688 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385510233
The history of the cultures and nations that have traversed the mighty Med is immense, and it is a brave historian indeed who decides to take up this burden. In The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich explains that, after some considerable thought, he decided to start with written history and finish with the close of the First World War. In spite of beginning well into the story and finishing before the modern age, he presents a large book of six-hundred-plus pages across thirty-three chapters. For those who remember history being dull and lifeless, this book brings to life the people who lived and struggled around the Mediterranean.
The story begins with the almost-mythical county of Crete, which arose to be competition to the Phoenicians and Egyptians, and whose civilization was destroyed by a volcanic eruption (Crete is thought by many to be the source of the legends of Atlantis); the city states of Greece arise and are threatened by the Persian Empire; they in turn are united under Alexander the Great and go out to unite the world; after the collapse of Alexander’s empire soon after his death, Rome makes an appearance on the world stage; Norwich follows the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and its offspring, Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire; he next details the antagonism between the Muslim world and the Christian world and the effect of the various crusades; Norwich continues through into the Renaissance and toward modern times and the creation of the familiar countries that surround the Middle Sea.
John Julius Norwich has a gift for narration and characterization that makes history come alive. He isn’t afraid to move back and forth in time to set the Kings, Popes and Emperors who populate his story in context, and he takes care to describe not only what these people did, but what kind of people they were. He exposes strengths and weakness with equal clarity. The book is extremely well-written, replete with many intriguing anecdotes and details, and as a narrative it is superb – and so be warned, as it is mainly a narrative and does not try to analyze the “hows” and “whys” of historical trends. It is not a social history, has little to nothing about economic developments, and only a smattering of cultural and intellectual history, but it is great in covering the general political and military history of the Mediterranean region, maintaining the reader’s interest while covering a vast subject. Far from being dry and boring this is a story that grips the imagination and makes it hard to put the book down.