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Mediterranean History

Abstract and Keywords

The first part of this article discusses the different approaches to Mediterranean history. People talk of the Mediterranean and refer to the waters that stretch eastward from the Straits of Gibraltar, linked to the Red Sea by the man-made channel of the Suez Canal and to the Black Sea by the natural channel of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. The discussion insists that the study of Mediterranean history encapsulates many important aspects of world history: it involves the investigation of connections between societies separated by extensive physical space, focusing on commercial networks, the building of empires, and the movement of peoples, These phenomena can be traced across the surface of the sea across which Europe, Africa, and Asia meet one another and over which Christianity and Islam have vigorously competed for dominion. The second part of this article focuses on the development of the ‘classic Mediterranean’ over time.

Keywords: Mediterranean, Suez Canal, world history, Mediterranean Sea, Christianity, Islam

Approaches to Mediterranean History

The Mediterranean is both a place and a concept. We talk of the Mediterranean and refer to the waters that stretch eastward from the Straits of Gibraltar, linked to the Red Sea by the man-made channel of the Suez Canal and to the Black Sea by the natural channel of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. More broadly, we speak of the Mediterranean as that sea, the islands within it, and the lands that border it, which in 2008 constituted twenty-five political entities including one Crown Colony, some military Sovereign Bases, a state recognized by only one other country, an enclave of indeterminate status, a microstate, and several powerful economies firmly ensconced within the European Union. Only two islands are independent states, Malta and Cyprus, and one of those has been divided in two since 1974. The large islands of the western Mediterranean all form part of bigger states whose center of economic activity is on the European mainland, even though most of those islands at one stage or another were closely linked to North Africa and were only drawn permanently into European political networks during the Middle Ages: Sicily, Sardinia, and the Balearics have at times been ruled from Africa.

Yet it is not very helpful to define the Mediterranean by way of the states and territories lapped by this sea. France and Spain look out to the Atlantic as well (and Portugal is sometimes treated as an honorary part of the Mediterranean). Maybe, then, one should define as ‘Mediterranean’ those parts of each territory that enjoy a ‘Mediterranean climate’—whatever that is defined as being—or that lie south of the limits of olive production and enjoy a ‘Mediterranean diet.’ More rationally, perhaps, one could focus on those areas where daily life is bound up in some way with the Mediterranean Sea: towns such as Alexandria in the east and Ceuta in the west that have functioned as Mediterranean emporia, receiving and dispatching goods across the Mediterranean Sea, even when those goods originated beyond the Mediterranean; the tunny fisheries of Sicily and southern Spain; the great shipyards of Barcelona, Valencia, Genoa, Savona, and the forests behind them from which wooden ships were constructed. (p. 494) Sometimes attempts have been made to draw a line about twenty kilometers inland as an arbitrary division between what can be defined as ‘Mediterranean’ and what belongs to the hinterland. Sometimes, too, attempts have been made to extend the Mediterranean world to include all areas that have fallen under the influence of the Mediterranean: its trade routes stretched into and beyond the Black Sea, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, and down to the Red Sea. This ‘Mediterranean world’ might be stretched as far as Cracow in Poland or Bruges in Flanders. Or one could try to measure its cultural influence, creating a Mediterranean culture vigorously expressed not just in Spain but in Portugal and not just in Portugal but in Brazil, an approach favored by the Society for Mediterranean Studies.

This chapter will insist that the study of Mediterranean history encapsulates many important aspects of world history: it involves the investigation of connections between societies separated by extensive physical space, laying particular emphasis on commercial networks, the building of empires encompassing a variety of peoples, the movement of peoples, whether en masse or as pilgrims, slaves, and (latterly) as tourists, and the spread of religions into new continents. These phenomena can be traced across the surface of the sea across which Europe, Africa, and Asia meet one another and over which Christianity and Islam have vigorously competed for dominion. Setting aside for the moment its many islands, the sea itself has no permanent human occupants, other than the bones of those whose ships lie at the bottom of the sea; and yet it has a human history, which can, additionally, serve as a model for other maritime histories, of the Baltic, the Indian Ocean, or the Caribbean, or indeed for largely uninhabitable dry open spaces such as the Sahara Desert. The history of the Mediterranean Sea is not quite the same as the history of the Mediterranean lands, though the two have generally been confused. In this chapter, the emphasis is on the sea itself, in the belief that this permits a world-historical understanding of the Mediterranean.

To say this is to lay a different emphasis to the justly celebrated French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, whose study of the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II of Spain remains one of the most influential works of history of the last century. Braudel's emphasis was on the way the natural features of the Mediterranean molded human experience in a world where not much changed underneath the superficial violence of wars and empire-building: the book begins with a section revealingly entitled ‘Mountains Come First.’ On the other hand, the role of its many islands is not in doubt when considering the history of the Mediterranean, from Sicily, the largest, to the mass of tiny islands out of which Venice came to life, or the steep capes and peninsulas which depend largely on the sea for their existence—Ceuta and Gibraltar in the west, or Dubrovnik in the Adriatic.

Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, in their massive study of Mediterranean history entitled The Corrupting Sea, have emphasized the great variety of landscapes and physical conditions along the shores and amid the islands of the Mediterranean, and have pointed to the significance of ‘connectivities,’ systems of exchange necessitated by local shortages and excesses (for instance, exchanges of salt for grain in the (p. 495) early medieval Adriatic). At some periods in the history of the Mediterranean these exchange networks were greatly enlarged, encompassing the entire Mediterranean (as in the heyday of ancient Greek and Phoenician trade, or under the Venetians and Genoese in the Middle Ages). Merchants traded in goods that were as exotic on one side of the sea as they were commonplace on the other (say, southern French honey versus Levantine sugar in the late Middle Ages). It was differences, then, that generated trade; one would expect no less. To some extent these differences were determined by physical differences between the hot, dry climate of the southeastern Mediterranean and the more temperate climate of the shores of northern Italy and Provence (allowing for the existence of any number of micro-climates as well, such as Erice in western Sicily, with its vineyards high in the clouds above the flat saltpans of Trapani). But there were also cultural choices that determined what would be grown: medieval Western Europeans generally saw the land as fit for wheat, the staple crop, but their Islamic predecessors had cultivated cotton, dyestuffs, rice and other less humdrum products on the same land. And then there were products from far away that were traded across the Mediterranean, such as the spices of the East, seen as products of a quasi-paradise on the edge of the world, or the gold of Africa, or slaves from the Black Sea. Greed, the need for cheap labor, the wish to show off, made all of these into highly valued commodities within the Mediterranean. As still happens, the rich would go out and buy foreign articles not because they were necessarily much better in quality or design, but because of their rarity; ‘sending coals to Newcastle’ was a common Mediterranean enterprise even in the Bronze Age.

Classical and medieval cartographers understood the known world to revolve around the meeting-point of Europe, Asia, and Africa, in the Mediterranean Sea; this stylized concept of a world divided into three parts that met at the Mediterranean strangely survived even the discovery of the Americas, for it was still being repeated in late sixteenth-century works of geography. It was in the Mediterranean that religions, economies, and political systems met, absorbed one another, and clashed. Only in the sixteenth century did the Mediterranean gradually begin to become subsidiary to Atlantic networks of trade and politics. In a history of the Mediterranean Sea, rather than of Mediterranean lands, the agents of contact come to the fore: Phoenicians and Etruscans rather more than Pharaonic Egyptians and Hittites; Genoese and Venetians rather than popes and holy Roman emperors; Jews of Livorno and Smyrna no less than Ottoman janissaries. Yet these groups had an inordinate impact on the fate of empires as well: Carthage was a Phoenician foundation and blocked Roman attempts at expansion; Venice, once a subject of Byzantium, became ‘lord of a quarter and half a quarter of the Byzantine Empire’ after the Fourth Crusade in 1204; in the sixteenth century, the Genoese held the purse strings of the Spanish rulers. Religious cross-currents include the spread of the Jewish diaspora into the Hellenistic and Roman worlds (notably Alexandria), the underground Christian movement and its transforming role in the later Roman empire; the arrival of Islam and the conversion of the peoples of North Africa and parts of southern Europe to a dynamic new faith, while all the time the three religions (and, at earlier points, paganism) interacted and taught one (p. 496) another elements of theology, moral codes, even snatches of liturgical music. Singly and en masse, pilgrims moved back and forth across the surface of the Mediterranean. All this points to the importance of the theme of migration within and into the Mediterranean region: colonists from Greek and Phoenician cities heading westwards to Sicily (ninth century bce onwards); Germanic peoples settling in Spain, Italy, and North Africa (third century ce onwards); Arabs from Yemen and Arabia, Berbers from the Maghrib, Copts from Egypt, settling in Muslim Spain (eighth century ce onwards); crusaders, Venetians, Catalans, and so on. Yet in the nineteenth century and particularly the twentieth we begin to see the reverse process on a massive scale, as Mediterranean peoples sought livelihoods in the New World or in northern Europe (with interesting cultural results such as the spread of the pizza). In the history of this sea, the lead actors are not necessarily the lead actors in the internal history of Spain, Italy, Greece, or the Levant.

The human presence on the shores and in the islands of the Mediterranean has altered the environment; just as wastes have been created, new land has been brought under cultivation (a recent example is the Pontine Marshes in Italy). Environmental degradation already occurred in antiquity, and ecological historians such as Oliver Rackham have debated how far the Mediterranean was capable of adjusting to the impact of humans by a process of what might be called self-correction. Gains in one area may have compensated for losses in another: the granaries of Tunisia declined precipitously in the Middle Ages, but other sources of supply (such as Morocco) came into their own. Under the general environmental heading, ports also have to be considered. Harbor facilities, natural or man-made, have had a substantial influence on the direction and character of trade. Take Corinth, for instance. The major port established by the ancient Greeks, as far back as the seventh century bce, lay at Lechaion, on the Gulf of Corinth, facilitating contact with the Ionian Sea, the Adriatic, and Italy, and so it is no coincidence that the Corinthians also established colonies in Sicily, at Syracuse, and in the Ionian Sea, at Corcyra (Corfu). Ceuta, on the northern tip of Morocco, had ports on either side of the neck of land on which it stands, offering shelter to ships entering and leaving the Mediterranean in the face of unpredictable winds and heavy mists. It is important to remember what is in the sea, especially its fish and salt, and to relate these foodstuffs to human needs and the development of systems of exchange, even to religious practices: there is impressive evidence for massive consumption of fish in Barcelona during Lent in the fifteenth century. As John Pryor has shown, in the wake of Braudel, the currents and winds of the Mediterranean determined in significant degree who could arrive where and when, and thus both facilitated and blocked trade and the movement of navies.

