The Mediterranean: The Historical Political Meaning of the Sea

The Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Since the ancient world, the Mediterranean has served as a space for constant exchange of goods, people and ideas.

By Dr. Bernd Thum
German Medieval Historian


Whoever is asked what he thinks about the Mediterranean as a memory space will immediately answer laconically with a question: Ah, Braudel? During and shortly after the Second World War, Fernand Braudel actually created the classic narrative of the Mediterranean: the Mediterranean as the cradle of civilization and a space for constant exchange of goods, people and ideas. Even today– notwithstanding a potential risk to be used as a pretext for power politics –this story is still a good story, and it is also of use to all who wish to redefine the Euro-Mediterranean area as an area of multilateral action and joint responsibility,with a shared history, a shared heritage as well as a shared development and a common future. The aim of this redefinition should be the consolidation of the area as a geopolitical entity of a new kind. This is a political task. A successful policy in this direction requires, in addition to leadership, ideas and reliability, to be aware of two basic conditions:

  1. the lasting sustainable, now intensifying densification of reciprocal relations in the Euro-Mediterranean area, creating new dynamic spatial entities, notwithstanding existing political boundaries;
  2. the need of imagination, that is the need of a ‘meaning’, which can be created by facts, but even more by pictures and narratives.

Fernand Braudel has also expressed his opinion with regard to the spatial extent of the Euro-Mediterranean area. The epochal migration across the Mediterranean has opened our eyes to us. It reminded us of what we should have known for a long time, namely that not only Europe and the Southern as well as the Eastern Mediterranean belong to this area, but also Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Braudel has known this from the beginning: In the third volume of his famous and most influential work “La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéenà l’époque de Philippe II” (1949)[1] he refers to this as the Grande Méditerranée, the “Great Mediterranean”, which includes not only the countries bordering the Mediterranean, but also Transalpine Western and Northern Europe, the Eastern Mashriq and North Africa down to the Sahel zone. One can call this the ‘Wider Euro-Mediterranean Area’ or the ‘Euro-Afro-Mediterranean Area’ extending –as some like to say – “from the Niger to the North Cape, from Dublin to Damascus”.[2]

Politics is human work, and human work depends on a set of meanings. A useful archive of such meanings is the history of ideas as well as the history of law. The history teaches us that there is not one ‘meaning of the sea’ but there are many meanings. In this paper, I shall limit myself to the European history and to the history of international public law.[3] In order to arrange the variety of meanings I shall discuss the ‘meaning of the sea’ in three pairs of opposites:

  1. Territoriality versus ‘maritime thinking’,
  2. Civilizing regulation versus break and innovation,
  3. Traditional territorial state power versus maritime functional organization.

Let me point out that I am speaking here of poles, not of antinomies. In each individual case, in each situation, the ‘meaning’ lies somewhere in between the poles. Because this conference is not just about remembrance but also about the future, I will try to find, in between the poles, the meaning which could serve as a guide for the future. The sea, what can it teach us through its meanings?

I come to the first polarity:

Territoriality vs. ‘Maritime Thinking’

In 1993 Michel Mollat du Jourdin has published a beautiful book about Europe and its relationship with the sea. In this book, he stresses the “strong maritime bond” of Europe.[4] For him land and sea belong together. Linking Europe’s relationship with the sea to the Euro-Afro-Mediterranean area, he returns to Braudel’s concept of the Grande Méditerranée. Like Braudel he treats the great,south-facing peninsulas of Europe, namely Spain, Italy, Greece, as the “first actors of history.” For him they are “roads towards Africa”.[5] Reversely, so Mollat Du Jourdin, the Southern Mediterranean is closely linked to the transalpine central and northern Europe. In Venice and Genoa, the Mediterranean Sea reaches out to the foot of the Alps. From there, the most important trade routes went and still go to the north, to the ports of the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Trade routes create a network of mobility across Europe, which also covers the southern and eastern Mediterranean and reaches into the Sub-Saharan zone. Goods, technology and people were and still are on the way on these transcontinental Euro-Afro-Mediterranean routes.

Today the intricate unity of the Euro-Afro-Mediterranean area results from the factors economy and technology, politics, migration, security, as well as from a partly common history, a partly common cultural heritage, a partly common education. It is a complex unity. For Braudel, too, the Mediterranean is an “intersection of different worlds”.[6] For him, a characteristic feature of the Mediterranean is the linkage of the disparate. With many other historical examples,he mentions the crews of Moorish pirate ships from the ports of North Africa manned by Europeans, former Christians. These Arab-Berber ships came all the way to the North Sea and Iceland. According to Braudel, the ‘Great Mediterranean’requires imagination to be understood as a unity. The difficult unity of this area does not only involve common developments and common interests,it also includes conflicts. Maritime openness meets territorial strictness.

