Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Sea by David Abulafia


David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is an ambitious undertaking.  There is so much information to marshal: So many cultures, so many years, and so many perspectives from which to witness the unfolding of the history. But Abulafia does a masterful job of telling a coherent story, while packing his book with an immense volume of information. Each time I sat down with this book, I had the enjoyable experience of absorbing new knowledge. Since most histories are from a period, event or national perspective, and since this region transcends those categories, the view of history from the Mediterranean is from an angle rarely encountered.

Undeniably, there will be flaws when attempting such a far-reaching project. There are early times within the Mediterranean which we know little about. The author makes the mistake of filling the information gap with myth and legend. We know little about the origin or character of the Etruscan Civilization, so Albulafia falls back on tall tales recorded by Herodotus to explain their origins, and a myth of Dionysos to exemplify their reputation as pirates (Abulafia, pp. 101-104). It would be easier if the author stated outright that there was no evidentiary foundation to these stories. Instead, he weaves together legend and fact. While discussing Hannibal’s father, Abulafia writes:  “That Hamilcar was determined to emancipate Carthage from Roman shackles is made plain in a famous but possibly legendary tale (Abulafia, p. 184).” If a tale is “possibly legendary,” it makes nothing “plain”. In places where historical fact is lacking, “I don’t know” is a fine statement. Fortunately, this confusion of myth and legend with reality is confined to the first couple of sections in the book where information is misty.

The inclusion of maps at the beginning of each chapter, to illustrate periods and peoples discussed, was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the maps are little more than a repeated outline of the Mediterranean with a small number of dots representing cities. When the Greek, Roman or Ottoman empires are discussed, there is never an outline of their territory. Individual nations also lack depiction. The representation of cities on these maps is so scant that many of those covered in the associated chapter are not on the map. Abulafia talks about how Durazzo was “strategically valuable” to the Venetians (Abulafia, p. 448), but he doesn’t show it on a map so that the reader can see why. He discusses the importance to trade of “the great road that ran from Dyrrhachion through Thessalonika to Constantinople” (Abulafia, p. 269), but leaves it to the reader to connect the dots and imagine the borders between the different nations which employed the route. For those wishing to compensate for the poverty of these maps, I recommend the Oxford Atlas of World History reviewed on this blog.

Much of the sea’s history is a discourse on trade.  This is a peaceful refuge from the usual catalog of “great men” massacring populations. Trade provides evidence of cross-cultural communication and the author shows this through the variety of populations co-existing in trade towns. Readers with an economist’s view will enjoy the evolution of commercial ventures. Those interested in the chess game of competing trade empires will also find the work captivating. This is the area where Abulafia focuses most of his attention. The book occasionally gets bogged down here. The chronicler can become a bit obsessive while lengthily depicting who traded with whom and what goods they traded. At these times, The Great Sea contains all the charm and excitement of a ship’s manifest. But trade is the story of the Mediterranean, so occasionally the reader’s fascination may be a casualty. I only wish there were more information on the exchange of ideas, and less about figs and iron. It’s not that discussion of technology, science and shared learning are absent from the book, it’s just that they are more episodic than thematic.

Throughout The Great Sea, Abulafia does an excellent job of staying on point. Given the immense swath of history covered, it would be easy to have the conversation diverted onto large historical events unconnected to the Mediterranean. But the author remains focused. World War One was a huge international event. But discussion of this war is limited to how it impacted the region around the sea. Also, it would have been tempting for the author, a Jew who has an extensive knowledge of his people’s history, to spend a great deal of time on the Holocaust. But as a faithful chronicler, Abulafia covered this tragedy only to the extent that it affected his subject area. This ability to remain focused keeps the book from meandering and maintains the unifying purpose.

Though the story of this region is unavoidably fraught with conflict and greed, there is a great deal of positive exploration exhibited through the relationship between humans and their unique nautical environment. Cultures sprouted and grew like sea-dependent plants around the Mediterranean, growing and evolving with organic regularity, cross-pollinating with different peoples. The Great Sea is a well-researched record of human history around the Mediterranean, providing an exceptional knowledge base for those wishing to expand their understanding of our place on its shores.


Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011.