Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Great (and Cruel) Sea

I read The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia last week. It's a history of the Mediterranean from earliest times, from the Maltese temples built before 2000 BC to the tourist influx of the late 20th century.

He stresses above all the interaction and merging and mingling of societies in the Mediterranean:

Alongside the tendency to look for internal explanations of change, interest in the ethnic identity of settlers has faded. Partly this reflects an awareness that easy identification of ‘race’ with language and culture bears no relation to circumstances on the ground: ethnic groups merge, languages are borrowed, important cultural traits such as burial practices mutate without the arrival of newcomers.

His story is one of exploration and trade, of Phoenician voyagers to Spain and beyond, of grain shipments and Roman efforts to clear the seas of pirates, from the trading empires of Venice and Genoa and Ragusa right through to the Suez Canal. Tiny towns like Amalfi or Ancona flourish briefly from trade. Tyre and Marseilles and Delos and Ostia and Alexandria rise and fall.


But one of the main impressions you come away with is endless conflict and war. It just seems to be a limitless litany of conquest and piracy and burnt cities, and slaves snatched from the coastline to labor far from their loved ones in foreign seas.


In fact, the slave raiding is particularly heartbreaking. Slaves seized by raiders might never know what had happened to their spouses or children, whether they were alive or dead or missing. They would never see them again. Slaves were taken in conquest in ancient Greek wars. And they were seized from the coastlines of Italy and Spain and Provence by Islamic raiders two thousand years later.

If the story is more complex than earlier historians believed, with more emphasis on ethnic intermixing and cultural borrowing and mutation, this is still not a heartwarming tale of benign multiculturalism.

It is a history written in flames. The earliest civilizations, "the First Mediterranean" of Minoan Crete and Mycenae and Troy, are destroyed in a cataclysm of burnt cities and a dark age which lasts five hundred years. The sea peoples invade Egypt, the Hittites disappear, the first trading cities of the Levant are destroyed. The Second Mediterranean is torn by war for another five hundred years, until Rome brings a temporary peace.

And a broader view of the basin as a whole gives a sense of pervasive conflict. Most people are familiar with the Peloponnesian War between the Greeks, or the Three Punic Wars betwen Rome and Carthage. But there were four hundred years of war between Carthage and Greek Syracuse across the straits in Siciliy. Carthage had been fighting for centuries before the Romans ever showed up. The Athenian catastrophe of the Syracusan Expedition of 415-413 BC was just one incident in centuries of war on the island.

And then after passing briefly over the Roman Empire Abulafia talks about the third Mediterranean, the medieval sea. beginning with the rise of Islam and its conquest of the North African shore. And then more endless war between Siciliy, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Aragon/Catalonia, the Crusades, and invasion by the Turks culminting in the Battle of Lepanto.

The Fourth Mediterranean brings outside influence and navies from the English, Russians and others, and the Fifth Mediterranean is the modern relative backwater. But it is no more peaceful. Hundreds of thousands die as the Greeks are expelled from Smyrna in 1922. Cities where different communities have lived together for a thousand years are ripped apart.

It's just as well, as Stephen Pinker argues, that there is at least some trend towards less violence over history. Because what stays in your mind after this history is not the culture, the food, the trade links, the religious inspiration, the art or the science - but the cruelty.



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