The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean 
by David Abulafia.
Allen Lane, 783 pp., £30, May 2011, 978 0 7139 9934 1
Show More
Show More

The title of David Abulafia’s magisterial book comes, as he reminds us, from a Hebrew blessing, to be recited when setting eyes on the Mediterranean: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe, who made the Great Sea.’ His book is a two-fold history: first of the trade and the traders who discovered the sea, created its ports and never ceased thereafter to animate it in pursuit of commerce. (The ports could be said to be the principal players in this story.) Second, it is a history of religious and territorial struggles and subsequent accommodations. A vast body of material and reference – some of it quite new – is astutely marshalled. Abulafia sketches out five successive epochs of Mediterranean history, and gives fair emphasis to Muslim, Christian and Jewish stories. Individual lives – of nomadic Jews, Arab pilgrims, Italian antiquarians – illustrate the pleasures and hardships of travel by sea in pre-industrial times. In Abulafia’s hands, the Phoenicians are not altogether outshone by the Greeks, or the ancient Iberians by the Etruscans, or Genoa by Venice; the Barbary corsairs and the murky world of piracy are given their just weight, and some less familiar places are brought to light: the maritime republic of Amalfi, the cities of Salonica, Trieste and Livorno, even the little town of San Gimignano, which grew rich on its trade in saffron.

Reviewers tended to see Abulafia’s book in relation to Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, published in 1949, and its much later, and greater, appendix, Les Mémoires de la Méditerranée of 1998, in which Braudel turns his gaze back into antiquity, as well as to Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s meditation on the ‘connectivity’ afforded by the Mediterranean, The Corrupting Sea, which appeared in 2000. There is magic in Braudel’s writing and in his ability to cut through historical material to reveal the underlying structure of human evolution in the Mediterranean. This cannot so readily be said of The Corrupting Sea, which is erudite and at times inspiring, but marred by jargon. Still, these are the twin pillars between which Abulafia confidently navigates.

What drives the evolution of Mediterranean history in his reading are the routes and nodes of trade. The Mediterranean is not like a continental territory which is appropriated by agriculture, defined by ancestral possession and bounded by frontiers. It is a labile, negative space that allows connections to be made, and Abulafia follows the routes back and forth, up and down, across the ‘Great Sea’, showing how they changed over time and how they caused the different ‘nodal’ cities around its shores to wax and wane in power and prominence – from Malta, Knossos and Troy in earliest times, through Alexandria, Carthage, Constantinople, Venice, Barcelona and Acre, down to Trieste, Smyrna, Jaffa and Port Said more recently. All owed their greatness and their prosperity to the expanse of water which connected them. Though it’s the conclusion to which he leads us, Abulafia never actually says that the Mediterranean’s capacity to create out of communities with very little territory powerful centres of prosperity, urban sophistication, culture and influence, has been its most valuable gift. Oceans couldn’t perform this trick until the coming of the industrial age – their distances were too great, and their waters too violent – but the Mediterranean was smaller, warmer, more manageable and had some reliable sailing seasons and wind patterns: in a phrase, it was made almost to the measure of man.

It was this that made it possible for Venice, a string of boggy islands in the middle of a brackish lagoon, subject to occasional flooding, and Alexandria, a spindly reef down the shore from the Nile Delta, chosen as the site for his city by Alexander the Great for mainly oneiric reasons, to become centres of commercial and cultural power. So too for ancient Samos, Dubrovnik, Amalfi or Genoa. These were never populations engaged in defending vast tracts of land which they saw as belonging to their ‘nation’ or their ‘ancestors’: that was the pastime of their continental counterparts. They were concerned instead to guarantee their independence and prosperity through the safety of seaways and the security of friendly harbours in distant places.

Drawing on the chronicles of Ibn al-Athir, the Kurdish historian of the early Crusader period, and a former soldier in Saladin’s army, Abulafia tells us how, in 1087, a deputation of Pisan and Genoese officials went to Sicily hoping to convince the island’s Norman conqueror to help them attack the prosperous trading entrepot of Mahdia on the Tunisian coast. In response, Count Roger I – a handsome, forthright and pragmatic man – ‘lifted his thigh, made a great fart’ and complained about the trouble that would result: ‘Commerce in foodstuffs will pass into their hands from those of the Sicilians, and I shall lose to them what I make each year on grain sales.’ The incident is a distillation of the complexity of the book’s theme. What were the Normans doing in Sicily in the first place? Why should Pisans and Genoese have been interested in North Africa? What could these three powers have had as a common cause, in any case? And what was the importance to them of a small Tunisian port? Abulafia’s brief discussion of the ultimately inconclusive attack on Mahdia gives rise to several other observations: that it led to the building of an early church in Pisa; that it inspired the commissioning of a curious Latin victory poem full of biblical resonances; and that it added momentum to a widespread fashion for decorating the towers and façades of churches with captured Islamic ceramics. The last observation leads Abulafia to a discussion of the types of merchant vessels depicted on the ceramic bowls immured in a basilica church near the ancient port of Pisa. He goes on to compare these designs with those described in letters from the Jewish merchant community of Cairo, and points in passing to the wider significance of the attack on Mahdia as yet another step in the fateful grafting of holy war onto commercial and mercantile needs. All this in the space of two pages.

