by David Abulafia
Oxford University Press, 2011, 650 pp., $34.05
A massive work of wide-ranging scholarship, David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is, as the title states, a human history of the Mediterranean, mare nostrum to the possessive Romans (and later, albeit less realistically, to Mussolini and the Italian fascists); yam ha-gadol, “the Great Sea”, to the Jews of antiquity and the Middle Ages; Akdeniz, “White Sea”, to the Turks; and Mittelmeer, “Middle Sea”, to the Germans. Sailors and airmen who fought for control of its waters in two world wars, and today’s Sub-Saharan African refugees who cross it to escape the brutal realities of their homelands, no doubt had and have more graphic names for it. The diverse names do more than amuse, however. They reveal the diversity with which peoples, cultures and civilizations have exploited the sea and been shaped by it. That is the underlying theme of this work by Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.
In geographic scope, The Great Sea deals with the Mediterranean proper, from the Straits of Gibraltar in the west to the Dardanelles and the littoral from Alexandria to Jaffa in the East. These boundaries are stretched on occasion to include Constantinople, Portugal and Britain because of their importance to the ebb and flow of Mediterranean commerce. The book’s primary concern is with what transpired on the Mediterranean and in littoral communities around its rim, with particular attention to major port cities: in rough order of chronological appearance, Tyre, Athens, Syracuse, Carthage, Alexandria, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, Algiers, Tunis, Salonika, Smyrna and Tangiers. The book’s coverage ranges from 22,000 BCE (that is not a typo) to 2010 CE, focusing on the last four millennia.
This scope is at considerable variance with that of French scholar Fernand Braudel’s classic The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (published in French in 1949 and in English in 1972), with which The Great Sea will inevitably be compared. Indeed, Abulafia himself touches on this comparison in the introduction, as is almost obligatory in light of the historiographical impact of Braudel’s work. Braudel was a leader of the Annales School from 1945, and of the “Sixth Section” of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, which he founded in 1962. His temporal focus in The Mediterranean was on the “long” 16th century, with a horizon extending through what he calls three scales of time: geological, structural and that of events, the latter being time as we ordinarily think of it.
Geological time measures developments in geography and climate, where change is very slow. Next comes structural time, measuring the rate of change of basic human structures, such as marketplace economics, feudalism, empire and the rise of the nation-state. Structural time moves more rapidly than geological time but far more slowly than events. Events like wars, revolutions, elections, epidemics and so on can move very quickly indeed; they can take our breath away when we find ourselves caught up and hurled forward along with them. Braudel’s premise was that we cannot properly understand events without considering the geographical and structural stages upon which the historical actors responsible for them played.
There is much to be said for that approach, at least in theory. Unfortunately—and this is Abulafia’s point of departure—Braudel displayed in practice “what almost amounted to contempt for political history, understood as ‘events.’” Though perhaps overstated, Abulafia’s complaint is valid, for Braudel treated political and military events almost as afterthoughts. His structuralism, informed by a kind of Marxist epistemology of history, sometimes verged on a form of determinism. The history of events often seemed to bore him, because they could not have been otherwise than they were. Braudel’s summary on the last page of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World puts it succinctly: “[W]hen I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand, fixed in a landscape in which the infinite perspectives of the long term stretch into the distance both behind him and before.”1 Abulafia rejects this orientation: “Whereas Braudel offered what might be called a horizontal history of the Mediterranean, seeking to capture its characteristics through the examination of a particular era, this book attempts to provide a vertical history . . . emphasizing change over time.” He has succeeded brilliantly.
In spatial terms, Braudel’s concern with structures led him far away from the Mediterranean proper, across the Alps and Pyrenees and into the Black Sea and its hinterland. Abulafia’s geographic focus, as we have suggested, is narrower. Embedded in his approach is a persistent concern with communities of merchants (Phoenician, Greek, Jewish, Italian, French, English and all the rest) and exploration of the dynamics of their co-existence with one another and with political authorities, particularly in the major port cities around which the life of the Mediterranean has revolved. The overlay of this concern on political and economic history produces a rich tapestry, as much social and cultural as political and military, producing a fruitful interpretive framework and yielding unexpected insights.
