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

July 17, 2013

The Great Sea

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean gives exactly what it promises. I seem to be picking out a lot of long books recently but this one is definitely worth a read if you have time in your life for several histories of Europe  (I would recommend reading Postwar first). Abulafia manages to cover the entire history of the peoples living around the Mediterranean over the course of 5,000 years from ancient times until the present decade. Managing to encompass so much time, space, culture, and history in about 800 pages turns out to be no small feat! But I think it’s done brilliantly in this book.

The Mediterranean is big. It shows up on easily on a map of the world, but I didn’t appreciate just how big until reading this book. Reliable navigation across the Mediterranean didn’t become possible until the rise of the steamship in the 1800’s. For the majority of human time spent sailing the sea boats were powered by sails (and often oars) facing unpredictable weather and extremely restricted seasons. The people making these perilous journeys are the focus of this book. The author spends most of his time detailing the trade routes and the people who used them. It sounds like it could venture into pretty boring territory, but the stories these people have passed on make the narrative a really engaging one.

The history of the sea is written in the lives of traders. They were the people who spread their own culture, either intentionally or not, and the great communicators bridging the gaps between nations. Additionally, the rise of trade was often accompanied by the rise of detailed written communication. Those with important possessions often want to write detailed inventories and instructions to those transporting goods. Abulafia follows the birth of several new literate civilizations in the Mediterranean such as the Minoans, Ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, and the mysterious Etruscans. Not a single one of these great cultures develops in isolation, all of them are connected through complicated networks of sharing, trading, and communicating. Through adventurers and sailors, especially those that settle down in a foreign land such as the Jews of Alexandria or the Greeks of Sicily, cultural practices and beliefs are disseminated across the sea.

The book is divided into five sections, each telling the story of a “different Mediterranean”. The first is the Mediterranean of the ancient peoples such as the Mycenaeans, the rise of the bronze age, and the age of heroes. The second Mediterranean is the one of the ancient Greeks which then becomes that of the Romans and their trading partners at Carthage. The second age comes to a close with the fall of Carthage during the third Punic War. The third Mediterranean rises with Islam and the power over the sea shifts back to the East. The fourth Mediterranean is brought in by the Crusades, with the west regaining the power over the main shipping routes and politics. The fourth era also covers the ries of the Italian shipping powers such as Genoa and Venice and the roles they played in Europe’s great wars of the 1600’s-1800’s. The fifth (and final) Mediterranean is the one linked to the rest of the world through the opening of the Suez Canal. The canal made the Mediterranean into a large channel for shipping from east to west and globalized access to the “European” sea. The fifth era spans the 1800’s and 1900’s through both World Wars and into the 21st century.

This book covered a lot of history very quickly. I had learned about a lot of the wars/conflicts/incidents in various history classes before but I did find myself looking a lot of things up as I read to make sure I truly knew what he was referring to. This was a tough book to read but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t really interesting and enjoyable. I had heard about a lot of the events before – like the rise of Venice, the Peloponnesian Wars, the fall of Carthage, the cultural hub of Alexandria – but I had never seen them all presented together as one history through the lens of the Mediterranean. I really enjoyed the fresh perspective and I felt like I was surprised at every turn.

This one sea has been the home to so many religions, cultures, wars, diaspora, massacres, and peace treaties and has seen so much history, it’s a study worth taking the time for. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves history. It’s such a new way to look at the creation of the modern world, and I can definitely appreciate it a lot more now.


From → Non-Fiction

  1. I’m astonished that someone besides me read Postwar. Thanks for telling me about this one. I’ve got a huge list of books I have to read and review, but eventually I’ll get out from under and this will be on my list. Thanks again.

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