By the time the Romans had established the Pax Romana, that body of water we call the Mediterranean Sea came to be referred to as mare nostrum. That the Roman Emperors could consider Egypt and not Gaul, for example, as their private property, their own personal corn field thanks to which they could feed everyone in Rome, reveals just how commonplace travelling to the ends of the Mediterranean was considered by then. It had not always been the case.
“If he were to go on board ship, he might perish far from his friends like his father Odysseus.” Homer, Odys. II, 302-303.
The Roman Emperors and their legions might have embraced their mare nostrum in a single glance, so to speak. In Nero’s day, it could still take anywhere from 15 to 30 days to sail from Rome to Alexandria (Pliny the Elder – Hist. Nat. XIX, 3 – says the record was 9 days). Where they saw various interconnecting sea routes, their ancestors had seen a multitude of treacherous waters.
Eight to six thousand years B.C.E., maritime navigation was confined to “island hopping” around the Aegean Sea, moving gradually into adjacent waters. Land geography was uncertain, vessels were small, light, unfit for the open sea, wind patterns and sea currents had not been charted. One needed to stop frequently to take on provisions of water and food. Such navigational limitations make up the backbone of Homer’s Odyssey. Not until 2500 years B.C.E. was there regular maritime traffic between Egypt and Byblos. Boats sailed up and down the syro-palestinian coast, calling too at Cyprus, never too far from land.
The Minoans were the first maritime “superpower” in Antiquity (ca second millenium). Their base was the island of Crete. They mastered the art of navigation, though they owed their civilisation to other another people – namely Egypt. Their dominion eventually passed to a Greek-speaking people – Achaeans, shortly followed by Egyptians. By this time there were coastal cities all over Asia Minor, Thessaly and beyond the Bosphorus whose unknown waters would quickly be named the Pontos Euxeinos – the “hospitable sea”. Vessels were no longer small capsizing toys but great heavy things that dared to weather a storm day or night (sometimes unsuccessfully) and carry tons of cargo.
The Phoenicians also become expert sailors and ventured hundreds of miles west. Between the eleventh and ninth centuries they colonised the North African coast, Sicily, Sardinia and southern Spain. Carthage joined the race, and Greeks yet again who colonised the south coasts of Italy and France. By now, the pond had shrunk significantly.
The Phoenicians sailed through the Pillars of Hercules 1000 years B.C.E., established a colony at Gades on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and were soon sailing north to the British Isles and down the coast of West Africa. Herodotus (Hist. IV, 42-43) narrates the story of the Phoenician expedition of ca 600 B.C.E. that sailed past the Red Sea, circled Africa and returned through the Pillars of Hercules. A mere three years’ cruise. Herodotus remained sceptical ; he could not grasp the geograpical conclusions. Another more controversial expedition was that of the Carthaginian Hannon, 100 years later. Sailing west with 30 000 men and women, he tried to go around Africa the other way but got lost in crocodile-infested rivers. There is also the voyage of Pytheas of Massilia (Marseille). While Philip of Macedon was slowly building a Greek empire, Pytheas sailed west then north to Britain, then 6 days more to the north to the island he called Thule that many scholars think was Iceland. There he witnessed the sun that only set for one hour before rising again. He is in any case credited with correctly situating the British Isles on a map of “Europe”, correctly calculating the latitude of Massilia, recording the exact position of the Pole Star and observing the effect of the Moon on tides. Finally, an Indian sailor shipwrecked off Egypt revealed to Ptolemy VIII the sea route to India through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.
This progressive familiarity with the Mediterranean can be seen in the names that were given to specific waters centuries before the Pax Romana, some of which are still used today. We may thus deconstruct the mare nostrum by drawing a first line following the axis given by the boot of Italy to Sicily and on to Proconsular Africa (Tunisia), giving us the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. This same axis coincidentally identifies the axis of the greatest conflict in Antiquity : Carthage vs. Rome. Another glance at the map gives us the three major basins: the Eastern (from Antioch to Cyrenia and Western Crete), Central (Western Greece, the Balkan Peninsula and both Italy’s coasts), and Western (from Corsica and Sardinia to Gibraltar).
If the Eastern portion had many small seas, it was because navigation began there, where the area that could, for instance, be sailed without losing sight of home, was limited to a small distance. On the other hand, the central and western sections have larger seas because the civilisations that named them had learned to sail longer and farther without getting lost as Ulysses did.
Some Romans might have believed that in holding dominion over the civilisations bordering on the Mediterranean, they had de facto conquered the seas. O illusion ! The number of Greek and Roman vessels discovered and waiting to be discovered on the floors of the seas are silent irrefutable evidence that humans cannot conquer the sea, human endeavour will forever succumb to that life-giving Force of Nature : the deep blue sea.