BMCR 2023.05.27

Seafaring and mobility in the late antique Mediterranean

, , Seafaring and mobility in the late antique Mediterranean. Ancient environments. London: Bloomsbury, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781350201705.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Seafaring and mobility in the late antique Mediterranean is an edited volume, part of the Ancient Environment Series by Bloomsbury, a series that explores human interactions with the environment over the longue durée. Most of the essays presented in this edited volume are drawn from a symposium on Late Antiquity that took place in Tvärminne, Finland, in 2018, in addition to ideas presented and developed in other workshops and conferences.

In their introduction, Mataix Ferrándiz and Antti Lampinen present this volume as a cross-disciplinary approach intended to emphasize the ancient experience of the Mediterranean as a lived and negotiated, symbolic and imagined environment. Starting with the fascinating story of Alexander the Great going under water to accomplish the ultimate act of domination,[1] they foreground up the book as an intriguing compilation of essays addressing novel perspectives of the interactions of humans with the sea in the Late Antique Mediterranean. As they explain, this collection of papers attempts to bridge the culture/nature divide that has hindered the study of the environment from an humanistic approach in Classical studies.

The book is organized in three parts, each with three papers. This division is thematic and successfully articulates the various conceptual approaches and theoretical frameworks followed by the authors in the examination of the human-sea interactions during Late Antiquity.

Part I (“Imagination and Domination: The Mediterranean as a Conceptual Environment”) addresses views of the Mediterranean Sea as a symbolic sphere offering contradictory experiences based on the continuous changes and transformation of its environment.

Chapter 1 presents an insightful analysis of the pre-Christian origins of the legend of Saint George slaying the dragon. Based on the eastern Mediterranean locale of the story, the author traces its background to archaic times. Local traditional accounts of gods, rulers and heroes conquering the dynamic environment of the sea existed from the Bronze Age in the Ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean. These mythical and legendary stories passed on to the Hellenistic tradition: to Alexander the Great and his historiographers, and later to the Romans. The late-antique legend of Saint George, associated with the coastal city of Ashkelon, was popularized in the Middle Ages and drew directly from the earlier narratives of conquest and triumph over the monster-like Mediterranean Sea that existed in the Levantine traditions for thousands of years.

Chapter 2 explores iconographies of marine environments in mosaic imagery from the Imperial period to Late Antiquity. Through examination of representations of two characters, one real (the fish known as the Mediterranean moray, Muraena helena) and one mythic (the figure of Oceanus), Grigorieva reveals patterns and motifs depicting marine elements, their respective chronological and geographical variations, as well as their interconnections to literary works and myths. By looking at evidence beyond the coastal sites of the Roman Empire, this analysis also brings to the discussion the impact of the sea, as a significant Roman symbol, on populations living in regions away from the physical landscape and the water of the Mediterranean.

Chapter 3 explores perceptions of the Mediterranean Sea from the 3rd to the 7th centuries AD, when the mare nostrum turned once more to a contested space. Applying a wide range of texts, Lampinen discusses the major groups that historically threatened Roman rule of the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity, along with metaphors and rhetorical allusions to the marine environment that were used when referring to their significance for Roman culture. Through this analysis it becomes clear that due to the historical circumstances of this period a change in the perceptions of the Mediterranean Sea occurred: rather than the uniting element that was promoted in the early years of the Roman Empire, the sea became portrayed as a dangerous and divisive environment.

Part II (A Networked Environment) presents a variety of approaches to studying connectivity and movement from transitional environments to port networks and beyond.

Chapter 4 explores the way in which mobility and migration in the Mediterranean shaped the sites of Ostia and Portus in Italy. By reviewing the ten categories of Roman migration proposed by Tacoma,[2] with a focus on archaeological and textual evidence from Ostia and Portus, Karivieri elaborately reconstructs the possible circumstances and patterns of migration in these two harbor cities of Rome.

Chapter 5 explores evidence of trade networks in the Central Cyclades from the Roman to the Early Medieval period. With archaeological data collected in three separate projects and references from surviving literary sources, this chapter shows how combined evidence from different landscapes of the Aegean can help reconstruct a holistic picture of island and maritime interactions in the ancient Mediterranean. This innovative approach blends research from inland, coastal, and underwater archaeological sites, and follows concepts from Westerdahl’s theory on maritime cultural landscapes,[3] which has been applied widely in the Nordic countries but less so in the Mediterranean. Therefore, the preliminary conclusions from Indgjerd’s work highlight the need for more interdisciplinary approaches to the study of island and maritime landscapes for the period of Classical Antiquity.

