With its multi-ethnic ports, the Mediterranean sea was once the centre of western civilisation. David Gilmour reviews a new work that charts its decline into fragmentation and nationalismby David Gilmour / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
This Roman mosaic from the third century depicts Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship to resist the call of the sirens
The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
by David Abulafia (Allen Lane, £30)
Scholars who write histories of the Mediterranean run a similar risk to those who describe the decline and fall of empires. Both are likely to be compared unfavourably with the established masters in their fields, in these cases Fernand Braudel and Edward Gibbon. One option open to them is iconoclasm, a brave and brazen assault on their widely revered predecessor; another, less dangerous, is to write a very different book with very different emphases.
Happily, David Abulafia has chosen the second path. His new, highly impressive book, The Great Sea, is difficult to compare directly with Braudel’s two-volume work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which was published over six decades ago. Abulafia’s is a narrative history rather than a panoramic picture of the 16th century; it is also, as its subtitle stresses, a human history in which all peoples as well as all corners of the sea make their appearances.
Braudel tended to be aloof from the people he wrote about. He was fascinated by winds and currents whereas Abulafia is more interested in how these phenomena affected merchants and sailors. From Braudel we discover the altitude at which chestnuts will grow in the northern Apennines; from Abulafia we learn that the word “currant” derives from Corinth and “argosy” from Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) rather than from Jason and the Argonauts.
Braudel was a leading figure in the Annales school of historiography, developed by French scholars in the 20th century. Those in the school believed in the longue durée (long term): a determinist view of history that emphasised social structures and downplayed the significance of events and individual decisions. Yet for Abulafi…