The Uniqueness of Ancient Mediterranean

Valens

Ad Honorem
Feb 2014
8,310
Colonia Valensiana
Classical civilization, or Classical Antiquity, developed in the Mediterranean basin, and its start is often put in the VII century BC.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the civilization which developed around the Mediterranean Sea is the extensive network of city states spanning from Asia Minor to modern day France and Spain. While this certainly predates the development of Classical Greece, as the Phoenicians were already founding their colonies across the Mediterranean centuries before the Greeks, the real blossoming of this city network arguably started as the Greeks started founding their colonies across the Mediterranean, from the Western coast of Asia Minor to Sicily and mainland Italy to what is now the southern coast of France, as well as the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
In Italy, various Italic peoples had already established their city states, one of which was Rome. But we also had the Etruscan cities in the north, as well as Sabines and Latiens in Central Italy.

During this period, there was an extraordinary blossoming of almost every field of human endeavor, from philosophy and architecture, to engineering and military science.
At the same time, the Greeks and Romans developed advanced political systems of government, which still have a huge influence on our world today. The cities in the Mediterranean basin were large, populous and rich, and there was great exchange between them.

What made this possible? Could we consider that the geographical position and topography of the Mediterranean basin, as well as the climate, played a role in the spectacular rise of trade, population and development of advanced cultures and civilizations?
If we look closely, the Mediterranean Basin is somewhat uniquely positioned on the world map: an almost enclosed body of water surrounded by three continents. On its northern shores it's dominated by three peninsulas of the Eurasian landmass: Iberian, Apennine and Balkan. To the east lies Asia Minor, itself a peninsula, as well as the Leventine coast, while the shore of northern Africa encloses the basin from the south.

Could we say that nowhere else, until the modern age, we had such a concentration of cities, as around the Mediterranean Basin? How did it become possible that such extensive city network developed during the Classical period?

I'd appreciate a good discussion.
 
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Mar 2017
878
Colorado
By the 7th century BCE, Egyptian civilization had been around for almost 3000 yrs. I think part of your point is civilization around the entire Mediterranean, and the Egyptians never extended across the sea.

But part of their wealth was from supplying grain to the rest of the world. Culturally they preferred barley, but largely changed to wheat for the world market.

I imagine a constant supply of wheat was a part of the puzzle that allowed other civilizations to develop beyond subsistence agriculture. Rome clearly depended on Egyptian wheat.

There's an analogy in Polynesia. It took less than 1/2 a day to collect food for survival: catch a fish, get some coconuts, etc. With their spare time, they developed very complex societies, religions, & had time for exploration.
 

Fantasus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2012
2,381
Northern part of European lowland
Classical civilization, or Classical Antiquity, developed in the Mediterranean basin, and its start is often put in the VII century BC.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the civilization which developed around the Mediterranean Sea is the extensive network of city states spanning from Asia Minor to modern day France and Spain. While this certainly predates the development of Classical Greece, as the Phoenicians were already founding their colonies across the Mediterranean centuries before the Greeks, the real blossoming of this city network arguably started as the Greeks started founding their colonies across the Mediterranean, from the Western coast of Asia Minor to Sicily and mainland Italy to what is now the southern coast of France, as well as the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
In Italy, various Italic peoples had already established their city states, one of which was Rome. But we also had the Etruscan cities in the north, as well as Sabines and Latiens in Central Italy.

During this period, there was an extraordinary blossoming of almost every field of human endeavor, from philosophy and architecture, to engineering and military science.
At the same time, the Greeks and Romans developed advanced political systems of government, which still have a huge influence on our world today. The cities in the Mediterranean basin were large, populous and rich, and there was great exchange between them.

What made this possible? Could we consider that the geographical position and topography of the Mediterranean basin, as well as the climate, played a role in the spectacular rise of trade, population and development of advanced cultures and civilizations?
If we look closely, the Mediterranean Basin is somewhat uniquely positioned on the world map: an almost enclosed body of water surrounded by three continents. On its northern shores it's dominated by three peninsulas of the Eurasian landmass: Iberian, Apennine and Balkan. To the east lies Asia Minor, itself a peninsula, as well as the Leventine coast, while the shore of northern Africa encloses the basin from the south.

Could we say that nowhere else, until the modern age, we had such a concentration of cities, as around the Mediterranean Basin? How did it become possible that such extensive city network developed during the Classical period?

I'd appreciate a good discussion.
I think it had very much to do with the Meditteranean as a seaway, for trade, for colonisation, for spread of knowlegde and ideas as well as for physical objects. I also would suggest to include the bosporean and Black Sea. Almost at any location on those seas one are close to several coastal regions, with a vast hinterland. Then in addition there are long waterways that connects this waters with large parts of the interior of the continents.
 

Valens

Ad Honorem
Feb 2014
8,310
Colonia Valensiana
By the 7th century BCE, Egyptian civilization had been around for almost 3000 yrs. I think part of your point is civilization around the entire Mediterranean, and the Egyptians never extended across the sea.
I'm sure you're right, though I was referring to the Classical period in the OP.
 
Mar 2017
878
Colorado
I think it had very much to do with the Meditteranean as a seaway, for trade, for colonisation, for spread of knowlegde and ideas as well as for physical objects. I also would suggest to include the bosporean and Black Sea. Almost at any location on those seas one are close to several coastal regions, with a vast hinterland. Then in addition there are long waterways that connects this waters with large parts of the interior of the continents.
In Caesar's Civil Wars, he's chasing Pompey all over the world. They pretty much go clockwise around the Mediterranean from Rome, with Pompey going as far as North Africa before his final stop back in Egypt.

They treat the Mediterranean like a giant parking lot that they effortlessly scoot around in. Caesar generally provides a lot of detail when things were difficult. He says "we went from A to B" like they hopped on a plane.