Another major theme in the history of the Mediterranean is the changing means of communication across the sea. Relatively little is known about the design and efficiency of the earliest shipping, since the main evidence consists of rough images on pottery; discoveries in the Tyrrhenian and Aegean Seas have, however, greatly enlarged understanding of the capacity of Greek, Etruscan, Punic, and Roman ships, including shipwrecks off Giglio, a little island between Tuscany and Corsica, and off Sicily. There is (p. 497) the difficult question of whether improvements in ship design led to an increase in trade, as bigger ships became able to sail longer distances; an alternative view is that growing demand stimulated ship-builders to develop new designs, so that the improvements were determined in large degree by wider economic conditions. Looking at shipping, it is important to distinguish the role of fast, sleek vessels driven by wind and oar power from that of pot-bellied slow boats, full of grain, fish, salt, and timber which for millennia kept open the lifelines of many Mediterranean cities. It is a mistake to think of the trade of Genoa or Venice as in essence a luxury trade in silks and spices. Humbler items such as wheat and salt were traded in vast quantities; and in the ancient Mediterranean the evidence from discoveries of wine amphorae in southern France indicates, for example, how intensive the trade in Etruscan wine became. Linked to this theme there are important questions about the life of sailors, passengers, and (sometimes) galley-slaves; there is evidence for the duration of voyages at various periods, and for the degree of comfort or discomfort involved when people traveled by sea; this evidence often consists in merchant letters, such as the marvelous collection from the Jewish community of eleventh- and twelfth-century Cairo mainly preserved in Cambridge, the Cairo Genizah documents; out of these S. D. Goitein conjured up the image of a ‘Mediterranean society’ of traders, enjoying close ties of family, finance, and faith, with links right across and way beyond the Mediterranean.

One could also write Mediterranean history not as the history of the Mediterranean Sea but as the history of Mediterraneans, that is, of seas that act as bridges between cultures and peoples. Other ‘middle seas’ include the Baltic, the Caribbean, the Japan Sea, and (though a look at the map may not make this obvious) the Indian Ocean, which has been analyzed using the methods of Braudel. The Black Sea occupies rather a special position in this argument, since its own commercial networks often fed into those of the Mediterranean, providing revenues to those who controlled the narrow passage between the two great seas: the inhabitants of Troy in the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of Byzantion in antiquity, of Constantinople in the Middle Ages, and of Istanbul thereafter. Ancient Athens had already bought Black Sea grain, and the medieval Genoese exported cheap Ukrainian grain from Caffa in the Crimea, carrying it deep into the Mediterranean. They also exported large numbers of white Circassian slaves to Egypt, where many were recruited into the Mamluk guard. Yet the Black Sea also had a life of its own, for it was traversed by Varangians from Russia in the early Middle Ages who had no great ambition to penetrate beyond Miklegarð, ‘the Great City’ of Constantinople. Consideration should also be given to the ‘sub-Mediterraneans’ that existed within the Mediterranean Sea itself. There were networks within the Tyrrhenian Sea, linking Sardinia to Tuscany, southern Italy and Sicily. The Adriatic possessed a life of its own, for in addition to its function as a passage-way through which Mediterranean goods were channeled towards Venice, it possessed its own systems of exchange: the Dalmatian towns were perched on the edge of an inhospitable land-mass (that behind Dubrovnik is a limestone desert as reminiscent of the moon as of Earth). They, therefore, depended heavily on the supply of grain and vegetables from the facing shores of Italy. Venice too did not build its early fortunes on exotic trade with the East; rather, it was the (p. 498) fish and salt of the northern Adriatic, which provided a capital base from which the city's extraordinary expansion began.

