The most annoying thing about this overambitious effort is not that it begins with the words ""About two million years ago,"" but that what comes after is so relentlessly conventional. Wedgwood (A Coffin for King Charles, Cromwell) has no grand theme or vision to guide her story, other than the rather ridiculous one of taking us from a bunch of near-apes to Renaissance Man. That end point in itself betrays her otherwise praiseworthy effort to include the Middle East and Asia in her survey, since it is ultimately European history that provides what thread there is. Jamming so much into a modest-length volume, Wedgwood writes in short declaratory sentences that are inelegant and less convincing than their assurance is meant to suggest. For example, discussing the T'ang Dynasty in China and the influence upon it of nomads, she says: ""The tribal organization of the nomads was the basis of their military strength. They were herdsmen, but they were also, all of them, soldiers. The T'ang conceived the idea of a peasant army for China. They split the land up into small units, allocated to peasant families. On the death of the father the land reverted to the state."" And so on (including the characteristic non sequitur). This kind of writing gives the impression that everything Wedgwood knows about any particular item is exhausted in what she says. The conventionality of her story is also manifest in throw-off descriptions of the characters: Nefertiti was ""a most lovely creature""; Plato possessed an ""original and richly furnished mind."" For the most part the narrative consists of a familiar progression of rulers, religious figures, and poets or artists. Any decent enclyco-pedia would do better.