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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

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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, and bringing to life pilgrims, pirates, sultans and naval commanders, this is the story of the sea that has shaped much of world history.

783 pages, Hardcover

First published May 17, 2011

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About the author

David Abulafia

35 books105 followers
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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 206 reviews
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,105 followers
March 20, 2018
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 to stay engaged with it. Unless a reader is only looking to be informed in a general way about what he is reading, it is the argumentative flow that keeps him/her engaged. That is the strength of narrative histories that are also thematic.

Abulafia has instead focused on exactly what his title says "A history of the Mediterranean region" which is further circumscribed by limiting it to the human aspect of it, ie., to the communities that lived on its shores, the trade that crossed its surface, the privacy that disrupted it often, the rivalries for its control and the political alliances and stories that flourished around the great central sea of European history. Now if you think about how such a history would be written, it would be immediately clear that it would end up being a very European history, that peeks into the Asian events once or twice, especially through the peephole that is the Suez Canal. Unless there is a thesis that there is some central character about the region which shaped the flow of histories that touched its shores, what does such a history really add to a reader who is already well versed with the general flow of European history? If all you are getting is a summary of history that is more limited due to some artificial constraints that disallows the author to talk about certain aspects, what is the value in spending the time required to read all of 700+ pages? Not much really.
In my opinion, a truer history of the Mediterranean would first get the reader familiar with the geography of the Mediterranean, because the moment you define the book based on a geographic entity, geography has to take centre stage in some way. Once the Mediterranean region was established well, the author might then proceed to the flow of history but keep drawing our attention to the ways in which the unique features of the Mediterranean (which is in fact pretty unique) impacts things. This is the kind of book that I expected this to be, and that was my motivation to start it. The impacts might be large or small, or even marginal, but that would be a more useful or thought-provoking book than a constrained history of Europe, especially since the constraints do not really work in a continent like Europe where the interactions between various countries were too central to the flow of history. So, for instance, we cant have Russia's role limited to its pining for the Mediterranean and its attempts to strike up a better relationship status. That only leaves the reader with a limited perspective, which is fine in a thematic work on history, but not in a general history, I guess.

These are some of the reasons why I believe I could never really connect fully with the book and even found myself skipping through some all-too-familiar areas. I could do that safe in the knowledge that I am not missing any arguments by doing so. The same cannot be done in a thematic work because one might lose the flow of arguments if one skips over a topic or period just because one is familiar with it, since we cant be sure exactly how the author is going to use that to substantiate his argument/theme. But in any general history book, we can easily skip over things either because we already know it or because that specific era or topic is not of particular interest at the moment.

But all that said, Abulafia is still a very good historian and this is still a very readable account. It is held together beautifully even though it is a tough job to give structure and coherence to a limited history like this and still keep it true to the original promise to the reader that it is going to be a history of a specific region. Abulafia exhibits the command and discipline required to reign in his history, event though even after the reigning in, it is still a sprawling beast of a book. It is enjoyable, and it is knowledgeable, but I am not sure if it serves a purpose, ie., if there is any reason for someone to actually pick up the book and make the effort of reading through the 700+ pages of it.
Profile Image for Geevee.
360 reviews215 followers
January 30, 2021
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 demarcation of lands and empires and a burial place amongst much else.

The book is divided into five in what Mr Abulafia describes as the: First Mediterranean, 22000 BC–1000 BC; Second Mediterranean, 1000 BC–AD 600; Third Mediterranean, 600–1350; Fourth Mediterranean, 1350–1830; Fifth Mediterranean, 1830–2010.

Through this ordered and generally acceptable chronological approach we follow the human history of the sea. We meet many of the better known people and settlements of history such as the Greeks, Spartans, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and Carthage, Crete, Alexandria, Lepanto, Tel Aviv and Trieste, as well as other lesser known personalities and events.

Underneath this is trade. Trade that flourishes through food, raw materials and manufactured (from simple pots to modern goods). The book covers how islands and states traded and how they built staging posts, harbours and ports that created wealth, influence and alliances/tensions. Alongside this we are informed of the methods of trade and the technologies that boats and ships had to enable this. Types of boats, their uses, sizes and speeds are all discussed as is how the goods and return journeys were experienced: calm waters, storms, shipwrecks to customs, charges and piracy. Trade and industry bumps along with politics, ambition and armies: armies of conquest, of defence and, alliance and peacekeeping.

Religion, gods and legend are a central theme to the story, and the people's beliefs, changing views (or being forced to change) create diaspora of people, cultures, design and architecture. There are of course battles, disputes and much diplomacy too.. Plague, famine and natural disasters help shape these events too.

To review this book fully would take a better correspondent than I, but nevertheless I hope to provide a flavour, and show that I took away much from Mr Abulafia's writing and fine eye for detail. The 4th and 5th periods were my real interest areas and these were excellent in their breadth and depth of subjects.

To write a history of a geographic area must be tricky as what to include and what to limit, as well as how does one emphasise some but lessen other aspects can only be done after much initial research and written effort. To do this with the Mediterranean with its many lands borders, rivers, islands connected to some of the world's most important civilisations and events across such a time span is quite something, and yet Mr Abulafia achieves this.

