See the sea and all its currents

Rethinking the Mediterranean

May 5, 2006

The ripples from the splash produced by the publication of The Corrupting Sea (2000) by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell continue to radiate in the scholarly community, particularly among historians, ancient and medieval. William Harris's edited volume - the product of a conference held in 2001 to mark the creation of the Centre for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University - is one of the first publications to offer a sustained engagement with The Corrupting Sea . It even includes Horden and Purcell, individually and collectively, among its 14 contributors.

Conference proceedings are sometimes difficult beasts to rein in, particularly when the participants span several disciplines. Harris has corralled his contributors into three main sections. "The big canvas" has contributions from an anthropologist (Michael Herzfeld) and two historians, one modern (David Abulafia), one ancient (Alain Bresson). "Angles of vision" comprises papers from four ancient historians (Marc van de Mieroop, Angelos Chaniotis, Glen Bowersock and Purcell), plus a medieval historian (Horden). The last group, "The Archaeology of knowledge", is the most diverse: another ancient historian (Francisco Marshall), an architectural historian (Christopher Drew Armstrong), a classicist (Suzanne Said) and the volume's only archaeologist (Susan Alcock). Two contributions by an ancient historian of Egypt (Roger Bagnall), plus Horden and Purcell's joint rejoinder to critics of The Corrupting Sea , conclude the book.

Other arrangements are possible and, in fact, the volume's single major theme is explicit in its title: how the Mediterranean is and has been "thought" and "rethought" - on both large and small scales. Herzfeld summarises debates about "Mediterraneanism" (the creation of a Mediterranean "other" as a valid object of ethnography) and about the attribution of particular moral characteristics ("honour" and "shame") to Mediterranean peoples, but his contribution, "Practical Mediterraneanism", explores the way in which "Mediterranean" as an idea is used in contemporary social practice. Academic practice is the object of Alcock's "Alphabet soup in the Mediterranean basin: the emergence of the Mediterranean serial", in which she examines the exponential increase in the mid-1980s in the number of academic periodicals containing "Mediterranean" in their title. Their diversity, she argues, should help break down the disciplinary barriers in today's academy. It is worth noting that one of her serials, Mediterranean Historical Review , ran an issue of responses to The Corrupting Sea in December 2003.

The other two "minority" contributors, Armstrong and Said, explore "Mediterraneans of the imagination" by drawing on travel literature. Armstrong charts the shift between the 17th-century scientific exploration of the Mediterranean, with its emphasis on measurement and "accurate" reconstruction, and the 18th-century French notion of the " voyageur-philosophe ", for whom being there among the "ruins" was as important. These concepts formed the intellectual framework for French expeditions to Egypt under Napoleon and, in the early 19th century, to the Morea, or Peloponnese.

Said, going over fairly well-known ground, documents the shifting perceptions displayed by European travellers towards the inhabitants of Greece. At first, they are compared unfavourably with their ancient "ancestors"; then, in parallel with the physical remains of Ancient Greece visible all around, they were seen as preserving in ruined state some of the ancient virtues; finally, the Romantic vision saw rural Greece as illustrating the idealistic pastoral image of poets such as Theocritus.

One of the most perceptive papers is "Egypt and the concept of the Mediterranean", in which Bagnall asks a simple question: why does Egypt in the first millennia BC and AD feature so little in scholarly discourse on the Mediterranean, not least in this volume? He suggests that the period between the 4th century BC and 4th century AD might have seen a convergence between Egypt and other circum-Mediterranean regions, tempered with an acceptance that the "unity" of Egypt is not so self-evident and was itself a projection of its Pharaonic rulers. Egypt - specifically upper and lower Egypt - also crops up in Bowersock's "The east-west orientation of Mediterranean studies and the meaning of north and south in antiquity", in which he explores some difficulties in geographical terminology in ancient authors when dealing with the less familiar north-south axis.