bulafia follows a five-part periodization: “Five Mediterraneans”, as he calls them. The first begins with the appearance of Homo sapiens and runs from 22,000 BCE to the end of the Bronze Age, around 1000 BCE. This section draws heavily on analysis of trade patterns found in archaeological evidence. Abulafia’s attention tends to fall on island civilizations: Sardinia, Malta, the Cyclades and Crete. This is no doubt partly due to the limited evidence that survives, but it also reflects a broader reality. Despite the paucity of written texts, Abulafia retains a human focus. Discussing the manufacture of stone tools, for example, he perceptively notes, “[T]raining in what seems a deceptively simple craft was no doubt as long and complex as that of a sushi chef.” Conversely, he pays little attention to the technology of war, unfortunately so since political power in most of the area of his concern was exercised for roughly a millennium and a half by charioteer elites armed with the powerful composite recurved bow. Chariots are mentioned in the context of Mycenaean grave offerings, and horses as a source of wealth, rather than as vital components of military and therefore political power. This is important because charioteers and their horses, grooms, chariot makers and bow-makers absorbed immense amounts of labor and wealth, a reality that shaped the structures of the societies they ruled. In fact, I am persuaded that the end of the Bronze Age revolved around the overthrow of charioteer elites by societies dominated by warriors who fought on foot.2 To the extent that the Siege of Troy was an historical event, that is what it was all about.
As Abulafia notes, the catastrophe was real. The wreckage of Bronze Age palaces enriched the archaeological record, but writing disappeared from most of the Mediterranean. Of the Bronze Age civilizations, Egypt alone survived, partly because Egypt’s warrior kings and their retinues had acquired the chariot and composite bow from their Hyksos conquerors before expelling them in 1570 BCE and partly because the Nile Valley’s agricultural surplus could support a charioteer elite.
Abulafia’s Second Mediterranean runs from 1000 BCE to 600 CE, encompassing recovery from the destruction of the First Mediterranean and the entire Classical Era, ending with the “dis-integration”, as he aptly puts it, of the Western Roman Empire. It is here that Abulafia’s portrayal of mercantile competition as the driving engine of peculiarly Mediterranean cultural diversity and political fragmentation takes shape, intermittently punctuated by alliances that served their participants well (however unlikely they may seem to 21st-century sensibilities).
The Phoenicians were the instigators of trade and literacy, pressing the boundaries of civilization far to the west, indeed beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. They were closely followed, or perhaps imitated, by the Greeks who added vowels to the consonantal Phoenician alphabet and introduced coinage to the process of commercial exchange. We follow the Greeks from Homer, or rather the world from which Homer drew his inspiration, though the Persian Wars. Abulafia rightly emphasizes the importance of grain to Greek civilization in general and to Athens in particular, arguing that locally produced grain was more important than we have been led to believe and that imports from the Black Sea were of vital importance to Athens only on occasion.
The establishment of Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean and their role in warfare and trade receives appropriate attention, but in the final analysis it was culture that counted most, for Classical Greece transferred its commercial customs, pantheon of gods and much philosophy to its successors. The Greeks also retained their mastery of the sea, a subject that could have received more of Abulafia’s attention. Long after the disappearance of politically independent Greek states (pick your end date: Philip of Macedon’s overthrow of Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE or the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE), Greek sailors and merchants played a major role in Mediterranean carrying trades, dominating them in the eastern Mediterranean throughout medieval times and into the modern era. It is indicative that mercenary Greek oarsmen served in considerable numbers in both the Christian and Muslim fleets in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
The Etruscans played a pivotal role in the Second Mediterranean, albeit a brief one in the great sweep of history, serving mainly as Rome’s launching point. Abulafia’s hypothesis for the Etruscans’ origins—that they were the remnant of a pre-Indo European civilization rather than emigrants from the East—is persuasive.
The impact on the Mediterranean of Alexander the Great and the rise of Hellenism is well handled, but two related points, one concrete and one speculative, bear special mention.
