Book Review: On the Ocean

On the Ocean: the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from prehistory to AD 1500, by Barry Cunliffe. Five out of five stars, because this book is Exactly What It Says On The Tin. A history written to incorporate as much as possible from archaeology, history, and linguistics, with the goal of summing up what people have thought about those two oceans and how they’ve sailed them ever since modern humans set foot on their shores.

I was gifted this book last year, and have been reading it in small bits at a time since; often at breakfast. That may be one of the best ways to read it, because this is a very dense book, info-wise. (I also look forward to searching for several of its sources.)

I recc’ this for both worldbuilding and history buffs. Anyone who has an interest in the history of the ancient Near East and greater Europe will find a different point of view here than your classic history course. No long lists of who ruled where and went to war when, but a focus on the cargoes, trade routes, shipbuilding, and what people actually thought about the sea in any given time and place.

Though it does cover some of who ruled and invaded where, with surprising details. My high school history courses taught that the Roman Empire was overrun by the Goths, Ostragoths, Vandals, and the like; they never mentioned that the Vandals went on to take over most of North Africa.

(Come to think, high school history kind of skipped over the fact that the Roman Empire held significant parts of Africa, and teachers and texts alike definitely never mentioned that Egypt was also part of the Empire, and shipped in the grain to keep Rome alive. HS mentioned the whole “bread and circuses” yet never explained about the bread part. Grr. Note this, people. You want your kids taught history, do not count on a school to do it.)

For worldbuilding, this is also awesome, because you can find information on trade and how people would move around over several millennia. You can follow how rivers and currents keep certain trade routes in operation pretty much constantly, and also how advances in shipbuilding and knowledge of other places would open up new routes. Plus, the writing style is clear and concise; when you get through a section you have a solid sense of who, what, where, and why. Which is essential to building a solid world.

Also, there are gems like this one on p. 340, talking about the Greek view of where-things-were in the first century BC.

Geography is a compilation stitched together largely from the work of others by an author who had never travelled further west than Italy and who held firmly fixed ideas about the order of the world which he did not allow to be upset by mere evidence.”

…You gotta love historian snark.

All told, great book, and I definitely plan to get the author’s other books over time!


6 thoughts on “Book Review: On the Ocean

  1. Oooh, I may have to find that; with our kids, we went with “The Story of the World” series for our history foundation, though honestly Asterix and old cartoons (for values ending at Animaniacs) would’ve beat what I got in school.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is nothing wrong with what I learned in school that couldn’t be fixed by global thermonuclear warfare.

      Grins, ducks, and runs away!

      (Yeah, I can work out objections. I don’t think I will have very many opportunities for the joke in this life.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Right, just like a Death Star would be, like, the ULTIMATE deterrent for any country who’d want to attack the owner of said Not-A-Moon.
        After all, nobody wants to provoke you into blowing up their planet, right?
        (Not sure what would be the more appropriate emoji, a wink or a facepalm…)

        Liked by 3 people

  2. “Geography is a compilation stitched together largely from the work of others by an author who had never travelled further west than Italy and who held firmly fixed ideas about the order of the world which he did not allow to be upset by mere evidence.”

    This reminds me of the posts on American Ronin, which helped inspire this little piece here:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Roman North Africa was extremely important for the history of early Christianity and Latin. The Roman colonists who went there were very Roman, to the point of speaking nd writing Latin instead of Greek; and if they had a second language it was Punic (because Carthage had North Africa before, and lots of Punic-Roman families were around). There were also Berbers and Moors doing their thing. And Christianity got big there early.

    St. Cyprian of Carthage, with his beautiful essays (and his letters back and forth arguing with the Pope). Tertullian the layman lawyer, with his complaints about shoes, boots, and togas being impractical garments, and all his various opinions. Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas, facing death in the arena, and leaving a journal behind. St. Augustine and his Punic mom, St. Monica. The Donatists. The semi-Donatist Bible scholar, Ticonius/Tyconius, whose work was saved by being rehabbed Augustine.

    Obviously the Vandals taking Hippo as Augustine died, and the various Christians escaping North Africa and saving treasures from them, were a big deal for European history. Spain and Venice reaped a lot of that. St. Isidore of Seville’s family escaped from North Africa, and one of his nun sisters went back as an adult to help. (IIRC) The Vandals were ardent Arians and/or pagans, so it was not safe.

    But then the Muslims, or the proto-Muslim-weird-Christians, conquered the Vandals in turn.

    And yes, Egypt was also a big deal, with Coptic and Greek Christianity, the really big start of monasticism, lots of philosophy and business, and so on. There are icons in Ethiopia showing Alexandrian churches that don’t exist anymore, or which got turned into mosques, or are underwater.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But yes, Egypt was the breadbasket of the Empire, and North Africa was the other one. Climate change away from the Roman Warm Period has hurt a lot, but also the Carthaginians and Romans were very good with water management.

      Liked by 1 person

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