History of the Mediterranean: from interaction to frontier

If I ask you to close your eyes and think of the Mediterranean what images come to mind? Probably intensely blue sea, rich beautiful people on the beach, men in dinner jackets and women in cocktail dresses drinking martinis on the terrace of a luxury hotel with a view of the sea and distant mountains, or the paintings of Matisse and other great French painters? Or maybe this shows that I’ve been wholly bamboozled by the advertising of Club Med, because you might think of impoverished refugees, many of them children, drowning, Ulysses roaming the seas trying to find home, or Shelley drowning off La Spezia.

The Mediterranean evokes strong images because, as David Abulafia writes in his magisterial The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, it has been “the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet, and it has played a role in the history of human civilization that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea.”


His history is of the surface of the sea and the people who moved across. So we hear about the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans only in relation to the trading, travelling, and fighting over the sea. “The unity of Mediterranean history,” writes Abulafia, “…lies, paradoxically, in its swirling changeability, in the diasporas of merchants and exiles, in the people hurrying to cross its surface as quickly as possible.”

Abulafia identifies five Mediterranean ages. The first runs from 22 000 BC, when we first see signs of human travels across the Mediterranean, to 1000 BC. It includes the time of the mysterious “sea peoples.” The second Mediterranean (1000 BC to 600 AD) is the classical Mediterranean of the Greeks and Romans, and at one point the Roman Empire covered the entire coastline of the Mediterranean. The Pax Romana that controlled the otherwise constant piracy allowed massive interchange–of goods, gods, and ideas–across the whole sea.

The “dark ages” of the third Mediterranean ( 600 AD to 1350 AD) were far less dark than we’ve been led to believe and saw the rise of great cities like Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, Salonica, Smyrna, and Alexandria. In many of these ports Christians, Jews, Muslims, and peoples from every part of the Mediterranean lived in harmony. Trade bound them together.

The fourth Mediterranean (1350 AD to 1830 AD) saw the rise and fall of Empires: Venetian, Genoese, Ottoman, and Napoleonic. In the fifth Mediterranean (1830 AD to 2014 AD) the sea was prominent in both World Wars but particularly the second. I thought of my father fighting in North Africa.

Abulafia’s book is long, detailed, and covers a vast number of events. I was left with a swirling view of peoples, cities, empires, wars, and religions that left me recognising that events that seem so significant close up–like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump–will probably be insignificant compared with what has gone before.

Yet there is a sense that we are approaching the end of the story. The Mediterranean is already badly polluted, and climate change may well lead to the coasts of the Mediterranean being uninhabitable.

Abulafia’s conclusion is bleak: “The Mediterranean has ceased to function as a meeting-place of civilizations and as the home to a tight network of economic bonds. Ease of contact across the globe – physical contact, by air, virtual contact, through the Web – means that political, commercial and cultural contacts can be sustained rapidly across vast distances. In this sense, the world has become one big Mediterranean, and the Fifth Mediterranean is, or was, the last Mediterranean in which, in any meaningful sense, the world has revolved around the Great Sea. Seas both join and divide, sometimes more one than the other. The Mediterranean that has so often joined three continents is now a frontier dividing the continents from one another.”


I’ve been reading this book since October, and it’s inspired one “poem” https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/radhanites-a-lost-people/ and one account of the birth of the Suez Canal, when people saw East and West finally coming together. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/birth-of-the-suez-canal-marrying-east-and-west/


Considering its length, I didn’t take many quotes from the book-but these are those I did take:

Moreover, ‘decline’ can mean many things: the loss of political unity as great empires dissolved; a reduction in trade as demand withered; a lowering of the standard of living not just among the political elite but across most of society.

The Greek question was not ‘How are your gods different from ours?’ but ‘How are your gods the same as ours?’

The Venetians were beginning to create not just a distinctive city built in the water, but a distinctive culture and a distinctive polity, suspended between western Europe, Byzantium and Islam.

Guazzabuglia, a disordered mix of peoples and tongues.




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