Somewhere, beyond the Sea

Somewhere, beyond the Sea

Mini Teaser: From Carthage to Bosnia, Persia to Palestine, tales of warfare and hubris, excess and murder line the Mediterranean. David Abulafia proffers up a sweeping narrative steeped in culture, commerce and the struggle for dominance on the Great Sea.

by Author(s): Benny Morris

David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 816 pp., $34.95.

[amazon 0195323343 full]IN THE Rebel, his treatise against totalitarianism, particularly of the Left, and in some of his earlier essays, Albert Camus hailed the Mediterranean, which for him embodied life, light, beauty (quite probably sex) and a sense of limits. He contrasted what Cambridge don David Abulafia calls “the Great Sea”—actually a Hebrew designation (hayam hagadol)—with the darkness of northern Europe’s cities and forests, seedbeds as they were of the twentieth century’s encompassing murderous ideologies, Bolshevism and Nazism.

“The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it,” Camus wrote in “Helen’s Exile” (1948):

quite different from the tragedy of [northern] fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty. . . . Our time, on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so.

He identified the sea with Greece, a place that revered moderation. “It never carried anything to extremes, neither the sacred nor reason, because it negated nothing. . . . balancing shadow with light. Our Europe, on the other hand, off in the pursuit of totality, is the child of disproportion.”

Abulafia’s sweeping survey of the “sea between the lands” and its shoreline peoples—from the Stone Age through the present era of global tourism—tells us a different story. It is a tale in large part characterized by hubris, excess and mass murder. Take the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BC, the three bouts of combat between the Phoenician colonies (with their center in Carthage) and Rome for command of the central and western Mediterranean. It was a war to the finish, ending in the annihilation of Carthage and the sowing of its ruins with salt, its inhabitants put to the sword or consigned to slavery. Or take the campaigns of the Almohads, sectarians who ruled the western Mediterranean lands (Spain, Morocco) during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with an iron fist, dispensing death and terror in the name of a pristine Islam. Or take some of the crusaders, who slaughtered Muslims (and Jews) in vast numbers in their efforts to reclaim and purify the Holy Land.

Abulafia doesn’t really tackle the contemporary resurgence, and its implications, of Salafist Islam around the Mediterranean basin, from the Strait of Gibraltar through Bosnia and Alexandria, which may yet herald a new Mediterranean age (in The Great Sea he postulates five eras between 22,000 BC and AD 2010, a periodization that is not completely persuasive). But he does refer to a “new Ottomanism” when considering the Gaza flotilla incident of May 2010 and its aftermath. (He could well have added Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent repeated threats to send Turkish warships into the eastern Mediterranean to assert the “rule of law.”)

Excess seems to be part of the human condition, and while paragons of excess—mass murderers, in short—may have flourished at certain times in certain places, there are probably few of the earth’s regions that have demonstrated complete immunity.

WHAT WE have in The Great Sea is a history that emphasizes politics and warfare: these are the primary and most significant arenas of human agency—and the major vehicles of change. In fact, in his “Introduction,” Abulafia, a man of noble Sephardic Jewish lineage (and in his book one repeatedly encounters the Jewish dimension, almost invariably Sephardic, in this or that period and land—and the occasional precursing Abulafia to boot), sets out the parameters that distinguish his opus from previous major works of Mediterranean historiography, most notably Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) and Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000). Horden and Purcell dealt mainly with communities and peoples living along the littoral, what happened on land, not with what transpired on the sea’s surface. Braudel, for his part, argued that geography, rather than men’s actions, was the real determinant of development and change in and around the vast water’s edges. “Braudel showed what almost amounted to contempt for political history,” writes Abulafia. He could have added military history as well. Sea and wind currents, climate and landscapes ruled the tales of men. Abulafia prefers to stress “the human hand” as “more important in moulding the history of the Mediterranean than Braudel was ever prepared to admit.”

Abulafia is profusely informative about commercial and cultural connections between the various communities that lived in the surrounding areas (Phoenician fertilization of Italy, the gifts of the Sea Peoples to the Levant) and allows for the importance of geography in periodically determining the foci of human activity, the sites empires and peoples covet, attack or abandon (Gibraltar dominating the sea’s western throughway, Corfu controlling passage up the Adriatic).

