From dinosaurs to Doric
The Making of the Middle Sea – A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World
Cyprian Broodbank, London: Thames and Hudson, 2013, £34.95
[Greeks] live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond
Phaedo (109B), Plato
HENRY HOPWOOD-PHILLIPS reviews an erudite contribution to an overlooked subject
Cyprian Broodbank’s new book seeks to remedy four major problems plaguing an area that rarely ventures into the public sphere: Mediterranean prehistory. The first is archaeology’s fragmented (/parochial?) and myopic nature. The second is the ex oriente lux (light from the East) position, popular in the twentieth century, that simplifies the spread of civilization to a slow one-way traffic from the South East to the North Western Mediterranean. The third is a tendency to omit much of Africa, paired with a need to romanticise the Mediterranean proper (resulting in history being written backwards, through the lens of successor states). Lastly is the obsolescence of technical terms (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic etc.), each compromised by the fact numerous locations sit at various stages of development at different times.
Broodbank (Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at UCL) accomplishes the task with ease. His survey of an expanse of history that dates from Tethys, the primordial soup that covered the Mediterranean 250 million years ago, to Salamis (480 BC) unifies countless archaeological kingdoms and will doubtless become the standard text for at least a generation. The light shed on maritime mobility, Maltese temples that predate the pyramids, and Sardinian nuraghi, provides a welcome counterbalance to standard Egyptian and Fertile Crescent narratives. The history is written in chronological order, sometimes painfully so, with future Classical parallels avoided even when helpful. Finally, eschewing traditional archeological labels, Broodbank prefers to acknowledge his debt to Fernand Braudel and calibrate his history to climate-change, making the shape of the work schematically clearer than older works.
The breadth of knowledge on display is really quite astonishing. Geographical, paleontological, geological and meteorological disciplines all feature. It is a brilliant compendium. Who knew that Crete broke off Turkey nine million years ago, foundered, then arose again two million years ago, or that the Nile, Rhone and Po supply a meagre quarter of the Mediterranean’s water? Who knew that Majorca and Menorca were the last parts of the Mediterranean to be settled or that the first road was probably the Ways of Horus, a 150 mile tract between Egypt and the Levant?
Its key theme, the spread of civilization has a slightly wistful and academic air about it in today’s world where, thanks to globalization, a rough parity exists. It didn’t back then. Standards of living were entirely dependent on the decisions of societies. Aegean people for instance, despite being 1,850 miles away from principal sources of tin, developed bronze far before Iberians learnt to exploit supplies on their own doorstep. Life and death were held in the balance.
How civilisation spread then sits at the heart of the book, and Broodbank is unequivocal that nautical technology is crucial to the story. By the Classical period an average single day and night sail covered 60-90 miles, a huge improvement on the 10-20 miles a canoe was capable of. It took just two weeks to reach Sicily from the Aegean, while the North-South traverse of Central Europe over a similar distance remained a six week journey in the 16th century. People were often happier pushing inwards on to the sea than the hinterlands of their respective continents. Phoenicians therefore play a major part in connecting the dots that eventually create the Mediterranean.
Broodbank brings a splash of humour to the fore in some of the potentially dreary literary sources. Burniburiash II of Babylon, writing to a peer, starts with the formalities
And, as I am told, in my brother’s country everything is available and my brother needs nothing; also in my country it is so…however…
Cyprian cheekily inserting that ‘there followed a request for a large quantity of gold’.
The humour, however, cannot mitigate all of his more negative tendencies. Broodbank has clearly marinated in cloistered waters for a little too long. Prone to academese, his reference to ‘low friction highways’ for water, ‘places of liminality and promiscuity’ for coasts, and talk of things being ‘circuitously circumvented’ verges on the ridiculous. Although he escapes many of the academic dead-end debates, occasional clangers such as ‘…recommend this as a schematic way of conceptualizing one of the principal emerging vectors’ remind the reader he still marks essays that belong to the world of precocious gobbledygook.
Much of the book is a prosaic word salad. Dickensian sub-clause follows clause in an interminable trail. This has the effect of adding sawdust to oatcake. The pace taxes the enthusiasm of the reader. Slow, hesitant, halting and shuffling, it reflects its subject, the tentative creep of civilisation.
Furthermore, some significant areas of prehistory are left severely underdeveloped. The emergence of ethnicity as a building block in antiquity barely procures a paragraph. Slavery is breathlessly passed over. The spread of the Indo-European languages is given cursory attention. And Europe beyond the Alps is mentioned a handful of times in a book of almost 700 pages.
Perhaps the most glaring omission however is the failure to examine the relationship between civilised states and the barbarians. The surprising triumph of the latter in battles and the symbiotic relationship of both (often to the barbarian’s advantage) remains unprobed here. Instead Amorites, Libyans, Kaska groups and Cimmerians are left in the shade of history – gadflies who occasionally annoy. This oversight is all the more surprising given that a debate is ongoing. Ibn Khaldun, Arnold Toynbee, Peter Heather and Ian Morris have all spoken, yet Broodbank fails to contribute.
Finally, Broodbank’s attitude to civilisation is less Juvenalian (panem et circenses – bread & circuses) than Schopenhauerian (fouettes et ennuyons – coercion & boredom) and although he’s entitled to this fashionably ambivalent stance, the tone strikes the reader as somewhat incongrous when written from the privileged position that he occupies. This book is doubtless a magisterial survey of a subject that too few pay attention to, but at times one wished that the author, like J. J. Norwich before him, had written about people, ‘not [just] rocks and water’.
HENRY HOPWOOD-PHILLIPS works in publishing