I feel I benefitted from tackling this book as an audio rather than a "read". It was admirably and brightly narrated Jonathan Keeble; yet even with this expertise there were stages (for me the earlier periods) where I needed to stop, rewind and listen again (and again) to follow events and people.

Overall, this is a book rich in detail, written with an eye and interpretation that allows the reader/listener to follow human history in one of the world's seas that has lapped around our ankles in tempest or tranquillity our earliest days to the present.

My audio version was by Penguin published in March 2020 at 26 hours and 21 minutes. Read by Jonathan Keeble (Jonathan Keeble).
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,368 reviews1,160 followers
July 10, 2012
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 books like this so rewarding.

My biggest concern was that this would be a huge survey that did not hold together well - a sort of mega cliffs notes. It is a survey, but the whole is much more than the parts. For example, I learned much more about the rise of Spain to eventual European dominance in conflict with France, the Italian commercial republics, and the Ottoman Empire. For another example, the author did a good job in showing how the maritime life of the Mediterranean was important in how countries developed -- such as why Northern Italy prospered and moved into manufacturing and high value added enterprises while Southern Italy did not. The role of merchants, pirates, and intellectual wanderers are well developed to show how they made the Mediterranean into an integrated area rather than just an array of kingdoms and states.

While the author is very learned, he is also very wise and strikes a good balance between detail and general themes. Nearly every section of the book has links to an entire scholarly community with its own issues and debates. The book tends to offer the main line story in each area while at the same time indicating to readers where disagreements exist. On the areas where I was better informed, it was very clear how Abulafia was crafting this story and he does a fine job.

Don't try to speed read it and have some maps (and google) handy to check up on the wealth of details that you will encounter here. I thought it was very rewarding and the greatest proof of this was that the book held my attention once I started. I did not have to worry about getting sufficiently far in the book so that I would finish. That took care of itself.TT
Profile Image for Dimitri.
828 reviews207 followers
April 24, 2018
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 space of a few pages, and the cultures of the Jews* from Spain to the Levant could easily fill all of it by themselves just as easy as WWII** or the Minoan civilisation.

* Cultures of the Jews A New History by David Biale Cultures of the Jews: A New History by David Biale
** The Path to Victory The Mediterranean Theater in World War II by Douglas Porch The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II by Douglas Porch
Profile Image for Ton.
98 reviews28 followers
July 28, 2020
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 reflect five separately identifiable epochs in the history of the Mediterranean. The first is 22000 BC-1000 BC, then 1000 BC-AD 600, 600-1350, 1350-1830 and 1830-2014. The first period is a bit bewildering with lots of unknown peoples (at least to me) passing back and forth. The second period is a “who’s who” of the ancient world, and the third period is where the authors speciality lies. The leading maritime cities take centre stage, and their rise and fall is our common thread. The author gives relevant (and interesting) information about how those cities and their networks operated, and what that meant for those who participated. For instance, the best way to both sleep comfortably and insure your merchandise reached the port of your destination was to sleep on it. Successive chapters deal with the coming of ever more interlopers in the area (Russians, Austrians, British, Americans) and the change from mercantilism to political power. Some chapters feel somewhat “tagged on”, and the larger narrative seems to crumble a bit – though the author remains a good storyteller. The last period gives us some loose tie-ins, and the last chapter the authors views on mass-tourism.

Refreshing: the role outsiders played in this large scene, most notably the Jewish communities and the networks that dot this book.
Eye-opener: the role slavery continued to play in this region since antiquity – which I did not know about.
Conclusion: follows the leading characters because otherwise the cast is too large. Fun, but not special and to me it lacked bite.
Profile Image for Rindis.
426 reviews51 followers
January 9, 2016
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 Mediterranean as a whole; the communities on its shores, the trade that crosses its surface, the rivalries and the piracy. It is a general history, and doesn't really have any defining thesis, other than perhaps the one his book is organized around. The book is split into five parts (titled 'The First Mediterranean', 'The Second Mediterranean', and so on), with each part being about a single economic complex in the Mediterranean.

Many parts are familiar to those familiar with history, but along the way there are plenty of new things to see. I had not known of the ancient ruins on Malta, nor the entire nature of Allied frustrations dealing with French North Africa. The third and second-to-last chapters are depressing, as they cover the destruction of several multicultural communities in the lead up to WWI through the aftermath of WWII. The final chapter takes a quick look at how mid-20th century emigration spread southern Italian cuisine to the rest of the world, and then talks of the impact of tourism on the Mediterranean.

In all, it is a broad book that manages a surprising amount of depth, and an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,976 reviews203 followers
October 7, 2011
‘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 become important, which aspects of human civilisation will feature, and why?

