The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

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Situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Mediterranean Sea has been for millenia the place where religions, economies, and political systems met, clashed, influenced and absorbed one another. David Abulafia offers a fresh perspective by focusing on the sea itself: its practical importance for transport and sustenance; its dynamic role in the rise and fall of empires; and the remarkable cast of characters—sailors, merchants, migrants, pirates, pilgrims—who have crossed and recrossed it.
Ranging from prehistory to the 21st century, The Great Sea is above all the history of human interaction across a region that has brought together many of the great civilizations of antiquity as well as the rival empires of medieval and modern times. Interweaving major political and naval developments with the ebb and flow of trade, Abulafia explores how commercial competition in the Mediterranean created both rivalries and partnerships, with merchants acting as intermediaries between cultures, trading goods that were as exotic on one side of the sea as they were commonplace on the other. He stresses the remarkable ability of Mediterranean cultures to uphold the civilizing ideal of convivencia, "living together," exemplified in medieval Spain, where Christian theologians studied Arabic texts with the help of Jewish and Muslim scholars, and traceable throughout the history of the region.
Brilliantly written and sweeping in its scope, The Great Sea is itself as varied and inclusive as the region it describes, covering everything from the Trojan War, the history of piracy, and the great naval battles between Carthage and Rome to the Jewish Diaspora into Hellenistic worlds, the rise of Islam, the Grand Tours of the 19th century, and mass tourism of the 20th. It is, in short, a magnum opus, the definitive account of perhaps the most vibrant theater of human interaction in history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Known as the "Corrupting Sea" for the way the dense web of commercial relationships spanning its shores inexorably changes local cultures, the Mediterranean has seen the rise and fall of many of the world's great empires, aided in the spread and propagation of the three great monotheistic faiths, and carried countless millions of immigrants and adventurers to a new life or a watery grave. This epic tome by Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, is a political history of the Liquid Continent—another of the sea's monikers—tracing how the spread of ideas, goods, cultures, and armies across the sea has helped shape the modern world. Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region. In such an expansive work, however, occasional frustration regarding the rapidly changing cast of thousands is inevitable, and nearly every page contains minor details deserving their own entire books. Abulafia's central thesis, that human cultures shape their own destinies rather than live beholden to the currents, climate patterns, and natural ecosystems described by Fernand Braudel, the other great chronicler of the Mediterranean, is convincing. Maps. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"This magnificent book teeming with colourful characters. Over the course of nearly 800pp, we follow faiths; sail with fleets; trade with bankers, financiers and merchants; raid with pirates and observe battles and sieges; watch cities rise and fall and see peoples migrate in triumph and tragedy. But at its heart, this is a history of mankind - gripping, worldly, bloody, playful - that radiates scholarship and a sense of wonder and fun, using the Mediterranean as its medium, its watery road much travelled." — Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times

"This memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail, celebrates the swirling changeability at the heart of that wonderful symbiosis of man and nature which once took place long Mediterranean shores" — Jonathan Keates, The Sunday Telegraph

"An Everest of a book, brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship...the effect is mesmerising, as detail accumulates meticulously." — Ian Thomson, The Independent

"David Abulafia's marvellous history of the Mediterranean is an excellent corrective to oversimplified views of geopolitics." — The Economist

"New, highly impressive book...magisterial work..." — Prospect

"Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region." — Publishers Weekly

"Abulafia writes in a popular style with an eye for interesting sidelights on history, such as the backdating of the Trojan War by Homer and Virgil, and quirky asides about modern Mediterranean culture...this comprehensive, scholarly study contains much food for thought." — Kirkus

"A comprehensive, fair-minded history." — The National Interest

"The Great Sea deserves a place on the shelf next to Braudel's classic work." — Shelf Awareness

