On Top of the World

R.I. Moore celebrates the life and achievements of John Roberts, leading scholar of world history.

John Roberts, who died on May 30th, 2003, did more than any British historian since Trevelyan to advance the public understanding of history. As editor of Purnell’s History of the Twentieth Century, published in monthly parts between 1967 and 1969, and author and presenter of the television series The Triumph of the West (1985) he reached audiences that dwarfed those of his History of Europe (1996), The Twentieth Century (1999) and even his History of the World (1976, now in its fourth edition), which made world history respectable, and not only respectable but popular.

He did not succumb to either of the political extremes which were fashionable at different times in his life, and did not reduce his history either to sweeping generalities and over-arching hypotheses or to great men (or women) and saloon bar aphorisms. He made his appeal not by cultivating personal mannerisms or picking quarrels with other historians, but by offering strikingly clear, accurate and vivid but intellectually serious accounts of big subjects, resting on and reflecting the highest standards of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps that is why, despite the success of The Triumph of the West , he never became a regular ‘teledon’.

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