Sandwiched between Mother Teresa and Genghis Khan

These lists are designed to reassure us that the moment we inhabit is the most important
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HISTORY, AS they say, is what you can remember. The company responsible for the Millennium Dome has been trying to raise excitement by producing a television advert, which lists a decidedly odd selection of the most significant events of the last 1,000 years. Of course, they are not put forward in any serious spirit, but their eccentricity still makes you wonder about the sanity of the people in charge of this peculiar enterprise. First are the Easter Island statues. Then Westminster Abbey, Michelangelo, Sir Walter Raleigh's discovery of the potato, Shakespeare's sonnets, the invention of the sandwich, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, John Logie Baird, man on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid.

Hmm. A curious list, this, distinguished mainly by the incredible restraint which prevented the organisers including the Apotheosis of Tony Blair somewhere between the sandwich and the potato. The list mostly constitutes events achieved in or by the English-speaking world - I wonder who, outside England, would think of Westminster Abbey as constituting one of the most significant events even of the 11th century, let alone the millennium. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the building, but I can't entirely see the world-shaking significance of it. Odder still is the fact that almost half the list seems to have taken place in our lifetime. I suppose putting a man on the moon was quite an interesting thing to do, but Mother Teresa? Is the end of apartheid to be compared to the end of slavery? The inclusion of the sandwich is, surely, mostly to do with changes in our eating habits over the last fifteen years, and will look very odd indeed the next time our eating habits change.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is a more awkward fact to deal with. Certainly, the great flourishing of Marxist government deserves some kind of memorial, and one understands that the makers of television commercials want to be upbeat. But it's still hard to justify including an awkward fact with uncertain consequences like the fall of Eastern Europe to capitalism, rather than, say, the Russian Revolution, or, for that matter, the French.

The more one looks at these sorts of lists, of course, the more one realises that they are chiefly designed not to give us some kind of grasp on history but to reassure ourselves that the moment in history we inhabit is the most important. The fall of the Berlin Wall was certainly a huge event, but its inclusion, in preference to the Battle of Waterloo, say, can only be due to the fact that Sholto Douglas-Home, the marketing director of the New Millennium Experience Company, recalls seeing the one on television and not the other. It is something one might term the "Michael Owen" effect; the certain knowledge that, if one asked any group of schoolboys who the most significant personality of the last thousand years was, they would not come up with Napoleon or Darwin but with this year's fashionable footballer.

But all the same, it isn't entirely a pointless exercise, though the New Millennium Experience Company has done its best to make it seem so. It has the potential to be a much more meaningful list than, say, the 100 greatest novels or the best films ever made. History is meaningful, as the philosophers say, and some events have much more significance than others, produce greater consequences. I've come up with 10 events in history which might be on a serious list; only one happened in the 20th century, which might seem eccentric. It's right, though, to leave things out for the same reason that General de Gaulle is said to have refused to make any comment on the French Revolution; it's too early to tell.

First comes Alberti's codification of linear perspective and the vanishing point, after which no-one in the West ever looked at the world in the same way again. A universal shift in human perception like the one brought about by Alberti is, surely, the biggest event one can conceive of; after De Pictura, the world, and not just the means of its representation, was transformed.

Gutenberg's invention of movable type should be in anyone's list. Before Gutenberg, books were precious objects; afterwards, they were bearers of thought.

Next is the fall of Constantinople, which led to the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the learning of the ancients in Europe. People will tell you that the Middle Ages knew about the ancients, and some, such as Averroes, sort of did; the crucial thing was the systematic nature

of the Renaissance's learning. Then we have the Battle of Lepanto - the reason Europe is Christian and not Islamic - and the conversion of Iran and the return of Khomeini from exile, the consequences of which are only now beginning to be felt.

The discovery of anaesthetics is up there - I mean, just imagine the alternative, as is the Seven Years War, which is the reason the British had an empire, to everyone's benefit, and the reason the world speaks English and not French.

Then there is the realist novel, which is the greatest triumph of Western literature, and which, like Alberti's momentous discovery, changed the way everyone thinks of their own lives.

It hardly matters which example you choose, whether it be War and Peace or Der Zauberberg or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu; the crucial thing is the discovery of the form and the decisive break with the imagination of the past. Shakespeare's sonnets are the continuation of an ancient project; Stendhal is something new.

The two last events on my list, however, are rather unquantifiable. The first is something we conveniently call "the death of God"; the way God disappeared from the Western mind at some point in the late 19th century, leaving Darwin and Freud and a proper, grown-up respect for truth.

The last is a 13th-century bandit called Temujin, or, as we call him, Ghenghis Khan. The empire of the Golden Horde formed the Russian mind; you can see the consequences of the Tartar domination in Napoleon's campaigns, in the 19th century Great Game, in the foreign policy pursued by Russia today. The Russian mind was formed by the distant memory of Ghenghis Khan. It isn't given to many men to change the course of history for centuries after their death - Napoleon, Martin Luther, Hitler - but Ghenghis Khan undoubtedly did, and the effects of his empire will be felt as long as Russia exists.

On the other hand, I concede that a Marks & Spencer sandwich makes a more cheerful advert on the telly.