These examples show how territories facing one another across an easily traversable waterway developed in very distinctive ways, but entered into contact with one another and transformed one another through trade, migration, and sometimes military conquest. A good example from the Mediterranean itself is the way medieval Sicily drew on the influence of both Byzantium and Islam, for it contained a mixed population of Greeks and Muslims, eventually conquered by Latin Christians, and the court culture of these new rulers was impregnated with Islamic and Byzantine motifs. Looking at other ‘middle seas’ we can see similar processes by which cultures across the water assumed a dominant role; a good example is the powerful influence of Korean and, in particular, Chinese culture on Japan, across the open spaces of the Japan Sea. This picture is not confined to watery open spaces. The dry open spaces of the Sahara and Gobi deserts also acted as metaphorical seas across which ideas, objects, and people moved—the famous gold trade across the Sahara heading north to the Maghrib, while the Maghrib exported, among much else, its dominant ideas, notably Islam. The oases such as the town of Wargla, in what is now Algeria, functioned as welcoming islands in the midst of a hostile environment where, just as on a ‘wet sea,’ humans needed to keep on the move if they were to survive. The Baltic displays some important features in common with the Mediterranean: like the Mediterranean, the medieval Baltic was a crusading theater, in which the crusading Military Order of the Teutonic Knights played a powerful part; like the Mediterranean, Christian merchants also established their dominance over its waters and trade routes, as the German Hansa created trading towns along the shores of the Baltic, notably at Riga, and as they exported grain, furs, and amber to consumers in the European heartlands. Finally, it is important to remember that new ‘Mediterraneans’ were created as the network of communications across the world grew. The great example here is the Atlantic. Before 1492 the eastern and western shores were not in contact (occasional Viking voyages apart); after 1492 not just Europe but Africa developed a fateful trading relationship with the Americas, based in significant measure on the tragic export of human cargoes to Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. As Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, four continents entered into relations with one another, and what emerged was a system: African links to South America, in the form of the slave traffic towards Brazil, involved Portuguese entrepreneurs from Europe as well.

Yet the Mediterranean Sea is the ‘classic Mediterranean,’ not just because it carries the name but because it was there that the most intense contacts came into being, which saw the birth of Western civilization. Here, three continents meet in close proximity; a ten-minute boat ride takes a commuter from European Istanbul to Asian Istanbul; Algeciras in southern Spain is a half-hour from Ceuta, and Jebel Musa in Morocco stands clearly visible from the Rock of Gibraltar; on a clear day Africa can be espied from Erice in western Sicily. More importantly, the prevailing winds and the warm summers of the Mediterranean make navigation possible across its open spaces as well as its narrows, even if ancient and medieval shipping generally (p. 499) preferred routes that allowed captains to keep in sight of land. Good examples are the route from Genoa past eastern Corsica and Elba to Sardinia, though from there it was necessary to jump across the open sea to Sicily or Africa. Routes through the Greek islands also kept land in sight, though the trouble with small islands was that they could easily be seized by pirates and used as bases from which to harass shipping.

This is to speak of constants in the history of the Mediterranean. Braudel's Mediterranean was seen from the perspective of the late sixteenth century, even though this was combined with a view of the Mediterranean as a place where ‘all change is slow.’ The strength of Braudel's treatment lies in his mastery of the physical setting rather than of human activity; in his hands, even the history of trade becomes primarily the history of commodities. The human dimension is strangely lacking. This has established a tradition, most clearly visible in dozens of impressive works by French scholars of the Annales school, whose studies of Mediterranean cities such as Livorno in Italy, Bougie in Algeria, or Valencia in Spain have stressed the permanent structures underlying trade and social relations in whatever period they have been examining. The danger is that one then fails to demonstrate clearly changes over time—for instance, in the case of Valencia, the ups and downs of the trade in slaves or sugar. There is also a tendency to set aside political developments. A classic example of this is a rich and impressive study by Jacques Heers (who later broke with the Annalistes) of fifteenth-century Genoa, where the tumultuous politics of the city, which certainly had an impact on trade and social relations, are relegated to a few pages at the end, whereas the trade in grain and metals and slaves is given full exposure in the main text.

It is fair to state that, despite the proliferation of seminars and courses in ‘Mediterranean history’ at universities in the United States, Italy, Spain, Israel, Turkey, and Malta (to name just a few examples), there is little agreement on what constitutes ‘Mediterranean history.’ The approach adopted here emphasizes the sea itself rather than the lands around it, but even then it is necessary to take into account the many Mediterranean islands and the towns perched on the edge of the Mediterranean that created trade networks, whether local or pan-Mediterranean: Ceuta, Genoa, Dubrovnik, Syracuse, Carthage, Alexandria, Corinth, Salonika, Smyrna, Acre, Tel Aviv, to take examples from a variety of periods and places.

Developments across Time

In the second part of this chapter the focus is on the development of the ‘classic Mediterranean’ over time. The first inhabitants of the shores of the Mediterranean apparently had no means of crossing the sea. Neanderthal folk lingered in Gibraltar as late as 22,000 bce, where their bones have been found in some quantity; but the lack of comparable evidence from Ceuta, across the Straits, suggests that they could only stare at the coast of Africa. The effective starting point of Mediterranean history, conceived in the terms applied here, is the moment when small boats from the mainland began to (p. 500) explore the Greek islands, searching for obsidian as early as the upper palaeolithic period, while the first settlers arrived in Sicily in around 11,000 bce. From evidence for spasmodic navigation we move to the trade networks of the great civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean: so, not just Minoans and Mycenaeans in their own Greek and Cretan setting, but the appearance of the goods they manufactured in lands further west such as Italy, as well as their close contact, via Cyprus, with the Levant, and the role of the Trojan War as (possibly) a trade war for control of the entrance from the Black Sea into the Aegean, anticipating many later wars for control of Constantinople/Istanbul. At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar were already open to shipping, according to classical writers, from at least 1104 bce, when Cádiz was supposedly founded by the Phoenicians, though this is almost certainly several centuries earlier than was actually the case. This link to the Atlantic, which was created so early, forms a constant theme throughout the human history of the Mediterranean Sea, and becomes a dominant one after 1492. The Mediterranean is not a closed world but one that, via the Black Sea, has links to the Eurasian steppes and, via the Atlantic, to northern Europe and West Africa. That, in essence, is why the Mediterranean is so important: what happens there has an economic, cultural, and political impact far beyond.

