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date: 06 February 2023



  • Nicholas Purcell


  • Ancient Geography

The Mediterranean Sea, very deep and, over substantial areas, out of sight of land, little affected by tides, and less rich in marine life than many of the world's enclosed seas (but see fishing), provided the coherence which united the classical world. It was regarded as a unity (and distinct from the encircling Ocean) from the Archaic period; both Greeks and Romans named it as being distinctively theirs (the name Mediterranean is not found before Iulius Solinus).

This sea represents (and has done, in the shape of its predecessor the Tethys, for some 200 million years) the complex and shifting abutment of the tectonic plates, fragmented at their edges, which make up the adjoining continents. This structural instability produces the characteristic tangled chains of high mountains interspersed with deep down-faulted basins, valleys, and plains, and an intricate coastal topography with numerous indentations, and very many islands of every size (as well as volcanoes and frequent earthquakes).

With its inner branch the Black (Euxine) Sea, the Mediterranean is a major climatic feature (see climate): the distinctive pattern of summer drought and very variable winter rainfall promotes some uniformity in agricultural production. The sea is very prone to bad weather and notoriously changeable, but its numerous beaches and anchorages make it readily adaptable to the needs of communication and exchange. Contacts by sea have therefore shaped the orientation of most of the cultures of its seaboards at all periods, whether they have identified it with home like Xenophon (1)’s Greeks with their famous cry of ‘thalatta, thalatta!’ (‘the sea, the sea!’: An. 4. 8); built their power on what was known in systematic historiography as a thalassocracy (see sea power); or rejected it like some Romans and some of the Islamic states as an inimical and alien element.


  • V. Burr, Nostrum Mare: Ursprung und Geschichte der Namen des Mittel-meeres und seiner Teilmeere in Altertum (1952).
  • F. Braudel, The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II (Eng. trans. 1972).
  • P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea (2000).
  • W. V. Harris (ed.) Rethinking the Mediterranean (2005).
  • S. Arenson, The Encircled Sea (1990).