David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University.
From an Amazon Q & A about his latest book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean:
Q: What role did Greek mythology and Homeric poetry play in creating a lasting conception of the Mediterranean?Read more about The Great Sea at the Oxford University Press website.
A: The seas described in Homer's Odyssey are a strange amalgam of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, of east and west. Circe the sorceress seems to live in the east, where the sun rises, while Scylla and Charybdis are often identified with the straits between Sicily and mainland Italy.
Despite those muddles, Homer does provide fascinating testimony to knowledge of the seas among the Greek colonists in Ionia (what is now eastern Turkey), whose dialect was the basis of Homeric Greek. He knew about Phoenician sailors and was not very complimentary about them. Above all, he placed Odysseus' kingdom at the western limits of Greece, on Ithaka, which he portrayed as an island where it was natural to know how to handle boats. What we see is a dawning conception of the extent of the Mediterranean and of the importance of the sea to the early Greeks.
Q: Beyond the historical, military significance of the Mediterranean, what happened culturally that we tend to overlook?
A: The Mediterranean has been a meeting place of many different ethnic and religious groups, inhabiting its shores and islands--in remote antiquity, Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians; in later centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Gathering in the port cities around the Mediterranean, such as ancient Marseilles, medieval Palermo and Alexandria, modern Livorno and Smyrna, these groups have interacted not just at the level of high culture but in everyday life. On the one hand you have the transmission of medical and astronomical knowledge from east to west in the Middle Ages, often via Muslim and Christian Spain, and on the other hand you have...[read on]
The Page 99 Test: The Great Sea.