A lot of imagination is needed to understand the massive migration across the Mediterranean Sea with its cruel negative implications as an element of a common Euro-Afro-Mediterranean space. The sad images of African migrants at sea, do not show them clearly that there are hard limitations between South and North? Yes, there are many, but these images are also signs of a current historical turn. States and societies in Europe, in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean as well as in Africa will see themselves compelled to abandon a purely continental, purely territorial view, characterized by clearly defined areas and linear boundaries. Instead, they will learn to think maritime, ‘maritime’ understood in a metaphorical sense. Their thinking, acting, planning will no longer stay based exclusively on territories and fixed borders. Without abandoning state order – that is to say a monopoly on the use of force and legal protection –they will develop a new model for living-together, inspired and shaped by ‘maritime’thinking. It will be like shipping on the high seas, characterized by an almost unlimited mobility, high density of relations, close mutual dependencies,shared knowledge, shared responsibility for safety and law, persistent dynamism through constantly redefining the own position in relation to other navigators as well as the firm land. ‘Maritime’ acting and thinking corresponds to the structural model of ‘functional space’. A functional space is formed by a dense, dynamic and complex web of relationships, not by territorial demarcation.The term is used by geographers and economists. I am trying to adapt it to a multilateral collaborative geopolicy,[7] cooperating with colleagues like Yamina Bettahar,[8] participant at this conference.

Portrait of Giambattista Vico by Francesco Solimena / Wikimedia Commons

A new, ‘maritime’ thinking, is it desirable, is it necessary? Let us take a glance at the European history of ideas. In the early 18th century the Neapolitan scholar Giambattista Vico presented a great cultural theory. Part of his philosophical-historical work, his remarkable Scienza Nuova, is a history of culture.[8] In this historical work Vico lets start cultural development with the commitment of people to the sea and to seafaring. For this Mediterranean thinker, the sea was a decisive factor in the creation of law, of development, enlightenment, and even secularization. The archaic peoples of the interior are seen by Vico as isolated,inaccessible, xenophobic. He speaks of an “inlandish” mentality. From this ‘inlandish’,territorially fixed mentality – in contrast to a mind marked by the sea– derives a spiritual and intellectual limitation, “because they [the archaic peoples]in the darkness of their closeness, without intercourse with other peoples,did not see the true light of the times”.[9] For Vico the city of Alexandria was an outstanding place of philosophy and science. He emphasizes that it was“founded by the sea”, “connecting African acumen and ingenuity with Greek delicacy”.[10]

‘But that is enough on the topic of territoriality and ‘maritime thinking’ right now. Now let us turn to the two other polarities marking ‘the meaning of the sea’. At first: ‘Civilizing regulation versus break and innovation.’ After that:‘Traditional territorial state power versus maritime functional organization’.

Civilizing Regulation versus Break and Innovation

We call ‘civilization’ the firm, sanctioned order controlling the living-together of individuals, groups and societies, characterized by calculability and suppression of acting predominantly driven by instincts. At this point we do not speak of one particular civilization among others – for this we prefer the term ‘culture’– but of a specific ‘civilized’ form of social and individual living which is universally valid.

Creative Commons

In terms of civilization, the sea is a particularly interesting space. This space is fluid in the literal and in the transposed sense. The liquid, the incalculable is only imperfectly contained by the legal principle of the “freedom of the high seas” and by the definition of “territorial waters”, that means the three to twelve-mile zone. Both concepts are civilizing regulations. Both stand for the civilizational dimension of the sea. However, the high seas are a space of high contingency. Much is possible there, because not every situation is legally regulated. Michel Foucault, the French cultural philosopher, has called certain places ‘heterotopias’ or ‘heterotopes’. That is to say, ‘counter-places’ or ‘counter-spaces’,where the considerations, the calculations of everyday life are little or nothing.These are places which also escape the usual social judgings and valuations.That is why they represent a challenge for other places and spaces. Not infrequently,they are at the same time places of remembrance where bad things have happened, massacres, violence. Foucault argues that heterotopes are often related to transitions, upheavals, to an unexpected change which is understood as a danger. So, the Mediterranean Sea and its shores should not be seen stereotypically and exclusively as the ‘cradle of civilization’. It can also be seen as a counter-place calling into question civilization in the sense of social order and calculable living-together.

The sea offers numerous natural, historical and current examples of this. There are huge storms that have destroyed entire fleets. There are the pirates. There are the interventions of foreign powers coming across the sea. There are flight and unregulated migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Aggression, flight and migration across the sea are old phenomena. So, they have got a mythical character in antiquity. Let us think of the flight of the Phoenician queen Dido to North Africa, Jason’s robbery of the Golden Fleece, the maritime assault on Troy, the flight of the Trojan Aeneas to Italy, which, however, finally led to the founding of Rome, which became a mighty agent of civilization.