"David Abulafia's new book about the Mediterranean Sea, The Great Sea, has everything a major work of history requires. An important theme, solid research, magnificent writing and a perceptive insight into human nature...As an introduction to this story - and as a cautionary tale of what happens when the darkness in the human soul crowds out the light - there is no better place to start than David Abulafia's The Great Sea." - The California Literary Review

"For both specialists and interested general readers, this book will be a treasure and become the standard work on the topic." — Booklist Online

"Book of the Year" selection, History category — he Economist

"David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, brings historians and interested readers the ultimate biography of this unique sea, as seen and used and experienced by the people who lived and still live on its long coastline."— Bookbanter

"This magnificent history, at once sweeping and precise, spans the period from 22,000 B.C. to 2010 A.D. to explicate the history of human activity on and around the Mediterranean Sea... [Abulafia] is a superb writer with a gift for lucid compression and an eye for the telling detail...He has taken on a grand subject, and has related and interpreted it with authority, exactitude, and verve. His work deserves a wide and appreciative audience." — The Atlantic

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195323344
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/13/2011
  • Pages: 816
  • Sales rank: 1,005,100
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 2.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and the author of The Mediterranean in History.

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Table of Contents

1: Isolation and insulation: island communities before metal
2: Copper and Bronze
3: Merchants and Heroes
4: Sea Peoples and Land Peoples

1: The purple traders
2: The heirs of Odysseus
3: The triumph of the Tyrrhenians
4: Towards the Garden of the Hesperides
5: Thalassocracies
6: The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean
7: 'Carthage must be destroyed'
8: 'Our Sea'
9: Old and new faiths
10: Dis-Integration

1: Mediterranean troughs
2: Crossing the Boundaries
3: The great sea-change
4: 'The profit that God shall give'
5: Ways across the Sea
6: The fall and rise of empires
7: Merchants, mercenaries and missionaries
8: Serrata - Closing

1. Would-be Roman emperors
2. Transformations in the West
3: Holy Leagues and unholy alliances
4: Akdeniz - the battle for the White Sea
5: Interlopers in the Mediterranean
6: Diasporas in despair
7: Encouragement to others
8: Views through the Russian prism
9: Deys, beys and bashaws

1: Ever the twain shall meet
2: The Greek and the unGreek
3: Ottoman exit
4: A tale of four and a half cities
5: Mare Nostrum - again
6: A fragmented Mediterranean
7: The Last Mediterranean Appendix: The physical Mediterranean

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 22, 2011

    Great Sea - Great Book

    I am thoroughly enjoying The Great Sea. It is quite comprehensive and readable with a couple of limitations. It is necessary to have a good historical atlas at the ready to constantly look up the places cited and the political entities mentioned.

    Abulafia's book needs more maps and a reader's guide to the various evolving tribes, kingdoms, alliances, etc. to make it more readable for a reader without a strong background in history.

    I highly recommend this book to all those interested in our past.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Probably the single most informative and comprehensive book on a

    Probably the single most informative and comprehensive book on a history subject I have read in years. It is difficult to put into context the various ways that civilizations across the Mediterranean interacted with each other; expanded (or not) and grew their wealth and culture (or not) without knowledge of how they were able to use the sea. This book does a nice job of exploring the region over thousands of years and through myriad changes in the balance of power, trade and religion...themes that have special relevance today and into the future. The changes shaking the region today are echoes of similar episodes over the millennia which the author lays out in a matter of fact yet interesting way. My only suggestion is for better maps, or none at all. The included diagrams are used over and again and do not add much to the mix. More detailed maps indicating the extent of each culture/civilization along the shores and islands would be an easy addition and enormously helpful. This must have been a tough task to write such a complete book and stay focused on the Sea itself and
    not get seriously sidetracked with so much history in the region. Outstanding read overall.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2012

    Barnes and Noble Method of downloading books to a MAC or PC really really sucks

    I think I am going to throw this peice of crap away and buy an IPAD

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2012


    Book sucks

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 1, 2012

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    Posted January 28, 2012

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