We can begin with a ‘First Mediterranean’ in which human beings opened up contact across the watery spaces, reaching the islands and even opposite shores, but not, at this time, drawing the entire space into a single system. The far west remained largely isolated from the eastern Mediterranean until the end of the Bronze Age, around 1100 bce, or even later. In fact, the first evidence for trade across the Mediterranean takes us back to the late Stone Age or even earlier, when people first visited Melos in the Aegean in search of the volcanic glass known as obsidian, used in tool-making. Since Melos is an island we have immediate evidence for the regular movement of small boats, linking this island to the mainland of Greece and Asia. Even so, this was not trade: as far as can be seen, obsidian was simply collected, without, at first, any local intermediaries. It took many centuries for the complex trade networks of Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece to emerge in the eastern Mediterranean. The close of the period of the ‘First Mediterranean’ is marked by conflict and, possibly, by migration, by a breakdown in trade and by the fall of great cities. Here we can focus on an event which belongs at least as much to legend as to fact (but a legend whose persistence within and beyond the Mediterranean is itself an important feature of Mediterranean history): the Trojan War, most likely a battle for control of access to the straits leading out of the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea, an area that would remain of vital importance to the history of the Mediterranean through the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. The traditional date of 1184 bce, furnished by classical authors, seems to stand up reasonably well. Homeric memories of the Trojan War were expressed in a wider Mediterranean legend: the story of the travels of Odysseus, which include what some consider to be descriptions of the waters around Sicily and southern Italy, a region in which many examples of Mycenaean Greek pottery from the time of the Trojan conflict have been found. Pirates, merchants, and migrants found (p. 501) their way gradually further and further west in this age of maritime pioneers. But the chaos ascribed by the Greek authors to this age extended further afield—this is the period in which we hear in Egyptian records of the Sea Peoples, among whom the most famous were the Philistines, probably of Greek origin, who settled the coast of Canaan and gave it their name, in the modern form of ‘Palestine.’

The collapse of the great Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean marks the end of the ‘First Mediterranean.’ A ‘Second Mediterranean’ emerged as the Phoenicians and, later, the Greeks reopened the trade routes to the west, planting themselves in colonies in North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, Spain, and southern France. Thus, in this phase the extent and scale of contacts was far greater than in the days when occasional Mycenaean traders had reached Taranto in southern Italy or eastern Sicily. Of course, the opening of these routes was a competitive business, and the Trojan War was only the first of many commercial conflicts, the predecessor of yet more aggressive campaigns which brought Greek fleets against Etruscan and Carthaginian ones in the waters round Sicily and southern Italy. Greeks also fought against Greeks, for ethnic loyalties were never paramount. The life of the inhabitants of Mediterranean Spain and northwest Africa was transformed from the eighth century bce onwards by the coming of merchants buying local produce, foodstuffs, and raw materials in the main, and selling fine pottery and products of artisan workshops.

The major evidence for the creation of new networks is provided by the Phoenicians, who, from bases in modern Lebanon, established not merely commercial routes but daughter cities (colonies is a word better avoided, because it implies control from afar) as far afield as North Africa. There, they established the Qart Hadasht, or ‘New City,’ which later became known to the Romans as Carthago, and, eventually, further secondary centers in Spanish waters. The Phoenicians must be seen as vectors for the grander cultures of the Middle East, Egyptian and Mesopotamian, whose goods they distributed and, perhaps even more significantly, imitated in their own workshops. Commercial outposts came into existence. Typically, they were offshore islands, or at least perched on the edge of the territory with which the Phoenicians and others sought to trade: Motya, off the western coast of Sicily, was an important base for Phoenician and Carthaginian merchants. The need for safety and the wish to be masters of their own small enclave determined this behavior. There was an important link between merchants and writing. The Phoenician alphabet, ancestor of the Greek one, broke the near-monopoly of priests and other select groups on writing systems, until then very complex, even esoteric, so that a widely legible writing system suited to the needs of traders came into existence. The spread of the alphabet westwards is one of the great themes in early Mediterranean history.

