BMCR 2004.07.51

The Mediterranean in History

, The Mediterranean in history. London: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 320 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 29 cm. ISBN 0892367253 $50.00.

Under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Museum, David Abulafia has produced this collection of ten essays treating the Mediterranean from prehistory through the year 2000 AD. In his introduction, Abulafia emphasizes the human contribution to Mediterranean history, so as to differentiate the volume from the longue durée, ecological approach of Braudel, and more recently of Horden and Purcell.1 As Abulafia puts it, “in writing the history of the Mediterranean it is essential to write a human history of the Mediterranean Sea expressed through the commercial, cultural and religious interaction that took place across its surface” (26). The distinguished contributors carry out this plan with a certain degree of success. They illustrate that the sea itself enabled communication, exchange, and conflict among the diverse political, social, and religious groups inhabiting the Mediterranean basin; the sea acted as a force of unity even when it was a battleground. Even so, the volume does not develop a novel historiographic approach to the region. Much of it reverts to the traditional history of events, without illustrating the distinctiveness of the Mediterranean as a frame or probing larger questions of periodization, diversity, and cultural contact.

This result is disappointing, since the introduction lays out a potentially important goal. Abulafia argues that Braudel’s focus on the environment, and on the longue durée, has exercised a powerful and not altogether salutary grip on Mediterranean studies. The problem, he says, is its lack of attention to human agency. He makes this point with reference to the first historian of “geopolitics”: “Thucydides trounces Braudel by showing an understanding of the human element in the making of Mediterranean history” (12). Individuals and peoples self-consciously connected themselves by water; they responded creatively to their environments; and those who were able derived power from the sea. Reincorporating individuals into the Mediterranean environment thus becomes a pressing historiographic necessity. A focus on the human contribution, in Abulafia’s view, enables this volume to move beyond The Corrupting Sea of Horden and Purcell, who “are still not so far from Braudel” in their emphasis on “masses and waves” (23-25).

However, for all Abulafia’s efforts to distance this volume from Braudel’s model, it remains indebted to longue durée historiography. The book’s opening essay, Oliver Rackham’s “The Physical Setting,” shows that the environment has both a natural and a human history and argues that human beings did not degrade the Mediterranean landscape (45). But Rackham’s focus on geology, flora and fauna, and the climate sits awkwardly with Abulafia’s introduction. Even if some such statement is necessary, Abulafia’s methodology calls for environmental history to be more closely integrated into the arguments of individual contributors.

Nonetheless, Abulafia’s goal is worthwhile. It should be possible and would be useful to re-conceive of Mediterranean history along more human, and less ecological, lines; or, more precisely, to reconsider how we relate the human to the environmental.2 By invoking Thucydides, Abulafia attractively suggests that the Mediterranean in history might be written as the history of thalassocracy — since “sea power” has often provided the crucial link between the human and the physical in the Mediterranean (12). Certain contributors follow this line to excellent effect — for example, Geoffrey Rickman (“The Creation of Mare Nostrum : 300 BC – 500 AD”), who illustrates that the sea was a central tool of Roman elite power from the third century BC until late antiquity. As Rickman shows, Polybius rightly perceived that the Romans united the sea after the Hannibalic War and came to call it ” Mare Nostrum,’our sea’, all of it, and with appendages in the Black Sea and Red Sea, and even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar” (133). Unity in the Mediterranean had to be forged through the careful work of an imperial power. The best of the other essays offer a similar concentration on sea power, providing clear-headed overviews of political, economic, and military maneuvering in the Mediterranean, with useful generalizations illustrated by carefully chosen details. A case in point is Marlene Suano’s “The First Trading Empires: Prehistory to c. 1000 BC.” Through examining the history of economic power, Suano aims to understand the “curious knots” linking the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean (67). The numerous “thalassocracies” mentioned in Eusebius’ Chronicon are reinterpreted as trading networks useful for the movement of elite prestige goods throughout the Mediterranean. Suano concludes with a thesis about the collapse of the Bronze Age palace system (90-93): Hittite imperialism produced a large group of uprooted people, who established themselves in Cyprus, where they “traded outside the established official network, loosening ties of vassalage and reciprocity, subverting and finally helping to unbalance and destroy the old system” (93). Whether or not this thesis instantly commands assent, her contribution commendably shows that material culture can yield important evidence about cross-cultural relationships in the Mediterranean.

Equally valuable is Michel Balard’s “A Christian Mediterranean: 1000-1500,” which analyzes the process through which the Western Mediterranean powers expanded into the East and made the Mediterranean “a Latin sea” by 1153 (190). In particular, Balard shows that the Crusades led to a “reversal of forces” between East and West (189). By the end of this period, the Mediterranean had become “the heart of an international trade network” (204) and the home base for exploration in the direction of both the Atlantic and the Far East. Thus, like Rickman, Balard raises the crucial question of the frontiers of the Mediterranean.3 Molly Greene’s “Resurgent Islam: 1500-1700” also illustrates the importance of the sea in creating large conglomerations of power and wealth. Greene traces the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the eventual stand-off between the Ottomans and the Spanish, the importance of piracy in the seventeenth century, and the seeds of the nation-state in Europe. Her essay is helpful, even perhaps topical, because it shows that the sea linked hostile powers even when they had informally agreed to return to their own spheres of influence.

