Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank

The Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean.

The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World
 by Cyprian Broodbank
Published November 1st, 2013
Oxford University Press
673 pages
387 illustrations, 49 in color
4.9 pounds
These bronze age ruins on Malta are the kind of sites that Cyprian Broodbank tries to illuminate in The Making of the Middle Sea.
     The Making of the Middle Sea is bulky enough to evoke raised eyebrows if you attempt to read it in public. The Making of the Middle Sea is heavy enough so that if you attempt to read it lying down, it will eventually hurt your stomach simply by virtue of its weight.  The Making of the Middle Sea is 673 pages long, but 70 of those pages are footnotes and a bibliography, and perhaps 300 pages worth of text contain photographs, maps, diagrams and illustrations, so when all is said in done, The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank ends up being a manageable 300 page read.  As Broodbank himself acknolwedges in his introduction, it has indeed been a generation since Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) wrote The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949.
This bronze figure from Sardinia is an example of an indigenous mythology.

    Braudel's opus was the first book to write a history of an area, rather than a nation, people or personage, and his method was coined the Annales school, which can be loosely described as both a bottom/up historical technique, with greater attention paid to the lives of average people than rulers AND as an integrative technique where knowledge from other social science disciplines: notably archeology and climatology, were broad in to shed light on previously little known places and times.

   Braudel set off the equivalent of an enormous earthquake with his history of the Mediterranean and subsequent five volume history of private life, but he was limited in what he could draw from other disciplines, which were themselves limited by two World Wars and various discipline specific methodological issues.  Broodbank, an archaeologist by training, confidently presents The Making of the Middle Sea as an up to date successor to The Mediterranean, and he has in his favor more than a half century of advances in archeology, climate studies, genetics, carbon dating to assist him in fulfilling his broad promise of presenting, "A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World."

   Broodbank proceeds in chronological order, literally starting before the Mediterranean existed to the initial population of the the entire basin by Modern humans.  Within each chapter he moves in a loosely clockwise fashion, usually starting in North Africa, which has the least amount of available information, then the Iberian peninsula, the Balearics and southern France, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, the Middle East and Egypt.  In the opening couple chapters, these areas really do function separate and independently, and one of the major narrative themes of The Making of the Middle Sea is the process by which the various discrete regions expanded and integrated, leading up to the "explosion" of the Greek/Roman era.

   Another major narrative theme is an attempt to shed light on the pre-Classical indigenous populations of Iberia, Sardinia and the super-islands of Crete and Cyprus.  The conventional narrative for describing the pre-Classical history of the Mediterranean is a movement of civilization from East (Mesopotamia and Egypt via the Levant and Anatolia) to West (Greece,) and Broodbank does everything to can to show- often literally- with photographs of little known ruin sites in places like modern day Spain, Malta and Sardinia to argue that the central and western Mediterranean were advanced as anything in the early and middle parts of the second millenium BC, they just weren't hooked up with the "winning" civilizations.

  In several places Broodbank makes comparisons between these pre-Classical indigenous Mediterranean groups and the Native American civilizations of the Maya, Aztec and Incans, and the idea of analogizing the relationship between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean to the relationship between the discoverers of the New World and the Natives has some appeal.

  Another important narrative theme in The Making of the Middle Sea is the integration of climate sciences.  In several places he is able to authoritatively answer specific questions about the historical climate of certain areas by referring to pollen cores pulled out of lake bottoms, which accurately record the type of plants present during each time period. For me, the takeaway from the climate science material is that whether human activity causes climate change or not, climate change happens, and humans are often dramatically and for the worse.  The way I see it, as long as we can agree that climate change is actually happening, the cause don't matter, because the effect will be the same whether the change is from a long term "super drought," a cooling of the atmosphere, a warming of the atmosphere, ec.

  The visuals of The Making of the Middle Sea are also worth singling out for acclaim.  Maps are sufficently large to be readable and contain the right amount of information.  Photographs are up to date and make use of everything available.  Diagrams and drawings are likewise excellent, and draw uniformly from recent sources.

   The Making of the Middle Sea is not perfect, and generally lags anywhere there is an established field of interest: Egypt, Mesopotamia are mere summaries of up to date but hardly revelatory material.  His marshalling of archeological work in the service of Annales style bottom-up history is admirable, and it may be this technique that is just as notable as the updating of Braudel's epic history from a half century ago.

  The bibliography is remarkable, 40 pages of four point script with something like 35 abbreviated periodicals and presses that show up multiple times.  You can make the argument that anyone interested in this period of history should own The Making of the Middle Sea just for the bibliography, which must contain enough recent academic examples to fuel a years worth of JSTOR based research.  The Making of the Middle Sea does succeed in the stated attempt to provide a new Braudel like work.

No comments:

Blog Archive