Chapter 6 presents islands as ambiguous environments that simultaneously comprised isolated entities and connected hubs. With the use of archaeological data and literary references, islands of the Mediterranean are examined as potential resilient spaces that allowed adaptation and persevered in the disruptive transition from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages.

Part III (Braving the Sea in the Later Empire) provides an analysis of more technical and logistical details of seafaring, transport, mobility and connectivity in the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity.

Chapter 7 provides a review of Roman legal approaches to the plundering of shipwrecks during the later Roman Empire. Through the analysis of surviving legal texts, Mataix Ferrándiz presents in a comprehensive manner what were the legal provisions, processes and punishment for shipwreck salvage, plunder, theft and robbery. With a focus on Late Antiquity this chapter also outlines how the socio-political landscape of the Roman Empire changed from the 3rd century AD. Due to crisis and the new external threats (also discussed by Lampinen in Chapter 3), the previous legal framework for Roman control of the sea was destroyed, resulting in an environment of disorder in which violence and plundering reappeared.

Chapter 8 presents technical details of square-rigged ship navigation in the ancient Mediterranean. Through analysis of known vessel and rig designs of this period, Forsyth assesses the significance of these features for ship movement in relation to the direction of the wind. He proposes that the sailing capabilities of ships influenced the development of certain networks of connectivity, and also the patterns of movement. This assessment brings to the foreground the significant effect that environmental conditions like seasonal weather had on sailing and mobility networks in maritime regions like the Mediterranean.

Finally, Chapter 9 discusses the fragment of a Greek text (Digest 14.2.9 from Maecianus’ Ex Lege Rhodia) that describes a shipwreck and robbery in Icaria, Greece. The same text includes a rare proclamation of the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, as ruler of the sea. Through an analysis of the text and its vocabulary as well as a discussion of its authenticity, this study reveals elements of what the author calls ‘Byzantine Tradition’ in the conception of law that was related to past legal frameworks, but which also evolved during the period of Late Antiquity.

Overall, this volume is an innovative piece of scholarly work that discusses in novel ways the interactions of humans with the marine environment during Late Antiquity. The subject of the volume touches on important current topics like continuity and disruption in human societies that lived in contact with dynamic natural environments like the sea, making it a very fitting contribution for this Ancient Environment Series. With its interdisciplinary approach the book highlights how it is possible to make Classics and research of the ancient Mediterranean world relevant to the present and the future.


Authors and Titles

Introduction: Approaches to the Later Imperial Mediterranean as an Environment / Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Antti Lampinen

Part I: Imagination and Domination: The Mediterranean as a Conceptual Environment

  1. Knights, Kings, and Dragons: The Symbolic Conquest of the Mediterranean Sea in Late Antiquity and its Historical Background / Joanna Töyräänvuori
  2. Migrating Mosaics: Transforming Images of Oceanus and Marine Environments from the Imperial Period to Late Antiquity / Alexandra Grigorieva
  3. Mediterranean as a Contested Environment in Late Antiquity / Antti Lampinen

Part II: A Networked Environment

  1. Connecting People in the Mediterranean: Mobility and Migration in Ostia and Portus / Arja Karivieri
  2. … διά νήσων πλέειν … Taking the Island Route: Trade and exchange along the coast of Southern Naxos / Hallvard Indjerd
  3. ‘Stepping across thresholds”: Islands as Resilient Spaces of Connectivity in the Passage from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages (c. 500-ca. 700) / Luca Zavagno , Zeynep Olgun

Part III: Braving the Sea in the Later Empire

  1. ‘Washed by the Waves’. Fighting against Shipwrecking in the Later Roman Empire / Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz
  2. Upwind Sailing Capabilities of Square-Rigged Ships in Late Antiquity and the Ramifications for Trade Networks / Doug Forsyth
  3. On the Byzantine Tradition of D. 14.2.9 (Maec. ex lege Rhodia): A Note concerning the Emperor as Ruler on the Sea / Valerio Massimo Minale



[1] [Pseudo-]Callisthenes Historia Alexandri Magni 2.38.

[2] Tacoma, L.E. (2016) Moving Romans. Migration to Rome in the Principate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Westerdahl, C. (2011) The Maritime Cultural Landscapes. In: Catsambis A, Ford B, Hamilton D.L. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of maritime archaeology, pp.733–762. Oxford: Oxford University Press.