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and in this book he sets out the presence of the people who have lived around the Mediterranean from around 22000 BC to 2010 AD. This is a history of the people who ‘dipped their toes in the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it.’ The book is divided into five chronological sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC – 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC - 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD – 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD – 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD – 2010 AD

Each section of the book opens and closes a period of the sea’s history during which trade, cultural exchanges and empires act as unifiers before the process stops or reverses. Some of those significant events include the collapse of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Black Death and more recently the building of the Suez Canal.

‘The history of the Mediterranean has been presented in this book as a series of phases in which the sea was, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into a single economic and even political area. With the coming of the Fifth Mediterranean the whole character of this process changed. The Mediterranean became the great artery through which goods, warships, migrants and other travellers reached the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic.’

There’s a wealth of information here: about the great port cities (including Alexandria, Salonika and Trieste); about the space of the Mediterranean from Jaffa in the east to Gibraltar in the west, from Venice in the north to Alexandria in the south. As part of the narrative, Professor Abulafia includes information about people whose lives illuminate the developments he is describing: a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, political and religious influences. We meet the Venetian merchant Romano Mairano, and the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr. We read, too, of Shabbetai Zevi, described as a deluded Messiah in 17th century Smyrna.

Of most interest to me was the role of the Mediterranean in trade. The merchant is a critical figure. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet across the Mediterranean: how else can merchants create the records they need? The merchants carry essentials such as grain and salt, but they also carry ideas, plagues and religions across the sea. Not all interactions are peaceful, and different people (including members of minorities) make different contributions across culture and creed.

I would have to read the book at least once more to fully appreciate Professor Abulafia’s coverage: while the book is easy to read there is a huge amount of information to read and absorb. There is a map included in each chapter, which I found very helpful in placing the narrative.

This is an amazing book and well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the history of the Mediterranean Sea.

‘Rather than searching for unity we should note diversity.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Tamara.
261 reviews77 followers
January 6, 2013
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 it's interspersed amongst hundreds and hundreds of pages of "so in this period the ascendant Valencians moved against Syracuse, which contributed to the decline of Alexandria and blah blah blah." WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN? Is there some sort of history-writing code which I have missed the memo on? Did they steal their boats? Burn their city? Send them stiff letters? What? I just have no interest whatsoever in this kind of geopolitics recap of a thousand years ago - not as any kind of normative statement, it just bores me. It doesn't mean anything to me, as a modern reader, whether Genoa or Carthage is ascendant at a given moment in the 1100's or what.

So theres lots of that, and it never really added up for me into a coherent history or sweeping sense of history for the region - it's too big and too dense. Which is ok, I don't think it had to, but the book is kind of stuck in limbo of being both too big and not big enough.

Then theres the sort-of-political sort-of-nostalgia stuff, which i'm probably exagerrating, but hey, it's my review and I can see political bugbears if I want to. Everything is political after all. Yes, yes, we get it, the place was just lovely in all those simply lovely port cities which were so diverse and cosmopolitan and where all those Greeks and Turks and Jews and Arabs and Albanians and Everyone got along so well (and were especially lovely to their neighbours during the race riots, in one memorable paragraph that Abulafia appears to have genuinely missed the irony of completely) and how awful that it all stopped with all that sad ugly nationalism business. It seems to me that this so much classist tripe that is a manufactured nostalgia of second generation post-exiles of westernized, wealthy elites, but what do I know?

Anyway, not really recommended. Too big and disjointed to be all that interesting.
Profile Image for Brian.
652 reviews78 followers
September 16, 2016
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 quotes and statistics about the various areas and periods it covers, but nothing is covered for more than a few pages at a time before a chapter break and a slight shift in focus. Despite the quality of the information I had a hard time sticking with it for an extended period of time.

The book is divided into five sections covering five different periods of Mediterranean history, delineated like so:
I have identified five distinct periods: a First Mediterranean that descended into chaos after 1200 BC, that is, around the time Troy is said to have fallen; a Second Mediterranean that survived until about AD 500; a Third Mediterranean that emerged slowly and then experienced a great crisis at the time of the Black Death (1347); a Fourth Mediterranean that had to cope with increasing competition from the Atlantic, and domination by Atlantic powers, ending around the time of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; finally, a Fifth Mediterranean that became a passage-way to the Indian Ocean, and found a surprising new identity in the second half of the twentieth century.
Of these, my favorite was the First Mediterranean, both because the popular image of history before the Roman Empire is of a very atomized society without much long-range connection, which The Great Sea does a great job of countering; and the fact that the Bronze Age Collapse is one of the most interesting periods in history.

I mean, trade networks throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and then they started falling silent one by one. The Mycenaean civilization was destroyed so thoroughly that the Greeks forgot how to write, the king of Ugarit wrote a frantic letter for aid on a clay tablet but the city was crushed into dust before it could be fired and delivered, the Hittite Empire collapsed and its capital was burned to the ground and never reoccupied, Troy was burned twice, and in Egypt the Pharaoh wrote about previously unknown "Sea Peoples" which had attacked Egypt and were defeated in battle...until they attacked again and the Egyptian Empire collapsed in on itself to the territory around the Nile.

I really want to read a book just about that, and the first part of this book was the part that held my attention the best.

