A History of the Middle Sea

The Great Sea 
David Abulafia 
Oxford

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

January/February 2012 Atlantic

7099497930270818064This magnificent history, at once sweeping and precise, spans the period from 22,000 B.C. to 2010A.D. to explicate the history of human activity on and around the Mediterranean Sea, “probably the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet.” In writing his 784-page panorama, Abu­lafia, the Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge, necessarily labors in the shadow of the great historian Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, one of the most influential works of history of the 20th century. Braudel stressed long-term historical continuity and focused determinedly on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained social and economic networks. Abulafia, himself a member of an ancient Sephardic family that ramified throughout the Mediterranean world, displays a keen sensitivity to environmental influences, but he focuses on contingency—the ways, for example, that the rise of Islam and the Black Death each fragmented the Mediterranean’s cultural and economic interactions. He also emphasizes the impact that specific historical personalities and political, military, and economic institutions—be it the Etruscan thalas­socracy, Amalfi’s early medieval fleet, or Nelson’s squadron—had on the inter­dependent but often hostile societies, religions, and polities he scrutinizes. For two outstanding reasons, this chronicle of commerce, migration, cultural cross-pollination, and conquest across millennia never lapses into encyclopedic mishmash. First, whether he is tracing pottery styles, the use of papyrus, the Genoese grain trade, or kabbalistic mysticism, Abulafia—a scholar of considerable historical imagination—refuses to speculate further than his evidence will take him. Second, and most important, he is a superb writer with a gift for lucid compression and an eye for the telling detail (concerning, for instance, the dietary preferences of medie­val sailors from Barcelona and of mod­ern British holidaymakers on Greek Cyprus). He has taken on a grand subject, and has related and interpreted it with authority, exactitude, and verve. His work deserves a wide and appreciative audience.

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