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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean [Hardcover]

David Abulafia
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 May 2011


For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation. From the time of historical Troy until the middle of the nineteenth century, human activity here decisively shaped much of the course of world history. David Abulafia's The Great Sea is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent reinvention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination.

Part of the argument of Abulafia's book is that the great port cities - Alexandria, Trieste and Salonika and many others - prospered in part because of their ability to allow many different peoples, religions and identities to co-exist within sometimes very confined spaces. He also brilliantly populates his history with identifiable individuals whose lives illustrate with great immediacy the wider developments he is describing.

The Great Sea ranges stupendously across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Venice to Alexandria. Rather than imposing a false unity on the sea and the teeming human activity it has sustained, the book emphasises diversity - ethnic, linguistic, religious and political. Anyone who reads it will leave it with their understanding of those societies and their histories enormously enriched.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (5 May 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713999349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713999341
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 206,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


The greatest living historian of the Mediterranean (Andrew Roberts )

A towering achievement. No review can really do justice to the scale of Abulafia's achievement: in its epic sweep, eye for detail and lucid style. (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times )

Brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship, the overall effect is mesmerising. (Ian Thomson Independent )

A memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail. (Jonathan Keates Sunday Telegraph )

The story is teeming with colourful characters, and Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even dashingly. (Simon Sebag Montefiore Financial Times )

About the Author

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and was until recently Chairman of the Cambridge History Faculty. His previous books include Frederick II and The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, and in 2003 was made Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarieta Italiana in recognition of his work on Italian and Mediterranean history.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
This book, the cover tells me, `is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent invention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination'. I was immediately fascinated: how does a history of a sea read? People interact with the sea in a number of ways, but they don't live on it. What facts become important, which aspects of human civilisation will feature, and why?

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and in this book he sets out the presence of the people who have lived around the Mediterranean from around 22000 BC to 2010 AD. This is a history of the people who `dipped their toes in the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it.' The book is divided into five chronological sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC - 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC - 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD - 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD - 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD - 2010 AD

Each section of the book opens and closes a period of the sea's history during which trade, cultural exchanges and empires act as unifiers before the process stops or reverses. Some of those significant events include the collapse of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Black Death and more recently the building of the Suez Canal.

`The history of the Mediterranean has been presented in this book as a series of phases in which the sea was, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into a single economic and even political area. With the coming of the Fifth Mediterranean the whole character of this process changed.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sea Made Great 27 July 2011
Abulafi brings the Mediterranean to life in the best tradition of history writing. The subject is vast - and the book is accordingly long - but Abulafi's touch is both elegant and scholarly. All epochs, through nearly three millennia, receive detailed attention: there is no skipping through periods that the writer feels less interesting, since he is clearly fascinated by all.
As history I would put this in the same class as N.A.M. Rodger. Anyone who feels that history merits the very best writing would do well to buy this book, for it absorbs, informs and enchants.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too selective in approach and disjointed 28 July 2013
The amount of praise heaped on David Abulafia's substantial tomb "The Great Sea" by newspaper critics would burden an elephant but on Amazon something akin to fifty per cent of the reviewers have described the book as dry, eclectic and in need of sharp editing. The dissent has been expressed in both abandoning the book and a sigh of relief on completing each mercifully short chapter.

To cease reading is a pity for the book does contain a wealth of information and once the Common Era is reached both literary style and content liven up considerably. That said the author's own particular interest fields soon become apparent. He writes at length over the impact made by the discovery of yet another shard of pottery and the importance to history of the activities of a local adventurer (often Jewish) but seriously great events can be dismissed in less than a page.

To write a human history of the Mediterranean, condensed into one volume, is a daunting undertaking but the final impression is that the author found the task too demanding and shared the anxiety of certain readers to get to the finishing post.

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars rather flat 23 Sep 2012
I thought this would be a wonderful informative, entertaining and evocative read about the Mediterranean and its people and history. But in the end, I had to force myself to finish it one small chapter at a time. There is plenty to admire in this book, but somehow the overall picture is lost amidst a welter of detail - and the facts tend to overshadow the ideas, the personalities and the atmosphere. I certainly learnt a lot but it all seemed rather a jumble and the style is often uninspired and flat. Could have done with some vigorous editing and sharpening up.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb publication 8 Aug 2013
By Barry B
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a must for anyone who enjoys travelling to the Mediterranean and surrounding area if they wish to place their travels within a historical context.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great 17 Jan 2013
A well written history as described by the title. I intended to read only up to the Crusades as my main interest is in earlier periods of history but I found this book so engrossing that I carried on up to the end. Abulafia manages to strike the right balance between detail and the bigger picture and I found this a very enjoyable read. The maps are helpful and positioned at the beginning of each chapter to illustrate how different cities come and go in prominence during the passage of time.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Book 17 Oct 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book tells in detail how the first settlers reached the mediterranen sea. Very interesting stuff. Especially is your ancestors were from that region, makes you develop a sense of belonging.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great! 4 Sep 2012
By Fair GB
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read this cover to cover in a week, which is good going because this is a BIG book. Previous reviews explain what it is all about, so I will not go into this, suffice to say I found it a great, easy read. Well worth the money and time to read it. I would definitely recommend this book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Rather than searching for unity, we should note diversity'
A friend asked me recently what might persuade me to award five stars (not unheard of, but quite unusual). Here you have it.
And it's got something for everyone. Read more
Published 1 month ago by David Thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars THE book for lovers of history and the Mediterranean
Writing a history of the Med is not an easy task, which David Abulafia brilliantly delivers. On reading the book, I felt like traveling in space and time between the shores and on... Read more
Published 2 months ago by MC1966
5.0 out of 5 stars A broad and rich history
Recommended for those with a general interest of Mediterranean history.

The content covers several millennia so I wouldn't be sure how useful it would be for academics... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mr. G. E. Lewis
3.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly wide but too deep for me
There must have been considerable research put into this book but I find it very 'heavy going' and have not completed reading it yet. Read more
Published 4 months ago by HENRYoFELIX
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious but does not deliver the goods
I ordered the book and waited with anticipation for it to arrive, being very interested and relatively well read regarding the history of the various civilizations that flourished... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Dimitrios Tzelepis
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good, but...
A good generalist work, not for specialists . The chronological spread is to ample to be dealt with single handed but this notwithstanding, David Abulafia - a well known authority... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Marco Morin
4.0 out of 5 stars A nearly great book
Anyone who writes about the Mediterranean and its history has to contend with the fearsome shadow of Fernand Braudel's multi-part epic, and Mr Abulafia acknowledges this straight... Read more
Published on 1 April 2012 by John Fletcher
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