The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
by David Abulafia
published by Allen Lane, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-713-99934-1,£30
Review published in Country Life, August 2011
There are some subjects, like the English or American Civil Wars, where an alert reader can usually sniff out the political stance of the author within the first page - if not the opening paragraph. For it seems almost impossible for a historical narrator not to be coloured by an emotional prejudice for either iron-clad Cromwell or the doomed King Charles, or for the gallant south of Robert E. Lee or the moral primacy of Abe Lincoln.
The history of the Mediterranean is riven by dozens and dozens of such emotive trenches, where historians, already seperated into their different eras, specialities and regions, also into divided variant camps usually based on modern political creeds, regional identities and defensive nationalisms. In this way. the study of such harmless sounding subjects as the trade routes of the Phoenicians or the Catalans, or the linguistic origins of Minoans, Myceneans, Sards or ancient Cypriots, becomes charged with political tension and prejudice, at its most obvious in such tense modern rivalries as that between Greece and Turkey or Palestine and Israel.
The Great Sea is a rare and truly magnificent exception to this rule. Abulafia rises above narrow nationalism to exhibit an Olympian detachment over his vast and varied historical landscape. It is also a work of dazzling richness, packed full of detailed knowledge of landscape, literature, language, archaeology as well as the telling, single object.
The Great Sea is also a masterly example of a continuous historical narrative, which succeeds in chronicling the last twelve thousand years of Mediterranean history with vigour, vitality and humanity. This is in part the reward of his impartiality, for Abulafia remains a storyteller who artfully paints a picture of the complexity of human life, not a partisan lecturer with a point to force. So we can glory in the brief flowering of cultures, like the unique mother-goddess temple society of Neolithic Malta, without searching blindly for its continued relevance. Because, and this is where a chill wind blows through Abulafiaís pages, all too often there is none. For the bleak historical truth is that whole cities and civilizations, not to mention languages, cultures and beliefs, are totally obliterated by time.
In the same way, we can trace the trade goods of our historical imagination, the carved ivories, the imported silks, spices, painted pots and marble statuary, but again and again Abulafia makes us realise that Mediterranean trade was always founded on survival: on shipping dried corn, salted fish, olive oil and wine.
Similarly the enduring rivalries, between continental land powers (be they Hittite, Sparta, Ottoman, Roman, Nazi or Napoleonic) and the sea powers (be they Athens, Venice, Phoenicia, Carthage or Britain) rise and fall with the tide, or the turning of the wheel of fate. But some things remain eternal, like the strategic relevance of four cross-roads within the Mediterranean: the straits of Gibraltar, the Sicilian straits, the Dardanelles and the mouth of the Adriatic. So it is no accident that the Gallipoli landings were fought within view of Troy, or that Augustusís victory of Actium and Don Johnís victory of Lepanto were fought by two rival fleets of galleys in the same bay. Or that Rhodes, Malta and Gibraltar are fated to be time and time again tested by siege as the break point of Imperium.
The enduring genius of this book is that despite all the carnage of history we are left with some heroes to cherish, though they are not the familiar caste of Caesars and Kings but honest traders, courageous pilots, sea-captains, traders and wandering scholars.
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by Barnaby Rogerson