Abulafia notes that the founding of Alexandria as a major port city turned Egypt’s orientation outward into the Mediterranean from inward to the Nile Valley. That orientation proved remarkably durable, making Alexandria under the Ptolemys a major center not only of commerce but of learning, and enduring through the Roman era, the Arab conquest, Ottoman rule, British dominion and into the present era. The more speculative point rises from the remarkable naval establishment of Ptolemaic Egypt that included enormous oared warships, the largest of which were 130 meters long, operated by 4,000 oarsmen and crewed by 3,000 sailors and embarked soldiers. This monstrous vessel was exceptional, but we know from a variety of evidence, including the discovery of a large bronze ram off the Israeli coast, that fleets of huge oared warships were built and met in battle, notably at Actium in 31 BCE, where Emperor-to-be Octavian Caesar defeated Antony and Cleopatra. Such fleets would have depended on a resource base quite huge by the standards of the early modern era, or even today, for that matter. Inasmuch as the economies of the day were at base agrarian, that implies enormous agricultural surplus, a question that Abulafia might have explored further.
The more or less accidental (as Abulafia puts it) rise of Rome from an Etruscan vassal to the dominant power of western Eurasia and the only power to truly control the Mediterranean raises interesting questions about the inherent nature of piracy and just why it was that Rome, and only Rome, succeeded in suppressing it. It is in the Second Mediterranean that the Jews enter the main thread of the narrative as products of the Diaspora, dispersed around the Mediterranean and beyond, turning increasingly to commercial pursuits.
Abulafia’s discussion of the rise of Christianity from a sub-set of Judaism to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire is particularly insightful. As he points out, Emperor Constantine, under whose reign the pivotal changes occurred, could not immediately jettison paganism. He ascended the throne as the head of a pagan cult that regarded him as divine and to which he owed his grasp of power. The discussion of the interpermeability of pagan, Jewish and Christian practices and beliefs during the period of transition is enlightening.
Abulafia’s discussion of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the protracted survival of its eastern, Constantinople-based counterpart is unavoidably speculative to a degree, for the evidence for many important considerations is thin. He is nonetheless persuasive. The depredations of plague, not least Justinian’s plague of the mid-6th century, clearly played a major role, principally by means of demographically induced economic downturn: fewer people, less demand. But then so did incursions of Goths, Huns and Vandals.
he Third Mediterranean runs from 600–1350 and encompasses the rise of Islam, the Arab conquests and the Mediterranean’s remarkable economic recovery; it ends, appropriately enough, with the Black Death. Particularly interesting in this period is the unlikely rise to economic and eventually military prominence of small Italian mercantile city-states, beginning with Venice and followed by Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa.
The case of tiny Amalfi, really a collection of towns that used Amalfi’s harbor, is intriguing. That Amalfi flourished from 850–1100, with its merchants playing a major role throughout the eastern Mediterranean despite a small population and a restricted hinterland, is remarkable. Abulafia ably relates Venice’s remarkable history, too. The improbable rise of Pisa and Genoa merits more attention than it ordinarily receives, and gets it here, in particular for their role in clearing much of the Tyrrhenian Sea of Muslim pirates. Pisa and Genoa, working in cooperation, cleared Sardinia of Muslim pirate bases in 1013–16 in a campaign conducted with papal sanction in a manner anticipating the proclamation of the First Crusade. First Pisa and then Genoa were subsequently bypassed by stronger rivals, but they left their marks.
A partial explanation for the rise of the Italian mercantile city-states can be found in improvements in the technology of seafaring, more capable sailing vessels and the introduction of the compass from China from the mid-1200s. Abulafia mentions the adoption of elements of North Atlantic ship design in the form of the cog (cocka in Mediterranean terms), from about 1300, but nothing more. Also omitted is the pivotal role of the crossbow, which was less powerful than the long bow or composite bow but far easier to master and required no particular strength, thus enabling crews to defend their ships, replacing specialized—and expensive—warriors.
The Third Mediterranean witnessed the rise of Barcelona as a major entrepôt and the core of an emergent Aragonese Empire, later to form the Mediterranean arm of a Castilian-Aragonese Empire. It ended with the onslaught of the Black Death in about 1347, ironically brought into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea by Genoese merchant vessels. Abulafia gives as good an account of the Black Death and its impact as there is, noting that recovery from its depredations, featuring a resurgence of non-arable agriculture (that is, herding) was anticipated in the Mediterranean. In fact, the Mediterranean and Europe as a whole recovered from the Black Death in part due to developments in ship technology between the mid-14th and mid-15th centuries that made it economically feasible to ship large amounts of grain from areas of surplus to areas of famine, a point Abulafia does not mention.
