6 OCTOBER 2001, Page 60

Still making waves

Jasper Griffin

THE MEDITERRANEAN AND THE ANCIENT WORLD by Fernand Braudel, translated by Shin Reynolds Allen Lane/Penguin, £20, pp. 354, ISBN 0713993316 Fernand Braudel is a writer whose influence has increased and is still increasing. Oswyn Murray, in his characteristically elegant introduction to this newly published posthumous book, calls him flatly, but perhaps controversially, 'the greatest historian of the 20th century'. His master work, although he was a prolific historian and produced other important studies, is the monumental The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (2nd edition 1966; English translation 1973). Braudel argued that the history of events was dead; the point was to be not kings and dynasties and their doings but the recreation of the world of the past by historical imagination, based on detailed and exact knowledge of the skills, trades, techniques and ways of life of the people, real but (to us) anonymous, who lived and worked in it.

He was for many years editor of the influential journal Annales, and he was the leader of a whole movement in historical research and interpretation, based on the notion of the longue duree. The development of any given human society was to be understood by the exploration of several different kinds of constraints and causation, some long-term and underlying, others short-term and transient and all interacting with one another in a highly complex pattern, resistant to monocausal explanations. There are the constraints of geography and climate, of every kind of economic activity, of social pressures, of social attitudes and — in the short term — also of events: wars, famines, conquests, reforms, revolutions. Pervasive themes are the related ones of technological development and of long-distance exchange. This conception of history was hostile not only to the old factual narratives of purely political history but also, no less, to the newer historiography which placed the emphasis on mentalites, with its interest in literary and artistic expressions, in religions and superstitions, and its insistence that there really was nothing to history but the mental worlds, the impressions and ideas which people had held. Braudel fell out of fashion and was ousted from the control of his journal well before his death. His influence, however, continues to be great. We have seen, in the last year alone, the appearance of the first volume of a massive book by two Fellows of All Souls, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000) by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, and of Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples (2001) by Professor Barry Cunliffe.

Braudel began work in 1968 on a book on the Mediterranean in antiquity, intended as the opening of a multi-volume history of the Mediterranean, by various hands, going right up to modern times. The project foundered, and by 1973 Braudel had moved on to other projects; the manuscript was incomplete and at his death in 1985 it was laid aside. Only in 1998 was the text published in French, under the title Les Memoires de la Mediterranee.

As we should expect, the book is highly ambitious. Braudel begins with the origins of the Mediterranean Sea itself, in the palaeozoic era, many millions of years ago, as a residual mass of water from the primeval ocean which scientists call Tethys. We pass through the Ice Ages, the coming and extinction of Neanderthal men, the great watershed presented by the inventions of agriculture and of writing. The Mediterranean, surrounded on most sides by mountains, poor (comparatively) in fish and with two main seasons, dry and wet, naturally divided the inhabitants of its shores into hill men and plain men, with nomads in the southern and eastern deserts. City dwellers and outsiders, whether hill men or desert nomads, were often on hostile terms, but also they needed each other. Braude] comments:

Desert and mountain were basically reservoirs of exploited people who in their turn exploited others.

Mountains came right down to the sea in many places, and before the rise of sea travel they kept human settlements divided from each other. Sea travel does not begin until about 7000 BC, fleets appear after 3000, sea-borne trade is important after 2000, and the first intrepid mariners pass the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar only in the first millennium BC. Braudel strikingly brings out the ancient separateness of the different parts of this world by saying:

The entire globe is today far more unified as between its constituent parts than the Mediterranean in the age of Pericles.

Writing made possible large-scale control, and thus the rise of empires; metal working, a mystery from which women were excluded, went with the eclipse of the ancient female deities, goddesses of fertility, by Jove-like male gods. At first there are two vitally progressive places: Egypt and the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. Egypt was the gift of the Nile; Mesopotamia was the creation of irrigation, of human hands. Egypt succeeded in unifying the cities under a centralised government: in Mesopotamia the separate cities warred, competed, rose and fell, like those of Renaissance Italy. Egypt had the privilege of a cushion of Nubian gold, which allowed Egyptian society to stagnate, to disastrous effect; such vital innovations as the use of iron were slow to catch on there.

In the second millennium Crete and Troy came into the picture. In the 17th and 16th centuries BC a lively international trade is in full swing between Egypt, Crete and the cities of northern Syria. In art, too, an international style appears, suitable for exchange between societies of comparable development. This world already has discernible rhythms of trade which rise and fall: there is coinage; there are banks, bills of exchange, and 'the instruments of capitalism'. Greece, hitherto backward, is pulled up by these more advanced cultures of the east and south.

The volcanic explosion of the island of Thera/Santorini, about 1475 BC, much bigger than that of Krakatoa in 1883 — its ravages unmistakably visible to this day to anyone who sails into the island harbour — destroyed the palaces of Minoan Crete and brought years of darkness and poverty to the Aegean and to Syria and to Palestine. Men from the Greek mainland, hitherto dependent culturally on Crete, captured the Cretan capital, Cnossos. And in the 12th century disaster struck this comparatively sophisticated and developed world. The Mycenean cities of Greece are burned to the ground. In Anatolia the Hittite empire disappears. Egypt is ravaged. Partly it was a matter of northern invaders, the

'sea peoples', 'very tall, with white skin, fair hair and blue eyes', with whom the Egyptians depict themselves fighting ferocious battles; partly it seems to have been the impact of climatic change, which brought famine. A dramatically poorer age succeeds, with lower populations and little in the way of trade.

In that obscure period, perhaps, the seeds were sown of what would grow into the classical Greek city, as the vital links with Asia were cut. But the world which we can see reviving in the eighth century is different. Babylon is in terminal decline. Nomadic invaders from the steppes sweep through much of the East, teaching the Medes — a new power — the arts of cavalry, which will enable the Persian empire to achieve its colossal size. It is cavalry which makes blitzkrieg possible in the ancient world. The rapid conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great and the conquest of the Mongols and the Turks have this as their secret. Braudel compares the swift fall of France in 1940, though neither decadent nor weak, to the new mobility of the German tanks.

Branders handling of this early period is fascinating. Material which is often boring or unintelligible falls into a coherent shape. The book concludes with a whirlwind account of the classical period, both Greek and Roman. This is sketchy and unsatisfactory. Braude] confesses his own preference for the earlier period and it is, for instance, sadly revealing that he can write, of later Greek history, that 'Hellenism runs out of steam', and 50 pages later that 'Roman imperialism ran out of steam'. That is mere refusal to be bothered to explain great events. The more suggestive idea here is that Alexander made a fatal mistake in going eastwards and not conquering the western Mediterranean: he could have defeated Rome and the Med might have become a Greek lake, not a Roman one, with incalculable consequences to the world.

The book inevitably suffers from the delay since its composition. Our knowledge has not stood still in those 30 years. We find no mention, for instance, of the sensational discoveries at Lefkandi in Euboea, and the importance which they show of Euboea as a centre of trade and influence in the crucial period of the eighth and seventh centuries BC. An attempt has been made to remedy some of this and we find some summary footnotes: 'We now know that this is not the case. Sardinia was set

tled in the 13th millennium BC 2 or more brutally, 'This hypothesis is today discredited.' That is all very well: but anyone who is interested at all needs some guide to help find where this new evidence and argument can be found. The reader is also not grateful to find quite a lot of sentences, all through the book, printed as quotations, in inverted commas. but with no indication of their source. It would be interesting to see a defence of that procedure.