David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean.
This is an absolutely wonderful book on so many levels that it is difficult to review and give proper credit to the author's exhaustive learning. Abulafia has a complete grasp of the history, economics, and cultures of the Mediterranean into which he injects fascinating asides that constantly pique the reader's attention, sometimes making the book hard to put down.
The subtitle, A Human History, tracks the migration of peoples and ideas and the spread of religions across the region, which later found their way both north and south of the sea and thence to other parts of the world. The Great Sea covers the sweep of history from prehistoric times to 2010 and catalogues the changes in the lands bordering the Mediterranean and the islands in the sea. Abulafia divides his work into 'six Mediterraneans' that cover political, economic, and religious changes.
There was political unity only once on the littoral, during the Roman Empire from 146 BCE to the end of the 5th century, when the Romans called it Mare Nostrum, 'our sea.' The sea's center of gravity has shifted over the years from the east, when Phoenician traders (1000-700 BCE) were the transmitters of culture and materials, to the west. The Phoenician dominance was followed by that of Greece and Rome (c. 550 BCE-500 CE), and moved to the Islamic world (c. 700 CE) and the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire, and thence to the Italian maritime cities (c. 1100 CE), especially Venice, Genoa, and Pisa. Catalonia (c. 1200 CE), Spain (c. 1500 CE), and ultimately England (c. 1800 CE) were the later dominant powers in the region.
The Great Sea provides an enormous amount of information in palatable form, merging the political with the economic and personal aspects of each era and inserting interesting but significant anecdotes that other historians would brush off. Merchants, of course, were the medium through which products and culture were exchanged. Abulafia begins with the Phoenicians whose alphabet was adopted and adapted by the Greeks and further modified by the Romans. Products, styles, information, and religion continued to be transmitted over the Sea and filtered both north and south. The dominance of the Sea's different populations was like the Sea itself, constantly shifting direction.
With the 'discovery' of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries the importance of the Great Sea waned. European nations facing the Atlantic became more interested in the New World and a possible alternate route to the riches of the Far East. This preoccupation allowed expansion of Ottoman conquest in Europe up to the gates of Vienna in 1683. On the Sea, however, the Turks were defeated decisively at Malta (1565) and at Lepanto (1571). At Lepanto, the Turkish fleet was bested by a smaller Christian force, limiting Ottoman power to the eastern Mediterranean and contributing to the creation of independent Moslem pirate states on the northwest coast of Africa.
The lands bordering the Sea again became important in the late 19th century when the completion of the Suez Canal shortened the route from Asia to Europe. During this time North African nations were made colonies or protectorates of various European powers. As a consequence North Africa was the scene of some ferocious and decisive battles of World War IE When the war was over these nations achieved independence after bitter and bloody battles, especially in Algeria.
Abulafia has divided his work chronologically into six periods, ending in 2010, prior to the Arab Spring. He labels that time from 1950 on as The Last Mediterranean,' when the lands around the Sea became 'pleasure domes' or vacation areas for the wealthy and at the same time destinations for desperate emigrants from Africa.
There are a number of recurring themes that are frequently neglected by historians. I will mention two that I found important, though there are others. The first is piracy. Reading the Homeric poems it is clear that the accounts of cities and islands sacked by the heroes are nothing more than examples of piracy, and later, beginning in the late Middle Ages, piracy was sanctioned by states as a source of revenue. Mediterranean piracy was effectively ended in the early 19th century by an American fleet under naval commander Stephen Decatur.
The Great Sea is full of anecdotes and information that cast light on the real world of human beings, for example mention is made of the origin of pesto in Genoa which Abulafia describes as 'a product that speaks of poverty rather than wealth' (p. 271). He also notes the practical nature of Catalonian merchants' addressing problems in maritime law: 'If any property or merchandise is damaged by rats while aboard a vessel and the patron had failed to provide a cat to protect it from rats, he shall pay the damage' (p. 402).
Abulafia's command of his material reveals some surprising things. The Philistines are a people reviled in the Old Testament, and the pejorative 'Philistine' refers to someone hostile or indifferent to culture or the arts. The author asserts that the Philistines 'came from the Greek world... the kinsmen of Agamemnon and Odysseus... when they arrived and created a civilization... which long retained the imprint of their Mycenean origins' (pp. 56-57). He devotes much space to the influence of the Sephardic Jews (the author himself is from a distinguished Sephardic family that goes back to the 12th century). He gives space to the accidental discovery of a trove of documents found in a storeroom (Genizah) in a Cairo synagogue, among them an assortment of papers that have thrown light on everyday life and the nuts and bolts of trade and commerce, especially the trans-Mediterranean networks of merchants and traders.
There is so much more of interest in this magnificent work that reading it through will repay the reader many times. The author's conclusion, in 'Crossing the Sea,' adds that the history of the Sea is 'the story of the port cities in which merchants and settlers gathered and interacted (p. 643). He further states that 'the individuals who transformed the Mediterranean world were sometimes visionaries such as Alexander the Great and St. Paul,' and that the Sea 'played a role in the history of human civilization that far surpassed any other expanse of sea.'
Reviewed by: Aaron W Godfrey, Stony Brook University, USA
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|Author:||Godfrey, Aaron W.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2014|
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