The dominant theme in the history of the Mediterranean in the seventh to second centuries bce is the struggle for political dominion in the east, between Athens and its rivals (a struggle that extended to the Adriatic and to Sicily), and conflicts in western waters in which Greeks, Carthaginians, Etruscans, and, later, Romans were the main actors. These struggles were largely effected through naval contests, because at their (p. 502) heart lay the opportunity to gain control of the trade routes, and the profits they brought. Especially important was the creation of the Greek ‘colonies’ (bearing in mind that they were largely autonomous) in such places as Syracuse, Taranto, and Cumae, the area known as ‘Greater Greece,’ Magna Graecia, while similar colonies developed along the shores of Asia Minor too. The Sicilian colonies furnished large amounts of grain to sustain growing cities such as Corinth. Beginning at Pithekoussai, on Ischia in the Bay of Naples, it was in Magna Graecia that the Greeks built trading and cultural ties to less sophisticated peoples who became heavily influenced by Greek practices; the adoption of forms of Greek script by the Italian peoples is just one example; another important example is the export of Greek religious ideas—anthropomorphic gods and goddesses, and a rich treasury of myths, which were grafted on to local gods in Italy and elsewhere. But in entering these waters the Greeks competed with others—the Phoenicians and the Etruscans in particular. Sometimes they worked side by side, as at Spina in the northern Adriatic, which became a great Etruscan centre for the import of Greek pottery. But there were violent clashes too, such as the great battle between the Greeks of Syracuse and the Etruscans at Cumae in 474 bce. This, therefore, sets out a consistent theme: very many of the rivalries within the Mediterranean were rooted in commercial competition. Yet it was not necessarily a question of controlling gold and perfumes. More important to early Rome was salt, while the Etruscans were famous for their massive iron ore reserves, notably on and around Elba. Thus, we can see early on that the trade of the Mediterranean, contrary to the assumptions of many classic works, has to be understood not just as the exchange of luxuries, but as commerce in humdrum necessities such as foodstuffs and raw materials.

Competition and trade wars were a repeated reality. But there were also periods of relative stability. In such a period a hybrid culture developed in the eastern Mediterranean following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of Greek rule over Egypt and Syria. The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt perpetuated ancient Egyptian notions of state control of the economy, but they also opened Egypt up to wider Mediterranean contacts (rather neglected under the Pharaohs), through the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, home to Hellenistic Greeks, Jews, Copts, and many others. These contacts were economic—the Ptolemies maintained an impressive navy—and also cultural. The great Alexandrian library was an expression of the cultural unity that developed in the Hellenistic world, despite ethnic and religious tensions. The Hellenistic period was the period in which the foundations were laid for the Mediterranean empire of the Romans, and indeed of the Byzantines, as a Greek-speaking city-based civilization emerged in the eastern Mediterranean; meanwhile, real political power had shifted away from independent city-states into the hands of regional monarchs. The spread of cults, such as that of the Egyptian goddess Isis, provides evidence of the movement of people and of ideas across the ancient Mediterranean. Politically, it was Rome that triumphed: its political mastery of the Mediterranean was consolidated by the fall of both Greece and Carthage in the mid-first century bce, and its economic interests were furthered by the establishment of Roman rule in Egypt. The famous wheat trade out of Egypt, Africa, and Sicily sustained Rome by the end of the first century bce, though references to imports (p. 503) from Sicily reach as far back as the fifth century bce. There existed a tension between attempts to protect the interests of the mother city, and the maintenance of a great commonwealth around the shores of the Mediterranean. Regions such as Gaul, Britain, and Western Germany were peripheral to an empire whose center of gravity was at first Rome, and then moved eastwards to Constantinople, thereby confirming the economic vitality of the old Hellenistic lands of the eastern Mediterranean. This was an area dotted with towns, long used to intensive commercial exchanges, which would continue even with the emergence of Islam and the loss of Byzantine Egypt and Syria in the seventh century.

The theme of the ‘Second Mediterranean’ is, then, the integration of the entire Mediterranean space into an interconnected trading area, culminating in the creation of something even more ambitious, an integrated political area, under the rule of the Roman emperors. The origins of the ‘Third Mediterranean’ must, not surprisingly, be sought in the political and economic fragmentation visible from fourth century onwards. Constantinople, the ‘New Rome,’ retained its mastery over the eastern Mediterranean until the rise of Islam, but what was lost, after a millennium of trans-Mediterranean trade, was intimate contact between the far west and the far east of this sea; and Byzantium too suffered from decline, as the depopulation of cities such as Ephesus (in modern Turkey) indicates, though collapse was less marked and recovery was much quicker than in the west. Moreover, in the seventh century Byzantium lost many of its most precious possessions in the Near East and in Western Europe, though in fact the rise of Islam did unify much of the Mediterranean in ways reminiscent of the Roman mare nostrum. To some extent Islam was able to restore the east–west contact, once most of Spain fell under Muslim rule (from 711 onwards); but north–south contact declined, and links between Christian Western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean weakened greatly. We enter the murky waters of the so-called Dark Ages; historians have argued passionately for and against the collapse of trade following the barbarian invasions of the fifth century onwards; the perspective from the Bay of Naples, a center of continuing trade, is different to that from the still-quiescent ports of northwestern Italy, partly because the merchants of Amalfi and Naples gained access to Byzantine and Muslim cities in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. ‘Syrian’ merchants, from the ancient trading centers of Phoenicia, and Jews are reported to have played an especially important role in trans-Mediterranean trade in this period.

