Today, The Washington Post proudly becomes the first newspaper in America to officially jump the gun on the end of the millennium. We can now reveal the winners in such categories as man of the millennium, book of the millennium, mistake of the millennium and so forth. That there are five years left in the millennium is a trivial technicality, like when they wait for the Electoral College to vote. In short, we're calling it a wrap.
He was born a barbarian, son of a small-time warlord. When his father first saw him, he was gripping, in his tiny fist, a clot of blood. An omen, thought the father.
The boy grew up strong and fierce. His people were nomads, roaming treeless wastelands on horseback, living in tents. They had no written language. They fought constantly with other tribes. Life was brutal and short.
When the boy was 12, his father and the men he led died in combat. The lad escaped by jumping into a lake, and submerging. He breathed through a hollow reed.
Nothing could have been more improbable at that moment than the notion that this young man would someday rule the largest empire the world has ever known, and earn from his people a name that means "perfect warrior" -- Genghis Khan. Nor could he possibly have suspected that, eight centuries later, he would be selected the Sunday Style Man of the Millennium for the Second Millennium A.D.
(Pause for befuddled silence.)
When picking a singular person of the millennium, it's important to comprehend what the millennium was all about. It was about so many things. It was a thousand years of plagues and wars and genocides, of empires rising and falling, of technology, of intellectual enlightenment, of capitalism and industrialism and democracy. When it was good, it was very good. When it was bad, it was ferociously evil.
Many candidates for Person of the Millennium leap from the pages of history, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr. Do you pick Leonardo da Vinci, as the apotheosis of the Renaissance mind? Do you pick Joan of Arc, the girl who united France and triggered the emergence of nationalism? Thomas Jefferson, author of the millennium's most electrifying manifesto?
We considered Victoria, charismatic ruler and bulwark of the greatest empire of the millennium, whose name alone stands for uncompromising moral authority.
We considered Newton, Darwin, Mendel. But science was only one of many important intellectual developments during the second millennium. One could make a case that humanism -- the emphasis on man as opposed to the airy theological discussions of God and angels and saints -- was a more basic development that distinguished the second from the first millennium. Petrarch, an Italian poet of the early 14th century, is considered the first humanist. Among other things he collected ancient manuscripts, even found some stuck in old monasteries, and played an important early role in shaking Western civilization out of the miasma of the Dark Ages.
Yet it seems a bit bloodless, a bit too delicate, to pick a scientist or a thinker or a big talker as the symbol of a millennium in which the world so dramatically, violently and irreversibly changed. Forget all the isms like capitalism and nationalism or even multiculturalism: The big story of the past millennium is that a single species fully exerted its will upon the Earth.
Man seized his world, conquered it, bent it and reshaped it. Man gained dominion over nature in a manner that before had been merely the wishful language of Scripture.
Consider that for 3 billion years, life had never surpassed the parameters of a single cell; for the next 600 million years, animals invaded every niche of every ecosystem. Yet it was only in the past thousand years that the large-brained primate known as Homo sapiens gained the tools to reshape the world according to its fierce appetites and cravings.
A thousand years ago there were only about 300 million human beings on the planet. "Civilization" existed in pockets, and in many of those places was barely worth the title. A person could expect to live to 25 years of age. There was not enough to eat. Energy came from animals and one's own brute strength. Freedom as we know it did not exist; most of the human race lived in some form of enforced servitude.
What is most dramatic in hindsight is that the people of the world did not know where they were. Forget the question of who we are or why we are here; people hadn't yet even figured out their location.
Europeans, for example, had the most cockamamie notions of what lay far to the east. Their maps showed regions where giants roamed, and if you went even farther east, said the maps, you'd run into Paradise itself. Some feared that below the equator, ships would melt. The dominant characteristic of the world, for human beings, was that it was exceedingly large and mysterious, the vast majority of it inaccessible to any one culture.
Now look at the world today: It's small. In the past thousand years, the world shrank. How did this happen? How did a species of 300 million raggedy-butt people turn into a force of 6 billion souls?
This is the context in which we searched for the Man of the Millennium: Someone who made the world smaller, who moved people and technology across the surface of the Earth, who advanced man's dominion over a big planet.
There is a more obvious person who fits this description. Christopher Columbus linked two hemispheres that had been in isolation since the disappearance of the Siberian land bridge in Paleolithic times. (The Viking voyages at the end of the first millennium don't count for much, because the Vikings didn't know what they had stumbled onto.) Columbus's immediate impact was profound and, for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, devastating. Diseases leaped oceans; so did exotic plants and animals, from sugar to tobacco to potatoes to horses. The brutal slave trade created an African diaspora. The Columbian adventure triggered an age of discovery and exploitation, which, along with other factors (such as European mastery of the art of killing people) led to the European colonization of much of the globe.
