This book is a quick summary of European prehistory, ancient and early medieval history. I bought it chiefly for the prehistoric section (two thirds of the book). It is very readable and well illustrated, but so basic that it reminded me of a secondary school textbook (although a nice one). I didn't learn much. I was annoyed by the fact that Barry Cunliffe speculates a lot and gives his personal opinion everywhere, but not enough archaeological data that would allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Archaeological periods are usually mentioned without starting and ending dates, which I find unacceptable.
The first three chapters (86 pages) are not about history or archaeology, but consist of a boring description of European geography and geology. There is very little about the central European and Italian Bronze Age; only to sentences about the Unetice culture and not a single mention of the Tumulus culture (1600-1200 BCE), nor of the Terramare culture (1700-1150 BCE), two essential periods to understand the development of Celtic and Italic cultures. There is very little on north-eastern Europe as well.
For a book specifically about European (pre)history, I found that there was an undue emphasis on the Near East (Anatolia, Levant, Egypt) and much too little about Europe beyond Greece, Italy and the Balkans.
Cunliffe keep insisting that no major migration took place between the Pontic steppes and the rest of Europe, despite overwhelming genetic evidence to the contrary. He claims that Indo-European languages came with Neolithic farmers from Anatolia (p.137). This goes against all linguistic studies that date the split of Indo-European languages to 4000-3000 BCE from their Pontic steppe homeland, much later than the spread of agriculture to Europe (7000-5000 BCE). Archaeological evidence confirms that bronze technology, horse-riding, single graves and the rise of patrilinear hierarchical societies all originated in the Eurasian steppes, and moved progressively westward until reaching the Atlantic coast of Europe. Cunliffe reports all this in the book, but repeats obstinately that all this change happened without substantial migration.
On pages 99-101 and 111, the author argues that the Neolithic Greek and Balkanic populations descended directly from the Mesolithic population, and not from Near-Eastern immigrants. How could Indo-European languages spread with agriculture (as he believes) without a migration of population ? In fact, Cunliffe's claim has been completely disproved by DNA studies as well. The Balkans and Greece are much closer genetically to Anatolia and the Levant than to the rest of Europe. This much was clear beyond reasonable doubt when the book was written in 2007.
Barry Cunliffe even argues that the Etruscans did not have any Near Eastern origins. On p. 250, talking about the rise of the Etruscan civilization, he pompously and wrongfully declares that "it is now generally accepted that development was continuous with no influxes of new people". Not only is it not generally accepted, but once again DNA tests have confirmed a Near-Eastern origin both for modern and ancient Tuscans, but also for cattle lineages found in Tuscany today.
The author's dogged refusal to admit a spread of Proto-Celtic people, culture and language from central to western Europe has for consequence that his view of Bronze Age Europe is flawed from the start. On pp. 254-258, he is amazed at the similarity of weapons and feasting gears in Iberia, France, Britain and Ireland in the period 1200 to 800 BCE, and attempts to explain it simply by the existence of maritime networks. It does not ocur to him that this Proto-Celtic culture might have sprung from a common source. Maritime networks don't explain the presence of the same objects inland, far from the coasts. He also does the unforgivable mistake of illustrating the late Western European Bronze Age with a map of P-Celtic and Q-Celtic languages based on the earliest Roman accounts of Celtic languages dating from over 1000 years later ! It is unlikely that the P vs Q split had already occurred around 1000 BCE. How can a serious historian make such a basic anachronism ?
Without trying to nitpick, I noted that some dates were quite inconsistent in different parts of the book. For instance, on p.95 Cunliffe writes that farming reached Crete from Anatolia in 7000 BC, but on p.174 it is 6000 BCE. One thousand years is a long time for such an imprecision.
The next criticism focuses on the author's unrepenting Anglo-centrism. On p.181 he claims that "the earliest appearance of regular bronze-using economy is to be found in Britain and Ireland in the period 2200-2000 BC, after which it spread eastwards and southwards through Europe". The reality is quite different. The Bronze Age started in the Near East, Caucasus and Pontic steppe from 3500 BC, then spread to the Carpathians, Balkans and Greece around 3000-2500 BC, then Central Europe around 2300 BC, and only reached the Atlantic fringe around 2200-2000 BC. I don't know who is is fooling writing that it spread the other way round.
Along the same vein I was shocked to read this passage on p.28 : "At a simple level it would be possible to see the Mediterranean world - a centre of innovation from the third millennium BC - as a core for which the rest of Europe served as periphery. There is a degree of validity in this generalization. Extending the argument, one could say that things only began to change in the seventh and eighth centuries AD when the focus of innovation started to shift to the Atlantic fringes of Europe, where it remained until the end of the nineteenth century." What is he saying is that the Atlantic coast of Europe (the British Isles and western France and Iberia) led scientific/technological innovation in Europe from the early Middle Ages. This is just absurd. During the medieval period it was first the Byzantine Empire then Italy then progressively France and Germany that led innovation. Britain really started influencing the rest of Europe from the late 17th and early 18th century onwards, but along with France, Germany and Austro-Hungary. In France, new ideas came from Paris or eastern France, rarely western France. Iberia hardly led Europe through its scientific innovations, mostly because of the oppressing religious climate under the Inquisition.
Cunliffe speculates (e.g. p.139) that the Western European seafaring tradition and the social prestige attached to exploring unknown territories and colonizing them have their roots in the spread of farming during the Neolithic. In other words, he is suggesting that the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British colonialism can be explained by what people did 6000 to 8000 years ago ! I am not going to list all the aberrations contained in this book, but you will understand why I only grant it two stars. I won't give it only one star because the writing style is pleasant and the illustrations are nice.