Perhaps the most surprising "use" of the Mediterranean as a concept explored in this volume is that in the Americas. In "Mediterranean reception in the Americas", Marshall outlines how early explorers tried to understand the new land in terms of the familiar Mediterranean and how scholars in Brazil - exemplified by the extraordinary work of Bernardo de Azevedo da Silva Ramos - tried to link their new world to that of the Mediterranean by identifying examples of Greek, Phoenician or Hebrew script on American soil.

Taking a slightly different tack, Abulafia, whose contribution "Mediterraneans" was solicited for publication after the conference, considers other regions that might be considered similar to the "classic" Mediterranean. For him, deserts - their oases like islands - fulfil a similar role to seas, so his "neighbouring" Mediterraneans include not only the North Sea and the Baltic Sea - the "Mediterranean of the North" - and the Atlantic coast and its islands, but also the Sahara. Further afield, he examines the Caribbean, Japan and the Indian Ocean. He advocates for such regions "a human history of the Mediterranean Sea and of other Mediterraneans expressed through commercial, cultural, and religious interaction", qualities he observes in the histories of Fernand Braudel and Shelomo Dov Goitein.

Bresson, in "Ecology and beyond: the Mediterranean paradigm", also tests the Mediterranean against the Mediterraneans of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and concludes that its particularity lies in the forms and nature of connectivity, particularly as they came together in the first millennium BC. In addition to the network developed through the linking of local land and sea transport to overseas routes, Bresson identifies a "virtual" connectivity of shared rules of interaction, exemplified in the late-second millennium BC Egyptian tale of Wen-Amun. The same story is deployed by van de Mieroop, who in "The eastern Mediterranean in early antiquity" sees it as symptomatic of a world shared between Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BC, linked through "peer-polity interaction". The first millennium BC, he argues, saw a change in attitude in Mesopotamia, after which the Mediterranean became a barrier that was crossed only by "specialists" such as the Phoenicians.

"Rethinking by example" might be the best way to describe the remaining three chapters. Chaniotis, taking on the challenge of The Corrupting Sea in relation to religion and ritual in "Ritual dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean: case studies in ancient Greece and Asia Minor", argues that there is no such thing as a Mediterranean ritual and goes on to outline, with great erudition, the problems in understanding ritual in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Horden and Purcell each offer "worked examples" of their vision for history of the Mediterranean. Typically, both are thematic. Horden's "Travel sickness: medicine and mobility in the Mediterranean from antiquity to the Renaissance" explores through medical texts the "health-and-safety" implications of Mediterranean mobility; while Purcell, in "The ancient Mediterranean: the view from the customs house", suggests that the Mediterranean's particular configuration of land and sea generates consistent patterns across time in the way in which payments for the movement of goods were exacted by organisations, sometimes states.

Finally, we are left with the two essays that face each other across the sea comprising the other 13 chapters, both composed for this volume. In his thoughtful and wide-ranging opening essay, "The Mediterranean and ancient history", Harris offers his personal view of where ancient history stands after The Corrupting Sea . Not surprisingly, he is not completely in agreement with Horden and Purcell's conception, sometimes on details, sometimes on a broader level. Ultimately, Harris argues the need for a comparative history to understand past Mediterraneans, drawing on structural parallels - a "wider ethnography" - that cannot be confined solely to the past or to the Mediterranean world. Horden and Purcell, in "Four years of 'Corruption'", take the opportunity to respond to critics, specifically exemplified in a group of 15 reviews from a range of disciplines - ancient and medieval history, anthropology and archaeology - that had appeared by late 2003. They treat the responses systematically under a series of headings suggested by reviews, ranging from the falsifiability of their thesis, through their approach to natural disasters ("Monstrous squid or calamari?"), to their historical narrative, or lack thereof.

For anyone who has read The Corrupting Sea or who has a professional academic interest in the Mediterranean in any period, this stimulating collection is required reading. As one would expect with a set of multi-authored papers, not all are equally accessible, but they offer a range of perspectives on the concept of the Mediterranean and represent a fitting inaugural publication of the research centre that brought them into being.

John Bennet is professor of Aegean archaeology, Sheffield University.

Rethinking the Mediterranean

Editor - W. V. Harris
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 414
Price - £68.00
ISBN - 0 19 926545 3

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