Other than that, I liked the point Abulafia made about the Mediterranean port being a distinct category of city for much of the Mediterranean's history. Medieval ports were often a wildly varied melting pot of peoples from all across Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, with Turks, Arabs, Jews, Italians, Greeks, and others all rubbing shoulders together and keeping the lines of trade flowing across the waters. In the great population displacements after World War II, this almost entirely vanished. The Jewish trade networks maintained with their co-religionists across multiple cultures failed as Jews were expelled from Arab countries and fled Europe in favor of Israel, the European decolonization process led to people from the colonizing country leaving for their newly-free home and colonizers returning to the mother country, and rising nationalism led to movements to expell the "other" from the shores of the glorious $COUNTRY. It's only with the modern rise of tourism and the reinvention of much of the Mediterranean coast as a tourism and retirement destination that the old melting pot has returned, though now at great environmental and quality-of-life cost. Venice itself is dying under the flood of tourists, a sad fate for what was one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean only a few centuries ago.

The book also does a good job of showing how the Mediterranean remained connected even during periods of change, though the volume of trade may have been reduced. The collapse of the Roman Empire and the end of Mare Nostrum did reduce the shipping in the western half, but the Eastern Roman Empire survived. The Black Death allows for Atlantic merchant powers like the Dutch and the British to find a foothold in Mediterranean trade. Traders would buy shares in shipping ventures down to 1/64 of a ship so that any individual ship foundering wouldn't necessarily ruin the backers. The pre-modern world was more modern than we often think.

Based entirely on the information I'd have given this four stars, and I really liked reading the book when I could pay attention to it. It's a good historical survey that makes me want to track down other more specific books to learn more.
Profile Image for Fiona.
844 reviews448 followers
December 18, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Lee Prescott.
Author 1 book149 followers
October 2, 2023
Encyclopedic, but tries to cover too much ground and assumes the reader has some intimate knowledge of some of the historical characters and periods. I was never sure if this was meant for the casual reader or mandated text for the author's 1st year undergrads. Still, a lot of interesting stuff in there in pockets.
Profile Image for 晓木曰兮历史系 Chinese .
92 reviews17 followers
August 22, 2021
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 bronze after entering the Bronze Age, attracted the surrounding search. The resources of humans travel and settle, and bring their own prosperity. This unbalanced distribution of resources brought about the germination of trade and gave birth to early short-distance navigation techniques.

The small-scale trade network formed in a radial pattern with regions with rich resources as the trade center and short-distance navigation technology as the connecting channel is the first-level trade network structure. At this time, there are a number of small and large trading areas in the Mediterranean, and the connectivity between the trading areas is extremely low.

With the increase of the population and the thirst for resources, people began to explore the technology to obtain resources from farther regions, and the natural environment of the Mediterranean region provided the conditions for long-distance navigation: the ocean currents that started in the Strait of Gibraltar and circulated the Mediterranean in a counterclockwise direction. The monsoon, which changes in winter and summer, makes it possible to use the power of sails and ocean currents to carry out long-distance voyages. Long-distance navigation technology has greatly improved the connectivity between trade zones, and incorporated products from different cultures, customs and religions from the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa into the trade network.

The increase in trade abundance dilutes people’s attention to a single commodity/resource, which makes the backward trade centers formed by natural resources or local handicrafts begin to decline, replacing them with areas that lead to major commodity producing areas. , Such as Evieux. The Assyrian Kingdom in the east of Evieux is the production area of ​​luxury goods such as cloth, dyes, gold, and painted pottery. In the west, Greece is rich in metal resources such as copper, iron and silver. Cyprus in the south is a transit point to Syria and Egypt. . And Evieux itself is rich in wood-an important raw material for shipbuilding-and has a good port, prompting the Evieus people to master powerful sailing skills. In order to obtain luxury goods from the East, they opened up routes to the West to purchase metals for transactions, and finally connected East and West and Africa through trade.

The main trade network structure of this period is the medium-level trade network, which is centered on the region located on the important trade route, long-distance navigation technology is the connection channel, and connects the small trade network formed by commodities/resources. During the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the new trade center brought a more obvious agglomeration effect to the integration of small trade areas. New trade centers such as Evieux, Corinth, and Alexandria promoted the continuous integration of the trade network in the eastern Mediterranean into coordination. Consistent system.

The prosperity of business promoted economic and population growth, as well as the tearing between political forces, and the division and conquest brought about by political activities adversely affected the trade network.

After the Roman Empire conquered Carthage, it formally unified the Mediterranean world and integrated the trade network of Europe and North Africa. This is the micro-level that the winner of the fittest will improve the ability of other components-thus allowing the Mediterranean super life to evolve- The process is similar to the viewpoint that Hofstadter put forward in the "Ant Fugue" chapter of "Gödel, Escher, Bach" that "anteaters threaten the survival of a single ant but are beneficial to the entire ant colony". Although Carthage was destroyed by Rome after three Punic Wars, the determination of Rome's political dominance promoted the process of agricultural intensification and commercialization in Africa, and formed a more complete trading system in the Mediterranean region.

