Abulafia (Mediterranean History/Cambridge Univ.; The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus, 2008, etc.) provides a “history of the Mediterranean Sea, rather than a history of the lands around it.”
In this massive companion piece to The Mediterranean in History (2003), the author looks at the role played by trade, as opposed to physical migration of populations, in diffusing cultures and religion, as well as that of naval warfare and conquest. Abulafia weighs in on the dispute over the origins of the Etruscans who preceded the Romans and built the first cities in Italy. Had they migrated from the east, as Latin writers such as Virgil and Cicero supposed, or were they indigenous to the region? For the author, the important question is “how their distinctive culture came into being in Italy”—the diffusion of objects, standards of taste, religious cults, etc. The author looks at five distinct stages in the culture of the Mediterranean: 22000 to 1000 BCE, when progress was punctuated by a series of natural disasters; 1000 BCE to 600 CE, which encompasses the great cultures of antiquity and the rise of Judaism and Christianity; 600-1350, during which the Roman Empire fell and Islam rose; 1350-1830, dominated by the Ottoman empire and the Crusades; and 1830-2010, featuring the expansion of the British empire whose acquisitions stretched from Gibraltar to Suez in the modern period. 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.
Whether or not readers agree with the author that the Mediterranean “has played a role in the history of civilization that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea,” this comprehensive, scholarly study contains much food for thought.