The history is tinged by tragedy. The slow extinction of one vibrant Mediterranean port after another – from the destruction of Carthage and Napoleon’s summary treatment of the Serenissima, to the expulsion of Jews from Salonica and of Greeks from a flaming Smyrna – makes for a sobering tale. Abulafia concludes with gloomy observations about what this Great Sea has now become: an unhappy hybrid of tourist playground and environmental mess, undergoing a slow socio-cultural desertification; a contracted and diminished space. His lack of sympathy with the spectacle of the contemporary Mediterranean is all too clear in the history’s final section, ‘The Last Mediterranean, 1950-2010’ (‘latest’ rather than ‘last’, one hopes). It reads like a Ben Hur dash for the finishing line, in which Mamma Mia, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, ribbon developments on the Costa del Sol and the migration towards Italy of North African refugees in sinking boats are all briefly glimpsed, without time for reflection and without consideration of some of the unusual and perhaps beneficial transformations that are underway in the region. It is hard not to agree with Abulafia’s point of view, but the final section is not even remotely at the level of his thoughtful and sensitive accounts of earlier ages.

There is a recurrent and almost unspoken nostalgia for the heyday of the Roman mare nostrum of the first and second centuries, an era of prosperity, of wide and fruitful exchange in largely pirate-free waters, unified under a single power. This emerges as an apogee, an age when the Great Sea fulfilled its destiny as the heart of a united civilisation. The legacy of that epoch is made incarnate in the materials of the buildings of ancient Rome and of the grand palaces and churches of the city today. The Romans quarried an extraordinary array of polychrome marbles from all over the Mediterranean and brought them back to their capital. The stones were cut and polished and mounted according to grand decorative designs in the temples, houses, public baths and squares of the city: cool cipollino, with its blue-green veins like a crystallisation of the sea itself, or the scarlet jasper of Iasos, both from the Aegean; porphyries and mottled dark green basalts from Egypt; the gold and purple-veined giallo antico, from Numidia on the North African coast; and the rare and exquisite bianco e nero antico from Aquitaine in the far west. Seneca, in his letters, bemoaned the fact that Rome’s demand and curiosity could never be satiated. The cargoes of marble, already cut into columns or blocks and slung under the surface of the sea between two barges lashed together in the form of a catamaran, all converged on Ostia, the capital’s port, after journeys of many weeks. Pliny implies that the sight of the barges with their magnificent freight was a special attraction for Roman citizens, who would take their children down to the port on a feast-day to watch them arrive and unload onto the wharves. Centuries later the marbles were lifted from the ruins, recut and reused in the churches and palaces of baroque Rome.

It was the Mediterranean’s rich geology that provided these materials in the first place, but the sea itself made it possible for them to be transported to Rome. Without it, the city – and subsequent European architecture – would have looked very different. The reader looks in vain for such things in Abulafia’s book, however. He writes eloquently about the events and strategies that opened up the Mediterranean under Roman rule, but the consequences which have since shaped our cities, tastes and ideas are left out. A couple of comments and a passing encomium on Genoese pesto hint that he is interested in gastronomy. And, indeed, the story of how ingredients and ideas for the preparation of food spread around the Mediterranean would have made a fascinating addition to his book. The island of Sicily alone, situated as it is at the sea’s centre, has the richest and best documented culinary traditions in Europe. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish, the French and the Italians have all made their contributions to it over a span of three thousand years. Sicilian cuisine embodies the antiquity and ethnic complexity of the island’s history, as well as the fertility of its soil and the deeply rooted ritualism of its culture. Salt, sugar, rice, citrus fruit, pistachio, almond, aubergine, sardine and tuna – all find their most versatile and often their first European expression in the food of Sicily. It is also possible that pasta was introduced into Italy by the Sicilian Arabs, who may have brought it into North Africa from Persia. The making of vermicelli near Palermo is described by the 12th-century Arab geographer al-Idrisi a couple of generations before the journeys of Marco Polo. Here the movements that Abulafia documents so meticulously are made sensible to our eyes and palates today. This is just as much a part of Mediterranean history as the diplomacy of Count Roger I; but no word of it in this book, alas. Nor of the pigments that entered Europe through Venice and transformed painting. Nor of the evolution of the first sails that were hoisted on sea-going vessels. Nor of the compelling music of the Jews and the Arabs, which combined to create a uniquely Iberian voice, charged with the history of the peoples of that peninsula.

Any attempt to cover such a wide sweep of history will involve a lot of omissions, and we have to allow for that. Abulafia’s calm and lucid exposition and the new evidence he brings to the surface are his book’s great strengths. But it is not always enough just to describe the sequences and ironies of historical events. It is when we pursue the consequences of those events that we are really enlightened – and are led to look at our food, our clothes, our political institutions, our economic markets in a new light.

