The Boundless Sea: ascribing world-shaping importance to religion and trade

Book review: David Abulafia reminds us of times when endless oceans glittered with primordial possibilities

Hugo Grotius’ 1609 Mare Liberum is the classic exposition of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas but it was written to further Dutch and Protestant interests

Hugo Grotius’ 1609 Mare Liberum is the classic exposition of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas but it was written to further Dutch and Protestant interests

David Abulafia’s 2011 The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean set a standard in middle sea scholarship, charting a course from 22,000BC to today, combining careful detail with epic sweep. This dazzlingly ambitious companion piece looks far beyond the Strait and Suez towards seaways older than those of Odysseus but less often explored.

Classical cosmographers dreamed of Okeanos, an all-encompassing, intermingling great water which both islanded and united humanity, an azure immensity played across by wanderlust and winds. Deities disported there with dolphins, adventurers hazarded lives against leviathans, and invaders crossed routes with traders. Even Homer’s storied sea was but a bay of the world’s water, a conception that harmonises with today’s ecology of oceanic interconnectedness.

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