At sea, how can civilization arise there? Certainly by means of state agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982/1994) or by the transfer of territorial style action to the sea, such as the confinement of large parts of the Mediterranean Sea, which was once attempted by Spain and Portugal, partly also by England. But all this is very unstable. More important for the making and safeguarding of civilization is the fine network of functional relations, which arises across and over the sea forming tight meshes. With regard to the Mediterranean one has to mention the following links: trade, mobility and migration, the exchange of ideas and concepts in culture, business and politics – all this now massively promoted by IT – furthermore, political interactions and conflicts, ecological problems as well as cooperation. These are important potentials of civilization.

However, there remain very serious challenges. The Mediterranean Sea remains dangerous. So, can a lack of civilizing regulations lead – seemingly paradoxically– to new innovative political, social, cultural, legal orders? There are reasons to be optimistic. These reasons are partly timeless. Let us listen to a thinker of the European Middle Ages, more precisely, of the ninth century, Johannes Scottus Eriugena. Eriugena lived at the court of a Franconian king, a descendant of Charlemagne. He was born in Ireland and was deeply influenced by the Mediterranean spirit of Greek antiquity. For him, the sea is not just a source of knowledge and inventiveness as Giambattista Vico said 900 years later, for Eriugena, even more dynamic, it is at sea, that reason can freely unfold itself.[11]

Physical and political map of the Mediterranean Basin / Wikimedia Commons

There is yet another argument for optimism: the importance of the sea for imagination. Vico thought to have discovered the origins of the ancient myths in the real experiences made by people at sea and on sea coasts. The Winged Horse of the myth of Perseus may serve as an example. For Vico this horse is the mythical transformation of a pirate ship with inflated sails. So, the bull of Minosis, likewise, the mythical transformation of an ancient pirate ship with a spur and Mediterranean rigging with horny Latin sails. The labyrinth of Minos is the mythical image of the confusing Aegean island world. Vico refers to a “poetical geography” of the sea.[12] Often it is fantasy, imagination, which draws people out to the sea and to distant coasts. A ‘poetical’ geography, an inspired political cultural geography, is it still possible today? What about the creation of a Euro Afro-Mediterranean area, redefined as a functional space of common development,shared prosperity, inspired by the overwhelming epochal experiences of people at and around the Mediterranean Sea in our current times? A new awareness may emerge from these experiences. New awareness then allows and creates new solutions.

The sea, understood as a heterotope, has two sides: On the one hand the lack or the breaking of laws and civilizing rules, yes even destruction, on the other side new orders. Vico calls King Minos of Crete the “first lawmaker of the pagan peoples and the first corsair in the Aegean”.[13] The flight of Aeneas from the burning Troy finally led to the founding of Rome and a new world order.

I come now to the third polarity:

Traditional Territorial State Power versus Maritime Functional Organization

Civilization should find its form in law, also in the law regulating the relationship between states. This law is called international public law. The sea is of great importance for the development and safeguarding of this law. From the beginning of our historical memory, the Mediterranean was a high-risk zone,but it was not lawless. The maritime law owes itself to maritime trade, also to the millennium-old Mediterranean trade, understood as free exchange of goods which had to be protected by rules and sanctions. The Law of the Sea, in turn,is one of the roots of international public law. The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (from 1982 and 1994)[14] is based on the principle of the “freedom of the high seas” (article 87) designating the states as responsible actors.The Convention specifies in article 87 (1): “The high seas are open to all states,whether coastal or land-locked”. The freedom of the high seas according to the Convention covers many freedoms, from the freedom of navigation to the freedom of fishing and scientific research, and even the freedom to “construct artificial islands”.

Peace Palace Library / Creative Commons

On the one hand, the principle of the Free Sea, the Mare Liberum, goes back to centuries of efforts to prevent the unrestrained rule and violence of states at sea, driven by traditional territorial thinking. The principle of the Mare Liberum is aimed at the states which, according to the principle of the ‘Closed Sea’, the Mare Clausum, wanted to divide up the sea amongst themselves. These states wanted to transfer rules of territorial law to the sea. However, this has never worked. On the other hand, the principle of the freedom of the high seas, since antiquity, is aimed at the pirates. The pirates embody the total negation of every state order. They represent all potentials of maritime seafaring, which are directed against state order. State power built up not least through the fight against piracy. This fight requires great resources, complex organization and the ability to create formal alliances. Attacks on the freedom of the high seas must be “repressed”by all states in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, article 100 (et seq.): “Duty to cooperate in the repression of piracy”: “All States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” This is a very modern multilateral concept of security. Security this way is not to be guaranteed by one powerful actor, for example a world power, but by a multitude of actors communicating and taking on specific functional tasks.

