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The broken core of the western world

May 25, 2011

David Gilmour in Prospect:

Scholars who write histories of the Mediterranean run a similar risk to those who describe the decline and fall of empires. Both are likely to be compared unfavourably with the established masters in their fields, in these cases Fernand Braudel and Edward Gibbon. (…)

The Great Sea tells an epic story lasting over 4,000 years. It begins with the Trojans and the Minoans of Crete and then accompanies the Phoenicians and the Greeks as these intrepid mariners chase the sun westwards and establish colonies far from their birthplaces in the Aegean and the Levant. The high point of the narrative is reached—alas a little early in the book—when Rome encircles the sea with its acquisition of Egypt and the Emperor Augustus establishes the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of stability, in around 27BC. Peace is real, piracy is extinguished, and the Mediterranean world can live without city walls and with few garrisons.

As the author observes, “the sea was a political unity, under Rome; it was an economic unity, allowing traders to criss-cross the Mediterranean without interference; it was a cultural unity, dominated by Hellenistic culture… expressed in Greek or Latin; it was even in many respects a religious unity,” as peoples (Jews and Christians aside) shared their gods with one another. Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, had good reason to identify the 2nd century AD as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”

The Mediterranean’s unity was shattered by the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions. Subsequently the rise of Islam divided the sea between an Arab south and a Christian north which later mutated into an antagonism between an Ottoman east and a mainly European west. For hundreds of years the sea became the haunt of pirates and slave-traders, a relentless theatre of war, massacre, treachery and exploitation. [More]

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