BMCR 2020.05.21

Empires of the sea: maritime power networks in world history

Rolf Strootman, Floris van den Eijnde, Roy van Wijk, Empires of the sea: maritime power networks in world history. Cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, volume 4. Leiden: Brill, 2019. x, 361 p.. ISBN 9789004407664 €119,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Like so many other of the world’s waterways, the Mediterranean basin is a zone of contact and conflict, of perpetual exchange where economic, cultural, and political currents meet. It was also home to more maritime empires than any other region in premodern history. For that reason, historians continue to study the ancient Mediterranean world by tracking the empires that crisscrossed its central sea. And yet it is much less common for ancient historians to study ancient maritime empires within the broader, comparative perspective of other world empires that developed on a similar tack, with comparable imperialists, merchants, and entrepreneurs who also sailed other seas. Empires of the Sea does exactly that. With contributions from thirteen historians whose fields span much of premodern Eurasia, this ambitious volume has done a great service for ancient historians. By broadening our historical field of vision to consider maritime empires across Eurasia, Empires of the Sea challenges us to rethink what was unique and what was not so unique about maritime power and coercion in the Mediterranean.

Drawing on the ever-growing fields of Mediterranean studies and network theory,[1] the contributors set their sights on a distinct type of empire rather than bundling various kinds of empires from across world history or others from a particular period and region.[2] The empires they study, though separated by time and space, were all maritime empires: they all used “naval (trade) routes as their main arteries of connectivity and communication” (p. 3). In other words, the authors focus on empires where people primarily moved across water rather than land and controlled ports, coastal regions, and islands rather than large territories. They also take a rather expansive, big tent approach to maritime empires. The empires we meet fall on a vast historical continuum of imperiogenesis, spanning Mycenaean traders, Viking “Sea Kings,” and Caribbean pirates on one side to the Ptolemaic dynasts and the global empires converging across the Indian Ocean on the other. But instead of getting caught up in their real differences in scale, political culture, environmental ecology, technology, and so on, which are all barriers to comparative history, they revel in the common themes that unite them. By limiting themselves to maritime empires, and thereby limiting the number of historical variables and contingent moving parts, the reader is able to focus on how each author explains historical difference—which is, after all, the aim of comparative history. To paraphrase Walter Scheidel, historians get from description to explanation by thinking through contrasts.[3]

Though we should not expect to find a single thesis for so broad a collection of empires, I was pleased to find a great deal of unity across the thirteen chapters. We learn that maritime empires across premodern history tended to privilege four main features: 1) overlap, of official and unofficial imperial actors, as well as of various contemporary and competing empires; 2) polycentrism, as opposed to the more conventional center-periphery model of empire; 3) brokerage, among indigenous elites and local interest groups; and 4) entrepreneurship, of people who invest in the imperial project for personal profit. In emphasizing these four themes, the volume sits comfortably among the recent trends in imperial studies, where historians are increasingly treating empires as decentralized, interactional, and “negotiated” (albeit, of course, with a heavy dose of violence and coercion).[4]

The volume’s editors, Rolf Strootman, Floris van den Eijnde, and Roy van Wijk, divide the contributions into three parts, following a helpful introduction that surveys the historiography of the “imperial turn,” Mediterraneanism, maritime empires, and the use of networks to help explain imperial history. Part One includes five studies on Mediterranean powers from Mycenae to the Republic of Genoa. Part Two shifts to the North Atlantic with three studies on Scandinavian maritime networks. Part Three then takes us further afield to the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and the seas of Southeast Asia, with another five studies focusing on non-European perspectives and cross-cultural interactions during the early period of European colonialism. Each chapter is followed by its own bibliography, which helps make this volume an important reference for readers wanting to pursue the various maritime empires in more depth.

Part One begins in the Bronze Age, with Jorrit Kelder (Ch. 2, “A Thousand Black Ships”) arguing that the Mycenaeans developed a kind of proto-empire, or “Great Kingdom,” by leveraging its control of the Saronic Gulf, and its bountiful silver deposits, to break into more lucrative trade routes to Hittite Anatolia and Egypt. Floris van den Eijnde (Ch. 3, “The First Athenian Empire”) then argues for a long imperial prehistory to the Athenian empire of the fifth century extending back well into the Archaic period, a time when the core strategic aims of the later empire were essentially laid out. He argues that private entrepreneurs and competing aristocratic families created trade networks in the northern Aegean long before the Graeco-Persian Wars that the Athenian democrats later repurposed for their empire. Roy van Wijk (Ch. 4, “Contested Hegemonies”) jumps to the fourth-century afterlife of Athenian imperialism when the Thebans attempted to exploit their fortuitous position between the Ionian and Aegean seas and disrupt Athens’ maritime networks. But because the Thebans failed to secure financial support from the Persians—a territorial empire—they were unable to compete with the overlapping, pre-existing maritime empire. Rolf Strootman (Ch. 5, “The Ptolemaic Sea Empire”) then moves us to the Hellenistic period, when the Ptolemies broke from their Macedonian contemporaries and created an empire that was self-consciously seaborne. Strootman shows how the Ptolemies went further than their predecessors at Athens and Carthage by projecting their naval power through maritime imagery, symbolism, and propaganda. Finally, Thomas Kirk (Ch. 6, “The Republic of Genoa”) pulls us forward to Late Medieval Europe, where he challenges the consistence and ontology of the Genoese empire. He argues that Genoese maritime power had competing and co-existing elements of “empire, commercial empire, [and a] hub of extensive networks,” coinciding with pre-existing patterns of trade (p. 155).

