An improbable but readable farrago. Time editor Friedrich, who has a penchant for the apocalyptic (Decline and Fall is about the Saturday Evening Post; Before the Deluge, about Berlin in the 1920s), here evokes seven great historical cataclysms: the sack of Rome in 410 A.D., the early decades of the Inquisition (13th century), the Black Death, the Anabaptist uprisings in Germany (1525-35), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Russian revolution of 1905, and the ""Kingdom of Auschwitz."" At the entrance to this grim gallery, Friedrich puts an account of various ancient catastrophes, from the biblical Flood to the eruption of the Santorini volcano ca. 1500 B.C. (the biggest explosion of all time); and, at the exit, he presents a scenario for nuclear was--thus suggesting that all of human history has been written in blood and horror, punctuated by intervals of quiet. The separate tableaux are variously successful. Sometimes Friedrich gets lost in irrelevant detail (for example, in retelling the lives of Stilicho or Father Gapon), thereby smudging the bold outline of upheaval he's trying to sketch. He spends much time on the intricacies of late 4th century A.D. imperial politics--and proportionately little on the shudder of despair caused by the fail of Rome; he expands on Third Section skulduggery vs. narodnik terrorism--at the expense of a broad picture of Russia in the throes of revolution. On the other hand, his sections on the Inquisition and on Auschwitz are vivid and densely textured. Overall, readers expecting a profound comparative study of socio-cultural disintegration will be disappointed. But Friedrich has a vigorously cosmopolitan mind, which gives this uneven collection a quirky kind of life.