In his discussion of the prehistoric era, Abulafia mentions obsidian, whose importance to early human communities cannot be overestimated, and points out that the training of tool-makers ‘in what seems a deceptively simple craft was no doubt as long and as complex as that of a sushi chef’. Obsidian is cited a dozen times in the first thirty pages, but never so as to explain or to pursue satisfactorily its immense significance. Obsidian is the oldest widely ‘traded’ commodity in Mediterranean history. It occurs naturally and is easily accessible at only two major sites within the sea – the volcanic islands of Lipari near Sicily, and Milos in the Aegean (that is, if we exclude minor sources such as Nisyros and Gialí) – and yet it is found at the lowest levels in archaeological sites all over the Mediterranean from Malta to Crete, and from Lemnos to Egypt. Thanks to its distinguishing characteristics we can recognise the source of the material in each case, and can deduce that from perhaps as early as 8000 BC, obsidian from Milos was being transported around the Aegean islands, presumably in sail-less coracles.

Ninety kilometres to the east of Milos lie the islands of Paros and Naxos, which produce minerals quite different from the sharp, black, volcanic glass of their neighbour. The soft, white, crystalline marble of Paros is still recognised by many artists as the purest and most responsive sculptural marble in the world. Anyone who has visited these islands will have understood the quality of the marble from the soft, translucent pebbles found on their shores, smoothed by centuries of the waves’ slow abrasion. With obsidian the prehistoric islanders could cut the soft marble into shapes, but how was it possible to give the resulting form the soft patina of the stones on the shore? The solution was on their doorstep: a valley in the east of Naxos is one of the major sources in Western Europe of emery: a dull, unprepossessing stone that has the ability to polish and smooth marble without leaving behind any scuffs or colour.

From this trinity of materials Cycladic sculpture was born. Early human trading by boat thus gave rise to the slim white figurines of the Middle Bronze Age, which have been found at so many places on neighbouring islands. They represent the origins of a Western sculptural tradition. And the monumental sculptures undertaken 1500 years later on Naxos, which would lead to all later Greek and Roman and Renaissance sculpture, were also a product of that proximity of marble and emery – this time worked with bronze tools rather than obsidian. To mention Cycladic sculptures, as Abulafia does, without saying how they emerged has little other than documentary value, and the same goes for talking about obsidian without saying what it gave rise to. These are not peripheral issues: the Great Sea itself is here playing the critical connecting role. During the Archaic period, monumental sculptors could have been working their hearts out in central Anatolia, but the pieces they produced couldn’t have been moved anywhere. But if you can move the monolith to the shore, as you can on almost any Aegean island, it can travel far by sea. Many of the Archaic sculptures of the Acropolis in Athens are in Parian marble, sculpted on Paros, either by Parian sculptors or by Athenians learning the art on the island.

The Aegean Sea is the quintessence of the processes Abulafia is writing about – the Great Sea in microcosm. More compact in size, with a multitude of islands in its midst, and bounded by two continents, it is a ‘channel’ between two other seas, the Black Sea and the Libyan Sea to the south of Crete. The Phoenicians, the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks, the Russians – everyone, it seems, has been drawn into its waters sooner or later. Of all the influences Abulafia so knowledgeably discusses none has preponderated as much as the Greek. This is partly because the Greek spirit lived on in its Roman and Byzantine cultural descendants, but also because no people of the Mediterranean so completely identified with the sea as they did. The Greeks didn’t just use the sea, as the Phoenicians did; they were made what they were by it. It is the waters that define Greece, not the lands; it is the sea – its ability to facilitate connection and exchange between small independent centres – that made Greek art, political thinking, science and philosophy what they are. Socrates acknowledged this when he said that the Greeks lived like frogs around a pond. The pond had no life without the frogs, and the frogs had no life without the pond. The single most poignant cry of the ancient Greek world is the one repeated word, uttered by Xenophon’s Ten Thousand on finally seeing the sea near Trabzon, ‘Θaλαττα! Θaλαττα!’ – it expresses more succinctly than anything how deeply the idea of being Greek is associated with the sea.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 34 No. 9 · 10 May 2012

Nigel McGilchrist is correct to place emphasis on the importance of obsidian in the prehistory of the Mediterranean (LRB, 22 March). However, while Melos and Lipari were indeed major sources of the stone during the Holocene, it is inaccurate to suggest that other sources played insignificant parts; obsidian from Monte Arci on Sardinia, and to a lesser extent from the island of Pantelleria, was also distributed widely, as the work of Robert Tykot has demonstrated. Moreover, Melian obsidian appears in Greek mainland contexts as early as the 11th millennium BC (at the cave of Franchthi, in the Argolid): 8000 BC, as reported in the review, is too recent a date. As regards the type of vessel that this and other materials were likely shipped in, research by Cyprian Broodbank suggests that, in all probability, rowed canoes, rather than small and unstable coracles, were used.

Thomas Leppard
Brown University, Rhode Island

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences