The sea as it was

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 12:48 am

I haven’t mentioned that a few months ago I read an incredible book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. It weighs in at ~650 pages of dense narrative text, and you’ll want to jump to the footnotes as well! There isn’t much I can say in this space that would do justice to the book, the author has produced a tour de force of macrohistory. As someone with more scholarly tastes in history and culture I have noticed a definite bias toward monographs on my part. Too often generalist tomes are superficial surveys; no author can command all of the literature, and Wikipedia has truly replaced many of the entry-level works. The Great Sea has some of the typical problems with broad sweeping histories, but they’re usually evident only in closer inspection of footnotes (there seems a particular weakness in prehistory and far antiquity).

But ultimately this is definitely a book that’s worth it because it shows you exactly how one can generate an intellectual scaffold. Too often people know densely but narrowly, and more often thinly but superficially. Both of these modes lack heft and the ability to cut thickly through reality. It takes a genuinely dense and interlaced work such as The Great Sea to give you a good model for the true shape of reality.

MORE ABOUT: The Great Sea
  • Dwight E. Howell

    I read Roman History. What I’ve found is that while much was written most of it has been lost. Thus what we really have is a handful of primary sources that get reused many times and you can be fooled into thinking that these later sources mean something when in fact they were in to many cases simply filtering one of the same primary sources you can read. The other issue is some of the few existing Latin texts still haven’t been well translated if they have been translated at all. What I’m saying is that if you are looking at old material the footnotes, if properly done, may be pretty thin.

  • simplicio

    @2. We also have a lot of archaeological evidence, and epigraphic evidence (the Roman’s were big on inscriptions). So even during periods where primary sources are limited, there’s a lot of other evidence to look at.

    We also have a lot of ancient secondary sources that had access to primary sources that have since been lost. People like Plutarch, for example, wrote many hundreds of years after the events they described, but they also apparently had writings from other ancient writers that lived during the relevant time periods and whose writings have since been lost to time.

    Its not ideal obviously, we’d rather judge the original writings ourselves, but its better then nothing.

  • Patrick Wyman

    I’m not a fan of Abulafia at all – I thought The Discovery of Mankind was one of the worst books I’ve ever read and I’ve heard him speak rather unimpressively on this subject – but Mediterranean studies is one of my areas of specialization so I’ll have to give this a shot. If anybody’s interested in the topic more generally, the central works are Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (dated but still a great read) and Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (dense, dense, dense, but well worth the read).

    @1: This is true of any period of premodern history. We work with what we have, and though it’s never as much as you’d like, there’s still a lot more than you’d think. As @2 points out, the epigraphic evidence is a massive corpus of material; the archaeology is getting better and better, and there are a lot of intriguing bioarchaeological studies (ancient DNA, paleodiet, isotope analysis, etc.) coming out now that add a new dimension as well. I work on the early Middle Ages, and I’m always envious of historians of Rome for the depth of their evidence as compared to my specialties.

  • toto

    Just to know, is there anything in the book that struck you as particularly interesting or novel?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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