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• A great wine-dark sea of crises.

By ED VOVES [California Literary Review] – This year, the wave of political dissent known as the Arab Spring convulsed the North African nations bordering the Mediterranean. On the other side of this inland sea, a near economic melt-down has threatened the southern tier of the European Union – Greece, Spain and Italy, as well as nearby Portugal – with a landslide of debt and soaring unemployment. Jobless rates among young people in these Mediterranean nations are especially high, with Spain in the unenviable lead position with 44.4% unemployment for workers under the age of 25 years. Revolt in such volatile circumstances may only be a matter of time.

World shaking events of this sort give Abulafia’s book a special resonance. The headlines that grab our attention today have many parallels in the Mediterranean past. Just as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis motivated readers to ponder Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and the American Revolution lent a special timeliness to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776, so with [David Abulafia’s] The Great Sea.

Abulafia’s book is much more than an account of the vast, faceless forces of history. This is a people-driven narrative of social upheavals and the making and breaking of empires. The deeds and aspirations of individuals or groups of struggling refugees or seafaring merchants propel this story through its often tumultuous course. If Abulafia enables us to take the long-view of history, it is always presented through the eyes of gifted, flawed people not unlike ourselves.

Abulafia pays special attention to the inhabitants of islands, coastal regions or seaports often bypassed in accounts that emphasize political intrigue or naval battles. Island communities like Sardinia and Mallorca or now forgotten cities like Acre or Antioch were once market places of commerce and new ideas. A particularly good example of this refocusing of the historical lens can be found in Abulafia’s account of the rise of the Italian city-state of Amalfi during the early Middle Ages. Abulafia writes:

Amalfi is one of the great mysteries of Mediterranean history…With a single main street winding upwards, and tiny alleyways that duck under and through its buildings, Amalfi seems an unpromising rival to Venice. It was almost impossible to catch a wind in the morning, and this must have constrained navigation quite significantly.

Continued at the California Literary Review | More Chronicle & Notices.

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