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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,820 ratings  ·  171 reviews
For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of civilization. David Abulafia's The Great Sea is the first complete history of the Mediterranean, from the erection of temples on Malta around 3500 BC to modern tourism. Ranging across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Genoa to Tunis, ...more
Hardcover, 783 pages
Published May 17th 2011 by Allen Lane
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Riku Sayuj
It is strange to read such an expansive history book and realise there is no real theme to the book. Why would an articulate historian write such a well-researched book that summarises 1000s of years of history, without having an overarching theme to be supported by all that effort? Most of the popular expansive history books (think Sapiens, think GGS, etc.) are actually organised around powerful central themes that allow the reader to engage with the history being told - to have solid reasons t ...more
Mare Magnum (Great Sea) as named by the Romans. David Abulafia's The Great Sea is a Magnum itself and complements the sea and its history ably.

At over 26 hours of narration it is long, at times complex but always interesting and illuminating. As Mr Abulafia says at the book's end, the Mediterranean sea has been central to human history and the scenes and sites and interaction of numerous peoples since ancient times. It has acted as a food source, a highway, a barrier, a battle zone, a demarcat
Jun 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a "human" history of the Mediterranean Sea, from over 10,000 years ago to 2010. I saw that this had received a favorable review in the Economist so I got a copy, but was hesitant to plunge in - it is a rather long volume. I started it last Friday and could not put it down! It tells a coherent and entertaining story of five different seas that seems on target, provides a believable overall narrative, and yet includes all sorts of tidbits about people, places, and odd facts that makes book ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-history
A gorgeous mosaic that pleads for the diversity and cultural exchange to which the shores of an inner sea lend themselves so well. As one of the prominent anti-Brexit historians, Abulafia knows how to argue against the mythology of the nation-state.

The only danger of 5000 years of Braudel with the wars & kings restored into the economy ? Getting lost amidst the marbles. For example, some of the more Byzantine interests of the Italian merchant republics in the Ottoman era aren't clear within the
Dec 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
After reading Norwich's A History of Venice, I looked at his other books, and saw one on the Mediterranean that looked interesting. However, most of the reviews for it said it was okay, but Abulafia's The Great Sea was much better, so I put that on my wishlist instead, and got it for Christmas.

It's a large, expansive, book, covering from prehistory to the current day (2010). Abulafia purposefully tries to limit the scope of his book by sticking to subjects that impinge directly on the Mediterran
Jennifer (JC-S)
Sep 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: librarybooks
‘For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation.’

This book, the cover tells me, ‘is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent invention of the Mediterranean’s shores as a tourist destination’. I was immediately fascinated: how does a history of a sea read? People interact with the sea in a number of ways, but they don’t live on it. What facts becom
Good grief finally done. This really, really long. I was desperately checking how many pages I had left already by page 600 or so.

It's not entirely terrible - theres lots of interesting episodes, anecdotes and details that are fun. Ocassionally, theres even a whole few pages of coherent information about something that I actually understand - technology, language, trade, physical conditions of slaves, etc. This is actual stuff about actual stuff, and I find it interesting.

The problem is that i
Jul 28, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-history
An ambitious effort, but suffers from being a subject that is too large for one book to do it justice. The author makes a valiant effort, but can’t help but jump from one stepping stone to another. He has chosen to focus heavily on ancient history (giving it close to 250 out of 650 pages before he reaches the year 600) and al but wraps the youngest centuries up in little more than one hundred pages.

The author has chosen five distinctive periods in which to subdivide his book. These five periods
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
I'll never actually finish this book. I must have had it for a couple of years now. It's another that I'll always have on my bookshelf to dip into when I want to look something up or read about a particular place or period. It's a bit too dense for my taste but an excellent resource. ...more
My three-star rating isn't strictly fair to the content of The Great Sea, which is very good, but rather with the difficulty I had in reading it. It took me two weeks because I would repeatedly lose focus and have my mind wander only to realize that I'd been reading and rereading the same section multiple times without ever really taking it in, and I'd either switch what I was reading or give up. Maybe it's because of the book's format. It's simultaneously dense and choppy--full of citations and ...more
吕晓晓 Chinese
Some early humans settled on the land around the Mediterranean Sea 435,000 years ago, and developed slowly and boringly from the Stone Age like other human settlements. At this time, the Mediterranean area was scattered with sand, and it was in a low-level primitive society.

Individual regions began to look different due to their unique natural resources. For example, Sicily, which was rich in obsidian during the Stone Age, which was an important resource at the time, and Troy, which was rich in
Superb, superb, superb. A keeper for the rest of my life, a book I will dip in and out of, I am certain, many many times (have now read cover-to-cover twice) before I lay aside. I am an Asia historian but one can not escape the importance of Mediterranean Europe upon Asian history and culture, hence the value of this work that systematically goes into each of the great ages of the Mediterranean, its peoples, its cultures, its wars, its injustices, its epidemics, its destinies.

This is not to say
Josh Hamacher
Sep 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This massive tome details the history of the Mediterranean sea, starting with the first known inhabitants and going right up to 2010. Given the length of the book and the scope of the subject it's remarkably readable. Abulafia has an impressive ability to turn what could be a dry account of facts into a page-turner (at least by the standards of history books).

