Cruising Around the Ancient Med

Books Literature
The Mediterranean: Before about 500 BC the sea did not operate as a single trading area

There is a fresh wind blowing among historians. In the universities, the writing of increasingly recondite monographs, suitably stuffed with the jargon of the trade, has for too long been seen as the route to academic promotion, regardless of whether anyone buys or reads, let alone understands, what the author is trying to say. Abstractions such as “alterity” that are entirely alien to the period and region under examination are deployed with abandon; “discourses” abound; and if the phrase “memory and identity” is not in the title, one is clearly not a truly serious scholar.

But now we are in the age of Big History and Deep History, and one might even say things are going to the other extreme. Deep History takes us back well before the coming of civilisation recorded in the earliest cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts, even right back to the geological formation of the earth, and beyond that, in some hands, to the Big Bang. Big History is (relatively speaking) less ambitious and is likely to stress the human element that occupies only the last few seconds of Deep History. But there is an awareness that large timescales are a viable subject, and that — just because someone is an expert on one particular area — his or her ability to pass intelligent comment on other fields should not be dismissed with a slightly contemptuous wave. Indeed, it is often the case that a historian of a different period looking at earlier or later times sees things from a new and exciting perspective. Above all, there is a renewed sense that it is the task of professional historians to reach out to a public that is becoming more and more interested in reading about the past.

Cyprian Broodbank, recently elected to the Disney Chair of Archaeology at Cambridge, is that sort of historian. He would rather not describe himself as a prehistorian, for what is archaeology if it is not a technique for literally uncovering material evidence about the past? History before writing was invented is still history. In the early parts of this extraordinary book, his attention to the impact of climate makes him into a Deep Historian; and there can be no doubt that the Ice Age has had an enormous impact on the ecology of the Mediterranean and in particular on the capacity of humans (including our Neanderthal cousins) to inhabit the region.

He owes many debts to the remarkable, if flawed, French historian Fernand Braudel, for whom the history of the Mediterranean, right down to its political entanglements, was closely related to the physical setting: not just the winds, waves and currents, but the mountains and plains that characterise the lands around the Mediterranean. Braudel’s great work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, takes the reader — eventually — to the dramatic Spanish victory over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in 1571; in a rather similar way, Broodbank’s not-quite-so-massive work culminates in the Battle of Salamis, another confrontation between East and West in Greek waters, this time between Athens and its Greek allies and the massive Persian Empire — an empire whose structural similarities to that of the Ottomans is striking. Still, we can excuse Broodbank of the sin of seeing Salamis as somehow predetermined, in the way that Braudel spoke of Don John of Austria, the admiral of the Spanish fleet, as the unknowing agent of destiny. Broodbank shows a greater interest in humanity than Braudel ever revealed.

Broodbank introduces us to princes in search of signs of status, such as exotic bronze-work and vast cargoes of wine for their drinking parties; and he traces the routes followed by enterprising merchants who risked crossing little-known seas to find the goods their wealthy clients craved, and in the process became very wealthy in their own right; he notes the sad history of slaves who were often the most convenient cargo to carry back from less productive corners of the Iron Age Mediterranean.

By concentrating heavily on the millennia before the spread of writing, Broodbank brilliantly illuminates periods of Mediterranean history that have been passed over rapidly in most accounts. His book ends around 500BC when the Mediterranean was at last a single trading area, with Greek, Etruscan and Carthaginian merchants spanning its breadth and penetrating into areas such as southern France that had been curiously neglected by earlier voyagers. For it is only during the first millennium BC that one can speak of an integrated Mediterranean in which most, though not all, the shores and islands were connected to other parts of the sea (although some areas of North Africa remained rather isolated well into the Roman period). That is really when the human history of the Mediterranean Sea begins. Everything up to that point is what classicists would call a prolegomenon, a preface, or, to use the term Broodbank does not much like, prehistory.

Indeed, 500 enjoyable pages pass before we reach a Mediterranean that functions across its length and breadth; and the whole point of many early chapters is that the sparse human population did not travel across the sea, even the short space between Iberia and North Africa, but lived around the rim of the sea and only gradually percolated onto its islands.  This does raise the question when even very short sea journeys were possible, though if one goes far enough back in time some of the islands such as Sicily were joined to the mainland. Since our very distant ancestors were perfectly capable of constructing simple boats to cross rivers and lakes, a short sea-crossing was easy enough to achieve by, say, 11,000 BC when people crossed the Aegean to reach Melos and to carry away its volcanic glass or obsidian, which was a marvellous material for hard, sharp tools.

Like Braudel’s, this very impressive book oscillates between being an account of the lands around the Mediterranean, at some points disconnected from one another even by land, and an account of the human relationship with the sea itself. People who call themselves Mediterranean historians often do not say much about the sea, and there are sections of this book that rather fall into that category. It is really two books closely intertwined, and maybe no worse for that. But there is a longstanding perplexity among historians of the Mediterranean (who are increasingly thick on the ground not just in the Mediterranean but as far away as Australia, the US and Finland): where does the space addressed by Mediterranean history begin and end? Broodbank is intent on showing how empires based quite far from the Mediterranean, for instance in Babylonia and Assyria, influenced the development of Mediterranean trade and politics; and he has a fair amount to say about Pharaonic Egypt even when it looked away from the Mediterranean, which the ancient Egyptians sometimes referred to as the “Great Green”. 

At times he talks too much about the people who remain off-stage and needs to say more, particularly towards the end of his book, about the actors who actually moved around the stage. Admittedly, the evidence can be very patchy. He is convinced that the phenomenal expansion of trade out of Phoenicia (roughly modern Lebanon) from 1,000 BC — though some would date the real start later — only became possible because there already existed networks of Iron Age maritime traders in the western Mediterranean, around Sardinia and the coast of Spain and Italy. This is a nice idea, but hard to prove. There are only scraps of evidence, and the presence of eastern Mediterranean objects as far away as Huelva in southern Iberia may only show that they were passed from hand to hand over a long distance and over a long period.

He does not dwell at length on the calamity that brought the walls of Troy crashing down and saw the end of the palace culture of Bronze Age Crete and Greece; and he is clearly not impressed by arguments that the Philistines who became such an irritant to the early Israelites were migrants from Greece and the eastern Mediterranean islands, the war companions of people similar to Agamemnon and Menelaus. Indeed, he is wary of ethnic labels, with some justification: the first evidence that Greeks thought of themselves as collectively different from “barbarians” comes quite late, when the Greek world was under pressure from the Persians and others.

This striking ability to provoke and stimulate, while drawing together vast amounts of material over many millennia, means that The Making of the Middle Sea is a book that will be relished by general readers as well as by academics. Sometimes he tries to pack too much into very long sentences, and his exuberant style can verge on the baroque; but this book is a tremendous achievement, enhanced, as one would expect from Thames & Hudson, by many hundreds of excellently chosen illustrations. It might have been better entitled Before the Making of the Middle Sea, but it is a work of exceptional range, insight and interest.