Tag Archives: Mediterranean History

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

Mediterranean means “between the lands”. The Romans called it Mare Nostrum – our sea; the Turks called it the White Sea; the Jews the Great Sea, the Germans the Middle Sea and the ancient Egyptians the Great Green. Since then it has been known as the Corrupting Sea, the Inner Sea, the Bitter Sea and the Liquid Continent. In this magnificent book, David Abulafia brings all those meanings to life again.

 Corruption in its different avatars plays a significant role in David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a tribute to the Mediterranean’s capacity, over 3,000 years, for revealing the imagination, resilience and ruthlessness of its human populations, from cave-dwellers in the Rock of Gibraltar to those entrepreneurial Chinese who recently acquired the Piraeus docks from a cash-strapped Greek government.

Abulafia’s concern is with the layered experience of successive generations testing the sea as a source of survival, as a bearer of promises and rewards, rather than with these waters as an ecosystem swayed by currents and geology. He challenges the orthodoxy established half a century ago by Fernand Braudel in his monumental multi-volume work on the same subject. The French scholar’s gloomy assertion that “man is imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand” is convincingly dismissed. Political initiative, rather than resistless fate, the present writer suggests, determined not just the importance of Mediterranean cities and settlements but their actual locations.

As he says early on, “Mediterranean history can mean many things”; fortunately for readers he has taken it to mean a study of human life, civilisation and endeavour, rather than a worthy economic survey. A professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University and biographer of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even daringly. As he puts it, his is a “history of the Mediterranean Sea rather than a history of the lands around it; more particularly a history of the people who crossed the sea and lived close by its shores in ports and islands”. It is indeed this, and much more.

From 2,500BC little ships were on the move, growers and makers as well as traders travelling to sell their goods. Olive oil moved alongside stinking fish sauce and wine and silver and pots and plates and even amber from the North. Coins and the idea of coins, as opposed to blocks of precious metal, went by sea; the Greeks in Southern Italy were especially keen on them. Spices came out of the East, but they also went back: saffron was shipped to Syria from the fields around the towers of San Gimignano. Grain travelled North from the rich Nile delta, from Sicily and Sardinia; when the Vandals in North Africa controlled the flow of bread to Rome, they had the city by the throat.

The sea was the heart of things, the cradle of our kind of western civilisation, and endlessly busy. Death travelled; sometimes it’s possible to name the ship on which plague arrived. Ideas travelled, too: a mad kabbalist who needed to see the Pope to proclaim himself Messiah, the Cathars whose dualist worldview may have been imported along with the Bogomil exiles from Constantinople.

Byzantine images influenced Jerusalem. The cathedral at Pisa was decorated with fine, shining Muslim ceramics just as the Crusades were starting. The notion of an alphabet, then the idea of vowels, had to be carried around the Mediterranean long before there was a lingua franca for trade. And so it goes on. People are at the core of the book.

 The ethnic links and trading bonds that emerged across the Mediterranean over the centuries are shown by Abulafia to be equally influential and lasting in forming the essence of the place as the physical elements that constitute it. People do leave their mark on the land just as much as the land (or sea) forms their character. Surely Braudel and Abulafia are reaching the same conclusion from different angles; man and nature are intertwined in ways which we can only appreciate, but must seek to understand.

 Whether Abulafia has succeeded in writing a solely human history of the Mediterranean is difficult to accept. Is it possible to remove the geography from the history of a geographical entity, or is this kind of history an effort to redress a balance between man and nature? Complex and, probably, pointless questions. This is a very well-researched and consistently argued analysis of the development of civilisation along the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the learning and detail is not over-bearing, but rather engrossing and captivating. The vision and scope of this history is reciprocated with literary style and imagination. In short, a very good read.

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, by John Julius Norwich


The Mediterranean has nurtured three of the most dazzling civilisations of antiquity, witnessed the birth or growth of three of our greatest religions and links three of the world’s six continents. This work tells the story of the Middle Sea itself – a story that begins with the Phoenicians and the Pharaohs and ends with the Treaty of Versailles.

Beginning with the island of Crete, Norwich charts the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman world; he seamlessly mirrors the decline of the Roman Empire in the west with the continuing splendor that was the Byzantine Empire in the east, and chronicles the rise of Islam culminating in  the centuries long struggle for power in the middle sea. Much of the book focuses upon the efforts of the western powers to stem the tide of Islamic advance, the crusading movement is explored at length, and the failure of the Papacy and the west to adequately support the bulwark that was Constantinople is rightly condemned. Culminating in the disastrous conquest of the Byzantine capital in 1204, an event from which the Byzantine state never fully recovered, the ill-considered semi-religious desire of Christianity to reclaim the Holy Land is demonstrated to have been both self-defeating and pointless.

St Marks Venice

The rise of La Serenissima, the maritime empire of Venice is clearly a favoured topic, as is the cultural melting-pot of Sicily under Norman rule. It is in his description of the glories, follies and might-have-beens of these two unique entities the Norwich truly excels. One can sense his admiration, hope, and disappointment, and really touch the Kings, Queens and Doges he depicts.

Even at its zenith, the Mediterranean was being supplanted as the centre of the world. When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, he sounded the death knell for Mediterranean as the pre-eminent waterway of the world. From now on, trade routes gradually moved towards the Atlantic, and the eyes of the world moved hither also. Though not a backwater, the middle sea now witnessed a gradual decline in the relative strength of its inhabitants. The Italian maritime powers slowly sank into glorious decline, the Sublime Porte controlled the east by sea, and inched it’s armies forward by land.

It would be pointless, and cruel, to recount the story to the present, as Norwich himself does it with greater skill than I can muster. It requires tremendous knowledge and confidence to consider researching and writing such a book, but John Julius Norwich is as worthy as anyone to attempt a history so vast and complex as any history of the Mediterranean must be. Previously, he has written on the Byzantine and Venetian empires, as well as the short-lived Norman kingdom in Sicily and Southern Italy. More than this, he possesses the breadth of vision and simultaneous attention to detail that is required for the task of narrative history. Norwich has a knack for story-telling; he is ever enthusiastic, humourous and compassionate, he writes with colour and imagination he has style.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453

Most importantly, he recognises the limits of his endeavour. His is a personal history, it focuses on those events, trends, and personages that appeal to the mind of the writer; it ignores much, and gives a passing nod to even more. Yet it acknowledges these flaws, if flaws they are. The parameters of geography and time always are problematic – it is impossible to discuss Mediterranean history with any confidence if one constantly drops threads once the physical boundaries of the sea are not visible. Policies in London, Paris, Madrid etc. are fundamentally relevent to events in the Mediterranean itself. Norwich is not troubled by this, and nor should he be. A history that includes even the most important events in recorded history from every angle would run to many volumes, and the personal touch would be lost.

But thankfully Norwich never loses this touch. He enthralls and transports the reader to a time when the Mediterranean was much more than beaches full of irritating tourists, extravagant yachts, and monster cruise ships. Perhaps the Mediterranean of the mind is now more glorious and romantic than the reality, but if you can find a piece of untouched beauty, or unadulterated architecture somewhere along that long shore, bring this book with you, and read.