bringing Russia onto the world stage.

Chapter 33, titled “A Truly New Age,” explains the fundamentally different ideas about human rights that were introduced in the 18th century, a shift known as the Enlightenment. These new ideas about equality influenced rulers across Europe, with the notable exception of France; in Chapter 34, Gombrich describes the violent French Revolution, where the aristocracy was executed in the streets. Chapter 35 depicts the surprising shift from France’s groundbreaking new republic to the rule and eventual empire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Chapters 36-39 bring us to the modern age. Gombrich describes how the invention of the steam engine and automated machinery changed the economy and the labor force. He then explains how the insatiable desire for more profit led Europeans to attack China and Japan in order to force trade. Finally, Chapter 39 discusses the ultimate consequence of shifting global relationships and invention: the devastation of the First World War. At the time of the original publication, Gombrich’s story ended here, but when the English translation was published, he included a final chapter that reflected on some of the enormous changes that had happened during his lifetime. He marvels at the improved quality of life for Europeans, but he laments inventions like the atomic bomb. He ends the book near the end of his life, asking the reader to be better so that human history may be better.