After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by the barbarian tribes in 476, and the Western Mediterranean became the sphere of influence of the Germans and Franks. The Byzantine Empire in the east resisted the barbarian offensive and survived, and gradually formed the Byzantine-Gibraltar trade belt during the trade with the Franks. Sandwiched between two political forces, the Republic of Venice and the later Republic of Genoa became a bridge connecting the Franks and the Byzantine Empire, enjoying the trade privileges under the protection of the two empires, which allowed them to quickly rise to become a new trading center in the Mediterranean. In North Africa, because the barbarians were not good at seafaring, Alexandria and Egypt were not affected, but the consequence of the weakening of Roman power was that the trading system of North Africa gradually moved towards another political force in the Eastern Mediterranean—taking Ottoman Turkey as an example. The Lord’s Islamic power-move closer. The densely populated villages and towns along the eastern Mediterranean coast and diversified agricultural production created a more complex and prosperous economy, and Ragusa, sandwiched between the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire—very similar to Venice and Genoa—became two links. The trade center of the empire.

In 1453 AD, the "conqueror" Muhammad II broke through the gates of Constantinople, and the Roman Empire was completely destroyed. Although the conquest of Islam split the political unity of the Mediterranean, it connected the trade networks of the Near East and North Africa with the Mediterranean.

The division and unification brought about by the struggle of political power continue to optimize the trade network. The main commodity producing areas and trade routes determine the ceiling of this optimization process until new commodity producing areas are discovered or new routes are opened.

Luxury goods such as spices, tea and silk from the East were sought after by Western European aristocrats in the Middle Ages, but these goods were transported from the East to the key nodes on the trade route of Western Europe-the city of Alexandria and Egypt, which can be led by land to the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean-controlled In the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the Islamic world, this greatly increased business costs and made trade vulnerable to war. In order to solve this problem, Spain and Portugal at the gateway to the Mediterranean and the Christian world they represent — after several failed crusades — stepped out of the Pillars of Hercules and launched a search for new routes. The era of great navigation.

Spanish Trade Silver Coins in the Age of Navigation
The most important achievement of the great nautical era was the opening of a new route to India that bypassed the Cape of Good Hope and the discovery of the Americas, an important gold producing area, which allowed Portugal and Spain to rise rapidly and become new trading centers. From the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century, the opening of new waterways and the competition of new commodity origins from the Americas-Canadian grains, American tobacco and gold-and the decline in productivity of the Mediterranean coast land led to the overall shift of the trade center from the Mediterranean. To the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Genoese tried to rebuild the Levantine trade, the Mediterranean had lost its dominant position in the Western European trade network. After the opening of the Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean began to degenerate from a trading center to a trading channel. Outside the Pillar of Hercules, the entire world is gradually integrating into a whole trading network.

A complete Mediterranean has only local significance, not global significance. The opening of new air routes, the well-developed physical connections such as railway and aviation networks, and virtual connections such as the Internet have enhanced global connectivity and maintained long-distance political, commercial and cultural connections. The world is becoming a large Mediterranean, and the geographical Mediterranean is like Athens, Carthage, Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Spanish Empire, silently walking out of the spotlight on the world stage.
Profile Image for Omar Ali.
222 reviews207 followers
August 22, 2022
I really enjoyed this book. A great overview of the history of the Mediterranean (therefore, a history of Egypt, of Carthage, of Rome, of Byzantium, of the Italian city states, of the Ottomans, and so on.. a vast amount of data). Well worth reading.
Author 4 books104 followers
May 27, 2016
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 there are not issues: I was deeply unhappy with the maps. There were too few, with too few labels, and I had to have a historical atlas constantly at my side. In addition, the photographs in my edition were in black & white (the European edition apparently had colour photos so watch which edition you purchase). And the names and place names are so endless that although my Kindle-reading friends complained about certain aspects of the book on a Kindle, they said the links to the footnotes, etc. which were obviously electronic, were extremely helpful, which made me mad with jealousy as I juggled bookmarks on the map and footnote pages.

I can't conceive of writing a book of this magnitude and depth of knowledge. What a legacy Professor Abulafia has left the world. I stand in total awe.
Profile Image for Josh Hamacher.
345 reviews17 followers
October 31, 2011
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 Mediterranean and how these entities and interactions evolved over time. Prominent figures are mentioned, of course, but are not allowed to hijack the larger narrative. As the book approaches modern times and written records become more plentiful and trustworthy, Abulafia occasionally details the life of a specific individual as a way of illustrating larger trends. I found this approach quite effective.

I learned a lot from this book but there's definitely too much to take in from a single reading. I'm already looking forward to rereading it in a few years.
Profile Image for Øivind.
11 reviews
May 3, 2015
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 through a book that still hasn't gripped me after 80 pages.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 22 books456 followers
July 31, 2020

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 whole lot of years, and while this book is long, it’s really not long enough to go too in depth in any one period or timeline. That being said, I was rather amazed by how the author still managed to not only give an overview, but give readers plenty of information they may have never really encountered before. This wasn’t a book where I already knew everything I was being told so… yawn. I learned a whole lot. Especially about the ancient world.

