Review | The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean – David Abulafia

About the Book

For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of civilization. David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is the first complete history of the Mediterranean, from the erection of temples on Malta around 3500 BC to modern tourism. Ranging across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Genoa to Tunis, and bringing to life pilgrims, pirates, sultans and naval commanders, this is the story of the sea that has shaped much of world history.

783 pages (hardcover)
Published on May 17, 2011
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I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I read this book. I’m not really big on historical overviews. When I read history, I like deep dives. I like all the chunky bits and weird stuff that usually gets glossed over when someone’s giving brief vignettes on topics. However, this book looked interesting, and the reviews were good so why not. 

The Great Sea tells the story of the Mediterranean, starting in 22000BC up to the year 2010. Now, that’s a whole lot of years, and while this book is long, it’s really not long enough to go too in depth in any one period or timeline. That being said, I was rather amazed by how the author still managed to not only give an overview, but give readers plenty of information they may have never really encountered before. This wasn’t a book where I already knew everything I was being told so… yawn. I learned a whole lot. Especially about the ancient world. 

In this book, the Mediterranean is the core which binds the rest of the book together. The author does, perhaps, bounce around a bit from local to local, but the Mediterranean is a big place, and there is a lot happening at any one time. My regret, perhaps, is that he did not spend more time on the pre-history part of it, because that really was where I learned the most (I’m not terribly well-versed in prehistory). However, once you understand what you are getting with this book—an overview of a bunch of places throughout an absolutely massive swath of time, you’ll forgive the author (it’s not his fault I don’t know much about prehistory). In fact, I think this book is a great breakdown of the important information, and it gives plenty of readers jumping-off points for further research—like me with the prehistory of this region. It’s also one of the very few books with which overviews and brief dives on topics hasn’t bothered me at all, which says a whole lot for the author’s skill at telling a tale, dispensing information, and writing in general.

The Great Sea is really a fascinating book. In so many ways, the Mediterranean is the lifeblood for this region, and largely the reason why life flourished here. There are fossil records, for example, that show that early dwellers likely ate things like rhinoceros on the coast of France, which makes sense (life was different back then, and so was the planet) but it kind of blew my mind to imagine. Abulafia then takes readers forward through time, and he doesn’t just detail societies and their rise and fall, but how the differing temperatures, climates, water levels and etc. likely impacted how different social groups moved, and where and why they ended up where they were, as well as trade, which FASCINATED me (more on this in a minute). Some cities, like Troy, get more attention (which was really, really interesting). 

More than that, Abulafia shows how societies impacted others through trade, through war, through immigration and the movement of peoples, even through weather patterns (coolings) and disasters (volcanos, earthquakes, etc.). It isn’t always happy. Some early societies that sounded absolutely fascinating, fell and no one is really sure why. Some fell for reasons explained in the book. Some sort of evolved to become something else. And, of course, time moves forward. Societies advance, things progress, and Abulafia takes readers down that road as well, with plenty of stories that will intrigue you, not just about the rise and evolution of humanity, but about, in some cases, specific people. 

The book is, applicably, split into sections: 

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC – 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC – 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD – 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD – 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD – 2010 AD

Trade was really what made things what they are. The spreading of goods, but ideas, cultures, languages, plagues, spices, salt, and the like not only impacted civilizations dramatically, but often spurred on both unrest, and advancement. Trade routes are really what has helped the Mediterranean thrive and become what we know it to be today. Abulafia does a great job at detailing the numerous and different aspects of societies and their spread, and breaks the region up into chunks to best address the different aspects of this. Port cities, like Alexandria, Venice, etc. tend to get a lot of time, as one would expect, and they also fascinated me the most because they were such a hotbed of humanity, change, clashing cultures and ideas and the like. 

There is a whole lot in this book, and I think it might take more than one reading to fully absorb it all. While the author manages a comprehensive overview, he also offers readers a lot of depth, and a distinct thread to travel while he weaves history, the story of humanity, together. It’s easy to see how one period of time impacted the next, and the next. And, it should be said that there is a lot of tragedy in this book, as you can imagine when you think about all the things that have happened in this region between 22000 BC and 2010 AD, World War II, for example. The mass migration of humanity out of Syria and various North African points, more modernly. The epic of Vesuvius, the fall of Troy, Rome rose and fell, the Bubonic Plague, more historically, are examples. 

All in all, I found The Great Sea to be incredibly engaging, well written. With the Mediterranean as the central point around which this book turns, Abulafia takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the sprawling history of one of the most dynamic regions of the world, where peoples and cultures, the spread of ideas, products, spices, plagues, and the rise and fall of great civilizations, has been playing out nearly since the dawn of humanity.

Well worth your time. I can’t wait to re-read this book. 

4/5 stars

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