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The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean [Paperback]

John Julius Norwich
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Aug. 7 2007
A one-volume narrative history of the Mediterranean from Ancient Egypt to 1919.

This magnificent undertaking tackles a vast subject — vast in time (from the oldest surviving pyramid to the First World War); vast in geography (from Gibraltar to Jerusalem); and vast in culture, including as it does the civilizations of the Phoenicians, the Ancient Egyptians, Greece, Carthage, Rome, Byzantium, as well as the Borgias and the Medicis, Mohammed and El Cid, Napoleon and Nelson, Moslems, Jews and Christians.

The Middle Sea is not a dry record of facts; it is a rackety read about historical figures — dissolute Popes and wily Emperors, noble-hearted Generals and beautiful Princesses. But the author’s greatest strength is naval and military history: from the Crusades to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain; from Trafalgar to Gallipoli. Towns are besieged and sacked, Kingdoms are won and lost. The narrative covers the glories of Constantinople and Venice, and the stirring history of the islands of the Mediterranean — Malta, Sicily, Crete and Cyprus.

The Middle Sea is the culmination of John Julius Norwich’s long and distinguished career as one of the greatest enthusiasts for anecdotal history, and the highways and byways of scholarship.

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From Booklist

The littoral lands of the Mediterranean Sea are Norwich's stage for surveying millennia of power politics. An experienced expositor (Paradise of Cities, 2003), Norwich is irresistibly readable in his emphasis on would-be empire builders to whom the Mediterranean offered both a tempting avenue for embarking on conquest and a dangerous seaway from which enemies would appear. Norwich purposely excludes, however, navigation and navies as well as physical geography from his narrative. He favors the dramas inherent in the succession of empires that have risen and fallen around the Mediterranean from antiquity to World War I. In particular, Norwich emphasizes the characters and motivations of rulers who have affected affairs and frames them in consistently pithy descriptions that are by turns empathic and caustic. Along with the opinion, Norwich, superbly erudite yet having a sense of popular taste, efficiently chronicles the major wars and results and occasionally argues for the importance of battles history has overlooked. A fine single-volume history suited to any collection. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“As a historian Lord Norwich knows what matters. As a writer he has a taste for beauty, a love of language and an enchanting wit.”

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Seasoned Author Cruises Mediterranean's History July 15 2012
By Ian Robertson TOP 100 REVIEWER
John Julius Norwich, radio and television host and prolific author, has written his most expansive work yet. His past works have focussed primarily on historical Britain or particular areas/periods/civilizations around the Mediterranean; this work weaves together chronologically the rich history of that Middle Sea, focussed on the several great civilizations over the centuries and millennia, but supplemented with the comings and goings of many, many other small and middle powers, leaders, and peoples.

Unfortunately Norwich has chosen as the book's subtitle, 'A History of the Mediterranean', and if this is truly his aim, he falls short. It is a history of conflict in the Mediterranean, with politics and religion playing supporting roles, but with culture almost non-existent. On this slightly smaller but still enormous canvas, Norwich delivers a very richly detailed and coloured portrait.

His writing is clear and straightforward, with not infrequent sly asides or subtle humour. Given the different eras, civilizations, and languages covered, Norwich's expansive lexicon will have readers scrambling frequently for their dictionaries. (I read the book on an e-reader and found myself using its built-in services almost every page). To complicate matters further, many historically significant places are now either small villages or non-existent, or have had their names changed over time (think Constantinople to Istanbul, but hundreds of times over and on a smaller scale). The included maps and illustrations are helpful, but readers will still benefit from either some prior knowledge or some supplementary reference material.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but limited Aug. 2 2007
By Kenneth A. Dailey - Published on
I love Norwich's writing style and have been a great fan of his Byzantine, Venetian, and Sicilian histories. The reader will quickly be seduced by the stories and the pages will turn. While it is evident that the writer is very knowledgeable about Medieval and even Renaissance and early modern topics in Europe, he is very limited, perhaps negatively biased in some non-European areas. Modern Egypt, for instance, received about a paragraph and most of that was inaccurate, making mistakes on who was khedive/sultan/king and when, which then caused me to wonder what other mistakes were present. The 1956 Suez Crisis where Israel invaded the Sinai implied that the Israelis were doing so as a result of Nasr violating a treaty, which is simply incorrect or in the least not remotely accurate. Nasr is dismissed as the man who ripped down the statue of the builder of the Suez Canal and nothing else.... and all that in three or four sentences. Once again, the cursory discussion of the Suez Crisis, the dismissal of much modern history, and some mistakes caused me to wonder what other areas were not treated correctly. As entertaining as the nymphomania of Isabel II of Spain is, it doesn't deserve page after page in comparison with much more important, if less fascinating, aspects of Mediterranean history.

It is my hope that this book will be updated, edited, and researched more thoroughly in any future printing.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mediterranean Meditations Jan. 19 2007
By Constantine Falliers - Published on
In impressive detail and stylish narrative this "Middle Sea" center of civilization and commerce, democracy and art for at least three millenia, from Homer to the 20th century wars, is written to provide valuable information for the sophisticated student and also an enjoyable meaningful perspective for any 21st century reader. The coverage of events, people and especially conflicts and adventures is outstanding. The prominent author's opinionated statements - Aristotle is provocatively and wrongly called "one of the most reactionary intellectuals - simply reflect the license of fame. In other instances, errors may be the result of the modern pressures to publish in a hurry: the ancient island of Thera is now called (the tourists' favorite) Santorini, not, as stated, the other way around; and - glaringly incorrect! - Mytilene is not the original name but just a town on the island known since antiquity (before the word lesbianism was introduced) as Lesbos. Except for these minor questions, this most recent book of the erudite lord Norwich is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of this "cradle" of our civilized worlds.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good only for the very uninitiated reader Jan. 3 2008
By Anton - Published on
John Norwich, head of the World Monuments Fund in Britain, and author of many splendid historical books, such as "A History of Venice", has written a book here, which, in my opinion, is at best suited for 10th graders or for general readers, who have little or no knowledge of any of the major civilizations in the Mediterranean region.

