It is a pretty toothy jaw of hell that Philip II of Spain, the Doge of Venice, and the Pope kneel before in prayer in a famous El Greco painting of the late 1570s. Philip and the other rulers of the so-called Holy League might just observe within hell’s mouth the skeletons of those they deemed Infidels — the very Turks, perhaps, their men had recently defeated off the Gulf of Corinth in 1571. 

For a struggle so bloody, the Battle of Lepanto that inspired El Greco’s painting makes a relatively cameo appearance in David Abulafia’s masterful human history of the Mediterranean Sea. Even now in paperback, The Great Sea is still a very big book indeed. You expect sea battles, and get sea battles, but only as spots on a much more massive, enveloping canvas of history. And so the background to Lepanto, the fierce tensions which divided Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Philip II, rightly form an important part of his history of the sea. Water could facilitate the sort of Ottoman expansion and flooding of the Islamic faith that they opposed, but also limit it; Turkish Muslims intentionally left the Balkans to Christians and Jews as they knew that they would provide a readier source of tax revenue. It’s not that the role of the sea in such engagements has been forgotten, more that the unity water provides (or divides over) nations in land-locked Europe can easily be obscured by events centred inland. The Great Sea reinforces just how central the Med has been to all manner of occurrences down history, not just those bobbing its waters, from the Minoans to the ravers of Club Med. 

It takes real guts to write a book like this. Among the heated topics it tackles is man’s perception of Homer’s war-torn citadel, Troy. Although the archaeological finds of Heinrich Schliemann’s dig-digging generally pose more questions than they can answer, Abulafia somehow navigates their thorny ground with relatively little ink spilt; his words are succinct and suggestive, rather than conclusive. On the one side he takes the line that the Trojan War was a late memory of ‘low level, endemic conflict’ between Mycenaeans and Anatolians, on the other he happily draws on the ramblings of ancient authors and their myths to inform that history. Even the Cyclops rears his blinded head. There are plenty of nods to other academics along the way, too, not least Moses Finley, the scholar whose centenary the classical world has been celebrating these last few weeks. While certainly a scholarly tome, The Great Sea has mass appeal. 

Particularly enjoyable by their sheer contrast with the weight of what comes before them are Abulafia’s dry words on the invention of the bikini and rise of the suntan:

‘Named after a Pacific atoll used for nuclear testing, the bikini was shown at a fashion show in Paris in 1946, though it took a couple of decades for it to be widely adopted – even its designers expected something like a nuclear reaction among those opposed to it.’

For all that, it was the bikini (and the aeroplane), he concludes, that transformed the relationship between North Europe and the Mediterranean in the early twentieth century. If man’s engagement with the sea is a reasonable reflection of his development, as Abulafia seems to suggest, why are we left with the impression that humanity is on a precipitating course of decline? Perhaps it’s more than natural evaporation that makes the waters of the Mediterranean grow shallow. 

Tags: Art, arts, Books