But throughout, Abulafia casts an impartial, not to say jaundiced, eye on the successive struggles for dominance in the various Mediterranean theaters at different times. Occasionally, he appears bent on provocation, and (inevitably) distortion is the result. Take Abulafia’s view of Persia versus Greece in the fifth century BC, the struggle, as traditionally taught in schools, that helped forge who we Westerners are, where civilization battled and overcame invading barbarism. “Whether the Greeks were really fighting for liberty against Persian tyranny is questionable,” he writes. Indeed, the Persians generally left alone cities that offered up the symbolic tribute “of earth and water,” he tells us. Still, a good case can be made that submission to an Asiatic overlord meant loss of sovereignty and that political freedom was what was really at issue.

It all began when the Ionian Greek cities along Asia Minor’s Aegean coast and the Hellespont failed to help the Persian king Cyrus against the Lydians in the mid-sixth century. The Persian ruler, after victory, forced the Ionians to give him ships and men with which to subdue other Greek cities and islands. In 509 BC, the Persians conquered Lemnos and massacred many of its inhabitants. Revolt ensued, and mainland Greek poleis came to the aid of the Ionians. According to Abulafia, as the Ionian revolt “petered out, the Persians were surprisingly considerate, accepting democratic governments and attempting to remove a source of tension between cities by demanding that they make trade agreements with one another.” But then, with the accession of Xerxes to the throne in 486, Persian policy “shifted . . . from tough accommodation with dissidents to vigorous suppression of Persia’s foes.” Xerxes prepared huge armies and fleets to invade mainland Greece and then struck. He was briefly stalled by the Spartan three hundred at Thermopylae (the “hot gates”) and then was thoroughly defeated at sea at Salamis (480) and Mycale (479) and on land at Plataea (479).

Such is Abulafia’s presentation. But it is strangely deficient and incomplete. To crush Greece wasn’t the whim of a particular Persian emperor; it was consistent long-term imperial policy. From around 500, if not earlier, the Persians intended to extend their rule deep into Europe, including over Greece. Facilitation of this was probably the main aim of their abortive expedition against the island of Naxos, midway in the Aegean. No wonder, then, that the Ionian rebels of 499–493 felt able to ask for, and receive, help from the mainland. True, then Persian leader Darius subsequently treated the beaten rebels with (relative) kid gloves—he needed their maritime support for the invasion of Greece—and demanded of the mainland city-states relatively cheap tokens of submission. But when these were not forthcoming, the Persian army crossed the Aegean and attacked Euboea and then, in 490, landed in Attica, north of Athens. There, at Marathon, a small, mainly Athenian force roundly defeated the Persians, putting an end to the first invasion of the mainland. Astonishingly, Abulafia fails even to mention the campaign and the surrounding circumstances, jumping straight from the Ionian revolt to the (second and larger) Xerxian invasion of 480, and then moving on to detailed descriptions of post-479 Sparta and Athens as effectively nondemocratic imperial polities, as if to assert a moral equivalence with the empire they had just defeated. Abulafia devotes a long paragraph to describing the tos-and-fros of the squadrons at Salamis—but not a word about Marathon, surely a crucial battle in European history and one which even inserted itself into humankind’s vocabulary.

AND THEN there is the question of clashes of civilizations, another key historical meme that Abulafia’s narrative seems to skirt. He certainly expends a great many pages on tracing Muslim-Christian conflict and contact in the Mediterranean from the seventh through the twentieth centuries. And one is struck not merely by the quick succession of combat and commercial and cultural intercourse but by the, on occasion, simultaneous occurrence of these interactions. While crusaders are out to beat back the Muslims and reclaim Palestine for Christendom, Christians and Muslims nearby are buying and selling and making cross-civilizational profits. Throughout, Muslim warlords make pacts with Christian warlords as their cousins are busy killing each other.

Pullquote: What we have in The Great Sea is a history that emphasizes politics and warfare: these are the primary and most significant arenas of human agency—and the major vehicles of change.Image: Essay Types: Book Review