Part Two then moves to northern Europe, where Marco Mostert (Ch. 7, “Linguistics of Contact”) begins by arguing that linguistic diversity across the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea, the North Sea, and the Baltic drove pragmatic Scandinavian “Sea Kings” to settle on various lingua francas to facilitate mutual comprehension, and thus trade and state formation. Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm (Ch. 8, “Medieval Denmark”) explores the changing identity of the Valdemarians’ imperial project, as it changed from relying on support from the Danish nobility to German merchants and mercenaries. The rise of the latter, he argues, eventually alienated the former with their strong overseas power bases, eroding the foundations of the Danish empire. Finally, Olaf Mörke (Ch. 9, “Seventeenth-Century Sweden”) shows that Swedish maritime power in the Baltics was a kind of borrowed empire because of its financial dependence on the estates of the high nobility.

Part Three sets out with Anjana Singh (Ch. 10, “Early Modern European Mercantilism”) arguing for continuity over change in the Indian Ocean, which had long been a well-connected space of competition before the Europeans arrived. Hence, according to Singh, the Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders were three groups among many competing over access to seaports in the region known for its imperial overlapping, and therefore nation-based trading companies did not simply transition into colonial empires, as the story often goes. Peter Borschberg (Ch. 11, “The Melaka Empire”) then argues that the Melaka empire was essentially a network of patron-client relationships, where personal alliances were used to gain access to maritime trading networks. Because Malay rulers valued status over land, they aimed at gaining the submission of lesser rulers. Cátia Antunes (Ch. 12, “The Portuguese Maritime Empire”) follows by displacing Lisbon as the main center of Portuguese imperial activity, arguing instead that seaports like Macau acted as “nodal gateways” where commercial networks between Europeans and non-Europeans really took shape. Remco Raben (Ch. 13, “The Asian Foundations of the Dutch Thalassocracy”) emphasizes military coercion as a necessary part of the Dutch East India Company, which also collaborated with local rulers to repurpose Asian institutions and “repertoires of extraction and mobilization” (p. 331). Kris Lane (Ch. 14, “Pirate Networks”) also emphasizes unofficial, sub-state agency that drove maritime empire in the region. He argues that pirates began as freelance agents of competing European powers, only later to make ports into crucial economic gateways where stolen capital transferred into the hands of merchants. Those merchants then helped finance sugar plantations, making the “pirate nests” crucial to the development of colonial empires in the region.

I highly recommend Empires of the Sea to ancient historians studying Mediterranean empires. Altogether, the volume should act as a gateway for historians to think comparatively and to challenge what we take for granted about Greco-Roman imperialism. Because the volume is a collection of essays rather than a monograph, it opens up as many questions as it answers—which is a good thing, I think. For example, it makes me wonder whether maritime empires are more fluid (pardon the pun) than territorial empires. One of the main themes here is overlap, and I am curious if this is because waterways are easier to contest, perhaps because they defy humans’ built-environment? I also wonder about technology and the problem of scale. How does the meaning of “maritime” change as naval technology changes and the distances between far-flung imperial places appear to shrink?

The volume is nicely produced and well edited, with only a few very small mistakes, which can be easily overlooked and do not at all affect the overall quality of the collection.[5] I highly admire the editors’ ambition to bring together historians from such distant fields and I hope others will continue to do the same.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Maritime Empires in World History / Rolf Strootman
Part 1, The Middle Sea
A Thousand Black Ships: Maritime Trade, Diplomatic Relations, and the Rise of Mycenae / Jorrit M. Kelder
The “First Athenian Empire”? Athenian Overseas Interests in the Archaic Period / Floris van den Eijnde
Contested Hegemonies: Thebes, Athens and Persia in the Aegean of the 360s / Roy van Wijk
The Ptolemaic Sea Empire / Rolf Strootman
The Republic of Genoa and Its Maritime Empire / Thomas Kirk

Part 2, The Northern Seas
Linguistics of Contact in the Northern Seas / Marco Mostert
Medieval Denmark as a Maritime Empire / Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm
Seventeenth-Century Sweden and the Dominium Maris Baltici—a Maritime Empire? / Olaf Mörke

Part 3, The Oceans
Early Modern European Mercantilism and Indian Ocean Trade / Anjana Singh
The Melaka Empire, c. 1400–1528 / Peter Borschberg
The Portuguese Maritime Empire: Global Nodes and Transnational Networks / Cátia Antunes
The Asian Foundations of the Dutch Thalassocracy: Creative Absorption and the Company Empire in Asia / Remco Raben
Pirate Networks in the Caribbean / Kris Lane


[1] Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. Wiley-Blackwell, 2000; David Abulafia, The Great Sea. Oxford, 2011; Cyprian Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea. Thames & Hudson, 2013; Joseph Manning, The Open Sea. Princeton, 2018.

[2] E.g., Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History. Princeton, 2010; Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, eds., The Dynamics of Ancient Empires. Oxford, 2009; cf. Peter Bang and Christopher Bayly, Tributary Empires in History. Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

[3] Walter Scheidel, “Comparing comparisons,” in G. E. R. Lloyd and J. J. Zhao, eds. Ancient Greece and China Compared. Cambridge, 2018, 40-58.

[4] For a recent example, see Nicola Terrenato, The Early Roman Expansion into Italy. Cambridge, 2019.

[5] For example, there is a period missing after the publication year for the Arnaud and Lieven entries in the Ch. 1 bibliography. On p. 8, a few words, or punctuation, must be missing when Strootman writes “…as Horden and Purcell ironically summarized the to their mind superficial concept.”