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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (review)
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David Abulafia’s latest book has earned every one of the laudatory quotes on the dust jacket. The Great Sea is narrative history on steroids, a magnum opus that is sure to influence the way that scholars think about Mediterranean history for many years to come. The Great Sea is, as its subtitle indicates, a human history of the Mediterranean, meaning that it covers the entire period of human inhabitation. The book is meant to be a history of the sea rather than of the lands around it, of the people who crossed the sea and lived close by its shores in ports and on islands (xvii). Even with this limitation, Abulafia has a vast chronological and geographical span to cover. He breaks it down into five distinctive periods: First Mediterranean, 22000 bc–1000 bc; Second Mediterranean, 1000 bcad 600; Third Mediterranean, 600–1350; Fourth Mediterranean, 1350–1830; Fifth Mediterranean, 1830–2010. The first begins with the earliest human settlements and ends with the great migrations and cataclysms of 1200–1000 bc. The second witnesses the unification of the Great Sea under successive maritime empires and ends with the fragmentation of Roman power and the arrival of Islam. The third begins with Muslim and Jewish domination of the southern shores, witnesses the rise of the Italian communes, and ends with the Black Death. The fourth experiences the emergence of new Christian powers, like the Catalans, who are ultimately eclipsed by the Ottoman juggernaut. The overall fortunes of the Mediterranean change in this period, as the Atlantic assumes a more important role in the world, and the Great Sea becomes dominated for the first time by powers of Northern Europe. The distinct features of the fifth Mediterranean, which is still in progress, include the historical discovery of the earliest Mediterranean worlds, a hardening of previously more fluid ethnic and cultural differences, and the threat of environmental disaster. What characteristics define these distinct Mediterraneans? Abulafia sees long and slow processes of integration at work in each period, which eventually fall apart. Thus there is a broadly cyclical rise and fall, if not of empires, then at least of large-scale Mediterranean systems.

Scholars will surely challenge the effort to encompass all of Mediterranean history into a conceptual and chronological schema, along with some of Abulafia’s other claims and priorities. One of his major targets is Braudel’s view that all change is slow and that man is imprisoned in a destiny in which he has little hand. The Great Sea, by contrast, emphasizes change over time and human agency (xxvi). Abulafia does not shy away from historical controversy. Regarding the cataclysms around 1200 bc and the mysterious Sea Peoples, for example, he says that the eastern Mediterranean was being plagued by fluid and unstable alliances of pirates and mercenaries, who were able occasionally to form large enough navies and armies to pillage population centers, including Troy (52). Yet Abulafia remains within the bounds of the evidence and does not pretend to have clear answers when the matter is truly murky. He also has ideological targets. With respect to “orientalism” in the nineteenth century, Abulafia says that it was not the expression of Western cultural imperialism. The masters of the eastern Mediterranean actively sought contact with the West, and saw themselves as members of a community of monarchs that embraced both the Mediterranean and Europe (545). Both Abulafia’s methodology as well as his particular claims will be the subject of debate in the coming years.

One of the great challenges of writing such a book is choosing what to include and what to leave out. The Great Sea offers good balance. Each period receives roughly proportionate treatment; Abulafia does not, for example, reduce the second Mediterranean to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. His erudition is on display throughout in his command of archaeological evidence, narrative sources, and secondary work in many languages. He is also blessed with the gift of storytelling, such that the anecdotes and vignettes are among the book’s greatest rewards to the reader. I learned, for example, of Russia’s eighteenth-century plan to obtain Minorca, expel the native Catholics, and replace them with Orthodox Greeks...

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