Why the two stars - several reasons:
(1) The book is written in such simplistic style and replete with almost laughable conclusions - see more on this below;
(3) Coverage of major historical events is often very cursory - for example, the story of Alexander the Great merits merely 4 paragraphs, or hardly more than a page (in a book of 600 pages)
(2) The book lacks analytical rigor and significant conclusions - on its face, the book is about the Mediterranean, however, Mr. Norwich offers no overarching observations of the role of that sea in propagation of knowledge, ideas, trade. Neither does the author offer any convincing discussion as to the continuity between the different civilizations that he tracks in his discourse and there are very few conclusions drawn as to why the Mediterranean, and not the Black Sea, for example, has played such a central role in the development of many major Western and Middle Eastern civilizations.

Who is this book suited for: A high school sophomore or junior interested in a general historical overview of Mediterranean civilizations. The book might also be useful for a general reader who has very little knowledge about Ancient Greece, Rome, Middle Eastern or Western European history. A serious reader of history is best advised to avoid this general treatise and look elsewhere for greater depth.

Lastly, just to give the reader an idea of the superficiality and generic nature of Mr. Norwich's exposition, I am offering a few examples:
(1) From Chapter III - Rome: The Republic: "The rise of Rome was due, more than anything else, to the character and qualities of the Romans themselves. They were a simple, straight-forward, law-abiding people with a strong sense of family values, willing to accept discipline when required to do so....".

(2) From Chapter IV - Rome: The Early Empire: "It is thus impossible to put a definite date to the establishment of the Roman Empire. It was a gradual process - but perhaps it was better that way."

(3)From Chapter IV - Rome: The Early Empire: "Together, these two decisions [adoption of Christianity and transfer of the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium] and their consequences have given him [Emperor Constantine] a serious claim to be considered - excepting only Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha - the most influential man who ever lived."
29 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A History of the Mediterranean ? Not really.... Feb. 6 2007
By Paris Demetriou - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When I first heard that Norwich was writing a book covering the entire history of the Mediterranean two thoughts crossed my mind - first, that this will be a great reference book for Mediterranean history, the same way that Asimov's Chronicle of the world is for world history - and second, that Norwich's knowledge of history is much wider and deeper than I initially thought.

Well, this mediocrity of a book proved me wrong on both accounts.This is not a history of the Mediterranean.This is simply the bits and pieces of its history that Norwich is actually knowledgable about (medieval and early modern European history) with some indifferent references to the rest to fill in the gaps.To give you an example of his lack of proportion, the entire ancient history of the Mediterranean (including Egyptian,Phoenician,Greek,Carthaginian and the Roman republic) is passed by in forty (40!) pages.. less than those he uses just for the Napoleonic wars.The southern half of his subject (North Africa) barely gets fifteen pages from beginning to end.The book doesn't begin to pick up it's pace until we reach the High Middle Ages - and even then he doesn't really have anything new to say; whole paragraphs seem to have been lifted word for word, from his previous books (Byzantium trilogy especially).

In conclusion, if you are looking for a book covering the whole history of the Mediterranean this isn't it. Norwich is a fine writer and storyteller and everything....but just as long as he sticks with what he knows.....
36 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Poor Concept; Poor Execution April 8 2008
By Steven M. Anthony - Published on
This book is bad on so many different levels, many of which simply derive from the fact that the concept of the book itself is irretrievably poor. Let's see, how about I write a book about the 5,000 years of civilizations bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Included will be Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the rise and spread of Islam .... You get the idea, and the author was able to fit all of that in the first 86 pages!!!

As a result, we're left with writing that looks something like this: Caesar conquered Gaul. He returned to Rome and entered an alliance with Pompey and Crassus. Crassus went to Syria where he was defeated and killed by the Parthians. Pompey and Caesar had a civil war. Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt where he seduced Cleopatra. He returned to Rome where he was killed in the Senate. Mark Antony and Octavian avenged Caesar, then had their own civil war. Octavian won, changed his name to Augustus and became Emperor.

There, the last twenty years of the Roman Republic in one paragraph, mission accomplished. If that's the kind of writing you enjoy, and you don't already know the most basic historical background, then have at it.

Added to the faulty concept, is a very informal and borderline inappropriate writing style which detracts from the work.

I must say that after the initial 100 pages, wherein the author tears through 3,500 years of ancient history, things do improve, however not to the point of presenting a rational, well presented view of regional history.

In the Introduction, the author himself states, " could the whole thing possibly be compressed into one volume?" IT CAN'T, and therein lies the problem. I've thought that perhaps it could be helpful for a junior high student with no background in history whatsoever, but upon reflection, any effort that attempts a history of Ancient Greece in nine pages, the rise of Islam and the succeeding Caliphates of Damascus, Baghdad and al-Andalus in 14 pages and, believe it or not, Ancient Egypt in two pages, should best be left alone.
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