Do you know when the French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais died in Paris? Yes, 1799, obviously - we all knew that - but do you know which day? No, I thought not; it was 18 May. Or do you know the day in 976 on which the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimisces, who was succeeded by Basil II and Constantine VIII, sons of Romanus II, died? It was 10 January. Part of the pleasure that vast chronologies of world history give is the sense that if you open the tome at any one of the pages, you will undoubtedly learn something you didn't know. The haul from the Great Train Robbery on 8 August 1963, for example, was £2.6m.
Another sense one gets in scanning these pages at random is that history really is, as Edward Gibbon thought, "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind". Between 8000BC, when barley, einkorn and emmer wheat were cultivated from wild cereals in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and 11 June 2004, when the Cassini-Huygens space mission started its four-year tour of Saturn's rings and satellites, mankind seems to have advanced and developed in every area except human nature. One wonders: were the thought processes of Saddam Hussein, as he tyrannised his people, in any significant way different from those of Draco of Athens in 621BC?
There are many good world chronologies in print at the moment, including those edited by Neville Williams, by Philip Waller, by David Reynolds, and by the Longman team, which combine impressive depth with comprehensive scale. What sets Hywel Williams's book apart is the analysis he applies to the avalanche of facts he presents. Astonishingly, considering its range, this is a one-man work, which allows Williams more leeway to insert opinions than with the committees and teams that generally compile such works. It is a highly authored work of reference, although Williams carefully delineates where the facts end and the author's own opinions begin.
Williams's thoughtful essays, dotted throughout the book, give structure and context to the overall work. A writer on history and politics for the Guardian, his views are likely to appeal to New Statesman readers more than they do to this reviewer, especially with regard to their scepticism about America's role in world history since the cold war and the positive remarks he makes in the conclusion, "Towards One World", about the coming collapse of the nation state.
Williams dates the rise of uniglobalism to the 1960s, and in particular to the US and Soviet space programmes. "Other, earlier, civilisations and empires established a dominant culture within their boundaries," he writes. "Those boundaries seemed to them the limits of culture itself. But the capacity to see a single world with one pair of eyes - a moment that perhaps first arrived when humans went into space in the 1960s - did have a deep emotional impact on such parochialism." If so, it is ironic that the United States might have itself sown the seeds of the destruction of unilateralism.
The role of religion is given centre-stage, perhaps in response to 9/11 and its aftermath. "In both east and west, the loudest and most effective universal voices of the age are those of politicised religions, which reinforce dogmatism and tolerate violence," he argues. "The emergent history of the 21st century shows that there can be no peace between the nations unless there is first understanding between the religions." As we are only one-twentieth of the way through the 21st century so far, I am not certain that any such general rule can be inferred to have emerged yet, but it is a sign of Williams's intellectual self-confidence that he states it.
Hard-pressed scholars, teachers, journalists and anyone else needing to save time in verifying a date or fact will turn to these 767 pages - more than a hundred of which are taken up by a very good index - and do so with ease. There are no fewer than 13,800 people, events or phenomena listed in the index, and despite making a huge effort to be as pedantic as possible, I could not spot any errors. Williams has also somehow compressed the ideas of the 100 most important thinkers in world history into 400-word explanations - an achievement in itself.
A factor that books such as this one underline about the teaching of history is that dates do matter. They are invaluable in locating a particular event in time and space vis-a-vis everything else, and they make narrative work. How much more poignant is the fact that the Great Fire of London broke out in 1666 when one recalls that the Great Plague had broken out in 1665. To have a sense of what came before and afterwards, of cause and effect, makes knowledge of any single event worthwhile, and that event more than simply a desiccated fact.
Chronology, as delivered by dates that can be learned by heart at school, gives history meaning. The setting in context of everything in human civilisation is why books such as this are invaluable, and this particular one is the best of the large crop available.
Andrew Roberts's Waterloo: Napoleon's last gamble is published by HarperCollins (£12.99)