Review:The Great Sea; A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia (2011) Assessment 9 out of 10

Despite its length (650 pages plus notes, plates & index), this is a very concise and readable book, which you sail through at a rate of knots.

 Mediterranean History is divided into five periods by times of disruption when there was significant change, the late Bronze Age Collapse, the end of the Roman Empire in the west, the Black Death and establishment of “European” colonies in the Mediterranean.  The book therefore takes the long view giving equivalent coverage to the deep past as to more recent events.

I think of Melos and the Lipari Islands, volcanic islands which were early sources of obsidian, and around which I have paddled.

Abulafia’s Mediterranean History focuses on power struggles, cities and trade. It concentrates on the sea itself rather than the hinterland of the Mediterranean world. There are continuities, slavery, piracy, the diaspora and return (to Israel) of the Jews and the continuing use of galleys, where the conditions of the rowers, whether slave or freemen, were dreadful.

There were thalassocries (sea powers) whose power was linked by sea routes, the first Minoan Crete, then Athens dominating the Delian League. There were city states, Etruscan, Greek and Phoenician, spreading their culture around the  Mediterranean. The Knights Hospitallers ejected from the Crusader Holy Land ruled in Rhodes then Malta. Venice traded into the east Mediterranean with Byzantium, then with the Ottomans. It ruled Corfu, Cyprus and Crete. The pattern was repeated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries with the Royal Navy in Gibraltar, Minorca, Corsica, Malta, Corfu, Cyprus and Alexandria.  

There is much on islands. In Sardinia defensive narraghi were built in the interior whilst port cities were built on the coast by Phoenicians and Romans. This was (and to an extent remains) a deeply conservative, fragmented, inward looking island, which I have crossed twice by mountain bike.  Control of Sicily was disputed in succession between Greeks and Phoenicians, Rome, Arabs and Byzantium, then Normans.  The Kingdom of Sicily was split between  the Aragonese in insular Sicily and Angevins in Southern Italy, in what became known as the  Kingdom of Naples, but still claimed to be the Kingdom of Sicily. In the 19th Century the two Kingdoms of Sicily were reunited as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Rome was unique in controlling the whole of the sea, but there were others, Byzantium, Aragon, the Turks and Russians, who dreamed of re-establishing such power. Despite references to Roman roads, Rome was a Mediterranean Sea power. Much later national states were created as land powers.

 There were cities with ethnically mixed populations, Genoa, Pisa, Livorno and Venice and in the Adriatic Ragusa/ Dubrovnik which provided access to the Ottoman Balkans. Some port cities lost their multi-cultural quality. Moriscos, former Moslems, were expelled from Valencia, Smyrna’s Greeks and Armenians were expelled or subject to population exchange. Salonika’s Jews were deported to the camps. Greek Alexandria, Lawrence Durrell’s multi-cultural city of his Alexandrian Quartet, has become an almost wholly Arab city.

Above all this long narrative history shows that the current disposition of nation states is not a final outcome, there was and will be alternative forms of organisation and other possibilities of state and territory.

The 15th century Aragonese Empire; a different territorial possibility

It was only during the Fourth and even more the Fifth Mediterranean, that the Sea was no longer the centre of its own world and instead a less important part of a wider world. Americans fought their first overseas war against the Barbary corsairs.

There is little on the unique ecology of the Mediterranean. Abulafia mentions eastward currents along the African coast and westward on the European side, but little else.  There are other Mediterranean histories which are more environmentally focused. His is a history of great men including Lysander who destroyed the Athenian navy at Aigospotamoi bringing the long Peloponnesian War to an end, Roger of Lauria, the Italian who won the War of Sicilian Vespers for Aragon, and Nelson.

There are other histories of the Mediterranean: this is certainly an important contribution to the genre. Worth reading for itself and as a key to unlock places and themes.

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