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July 25, 2005

The Mediterranean in the Ancient World - Fernand Braudel

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Mediterranean in the Ancient World
by Fernand Braudel
Pp 432. London: Penguin, 2001
Paperback, £12.99

"To move into new territory without really leaving home" was Fernand Braudel's explanation for writing this book, although he also referred to the "sin of curiosity" and "because I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past". If anyone was capable of attempting this task, it was Braudel (1902-85). When the Folio Society recently polled several leading scholars on the most important historical work of the twentieth century, Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949; English edition 1973) enjoyed firm support. Braudel's masterly range, understanding of geographical realities, and economic pressures, and gift for the apt example were ably employed across that canvas. Subsequently, Braudel wrote widely on early-modern economic and social history and on the identity of France.

At the same time, there was criticism on the grounds that Braudel's "structural" approach left insufficient role for human activities and intentions. Indeed, the suggestion by J.H. Plumb that he merited a Nobel Prize led to the rejoinder from Maurice Cowling that Braudel's attitude was evil. The volume under review, correctly presented as "a lost work by the master on his favourite theme", adds the further dimension that Braudel tackles the ancient world, an unexpected and impressive display of his range. It arose from an imaginative commission by the Swiss publisher Albert Skira, who planned a series of illustrated volumes in large format narrating the history of the Mediterranean. Rather than asking Braudel to tackle the early-modern period, which he was expecting, Braudel was offered, and accepted, the first volume: the Mediterranean in prehistory and antiquity (the Penguin edition therefore has a somewhat misleading title). Braudel was at once tempted and, in 1968-9, he quickly and happily wrote the volume, only for the series to be cancelled after Skira died in 1973. Braudel turned to other projects and did not revise his text for separate publication.

The Penguin edition is a translation by Siān Reynolds, a noted translator of Braudel, of a recent French edition by Jean Guilaine and Pierre Rouillard incorporating their preface and the brief notes they provided in order to update the original. Penguin also added a fine introduction by Oswyn Murray reviewing and contextualising Braudel's career, although with very harsh judgements for other scholars. Thus, having turned down Braudel for a chair, "over the next thirty years the Sorbonne stagnated as a backwater of conservatism".

This prologue explains both the interest of the book, but also why it should not be seen as state-of-the-art. As the French editors point out, Braudel was unable to derive benefit from radio-carbon dating and reflected contemporary academic wisdom in advancing views that would now be challenged, for example locating the east as the point of departure for everything else or putting too great a weight on migrations.

On the other hand, his feel for the configurations of Mediterranean life, for the role of the sea - "an ancient scar on the terrestrial globe" - in the wider world, and for the interplay of change and continuity in geology as much as religion, politics, trade and urban life, all make this an arresting and exciting book. Furthermore, Braudel was a voracious reader and was keen to draw on a range of specialisms. All illuminate this work, as does Braudel's instructive willingness to address the issue of partiality (p. 204):

Ideally, of course, I would like to strike a balance: to avoid joining the chorus of historians who criticize the Phoenicians and condemn the Carthaginians for their child sacrifices to the gods; to resist being endlessly dazzled by the Greeks (though heaven knows there is reason enough!) or tempted into repeating Hegel's charge that Rome was the "prose of history" - as if prose had no beauty. In short, I ought not to lean to one side or the other, but to keep an open mind. But is this always possible, or even desirable? These contradictory passions are the flame that keeps history alive, both the history that is told to us and the history we try to create in turn. And as we do so, how can we avoid feelings of pain or enthusiasm, even if these are a sin against the sacrosanct rules of impartiality?

In the end, Rome is presented as embracing and profiting from Hellenistic civilisation, but with deep-seated traditions of its own that provided the characteristic features of Roman life and culture. A critic might suggest that the geographical vision so well realised in the first half of the book is less thoroughly driven home in the case of Rome, but this is still a satisfying account of the variety of Mediterranean culture and how it was given coherence by trade and empire.

Braudel is also happy to engage with far more obscure civilisations, including the Etruscans, although he had scant interest in the Celts, Iberians and Ligurians. The characteristic Braudelian "voice" can be heard repeatedly. For example, writing of the earliest civilisations beginning not only in the great river valleys (p. 52):

All these local identifications add up to a pattern. The zones where villages first appeared correspond to the original habitat of flocks of wild sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. They also correspond to the habitat of several wild grasses, found at between 600m and 900m altitude: emmer from the Balkans to Iran; barley from Anatolia to Persia …

His masterly capacity for integration, one of the major roles of the historian, is given a rich field, and so also is Braudel's interest in technology and his concern with the development of civilisations. The likely readership is less clear. Specialists will not need a book based on secondary sources, and those seeking a general account would be better advised to read a more recent one; although the publishing strategies of many houses do indeed focus on reprinting long-dated works by major figures. Instead, this work will probably be of greater interest to those interested in historiography and, specifically, in the works of Braudel. For such readers, it, indeed, is a major event and they will not be disappointed.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.


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