Under Islam, a common market stretching from Spain and Morocco to Egypt and Syria was created, which also enjoyed close commercial ties to the Byzantine world in the eastern Mediterranean and southern Italy. There were significant bonds between the Greek and the Islamic worlds in the realms of high culture, where Arab translators helped preserve Greek texts by way of Aramaic translations, and lower down the scale, where Orthodox (and ‘heretical’) priests and monks formed part of a rich mixed culture within Islamic lands, alongside Jews and of course increasing numbers of Muslims. Here again we see one of the recurring themes of Mediterranean history: the Mediterranean as a theater for cultural and religious mixing, sometimes, as at this period, expressed through the emergence of a degree of mutual tolerance. This, however, was not automatically the case: eastern Christian monks arriving in early (p. 504) Muslim Spain spurred local Christians to denounce Islam in public, setting off the crisis of the Martyrs of Córdoba that badly damaged Christian–Muslim relations in eighth-century al-Andalus.

From about 950 we observe unity within diversity. Sects multiplied, and so there rapidly ceased to be one Islam, just as there had rapidly ceased to be one Christianity. Yet this remained a relatively stable world, economically united despite sharp political divisions between Umayyads, Fatimids, Abbasids, and other claimants to caliphal power. Among those who crisscrossed the Mediterranean at this period were pilgrims of the three monotheistic faiths, some of whom, such as ibn Jubayr and Benjamin of Tudela, a Muslim and a Jew from Spain, have left vivid accounts of their travels in the age of the crusades. Large-scale Christian pilgrimage across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land preceded the First Crusade (launched in 1095), and was further stimulated by the crusade's startling success in capturing Jerusalem (in 1099). Into this world the Italian merchants and, alongside them, crusaders and other conquering knights irrupted aggressively at the end of the eleventh century. Their activities dominate the Mediterranean in the central Middle Ages. Yet this should not be presented entirely as a history of fragmentation. The rise of Italian trade is once again the history of the forging of commercial unity within the Mediterranean, the creation of the ‘Third Mediterranean,’ as the Italians, and later the Catalans and Provençaux, seized mastery over the trade routes from the Muslims and Jews and created their own trading bases in such cities as crusader Acre, Constantinople, Alexandria, Tunis, and Palermo. For, once they had gained their trading bases, the Pisans, Genoese, and Venetians sought peaceful relations with their Muslim trading partners, and were often criticized in Western Europe for the warmth of their ties with Muslim states such as Fatimid Egypt; Alexandria lived off the profits of the Levant trade, selling to Western merchants goods obtained from the Indian Ocean, notably pepper and other spices. The ties between the Catalans and the rulers of the Maghrib became so close that the Catalans even supplied mercenary armies to fight on behalf of the Muslim allies of the Christian kings of Aragon. On the other hand, the self-confidence of Christian Western Europe was expressed as well in the conquest of the Balearic islands and of the coastline of Spain (Majorca in 1229, Valencia in 1238, and so on).

As we move beyond 1200, the history of the Mediterranean increasingly becomes a history of vigorous and violent competition among Christians as well, seen in the struggle between Venice and Genoa for control of Crete at the start of the thirteenth century, or in the battle of Meloria in 1284, when the Genoese defeated their age-old rivals from Pisa and for a time gained control of Elba, rich in iron. Christians in the east were victims of the crusades as well as the Muslims, notably when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204, a blow from which the Byzantine capital never really recovered. Further west, bloody battles between Catalans and Genoese for control of Sardinia, valued for its grain, cheese, and leather, spared no one, and resulted in gory massacres of sailors and passengers on enemy ships.

This third phase came to an end in the mid-fourteenth century, when the Black Death wiped out up to half of the population of the lands bordering the Mediterranean; (p. 505) the whole economy of Christian Europe and the Islamic lands was reconfigured in remarkable ways. So a ‘Fourth Mediterranean’ began to develop at this stage. Some of the grand trunk routes declined and a new configuration came into being, as local trade routes came to the fore; and all this was related to major political events in the east, as the Turks gained control of the Aegean and interfered with access to such products as sugar, which Christian merchants now had to seek nearer home, in Sicily, Granada, and even outside the Mediterranean, in Madeira. There were fewer mouths to feed, and there was more money to spend on luxuries, so it was not just the routes that changed—it was also what was carried, and where it was carried. By the start of the fifteenth century, Valencia had become a boom town. We also begin to see the gradual emergence of the Atlantic as a destination for Mediterranean merchants and conquerors, with important results for the relationship between the Mediterranean and the wider world, even before Columbus crossed the Ocean in 1492, a year also of fateful importance for the religious history of the Mediterranean, since it saw the destruction of the Muslim kingdom of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, many thousands of whom moved to Ottoman lands. The creation of a vibrant Atlantic economy transformed the Mediterranean as much as the Black Death. The ‘Fourth Mediterranean’ was increasingly linked to the Atlantic, and, as new spice routes were opened through the Atlantic, Mediterranean cities found themselves competing with Lisbon and eventually Antwerp in the spice trade. The decline in trade within the early modern Mediterranean encompossed a decline in grain production, for example in Crete, where vines and olive-trees now dominated.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have always tended to be seen from the perspective of the conflict between Christendom and Islam, marked by the return of vicious piracy in the western Mediterranean (Hayrettin Barbarossa's ‘Barbary Corsairs,’ matched by Christian pirates such as the Hospitaller Knights of Rhodes and Malta), and by Spanish campaigns along the coast of North Africa. The siege of Malta in 1565 and the battle of Lepanto six years later to all intents divided the Mediterranean between Spanish and Turkish spheres of influence, since the Turks proved unable to establish mastery of the seas west of Malta. And yet, beneath this ruffled surface, the old unities still survived: trade between east and west, through Livorno, Smyrna, Dubrovnik, even cultural contact, as westerners expressed their fascination with things Turkish; and there was a degree of political accommodation in the seventeenth century, when Spain was preoccupied with political problems elsewhere (in America, Italy, and northern Europe), while the French king enjoyed remarkably friendly relations with the Sublime Porte from the early sixteenth century onwards. Even in this period, then, we need to think of the Mediterranean as a sort of unity. Livorno and Smyrna were opened up to merchants of all religions, cities in which political conflicts were often pushed aside to make way for exchange and profit; a significant role in the success of both cities was played by the descendants of the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century. Dubrovnik (Ragusa) is a particularly interesting case, for it functioned as a ‘hinge’ linking the Ottoman Balkans to Western Europe, and enjoyed a special degree of political autonomy within the Turkish sphere. Its rise to (p. 506) a position where it possessed one of the largest merchant fleets in the Mediterranean coincides to an uncanny degree with the decision of the Ragusan city-fathers to pay tribute to the Sublime Porte. However, these successes served as the prelude to the arrival of non-Mediterranean powers in the Mediterranean: English and Dutch pirates were already active in the Mediterranean at the end of the sixteenth century, and by the eighteenth century the Mediterranean was emerging as a battleground of powers whose main activities lay in the oceans beyond, beginning with the British capture of Gibraltar and Minorca at the start of the eighteenth century. At the end of the century, the Mediterranean was a major theater in the naval war between Napoleonic France and Great Britain.

