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
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 Abulafia, events and the behaviour of individuals are the things that matter most; he recognises the human capacity to mould history even for the long term. A speech by an 11th-century pope in France gave the Mediterranean several centuries of Crusades.
The Great Sea tells an epic story lasting over 4,000 years. It begins with the Trojans and the Minoans of Crete and then accompanies the Phoenicians and the Greeks as these intrepid mariners chase the sun westwards and establish colonies far from their birthplaces in the Aegean and the Levant. The high point of the narrative is reached—alas a little early in the book—when Rome encircles the sea with its acquisition of Egypt and the Emperor Augustus establishes the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of stability, in around 27BC. Peace is real, piracy is extinguished, and the Mediterranean world can live without city walls and with few garrisons.
As the author observes, “the sea was a political unity, under Rome; it was an economic unity, allowing traders to criss-cross the Mediterranean without interference; it was a cultural unity, dominated by Hellenistic culture… expressed in Greek or Latin; it was even in many respects a religious unity,” as peoples (Jews and Christians aside) shared their gods with one another. Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, had good reason to identify the 2nd century AD as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”
The Mediterranean’s unity was shattered by the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions. Subsequently the rise of Islam divided the sea between an Arab south and a Christian north which later mutated into an antagonism between an Ottoman east and a mainly European west. For hundreds of years the sea became the haunt of pirates and slave-traders, a relentless theatre of war, massacre, treachery and exploitation. Even so seasoned a medievalist as Abulafia is shocked by France’s alliance with the Ottomans and their collaboration in atrocities on the Italian peninsula. As he reluctantly admits, his book is “a history of conflict as well as contact.” Yet he perceives, perhaps over-optimistically, that “a single community of inhabitants of the harbours, coasts and islands of the Mediterranean” continued to exist.
The sea and the peoples of its shores enjoyed better luck in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they were not greatly disturbed during the first world war, except for Gaza and Gallipoli. Yet much of the Mediterranean’s character has been destroyed over the last 100 years. Greed—the demands of consumerism and the pressure of mass tourism—has brought environmental devastation and the wrecking of most of the coastlines of Italy, the Balearics and southeast Spain. Few places with a beach along the sea’s northwestern shores have been spared an invasion by the bulldozer and the cement mixer: between 1990 and 2005, nearly half of Liguria’s coastal farmland disappeared under concrete.
Yet the human character of the Mediterranean has been altered less by materialism than by nationalism. Abulafia writes evocatively of the great multi-ethnic port cities of the Levant, especially of Smyrna, Salonika and Alexandria. Comparable cities were once found in the west, cosmopolitan places such as Venice, Livorno and more recently Trieste, where minorities of different creeds and race coexisted roughly and colourfully in general harmony. This characteristic of the Levant—one of the great historical demonstrations of mankind’s tolerance of diversity—has been destroyed by strident nationalism, whether Greek, Turkish, Arab, Jewish or Lebanese-Christian. As the author points out near the end of this magisterial work, only one good example of a port with Levantine character survives, and that is at the opposite end of the Mediterranean: Gibraltar.