In this book, the Mediterranean is the core which binds the rest of the book together. The author does, perhaps, bounce around a bit from local to local, but the Mediterranean is a big place, and there is a lot happening at any one time. My regret, perhaps, is that he did not spend more time on the pre-history part of it, because that really was where I learned the most (I’m not terribly well-versed in prehistory). However, once you understand what you are getting with this book—an overview of a bunch of places throughout an absolutely massive swath of time, you’ll forgive the author (it’s not his fault I don’t know much about prehistory). In fact, I think this book is a great breakdown of the important information, and it gives plenty of readers jumping-off points for further research—like me with the prehistory of this region. It’s also one of the very few books with which overviews and brief dives on topics hasn’t bothered me at all, which says a whole lot for the author’s skill at telling a tale, dispensing information, and writing in general.

The Great Sea is really a fascinating book. In so many ways, the Mediterranean is the lifeblood for this region, and largely the reason why life flourished here. There are fossil records, for example, that show that early dwellers likely ate things like rhinoceros on the coast of France, which makes sense (life was different back then, and so was the planet) but it kind of blew my mind to imagine. Abulafia then takes readers forward through time, and he doesn’t just detail societies and their rise and fall, but how the differing temperatures, climates, water levels and etc. likely impacted how different social groups moved, and where and why they ended up where they were, as well as trade, which FASCINATED me (more on this in a minute). Some cities, like Troy, get more attention (which was really, really interesting).

More than that, Abulafia shows how societies impacted others through trade, through war, through immigration and the movement of peoples, even through weather patterns (coolings) and disasters (volcanos, earthquakes, etc.). It isn’t always happy. Some early societies that sounded absolutely fascinating, fell and no one is really sure why. Some fell for reasons explained in the book. Some sort of evolved to become something else. And, of course, time moves forward. Societies advance, things progress, and Abulafia takes readers down that road as well, with plenty of stories that will intrigue you, not just about the rise and evolution of humanity, but about, in some cases, specific people.

The book is, applicably, split into sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC – 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC – 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD – 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD – 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD – 2010 AD

Trade was really what made things what they are. The spreading of goods, but ideas, cultures, languages, plagues, spices, salt, and the like not only impacted civilizations dramatically, but often spurred on both unrest, and advancement. Trade routes are really what has helped the Mediterranean thrive and become what we know it to be today. Abulafia does a great job at detailing the numerous and different aspects of societies and their spread, and breaks the region up into chunks to best address the different aspects of this. Port cities, like Alexandria, Venice, etc. tend to get a lot of time, as one would expect, and they also fascinated me the most because they were such a hotbed of humanity, change, clashing cultures and ideas and the like.

There is a whole lot in this book, and I think it might take more than one reading to fully absorb it all. While the author manages a comprehensive overview, he also offers readers a lot of depth, and a distinct thread to travel while he weaves history, the story of humanity, together. It’s easy to see how one period of time impacted the next, and the next. And, it should be said that there is a lot of tragedy in this book, as you can imagine when you think about all the things that have happened in this region between 22000 BC and 2010 AD, World War II, for example. The mass migration of humanity out of Syria and various North African points, more modernly. The epic of Vesuvius, the fall of Troy, Rome rose and fell, the Bubonic Plague, more historically, are examples.

All in all, I found The Great Sea to be incredibly engaging, well written. With the Mediterranean as the central point around which this book turns, Abulafia takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the sprawling history of one of the most dynamic regions of the world, where peoples and cultures, the spread of ideas, products, spices, plagues, and the rise and fall of great civilizations, has been playing out nearly since the dawn of humanity.