This was all the prelude to extraordinary changes in the nineteenth century, which saw the radical transformation of the Mediterranean—the ‘Fifth Mediterranean’—as Britain and France now worked together to make it into a Middle Sea in a new way, opening up the Suez Canal and permitting at long last the traffic of shipping from Europe to Asia without the need to circumnavigate the whole of Africa. Industrialization in northern Europe stimulated demand for raw materials from the east, which now passed straight through the Mediterranean. Thus, the Mediterranean gained a new importance as a passage-way, rather than as a region whose resources were valued in their own right; and yet, in a sense, an old relationship had been restored: the products of the Indies once again flowed in great quantities up the Red Sea, towards the Mediterranean ports of Egypt, as had been the case in the Middle Ages, before the Portuguese opened a route for pepper that bypassed the Mediterranean. Alexandria once again became an economic powerhouse after centuries of quite startling decline; its new inhabitants—Greeks, Jews, Italians, Turks, Copts—saw themselves as standing apart from the life of Egypt, and loudly recalled the classical description of their city as Alexandria ad Aegyptum, ‘Alexandria on the way to Egypt,’ rather than in Aegyptum. Meanwhile, the colonial powers gradually strengthened their hold on territories around the Mediterranean, starting with French Algeria from as early as 1830, and continuing to the eve of World War I, when Italy battled for control of Libya. Alexandria too was in effect managed by the great powers as a condominium.

At the same time, the Mediterranean entered the consciousness of Europeans in new ways, as the birthplace of Greek and, therefore, it was assumed, of European culture, notions which were confirmed by the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans at Mycenae, Troy, and Knossos on either side of 1900. It became clear that the history of the Greek world receded further back in time than anyone had imagined. And the history of travel in the Mediterranean, from the time of Odysseus onwards, culminated in the coming of mass tourism during the late twentieth century, and the emergence of the Mediterranean as a playground for Europeans and Americans of all social classes. Take-off occurred, quite literally, in the 1950s with the first direct flights from England and Germany to Majorca; the rapid development, or indeed over-development, of the Spanish coastline was encouraged by the Franco government, in the hope of finding a way out of Spain's political and economic isolation from Europe. At the end of the twentieth century, the tourist invasion took on a new character as (p. 507) cheap flights made access to Mediterranean cities less costly, at least for the British, than a train ride within their own country. Travel was democratized, and it was not all concerned with viewing the ancient temples and medieval or baroque cathedrals scattered around the Mediterranean: in Majorca, Monastir, or Mykonos, beaches attracted more interest than museums. Two inventions, as far apart in technology as can be imagined, transformed the relationship between the Mediterranean and the north of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century: the airplane and the bikini.

Awareness of the damage that this has created has also grown. It is not simply a matter of ugly concrete hotels and apartments fringing the Costa del Sol; environmental abuse has also extended into the waters in the Mediterranean, with overfishing of bluefin tuna and other creatures, and with the dumping of harmful chemicals in areas such as the southern Adriatic. President Sarkozy of France has proposed a ‘Mediterranean Union’ alongside and overlapping with the European Union, and the ‘Barcelona Process’ has initiated discussion of environmental problems in a setting where old enemies such as Israel and Libya are encouraged to sit at the same table. It may be that the Fifth Mediterranean is also the Last Mediterranean, before the sea becomes denuded of its living creatures.


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