Around 4 million years ago, a cataclysmic earthquake in the region of Gibraltar split the land between the continents of Europe and Africa. This epochal geological event resulted in the creation of the largest waterfall in the history of the Earth. It allowed the Atlantic Ocean to tumble into a previously barren, landlocked basin and form the sea we now know as the Mediterranean. With over 6,000 miles of coastline surrounding a relatively tranquil sea, with numerous natural harbours and hundreds of islands to break long sea voyages, the Mediterranean provided the ideal environment for the evolution of complex patterns of trade, migration and the communication of ideas. These conditions led to an unparalleled explosion of human creativity and the birth of the great civilisations of antiquity.
Although there are many mysteries – such as the 5,000-year-old temples and monolithic tombs of Malta – surrounding the origins of Mediterranean civilisation, without doubt the first truly great culture to evolve was that of Ancient Egypt. As the historian Paul Johnson tells us, the Egyptians “were the first people on earth to create a nation-state. This state served as the framework of a culture of extraordinary strength, assurance and durability which lasted for 3,000 years and which retained almost to the end its now unmistakable purity of style. In the Egypt of antiquity, state, religion and culture formed an indisputable unity.” From our morbid fascination with “mummies” to our wonder at the serene beauty of Tutankhamun’s death mask, the ingenious construction of the Pyramids (the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive) and the monumental splendour of the Valley of the Kings, it is true to say that no other ancient civilisation captures our imagination in the same way as Ancient Egypt.
Emerging in the 2nd millennium BC and lying about 55 miles southwest of Athens in the northeastern Peloponnese, Mycenae dominated southern Greece and spread its influence as far as Sardinia and the Bay of Naples. By about 1300BC, it had reached the height of its economic and military powers and was ready to flex its muscles. This show of strength culminated in every schoolchild’s favourite tale of ancient times – Agamemnon and the Trojan War.
From the rise of Corinth in about 685BC to the fall of Sicily, the jewel of Magna Graecia, to Rome some 400 years later, the Greeks were responsible for one of the mostbrilliant and inspiring epochs in human history. They revolutionised every aspect of civilised life from art, literature and architecture to politics, philosophy and mathematics. Their technological and scientific achievements were no less remarkable (among other Greek innovations were the first maps, gear technology, the screw, plumbing, and even the vending machine). The most important of the Ancient Greek city-states was Athens, which the poet John Milton called "the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence." It was here in the 5th century BC that the genius and creativity of the ancient Greek world shone with unprecedented brilliance. This was the time of the great statesman Pericles who organised the construction of the Acropolis, of the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and, of course, of the philosopher Socrates. It was truly the “Golden Age”. Following Athens’ stellar performance, Sparta briefly took centre stage; the action then shifted north to Macedonia and Alexander. By the time of his death in Babylon on June 13th 323BC aged 32, Alexander was the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen.
“All great civilisations, in their early stages, are based on success in war.” Kenneth Clark Disciplined, organised and bellicose, in 510BC the Romans defeated their Etruscan overlords and never looked back. Over the following centuries, Roman military supremacy in the Mediterranean would become total. From Syria and Egypt in the East to France and Spain in the West, the Roman legions and galleys carried all before them. The great empires of Greece and Carthage would be swallowed up, and, in a customary display of arrogance, the Romans would christen the Middle Sea “Mare Nostrum” – Our Sea. From the end of the Second Punic War in 201BC until the founding of the new imperial capital at Constantinople in 330AD by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, Rome was the centre of the known world.
Constantine the Great’s capital Constantinople was founded on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. It was to last 1,123 years, for several centuries of which it was the most powerful military, economic and cultural force in the Mediterranean. During this time, the Empire was a bulwark of Christianity against the forces of Islam, it provided a staging post for the Crusaders heading off to the Holy Land and it has left behind some of the most beautiful and architecturally exciting buildings in the world. By the end of the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire was engulfed by the barbarians from northern Europe – Vandals in North Africa, Goths in Italy and Spain, Goths and Franks in Gaul, Angles and Saxons in Britain. Despite the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, whose reign was marked by the ambitious but ultimately failed renovatio imperii, or "restoration of the empire", this conquest by the peoples of the North marked a fundamental shift in power in the Mediterranean.
The emergence of the "barbarian kingdoms" in the 5th century and the rise of Islam in the 7th century meant that the medieval Mediterranean world would not be nearly as cohesive as its ancient counterpart. Amidst this chaotic background of plagues, wars and crusades emerged two remarkable cultures: the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Venetian Empire. The Kingdom of Sicily was a state that existed in South Italy and Sicily from its founding by Roger II in 1130 until 1194, when it was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire. While much of Europe was engulfed by vicious religious wars, in Sicily the Normans presided over a miraculous society that combined Latin, Byzantine and Arab culture. It was, writes John Julius Norwich in The Middle Sea, “the most brilliant and cultivated court of the Middle Ages”.
The Venetian Republic existed for over a millennium, from the late 7th century AD until 1797. It is often referred to as La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic. Over the years the Venetians acquired an overseas empire that was primarily concerned with protecting and developing their commercial interests. “The Venetians were exporting no ideology to the world,” says Jan Morris in The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage. “They were not hoping to found lesser states in their own image. They had no missionary zeal. They were not great builders like the Romans.” What they were was an economic superpower motivated by the pursuit of profit. The Venetian Empire is the last great power that concerns us here, but during the Voyages to Antiquity cruises there will be several reminders of later events that have shaped the history of the Middle Sea: the tragedy of Gallipoli in World War I; the construction of the Suez Canal; and the transformation of so much of the coast by tourism. Despite all these upheavals, however, the world of the ancient civilisations endures and, as you will discover on your journey, is still a source of inspiration and wonder.