Well worth your time. I can’t wait to re-read this book.
Profile Image for Socrate.
6,686 reviews163 followers
November 10, 2022
„ISTORIA MEDITERANEEANĂ“ poate să însemne multe lucruri. Această carte este mai
degrabă o istorie a Mării Mediterane decât o istorie a ţinuturilor dimprejurul ei; mai exact, este
o istorie a popoarelor care au străbătut marea şi au locuit aproape de ţărmurile ei în porturi şi
pe insule. Tema de care mă ocup este procesul prin care Mediterana a ajuns să se integreze, în
grade diferite, într-o unică zonă comercială, culturală şi chiar (sub stăpânirea romanilor)
politică şi modul în care aceste perioade de integrare s-au terminat cu tot atâtea dezintegrări,
uneori violente, în urma unor războaie sau a unor molime. Am identificat cinci perioade
distincte: o primă Mediterană, care a sfârşit în haos după 1200 î.Hr., deci cam pe la vremea
când se spune că ar fi căzut Troia; o a doua Mediterană, care a supravieţuit până pe la anul 500
d.Hr.; o a treia Mediterană, care s-a format lent şi apoi a trecut printr-o mare criză în vremea
Morţii Negre (1347); o a patra Mediterană, care a trebuit să facă faţă concurenţei tot mai
puternice venite dinspre Atlantic şi dominaţiei exercitate de puterile Atlanticului, perioadă care
s-a încheiat cam odată cu inaugurarea Canalului Suez în 1869; în sfârşit, o a cincea
Mediterană, care a devenit coridor către Oceanul Indian, găsindu-şi o identitate nouă şi
surprinzătoare în a doua jumătate a secolului XX.
„Mediterana“ mea este, în mod cert, însăşi întinderea mării, ţărmurile şi insulele ei, mai
ales cetăţile-port care au constituit cele mai importante puncte de plecare şi de sosire pentru cei
ce au traversat-o. Aceasta este o definiţie mai restrânsă decât cea oferită de Fernand Braudel,
ilustrul pionier al istoriei Mediteranei, care cuprindea şi locuri situate dincolo de Mediterana;
însă Mediterana lui Braudel şi a majorităţii celor care-i urmau făgaşul era atât o întindere de
uscat care avansa mult dincolo de linia ţărmului, cât şi un bazin plin cu apă; şi încă persistă
tendinţa de a defini Mediterana în relaţie cu regiunile în care se cultivă măslini sau cu văile
râurilor care se varsă în ea. Asta înseamnă că trebuie cercetate comunităţile şi societăţile
tradiţionale, adesea foarte stabile, din acele văi unde se produceau alimentele şi materiile prime
care deveneau apoi articole de comerţ transmediteraneean, ceea ce înseamnă, prin urmare, că
trebuie luate în considerare şi acele veritabile popoare ale uscatului care nu se apropiau
niciodată de mare. Hinterlandul – evenimentele care aveau loc acolo, produsele care proveneau
de acolo sau treceau pe acolo – nu poate fi, desigur, ignorat, dar în această carte m-am
concentrat mai mult asupra acelor oameni care s-au apropiat de mare şi care, mai mult, s-au
aventurat şi au călătorit pe mare, luând parte, uneori în mod direct, la comerţul transcultural, la
răspândirea ideilor religioase sau de altă natură ori, nu mai puţin important, la războaiele
maritime pentru dominaţia asupra căilor mării.
Profile Image for Igor.
107 reviews15 followers
March 16, 2021
Читабельна історія з купою цікавих і порівняно маловідомих фактів, особливо у "середньовічних" розділах та у розповідях про мультикультурні портові міста. Викликає нестримне (і нині не дуже реалістичне) бажання відвідати багато зі згаданих місць.
Profile Image for John.
Author 5 books6 followers
March 15, 2013
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 interest is not in the sea as a natural habitat, bur rather, as a zone across which diverse peoples interacted, particularly through trade and commerce. This interaction of people drawn from vastly different societies is what the author believes made the Mediterranean such an important contributor to human civilization, even if its relative importance has declined in the modern era.

While the book is fairly long, it is very well written and is structured in short, highly accessible sections that pull you from one topic to the next. The book never felt long, and virtually every page is evidence of the author's deep knowledge about, and deep love for, the sea.

Only a few things prevent me from giving the book five stars. One is that I felt the discussion of the prehistoric Mediterranean to be a bit drawn out, though that probably has more to do with my interests than the author's skills. Once the book reaches the classical world, however, it really comes alive, at least for my tastes. Second, (and this criticism is specific to the e-book edition), the book uses many maps that do not render well and are difficult to enlarge.

