The Great Sea by David Abulafia – review. David Abulafia’s history of the Mediterranean takes in ancient empires and modern tourists. 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. The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean is an award-winning book by the British historian David Abulafia. First published in , it is a history of.

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I didn’t know this: The Corsicans were granted their own flag, carrying a moor’s head alongside the royal arms, as well as a motto: Amici e non di ventura’friends and not by chance’. 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: 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. It is both negative — you can’t grow things on it, or build on it — and positive: Under “things” you may also include “ideas”.

I’ve sailed, over the years, round large stretches of it, and have everywhere been struck by the similarity of coastal cultures in every harbour and port I’ve seen.

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 abulavia and western fringes of the sea guard themselves with increasing rigour against those wishing to move there from the southern fringes.

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia

The last picture in the book is of a small boatful of would-be Abulafka 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.

I had, at first, cocked an eyebrow at the book’s subtitle — surely the word “human” is redundant? Sa suppose a donkey’s history of the Med could make for interesting, if unrelievedly grim, reading. 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.

There is so much here that you risk brain overload. This is your must-take holiday read for the summer. Remember the cry of Xenophon’s 10, Topics History books Nicholas Lezard’s choice.

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The Great Sea

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