Despite 1000's of years of shipwrecks, it almost seems like sea travel was easier than land.
 

Valens

Ad Honorem
Feb 2014
8,310
Colonia Valensiana
^
Similarly, Hannibal ended up committing suicide in Asia Minor, while he previously went into exile in Syria and the Levant. It's another evidence of how interconnected the Mediterranean world was at this period.

The shapes of that were starting emerging again from the XI century when the Italian maritime states began expanding their trade networks across the Eastern Mediterranean and further to the Black Sea.
Though, there has always been contact between the Latin West and the Greek East, and the latter preserved the old city network well after the end of the Western Roman Empire.
 

Fantasus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2012
2,381
Northern part of European lowland
In Caesar's Civil Wars, he's chasing Pompey all over the world. They pretty much go clockwise around the Mediterranean from Rome, with Pompey going as far as North Africa before his final stop back in Egypt.

They treat the Mediterranean like a giant parking lot that they effortlessly scoot around in. Caesar generally provides a lot of detail when things were difficult. He says "we went from A to B" like they hopped on a plane.

Despite 1000's of years of shipwrecks, it almost seems like sea travel was easier than land.
Overall I guess it was much easier, though there was dangers as You mention.
I am not even sure it was normally safer on land.
 
Mar 2017
878
Colorado
Overall I guess it was much easier, though there was dangers as You mention.
I am not even sure it was normally safer on land.
"Safer" is a relative term.

Just like today, the sea lanes had pirates. Bandits were on land.

In the 1st century BCE, Pompey was given the task of clearing the entire Mediterranean of pirates because they had gone from being an unorganized nuisance to being a major organized naval power. Pompey wound up destroying 1300 ships. He literally herded them all into a corner in something like 69 days (Pompey had lots of ships, too).
 

Solidaire

Ad Honorem
Aug 2009
5,734
Athens, Greece
Classical civilization, or Classical Antiquity, developed in the Mediterranean basin, and its start is often put in the VII century BC.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the civilization which developed around the Mediterranean Sea is the extensive network of city states spanning from Asia Minor to modern day France and Spain. While this certainly predates the development of Classical Greece, as the Phoenicians were already founding their colonies across the Mediterranean centuries before the Greeks, the real blossoming of this city network arguably started as the Greeks started founding their colonies across the Mediterranean, from the Western coast of Asia Minor to Sicily and mainland Italy to what is now the southern coast of France, as well as the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
In Italy, various Italic peoples had already established their city states, one of which was Rome. But we also had the Etruscan cities in the north, as well as Sabines and Latiens in Central Italy.

During this period, there was an extraordinary blossoming of almost every field of human endeavor, from philosophy and architecture, to engineering and military science.
At the same time, the Greeks and Romans developed advanced political systems of government, which still have a huge influence on our world today. The cities in the Mediterranean basin were large, populous and rich, and there was great exchange between them.

What made this possible? Could we consider that the geographical position and topography of the Mediterranean basin, as well as the climate, played a role in the spectacular rise of trade, population and development of advanced cultures and civilizations?
If we look closely, the Mediterranean Basin is somewhat uniquely positioned on the world map: an almost enclosed body of water surrounded by three continents. On its northern shores it's dominated by three peninsulas of the Eurasian landmass: Iberian, Apennine and Balkan. To the east lies Asia Minor, itself a peninsula, as well as the Leventine coast, while the shore of northern Africa encloses the basin from the south.

Could we say that nowhere else, until the modern age, we had such a concentration of cities, as around the Mediterranean Basin? How did it become possible that such extensive city network developed during the Classical period?

I'd appreciate a good discussion.
"Like frogs around a pond" went the saying of Plato to describe his countrymen, and similarly the Romans too, though initially a land-oriented people, became tied to the sea, to "mare nostrum". Which became the nervous system of their empire, perhaps even more vital than their famed road system. And of course, the Phoenicians before them, and the Minoans, all absolutely reliant on the Mediterranean sea for their civilisations. The Mediterranean was until the late middle ages the heart of Europe. A historian I'm currently reading argues that the history of the Middle Ages is to a great degree the story of Europe's translocation from the Mediterranean to the continent's northern areas.

And yes, I agree with your assumption that it's mostly about topography, location and climate. It is the perfect pond for civilisation to flourish. It has everything, and all in good measure. Not too large to frighten people from travelling and separate them, but not too small either to make new possibilities and abundance to run out, thus taking away the incentive for adventuring and travelling. Land is never that far away, yet, there's plenty of it around a rather extensive sea-lake. The sea itself is mild, compared to the oceans, and though not without risks and perils, it was perfect for the ancient navigators.

Add to this the mild climate and the variety of landscape and resources around the Mediterranean, as well as the multitude of islands, large and small, the peninsulas, bays, mountains and plains surrounding it, and you have a perfect "pond" for human habitation, trade, civilisation. The ragged terrain, isolated by mountains and seas, played an instrumental role in the rise of the city-states of at least ancient Greece.

And of course, next to this civilisation experiment tube, you had the great fountains of materials, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia. If someone was conducting such a massive historical experiment, I suppose he couldn't have picked better conditions. And the results were very, very satisfying, I reckon. :)
 
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Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,763
Civilization in Mesopotamia, China, India, and Egypt all started around rivers but relatively quickly moved toward trade over the sea.

Phoenicians trading and colonizing around the Mediterranean wouldn't been able to make a profit without the pre-existing Mesopotamian and, Anatolian, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations with surplus goods that could buy the trade Phoenicians brought from far flung reaches of the sea.

Greeks followed in Phoenicians footsteps and probably were greatly aided by existing contacts between local tribes where Illyrians were already trading with people in Italy who were trading with people in Rhone valley who were trading with people along the Ebro...etc.