Start your review of The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean Write a review Shelves: history-civilizations , history-imperial , history , history-europe , history-outline , history-modern , history-medieval , history-niche It is strange to read such an expansive history book and realise there is no real theme to the book. Why would an articulate historian write such a well-researched book that summarises s of years of history, without having an overarching theme to be supported by all that effort? Most of the popular expansive history books think Sapiens, think GGS, etc. That is the strength of narrative histories that are also thematic.

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That Abulafia finds room for such an episode in a book of such ambitious scope shows how impressive his achievement is. To give you some idea: even though, perforce, historians attempting this kind of thing are obliged to give disproportionate space to recent history, we are still only starting on halfway through this book pushing pages, with notes.

And it is a wonderful idea for a book. The Mediterranean is a kind of traversable void that has been, for millennia, a space around which humans have been able to travel. Under "things" you may also include "ideas".

The religions and lifestyles of the inhabitants further inland may be different, but the pale blue of the fishing-boats; the eyes painted on the prows of the smaller vessels; the smell of frying sardines everywhere — these are constants, and I suspect that they have been so since antiquity. That said, Abulafia warns us, in his conclusion, against searching for a "fundamental unity" of Mediterranean identity, and to "note diversity" instead. And there is indeed that, as the northern and western fringes of the sea guard themselves with increasing rigour against those wishing to move there from the southern fringes.

The last picture in the book is of a small boatful of would-be African immigrants trying to land somewhere near Gibraltar. And the plate above that shows a pullulating mass of humanity, not looking terribly diverse at all, sunbathing at Lloret de Mar in Catalonia, which I am old enough to remember as a quaint little resort. But it is full of stories that Abulafia has pulled from the flotsam and jetsam of history. Archaeologists sorting through the remains of an Etruscan settlement on the mouth of the Po found some artwork so bad that the anonymous pseudo-Attic artist has been given the name "the Worst Painter".

The first Neanderthal bones were actually found much earlier than the ones in the Neander Valley; "Neanderthal Man" should really be called "Gibraltar Woman". Wenamum, an emissary from Karnak in Pharaonic Egypt, cBC, noted that the chief of Byblos, where he had gone to pick up timber, told him to "get out of my harbour!

Herodotus tells us that Lydians invented board games but not draughts to keep their minds off hunger during a famine. A Christian request to Roger I, Norman count of Sicily in the 11th century, to move against the Tunisian port of Mahdia, was met by Roger lifting up his thigh and letting out "a great fart". The envoys of Dionysios the tyrant were mocked at the BC Olympic Games because he was — well, a tyrant would that we had the balls to do the same today.

The marble female head from Keros in the Cycladic islands, from the first half of the third millennium BC, is the most astonishingly beautiful piece of sculpture you will ever see, and makes every sculpture made afterwards seem redundantly and vulgarly over-detailed. And so on. There is so much here that you risk brain overload.

This is your must-take holiday read for the summer.


The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

He edited volume 5 of the New Cambridge Medieval History and the volume on Italy in the central Middle Ages in the Oxford Short History of Italy; he also edited an important collection of studies of the French invasion of Italy in as well as a book on The Mediterranean in History which has appeared in six languages. One of his most influential books is Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, first published in England in and reprinted many times in several Italian editions. Here he looks at an iconic figure from the Middle Ages from a new perspective, criticizing the views of the famous German historian Ernst Kantorowicz concerning Frederick II of Hohenstaufen , whom Abulafia sees as a conservative figure rather than as a genius born out of his time. He has been appointed Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by the President of Italy in recognition of his writing on Italian history, especially Sicilian history, and he has also written about Spain, particularly the Balearic islands. He has shown an interest in the economic history of the Mediterranean, and in the meeting of the three Abrahamic faiths in the Mediterranean.


David Abulafia



The Great Sea by David Abulafia – review




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