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I came away from the process feeling educated and enthused.
Profile Image for Dvd (#).
458 reviews71 followers
February 13, 2017
Monumentale monografie a voci plurime (che è valsa il quarto di centone sborsato - va da sé che ormai qualunque novità editoriale scritta dal primo pisquano che passa a meno di 18 € non la vendono nemmeno alla bancarella, e spendere 25 € per un VERO libro come questo non è dopotutto un gran sforzo paragonato a cotante porcherie che occludono e sopraffanno interi scaffali librari in tutto l'Occidente).
Al di là di quest'ampia - e inutile - premessa, confermo che questo saggione che, in scioltezza, riassume 5000 anni di storia del mare per antonomasia, è un vero monumento alla divulgazione storica. Abulafia scrive bene, racconta bene, analizza con garbo (e fonti) senza eccessiva partigianeria, in un'opera che più che una teoria cerca di (di)mostrare un fatto: ossia che il Mediterraneo, ancorché mare geograficamente chiuso, sia stato sempre nella sua storia un mare aperto a scambi e movimenti come nessun altro specchio d'acqua nel pianeta, dando vita sulle sue sponde (e solo lì, non nell'entroterra) a una comunità ad alta eterogeneità, spessissimo concentrata in cento gruppi etnici e sociali diversi in pochi km quadrati. La città-tipo mediterranea, lungi dalle semplificazioni nazionaliste (e, oserei dire, paneuropeiste che tanto di moda vanno adesso tra la gente meglio - quelli dell'unità, dell'abbraccio dei popoli, della passione per il multiculturalismo, soprattutto finché rimane relegato a simpatico quadretto politicamente corretto ad uso di benpensanti e turisti), si sviluppa nei secoli, fra ascese e discese ardite (cit.), come una costruzione complessa, variegata, culturalmente discorde e etnicamente balcanizzata - ma legata in sé principalmente dalla pecunia e dal commercio.
Cattolici romani, ortodossi, musulmani, ebrei (in varie declinazioni) - nonché tanti e variegati gruppi etnici: fenici, etruschi, greci, romani, arabi, bizantini, genovesi, catalani, veneziani, toscani, inglesi, francesi, turchi, ecc ecc ecc - che, pur fra odi latenti e sospetti reciproci (che ogni tanto esplodevano in eccidi, confische o cacciate) finiscono per vivere insieme, gli uni vicini agli altri, separati ma anche no; gente diversa che tuttavia, oltre a beni e servizi, scambia fra sé pure idee e aspetti culturali. Tutto questo accrocchio, la vera caratteristica fondante del Grande Mare, spazzata via tra Ottocento e Novecento, dai nazionalismi e dall'industrializzazione, dalle pulizie etniche e dal turismo di massa.
Aggiungo che Abulafia critica l'intoccabile Braudel e la sua visione geografica della storia (che relega in un angolino i fatterelli umani vedendoli come puri "eventi" privi di importanza): più che altro credo che l'epoca della storia-per-intenzione, molto ideologica, sia in crisi più per il fatto che di ideologie non ne esistono più e che ormai la ricerca storica si fa coi dati numerici (e che la loro lettura, spesso cabalistica, ha sostituito la costruzione ideologica narrativa, se così si può dire).
Concludo aggiungendo di aver apprezzato il taglio scelto di concentrarsi anche su realtà ritenute dai più marginali e che così non sono state (l'espansione marcantile catalana, la pirateria, il contributo ebraico per citare le prime cose che mi vengono in mente).
Molto molto bello.
Profile Image for James Kane.
36 reviews5 followers
June 30, 2012
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), Abulafia certainly supports his statement with a picture of great complexity that encapsulates just how busy and influential an expanse the Mediterranean has been for thousands of years. True to its title, The Great Sea really is a "human" history of the Mediterranean, full of fascinating details and entertaining anecdotes about the cultural, religious, commercial, intellectual, political and military activities of countless people over the centuries. Warriors, traders, slaves, merchants, philosophers, crusaders, preachers, sailors and ambassadors all play a part in this sweeping story. Abulafia's almost panoptic account of the Mediterranean from 22,000 BC down to the present day is bewildering in the breadth of its content, and at times it suffers from the inherent difficulty presented by any diachronic narrative so vast in its geographical remit. While the range of detail impresses and informs, it inevitably dilutes the focus of the history and frustrates the author's attempts to evoke discernible main themes. This might not be such a bad thing, though. Life, we all know too well, is messy, and the developments of history rarely (if ever) play out along the clean lines that so many books would have us believe are the norm. Whatever the future of the Mediterranean Sea - and as this book makes clear, its influence is undoubtedly in decline in many ways - Abulafia has produced a detailed and readable overview of the region's colourful past, covering its joys and its tragedies, its achievements and its failures, its happy periods of tolerance and its nadirs of violence and persecution. Some scholars may lament the generic nature of the work, but non-specialists with an interest in Mediterranean history will find this a valuable addition to their shelves.
Profile Image for Graham Crawford.
443 reviews42 followers
February 28, 2016
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 examples - someone else can go and write that book). Environmentalism gets a look in, but it's almost green washing.

The strength (and weakness) of this book is the Chronology. It's a really good up to date primer of what happened when and where round the Mediterranean from prehistoric times (a lot of new archaeological info here I wasn't aware of) to the modern tourist era. It avoids seeking patterns. The resulting structure is "this happened then that happened then that happened....". That makes it a slog to read cover to cover in one sitting .... a it would be a great reference book on the shelf to go to if you wanted a quick run-down on the latest on the Punic wars or Troy.
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews705 followers
August 12, 2013
It is a fundamental work by the author and respectively it is not easy but a rewarding read. I think the author succeeded in showing the interactions between different nations, religions and communities throughout the history. Of course it is sketchy as the scope is huge. My only complaint would be that it is difficult to see people behind the historic events. I think the book would benefit if it would be more details behind the names of some historic personalities. Even if it would require some sacrifices in terms of other information in the book. It would make this volume easier to relate to by a reader.
Author 16 books28 followers
October 2, 2016
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 and bloodlines to an uncomfortable extent.

Unlike Mansel, who is hard to turn away from, this history took me a while to read, yet it's certainly worth the time and patience.
Profile Image for Aristotle Tziampiris.
15 reviews9 followers
September 19, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Michael.
302 reviews10 followers
January 2, 2017
Ein fantastisches Buch, großartig geschrieben im Bezug auf die wissenschaftlichen Fakten und Qualitäten, wie auch den literarischen Stil: Man fühlt sich ständig, in jeder Epoche, vom Mittelmeer umgeben! Ein Muss für alle Interessierten an Globalgeschichte.
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