Book Review: The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean

The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean,? declared Dr Johnson in 1776. Indeed, it is remarkable how many of the world?s great civilisations Egypt, Greece, Rome were cradled on her shores, and how many of the great religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam were nurtured by her climate. John Julius Norwich, when setting out to write this history of the ?Middle Sea?, was well aware of the vast dimensions of his task, and the need to define his parameters in terms of time and historical priorities.

In 33 chapters, he takes his readers, with a mixture of broad brushstrokes and Pointillist precision, through successive civilisations, regimes, military campaigns and political careers, from Cleopatra to Clemenceau, from Aristotle to Atatürk. In other hands, this might seem like a headlong gallop through history, but with Lord Norwich?s civilised grasp of periods and places, with his keen eye for the telling detail, and with his urbane understanding of what motivated great men?and great women (he was himself brought up in a world of high politics and diplomacy), he never loses his reader?s attention.

In fact, for all those and this must include most of us who sometimes feel confused by the complex chronologies of European and Islamic history, this book provides us not only with a reminder of what we knew or ought to have known, but also a rational interpretation of the often irrational world of southern European tantrums and triumphs. I particularly enjoyed his chapters on the Quarantotto (the troubled year of 1848) when one Mediterranean country after another revolted against the old order represented by Metternich and the Austrian empire, and the following chapter on the Risorgimento in Italy when some good finally emerged from the chaos of previous events.

Lord Norwich?s firm hand on the helm steers us through these turbulent waters just as his earlier books have navigated the endless complexities of the Venetian and Byzantine empires. If one cannot travel with him to these parts, taking his book is the next best thing.