The Fourth Mediterranean runs from 1350–1830, beginning with recovery from the Black Death, covering: the wars of the Italian mercantile city states and the Ottoman Empire’s heyday from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571; the Mediterranean as a theater in the Franco-British struggle for world hegemony; the wars of Greek independence with the attendant expulsion of Muslims, first from Greece and then from Crete; Russia’s foray into the Mediterranean; and the heyday of the Barbary Corsairs. This period encompasses a second Diaspora with the expulsion of Jews from Iberia starting in 1492.
Well received by the Ottomans, many of these Sephardic Jews settled in mercantile communities in the empire’s port cities, particularly Salonika and Smyrna. The period saw increasing English, then British and French, commercial involvement, further adding to social and economic complexity. There were dramatic changes in commerce, beginning with the appearance from the 1580s of heavily armed northern sailing vessels, many of whose captains and crews embraced Islam, operating as pirates from the Barbary ports and pressing Venice into slow but terminal decline before being put out of its glorious misery by Napoleon in 1798.
The Fifth Mediterranean, 1830–2010, began with the gradual dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and shifting Western attitudes toward that dismemberment. Following were the expansion of British and French influence in the eastern Mediterranean, with the construction of the Suez Canal and the reduction of Egypt to a British protectorate by force of arms in 1882 as a major benchmarks. Next came the Balkan Wars, closely followed by World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the turmoil that accompanied and followed the collapse, World War II, the creation of Israel, the Cold War, and the economic and cultural impact of northern European tourism from the late 1950s onward.
In Abulafia’s macro view, the Mediterranean became more fragmented and further removed from the global economic mainstream in this last era, serving increasingly as an avenue of transit between west and east. That, of course, overlooks a host of events—many of them cataclysmic to those involved. Abulafia captures much of the social and political turmoil on a human scale by examining the trajectories of, as he puts it, “four and a half cities”—Smyrna, Alexandria, Tel Aviv/Jaffa and Salonika—in one of the most engaging parts of the book. Of these, Smyrna, now Turkish Izmir, was first to go, torn apart by the Greco-Turkish War (1919–23) and the brutal expulsion of the Greek populace that followed. Salonika survived the First World War reasonably well despite involvement in the other side of the Greek/Muslim population exchange, but was swallowed up by the Second: its Sephardic Jewish community was liquidated nearly in its entirety in the Holocaust. Jewish Tel Aviv, founded in 1900 as an appendage to Arab Jaffa by Zionist emigrants, grew exponentially with the influx of Holocaust survivors after World War II, particularly from 1948 in the wake of Israeli independence and still more with the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world. Alexandria, a thriving multi-ethnic entrepôt at the turn of the century weathered both world wars only to see the steady diminution of its non-Muslim, non-Arab population under the press of Arab nationalism following King Farouk’s overthrow by military coup in 1952.
Abulafia then offers a poignant parting symbol of the Mediterranean’s marginalization in recent decades: the waves of sun-worshipping northern European tourists driven by two new technologies: inexpensive air travel and the bikini. The first brings them in, while the second threatens traditional social values.
hat to make of all this? A broad overview suggests periods of relative tolerance and inclusiveness alternating with periods of insularity and exclusion stretching back millennia, this in a region that is by its inherent nature decentralized and local in outlook. It also suggests that extra-Mediterranean players are often catalysts for major change: consider the Arab conquests, the Crusades, the rise of the Ottoman Turks as a maritime power, and economic and cultural penetration by northern Europe and then the United States in modern times.
The American role is different, it seems, from the others. As Abulafia shows, other powers, local and more distant, have used the Mediterranean more as a conduit of trade than anything else, with the military dimension following logically. The United States has never had a considerable economic interest in the area beyond oil; its military presence, sent to the region from further away than any Mediterranean power in history, derived from larger global strategic concerns. These concerns were of course Cold War-related, but they have not been exhausted by the end of that struggle. Nevertheless, the United States appears to be receding from the area, drawn to larger Pacific waters. Man does not live, and history does not proceed, by bread alone; but hardly does it do so either by the implements of war. Compared with even tiny Amalfi, Abulafia’s insight suggests that America’s lasting impact on the Mediterranean world may be slight indeed.
1The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World, vol. 2, p. 1,244.
2This is the central argument of Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton University Press, 1993).