Despite the usefulness of these essays, however, the collection as a whole neglects Horden and Purcell’s important distinction between the “history of” the Mediterranean and “history in” the Mediterranean (Horden and Purcell, 2-3). Was there anything distinctive about the Mediterranean as a framework for the history that happened to take place there? Asking this question would have substantially improved John Pryor’s “The Mediterranean Breaks Up: 500-1000.” Pryor explores the chaotic series of wars between Goths, the Byzantine emperors, and the Muslim empire, which led late antiquity into the Middle Ages. In the course of his highly detailed treatment, however, Pryor missed the opportunity to discuss religious interaction and to interpret larger patterns of change and continuity in the region. Similarly, Mario Torelli’s “The Battle for the Sea Routes: 1000-300 BC” focuses on the sea in limited, if not idiosyncratic, ways. Torelli hardly mentions the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Empire, or the conflicts between Sicilian Greeks and Carthaginians, concentrating, to a large extent, on Etruscan, Phoenician, Euboean, and Ionian trade. This mercantile emphasis falls flat, especially as a treatment of such a lively (and, in parts, well documented) historical period. These essays are notably different from the previous ecological, longue durée treatments, but they have not fully integrated the insights made available by those treatments.

In the light of Abulafia’s introduction, it is even more troubling that all the chapters neglect the cultural features of the Mediterranean. For example, the contributors have made little use of the huge anthropological literature on Mediterranean honor and shame (cf. Horden and Purcell, 485-501). Religion (at least as a cultural or ritual practice) is relegated to Abulafia’s own two-page, inter-chapter “interludes,” which try, valiantly, to integrate culture and the flow of ideas, but without having much impact on the book as a whole. Often one is tempted to ask: what about issues in social history, such as slavery, or in intellectual history, such as the dissemination of scientific knowledge or philosophical thought? What about linguistic interaction, or, for that matter, food?

The final two essays (Jeremy Black’s “The Mediterranean as a Battleground of the European Powers: 1700-1900” and David Abulafia’s “A Globalized Mediterranean: 1900-2000”) stand apart from the others, since they treat themes characteristic of the modern era. The central transformation, as Black shows, is that by the 18th century the Mediterranean “was no longer the centre of the world” (251); it came to be understood “in terms of geopolitical axes devised by strategists in distant capitals and its resources were used to support their strategies” (260). Black traces the rise of British naval power in the Mediterranean, and carefully accounts for the shifting alliances of Britain, France, and Russia, and their respective relationships to the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The dominance of the nation-state was nearly complete in the western Mediterranean when the new Italian army successfully invaded the Papal States in 1870 (268). In the book’s final chapter, Abulafia aims “to examine ways in which the Mediterranean has, particularly in the twentieth century, been transformed as a result of its links to the outside world, as well as to explore the meeting of cultures within the Mediterranean in such cities as Alexandria” (283). Abulafia deftly describes the new centrality of the Middle East to the rival European states, along with Italian imperialism, the inter-war rivalries, the world wars themselves, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, northern Europeans’ views of the Mediterranean, and mass tourism. These chapters offer a powerful sense of two Mediterraneans — a pre-modern and a modern.

Thus, by the conclusion of Abulafia’s essay, the volume has provoked important questions about periodization, Mediterranean distinctiveness, Mediterranean unity, and the relationship between the Mediterranean and classical antiquity. Is the Mediterranean Sea enough, in itself, to unify this vast historical sweep? Why were the selected periods and chronologies considered most appropriate to writing the history of the Mediterranean — as opposed, for example, to a thematic treatment emphasizing cultural contact or fragmentation? What, if anything, is distinctive about the human history of the Mediterranean basin, as opposed to other areas of long human habitation? What can be gained from comparing the pre-modern and modern histories of the Mediterranean? Does diversity or unity predominate — and, in historiography of the region, which should take priority? Other questions will be especially important to the principal readers of this journal, presumably classicists and ancient (Greek and Roman) historians. What gains in understanding can classicists make from adopting a Mediterranean Studies model? Assuming that there is a “Mediterranean world,” were the Greeks and Romans distinctive within it? Did their values, laws, social and religious practices, and so forth resemble or stand in contrast to those of the other Mediterranean societies? Can the (Mediterranean) history of later periods shed light, comparatively, on patterns of cross-cultural interaction known in classical antiquity?

This volume does not offer determinate answers to these questions. To its credit, however, it provides a promising basis for further reflection on Mediterranean historiography. Putting such questions on the agenda is crucial, right now, because of widespread calls to restructure departments, disciplines, and graduate education along more “Mediterranean” lines. Classicists and ancient historians would profit from participating in such debates — and, prior to that, from consulting this interesting, if flawed, collection.


1. F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, transl. S. Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

2. Abulafia’s introduction exaggerates the deficiencies of Horden and Purcell’s volume and overstates its proximity to Braudel. Moreover, Braudel’s magisterial treatment is still worth reading — especially his introduction to Part Three, “Events, Politics, and People,” which articulates important, if debatable, ideas about historiography in general (Braudel 1972, 901-903). For an interesting recent commentary on Braudel and on Horden and Purcell, see Brent D. Shaw, “Challenging Braudel: A New Vision of the Mediterranean,” JRA 14 (2001) 419-53.

3. Shaw’s comments on the frontiers of the Mediterranean are particularly helpful: see “Challenging Braudel,” 423-24.