The Great Sea

Bettany Hughes reads an epic history of the turbulent Mediterranean


Reviewed by: Bettany Hughes
Author: David Abulafia
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30


Mention the Mediterranean and eyes mist over; the liquid continent, the great green, the faithful sea, the bitter sea – the list of nominations for this body of water further proof that
the Mediterranean has a mythic quality.

As David Abulafia (professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge) makes clear in this magisterial work, the Mediterranean is mythic with good reason. Muthoi (myths) in ancient Greek do not just mean fairy tales but ‘points of information’, ‘observed evidence’ that explain the world.

The Mediterranean is the historian’s greatest friend – the place that allows written history to happen. And, as a nexus of trade and power-play from the Neolithic onwards, plenty of history has happened here. It is, at the same time, the progenitor of myths as we understand them.

Massive seismic incidents over the last 25,000 years have spawned tales of floods, mountains of fire, life-shattering storms – a sometimes beautiful, but often turbulent landscape that is the basis of the story-cycles of both east and west.

The ambition of this book is staggering. Taking human stories as his dynamic and the Mediterranean itself as his character, Abulafia charts a narrative line from the edge of prehistory – 4,000 years ago, to (almost) the present day.

Some specialists will find it frustrating that the author has to leap over periods in a hop, skip and a jump, but on each page there are nuggets: the origins of the word Palestine (synonymous with the Greek Pelasgian – a wanderer); and the fact that in the 11th century AD the valiant self-interest of Pisa and Genoa almost broke the Mediterranean’s pirate-culture.

There’s also a wonderful anecdote about ‘foreign’ merchants – Venetian, Byzantine et al –  typically being held in Egyptian lock-ups overnight, with Muslims turning the key, for fear of religious or political contamination.

The nuance given to the ebb and flow of power across the region is also admirable. Abulafia does not fall into the trap of forcing a teleological thesis on his subject. By taking each period in turn, he makes it clear that history is as much chance as design – and that the agency of maverick man and unpredictable mother nature has given the history of the Mediterranean a chequered and ever-evolving ecology.

There are particular treats. As the book progresses we get the sense that the Mediterranean itself is being bound in a tightening net, with an increasing congestion of rival cities all vying for the greatest catch. He sardonically points out that the UK, without an inch of Mediterranean shoreline, also once managed to be a major player in the region – with interests stretching from Gibraltar to Suez.

Of course this is a work never more relevant than now. Many of the hot-spots of human history have stayed constant, and constantly Mediterranean for thousands of years.

A rare moment of peace between Bronze Age Egypt and Libya is memorialised here: “Men can walk the roads at any pace without fear. The fortresses stand open… the walls and battlements sleep peacefully in the sunshine… the desert frontier guards are among the meadows where they like to be.” Even at a distance of three millennia it is still a hope for the southern and eastern stretches of the Mediterranean that we would recognise.

For my taste I could have felt a little more of a sea-breeze. Abulafia’s knowledge is encyclopaedic, but from time to time there was a touch of the armchair, rather than the ‘out there’ historian. A reference to Schliemann’s Treasures of Troy languishing in Soviet vaults could perhaps have been footnoted with the news that excellent replicas are now on sparkling display in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

But still, this book is a life’s work. For anyone with an interest in the Mediterranean, it is essential – and will provide a lifetime’s-worth of reference and genuine enlightenment.  

Bettany Hughes is the author of The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010)

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