European history would have taken a completely different course—and most likely there would be no Europe at all—were it not for two hundred combat triremes built in the early 5th century BC by Athenians. The powerful fleet of three-row galleys allowed them to stop the invading Persians and create a civilization which soon, thanks to Alexander the Great and the Romans, encompassed the entire Mediterranean. So it is all the more surprising how little we know about the structure of these ships—as Fik Meijer writes in his excellent book The Mediterranean. A personal history (De Middellandse Zee. Een persoonlijke geschiedenis. Amsterdam, 2010.)
Meijer, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Amsterdam University, tells the story about the secrets of ancient builders and sailors in the convention of a gripping thriller. The hard facts, dates, and numbers compose a fascinating story about the birth of Western civilization. And also an autobiography of a young diver from Leiden, who in 1961 for the first time descended to the seabed off the coast of Ibiza. He saw there the remains of amphorae in which ancient Greeks and Romans transported wine, olive oil, and fish sauce (garum). He soon sold the almost two-thousand-years- old vessel on the black market. “I am deeply ashamed,” he writes half a century later. And the reader only sighs with envy.
The first to venture onto the Mediterranean were the Egyptians, who in the third millennium BC reached Crete. Phoenicians, inhabiting the coast of today’s Lebanon, followed in their footsteps. They reached as far as the Straits of Gibraltar, and the westward way was shown to them by the bluefin tuna, which they fished. Along the way, they founded Carthage in today’s Tunisia. The Greeks joined the race about 9th century BC, in the days of Homer. The Odyssey is nothing other than an allegorical tale about the wanderings of the Sea People across the Mediterranean.
The colonists from overcrowded cities of Greece founded dozens of new settlements, among them today’s Marseilles or Syracuse. But the golden age of sailing in the Mediterranean came in the times of the Roman Empire. Initially, the Romans were inland animals; until the 5th century BC, Etruscans and Phoenicians were the masters of the waters off the western coast of Italy. The Romans built a fleet for them, because this was the only way to destroy the power of their greatest rival, Carthage. In the same year, 146 BC, they razed Carthage to the ground and incorporated Greece, including Athens, into the Empire. And soon they finished off their last competitors on the sea—the Cilician pirates and slavers. Since that time, thousands of ships with precious cargo roamed the Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), fearing only storms, unfavorable winds, treacherous shoals, and underwater rocks.
The development of sailing led to an unprecedented flourishing of trade and growth of the Empire. Rome, like Athens before it, was a conquering military empire—it subjugated neighboring countries, and then exploited them to the limit. According to Meijer, it would remain a backwater village if it lay only slightly further from the sea. And also if its successive victims—Greek colonies on Sicily and Phoenician colonies in Spain, Carthage, Greece, Egypt, or Pergamon—were not located by the sea.
Thanks to the new port of Portus (four kilometers north of Ostia), built on the orders by Emperor Claudius, one million inhabitants of the Empire’s capital usually did not suffer from hunger. And yet, as Meijer meticulously calculates, they needed at least 200,000 tons of grain annually, imported from Sicily, North Africa, Egypt, and Gaul. To meet the needs of the Roman proletariat, these 200,000 mouths eager for bread and circuses, huge ships were built and carried not only grain, but also wild animals: lions, crocodiles, and elephants. Even the vessels flying the flag of the East India Company in the 18th century could not compete with these giants.
The voyage from Alexandria to Rome lasted up to nine weeks, and from Palestine not much longer. Meijer interestingly reconstructed the last sea expedition of St Paul, one of the greatest travelers of antiquity. With a copy of the Acts of the Apostles in his hand, Meijer followed the path of St Paul from Palestine through Cyprus up to Malta and the Eternal City. Another time, in the summer of 1974, he dived for three months to the wreck of a Roman freighter which crashed off the coast of today’s Bodrum. When the scientists finally managed to uncover it, they had to abandon their prey because of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. They sensed that they would never come back there. “In my case this was also true,” concludes Meijer.
The book by the Dutch expert on antiquity sums up his academic achievements, which are closely interwoven with his private life. So the history of the Peloponnesian Wars merges with the story of what a beautiful place Ibiza was— before developers flooded the island with concrete, and drug dealers did the same with amphetamine. History of underwater archaeology comes next to an analysis of marine episodes of The Iliad. Enquiries on where the Achaeans besieging Troy took their favorite wine from (the Peloponnese), and who taught mankind to produce a drink from the vine (the inhabitants of the Caucasus), are accompanied by a story about the academic career of the former diver. But in this thematic madness there is a truly Dutch method: the particulate threads are not lost, but woven up into a moving story about the times of the greatest splendor of the Mediterranean. And about its current downfall.
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