The focus is on larger societal trends and changes, the interactions between the peoples, cities, and nations surrounding the Mediterranea
Aug 06, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: not-finished
The first 80 pages has been a chore to read. There's just a lot of archeological speculation, no sense of narrative at all. Everything the author writes is probably academically sound, but it's incredibly dull reading. I could of course go on in the hope that it will improve. The book might be more entertaining in later periods when it is based on written history rather than archeology, but I have lost confidence in the authors ability to entertain ,and life is just too short to force myself thr ...more
Jul 31, 2020 rated it really liked it

I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I read this book. I’m not really big on historical overviews. When I read history, I like deep dives. I like all the chunky bits and weird stuff that usually gets glossed over when someone’s giving brief vignettes on topics. However, this book looked interesting, and the reviews were good so why not.

The Great Sea tells the story of the Mediterranean, starting in 22000BC up to the year 2010. Now, that’s a w
Kristian D'Amato
Jun 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Scholarly and expansive, even if a bit dry and inexplicably keen on the facet of trade.

Mar 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found "The Great Sea" to be an extremely enjoyable and informative book. The goal of the author, a professor at the University of Cambridge, is to trace the history of the Mediterranean Sea in terms of its periodic rises, declines, and re-organizations as "a single commercial, cultural and even (under the Romans) political zone." Specifically, David Abulafia divides the history of the Mediterranean into five periods: prehistoric, classical, medieval, great powers, and modern. The author's inte ...more
Jul 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Very impressive in its breadth, and surprisingly engaging for such a long book. He, like anyone else studying a topic as broad and deep as the Mediterranean, acknowledges his deep debt to Braudel. Nonetheless, Abulafia seeks to dismantle Braudel's longue durée view of the Mediterranean as relatively stable with a view of the societies surrounding the sea as constantly changing, divided broadly into five different "Mediterraneans" over time. I think he is largely successful in his task; at the ve ...more
Oliver Dutton
Aug 30, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
There are, in my unprofessional view, two approaches to a study as expansive as this. On the one hand, one can be impressionistic, offering a series of geographically and temporally varied vignettes. This would, I imagine, work well if integrated into some form of travel writing. On the other hand, there is the systematic approach: probably a tetralogy with an inscrutable title, e.g. The Structure of Mediterranean History (Vols. I-IV). Professor Abulafia, in this work, has sought not entirely un ...more
James Kane
Jun 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Professor David Abulafia, one of the most respected and established historians of the Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages, concludes this hefty volume with the claim that "[the Mediterranean Sea] has played a role in the history of human civilization that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea". Although historians of other "expanses of sea" would no doubt vociferously defend the claims of their own subject in this respect (historians have a tendency to be territorial about such things), ...more
Graham Crawford
Jan 17, 2016 rated it liked it
This was a bit dryer than I'd expected from a "best seller" history. The style made me think of a curmudgeonly academic who occasionally throws chalk dusters at dozing first years. The structure sticks almost slavishly to the chronology - which is sort of his point. Abulafia's brand of history stands against faddy "isms" and narrow foci. Not for him a Marxist view of the Mediterranean, the tale of women on that sea is summed up in a paragraph at the end, (he basically says - here's a couple of e ...more
Anthony Panegyres
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
David Abulafia's history is epic in both design and scope. It's an incredible achievement, exploring the Mediterranean from as far back as 22000BC right through to the present day. I don't think Abulafia has the narrative touch nor the understanding of some aspects of the Levant that Phillip Mansel does. Abulafia does, however, have a phenomenal knowledge of Jewish history - and the many successes and tragedies that history entails.

I also had the feeling at times that Abulafia believes in race
Aristotle Tziampiris
Sep 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A massive study but at the same time a joy to read. Learned something new almost on every page. Deserves to become the standard textbook on this topic. Attempts to guts Braudel's thesis and comes close to achieving it. very fair mind on everything that has to so with a Greece and the Greeks. ...more
Sep 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It would be at the same time immensely simplistic and grandiose to say that if one wishes to understand the Mediterranean as it is, one must first understand what is has been through the ages. But as in most large claims, there lies a kernel of truth at the heart of this one. Dreams of economic integration, freedom of movement for goods and people, waves of newcomers seeking new homes across the choppy waters. In some form or another all of these have been both attempted and completed by past ci ...more
Alex Bardaș
Jan 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At first I was discouraged by the size of the book and I postponed the reading for a few years, but my hunger for Mediterranean history was greater, so I began to read it on Kindle. I had some Kindle problems while reading it, so it took me nearly 3 months to finish the book.
It was a "good read", with maybe a lot of historical details, some known to me, others completely new.
The Mediterranean is presented like a theater of historical events, a tale of the people that crossed its expanse and i
John Isles
Oct 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The best history of the Mediterranean I've seen. Unlike John Julius Norwich's "The Middle Sea" it doesn't merely tell what happened in the lands surrounding the sea, but also makes clear who controlled it, what ships sailed there, and what goods they carried. ...more
Andrada Craciun
Jan 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an enchanting reading!

I am overwhelmed by the knowledge of history and culture that the author has, the brilliant telling of every moment in time along the Mediterranean shores.
Malcolm Schmitz
A huge, detailed, in-depth book on the history of the Mediterranean, full of little details and very personal human stories.

This monster consumed three months of my life and I regret none of it.
Philip Chaffee
Sep 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Such an amazing book. Abulafia is brilliant and there are so many anecdotes and details and asides in here that I’d never heard of or thought about, prompting an ever longer list of other books to read.
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David Samuel Harvard Abulafia is a British historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
His published works include Frederick II, The Mediterranean in History, Italy in the central Middle Ages, The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic encounters in the age of Columbus and The Great Sea: a human history of the Mediterranean

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