Cyrus the Great: Persian super-king but a remarkably tolerant and sophisticated ruler who had the novel idea of learning from and protecting his subject peoples rather than simply squishing them.
Cleopatra: Not just a saucy baggage with great eyeliner, but a multilingual author and brilliant politician, fighting to save Alexandria, the most cultured city in the ancient world.
Sima Qian: The outstanding Chinese historian, a great source of facts and gossip. He chose the forfeit of castration after falling out with an emperor, entirely so he could finish his book. A bit extreme…
Ashoka: The great Indian ruler from around 260BC. Having led invasions and slaughters, he suddenly felt remorse (a new thing for a ruler) and converted to Buddhism, creating a briefly peaceable and fair-minded empire.
Edward Jenner: The great English doctor and natural scientist who discovered vaccination. He probably saved more human lives than anyone else who has ever lived.
Zheng: The prince of Ch’in who became China’s First emperor and is famed for the terracotta army built to guard him in death. The real founder of a single China but, unfortunately, a prize book-burning monster and paranoiac, too.
Julius Caesar: He may have killed a million people in his rise to power; after which he killed off the Roman Republic as well.
Genghis Khan: He changed the course of history more decisively than any other person. He destroyed civilisations and built nothing more than pyramids of severed heads.
Pizarro: …and the rest of the Conquistadors, who annihilated the native American civilisations and melted down their beautiful artwork into dull golden ingots, which in turn helped to destroy the power of Spain.
Mao: The most lethal man of modern times, though he shares the podium with Stalin and Hitler.
The Needle: Our Stone Age ancestors had axes, spears and bravado. But it was the humble needle, carved from bone, that helped push them ahead of the Neanderthals. With needles, you get clothes that fit, and can be worn in layers. Compared to a slab of animal fur, it’s far warmer and more flexible; and kept us alive when others died.
The Alphabet: People living in today’s Syria and Lebanon seem to have been the first to come up with the idea of squiggles to represent sounds, rather than pictures to represent things. Very clever, and it’s stuck.
The Telescope: Galileo nicked the idea from a passing Dutchman and improved it; but through it we first realised that we weren’t really the centre of the universe. Many of us are still getting over the shock.
Farming: If we hadn’t stopped hunting and picking fruit, and started poking seeds into the dirt and tying up goats to keep them close, we’d never have had the extra calories and numbers to produce villages, cities… and everything else we call history.
The Separate Steam Condenser: James Watt’s invention turned the steam engine from an inefficient machine for pumping water out of coalmines into the all-purpose driver of the industrial revolution. The modern world followed.