Book Review – ‘The Sea in History: The ancient world’ by Boris Rankov

By Boris Rankov, published December 2020


The French-based Océanides project on The Sea in History, edited by Christian Buchet of the Centre d’Étude de la Mer at the Catholic University of Paris, has now been published in a series of four large volumes of which this, on the ancient world, is the first. The overall objectives of the series have already been summarized in Peter Furtado’s review of the second volume on the medieval world in Mariner’s Mirror 103:3 (August 2017), 349–51). A ‘General Conclusion’ chapter has been provided by Buchet, and appears in both French and English in all four volumes. This surveys the entire globe from antiquity to the modern era through a maritime prism, and argues the central thesis of the whole project that man’s engagement with the sea has been and will continue to be the primary driver of history. The separate ‘Conclusion’ specific to this volume (also published in both languages) is by Pascal Arnaud.

The selection of editors who have this same background is understandable because, as Arnaud explains, while there is no doubting the importance of seafaring beyond the boundaries of the ‘Old World’ in antiquity, its study in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and in the Far East is still developing. This is reflected in the distribution of the 42 papers in the volume (17 in French and 25 in English), with seven in total devoted to the Americas, the Caribbean, Atlantic Europe, Atlantic Africa, Japan and Oceania, six to the Ancient Near East and Pharaonic Egypt, six to the Indian Ocean and the Far East, but 23 to the Mediterranean World. This numerical imbalance means that the non-Mediterranean contributions tend to be rather more general in nature (‘Maritime aspects of early Andean civilizations’, ‘The importance of the sea for prehistoric societies in Western Europe’, ‘Ancient seafaring in Eastern African Indian Ocean waters’), whereas the Mediterranean chapters are often much more focused and specialized (‘ship technology’, ‘consumption of salted fish’, ‘taxing the sea’, maritime military practices in the pre-Phoenician Levant’, ‘les expeditions athéniennes en Sicile’, ‘Pourquoi Alexandre le Grand a-t-il choisi de licencier sa flotte à Milet?’). Also, somewhat unbalanced for a volume and a series with global pretensions is the predominance of Anglophone and Francophone contributors, although this was perhaps to be expected given the project’s French roots and sponsors.

One topic which is underrepresented in the volume, as it is in scholarship more generally, is that of fishing and fish products. Alioune Dème’s study of the importance of fishing in Senegal and the Atlantic coast of Mauretania, Arnaud Zucker’s survey of fishing techniques in the ancient Mediterranean, and Benedict Lowe’s account of salted-fish consumption and the production of garum (fish sauce) which was the essential condiment of Roman cooking are thus particularly welcome.

Arnaud’s ‘Conclusion’ does an excellent job of pulling the multiple strands together, and in particular in showing that the Mediterranean was not isolated from other seas, especially to the East, and that trade was cosmopolitan, involving a wide range of intermediaries, and resulted in the transfer of technology and religions …

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Filed under: Atlantic | Antiquity | Mediterranean | Indian Ocean | Caribbean | Pacific
Subjects include: Archaeology | Manpower & Life at Sea | Pirates, Corsairs & Privateers | Whaling & Fishing

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