So Columbus might be a defensible, if somewhat boring, choice. The problem with Columbus (other than the feeling that he's already gotten too much press) is that his achievement had a stunt quality to it. He was kind of the Evel Knievel of his day. More importantly, he was not the first European explorer. He just went left when everyone else went right. Vasco da Gama had already sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Cheng Ho had made it from China to the eastern coast of Africa. The Azores and Canary Islands had been discovered and peopled already, providing way stations across the Atlantic.
Why did Columbus think that he might find China across the ocean? Because (in addition to making a major computational error about the size of the Earth) he had read of the travels of Marco Polo about two centuries earlier. Columbus kept a well-annotated copy of Polo's book, with its extravagant descriptions of the court of Kublai Khan.
Polo could not have made that journey -- nor could Chinese technologies such as the compass, gunpowder and printing have filtered into Europe -- had Islam remained an iron curtain between East and West.
One must remember that a thousand years ago, the two dominant civilizations on the planet were Islam, which spread from what is now Spain all the way to India, and China, the most advanced and ancient civilization of all, which was administered by an elaborate bureaucracy that transcended dynasties. Christian Europe? A backwater. A bunch of fiefdoms, bishoprics, baronies. The Holy Roman Empire was the poor man's version of the real thing. No one would have gambled a thousand years ago that the Christians of Europe would go on to colonize the planet.
What shook the whole thing up was the arrival of an entirely new empire. Its appearance in world history was brief -- some would say ephemeral. But it changed everything.
It was the empire of the Mongols -- the empire of Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan was a doer.
"By the time of his death, in 1227, he had become the greatest conqueror the world has ever known," writes J.M. Roberts in the Penguin History of the World.
Genghis Khan reached out and touched countless lives. Ended them, in fact. His efficiency for slaughter was unparalleled in his day and prefigured the horrors of the 20th century. His military genius no one doubts. He unified the Mongol tribes, created an army using a decimal system, with units of 10 men, 100 men, 1000 men and 10,000 men. Though usually outnumbered, his people were, on their horses, swifter and meaner. Where Persian towns stood he left pyramids of skulls. When it came to diplomacy he was not exactly, shall we say, Warren Christopher.
Like Columbus after him, Genghis Khan shrank the world. Though he died at 60 before the expansion was complete, Khan's empire at the close of the 13th century stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe, from Siberia to the Persian Gulf. At one point a Mongol platoon entered what is now Austria. It was a territory that dwarfed the empires of the Romans, of Alexander the Great, of Islam, even of the Soviet Union.
He and his descendants created a vast free-trade zone across Eurasia and greatly enhanced the linkage between the civilizations of the East and West -- a medieval GATT. "He had certainly created a potential free trade area of unlimited extent. To the diplomat, the mercenary, and the merchant, here was a virgin field," writes Ronald Latham in his introduction to "The Travels of Marco Polo."
"It was so great an empire," writes Roberts, "communications were the key to power. A network of post-houses along the main roads looked after rapidly moving messengers and agents."
The Mongols, in other words, pioneered global communications seven centuries before the invention of the Internet.
In China, the Mongol occupation, though relatively brief, forever convinced the Chinese that all that was foreign was bad and all that was Chinese was good, and effectively ended any possibility of Chinese colonialism.
"It interrupted China's elaboration of its technology and wealth. The conquest was a bloody affair. The Mongols did not administer China in such a sophisticated fashion," understates William H. McNeill, author of "The Rise of the West."
It was a horror, and it consigned much of Asia to isolationist irrelevance, resulting in the primacy of West over East, arguably the most momentous development of the millennium.
The Mongols had another immediate, disastrous impact on Europe: the Black Death. The plague bacillus spread from the Orient through the Mongol nomads to Europe. The wiping out of a third of Europe's population had the odd effect of increasing the value of any one person's labor, broke the back of the feudal system and harkened the rise of capitalism. (An important rule of history is, what is bad is good.)
Yes, it is true that our Man of the Millennium was not the most benevolent person of his age, or the deepest thinker, or the grandest liberator. Indeed it is true that he was a thug. But history is often made by thugs; history is not just a tale of saints and geniuses and emancipators.
As an apostle of the extremes of the last thousand years, there exists no better candidate that Genghis Khan, who embodied the half-civilized, half-savage duality of the human race. What is remarkable about the rise of the species is not that we developed sophisticated technology but that we have used it, repeatedly, in every century, for the primitive purpose of killing people. For human beings, the physical conquest of the Earth is nearly complete -- but not the emergence from barbarism.