Sea power is something fundamentally different from land power. Land power aims at mastering territories, sea power aims at the control of connections. The founder of the classical doctrine of naval power is the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. In 1890, he published his famous book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History. 1660-1783”.[15] For Mahan a large-scale trading network as well as naval bases are the “pillars” of naval power. As a basic “condition” for naval power Mahan regards maritime thinking, penetrating the entire attitude to life. For Mahan, maritime thinking is a specific mentality rather than a particular policy. Part of this mentality is the renunciation of power over coherent territories,the renouncement of clearly defined linear boundaries as well as the comprehensive regulation of social life in a dominated territory. Part of this mentality is also the ability to think in categories of movement and changing constellations as well as the interest to gain power not over land, but over the brains, to create “colonies”, ‘colonies’ in the sense of interested and friendly groups as political social foothold, human capital at disposal, while always maintaining the aim to control the exchange of goods, people and ideas.

What Should We Do?

Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes / Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Hobbes, the political thinker at the time of the European religious wars in the 17th century, is the father of the ‘Leviathan’. Using this monster from the Bible he describes the modern secular state in Europe. According to Hobbes the central task of this state is peace enforcement and peace keeping in large coherent territories. The state has to keep the opposing social forces or parties under control, in particular the parties which legitimate themselves through religion.The sea, however, which cannot be controlled totally, was perceived by Hobbes as a threat, a threat to the peace which has to be created and maintained by the state (or the states).

Even today many people perceive the sea, especially the Mediterranean Sea, as a potential threat. Classical piracy is no longer present there. But there are other challenges: There are violent interventions by larger and smaller states which do not adhere to operating civilizational standards, states which act ruthlessly,disregarding the rules of international law. Furthermore, there are cruel actions by extremists who do not obey any law that can be accepted by all. And there is finally the massive unregulated, mostly illegal migration, organized by private entrepreneurs acting on a large scale. All this is coming at a time when state order, not only in Europe, but also in the Maghreb and in the Eastern Mediterranean is at risk or has even gone. All this is endangering also peace: peace between groups of different forms of life, different religions, different ethnicities,different prosperity. The Leviathan is losing power. Whom or what could we put on his place?

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a new legal system was introduced in Europe: On the land a public law, which subjected all members of a society to a common legal system, at sea an international public law, in the form of the‘freedom of the high seas’. Today, too, there is a need of designing new orders fitting to our world. The new orders should connect the safety of territorial organization with maritime flexibility, state order with functionality, territoriality with mobility, regulation with innovation.

Let us return to the Mediterranean: the Mediterranean – sea and land – was and is a meaningful heterotope, meaningful, because proceeding from this heterotope the world can be re-examined.[16] The sea is a heterotope of movement. They were men of the Mediterranean, who travelled to distant continents: Pytheas of Massalia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, the Portuguese navigators.Other men, from the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea or from Al Andalus,have to be added: Hanno the Navigator from Carthage, Ibn Jubayrfrom Valencia (Balansyya), Ibn Battuta from Tangier, al-Idrisi from Ceuta, IbnKhaldun from Tunis and many others. As mentioned above, the sea, according to the Carolingian thinker Eriugena of the ninth century, is a place where reason can freely unfold. The old maps, however, the mythical stories of charming islands show: The sea is also a heterotope of imagination, of the dream to start toa new order. In the Mediterranean, understood as the Grande Méditerranée, the“Great Mediterranean”, this order should be – notwithstanding other ties and loyalties – the Euro-Afro-Mediterranean Area as a political, economic and even cultural entity of a new kind, an area of common prosperity, free mobility regulated by law, shared security, to sum up: a functional space “from the Niger to the North Cape, from Dublin to Damascus”.[17]


  1. English edition: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. New York: Harper and Row 1972/1973.
  2. This is the motto of the Stiftung Wissensraum Europa-Mittelmeer (WEM) (Foundation Euro-Mediterranean Knowledge Space/ WEM), Stuttgart and Heidelberg. The author is president of this foundation (
  3. As to the meanings of the sea in Muslim societies see Jenny Rahel Oesterle: Arabische Darstellungen desMittelmeers in Historiographie und Kartographie. In: Michael Borgolte und Nikolas Jaspert (eds.), MaritimesMittelalter. Meere als Kommunikationsräume. Ostfildern: Thorbecke 2016, 149-180 (with further literature).
  4. German edition: Michel Mollat Du Jourdin: Europa und das Meer. München: C.H.Beck 1993, 20. French edition : L’Europe et la mer. Paris: Editions du Seuil 1993. English edition: Europe and the Sea. Oxford UK& Cambridge USA: Blackwell 1993.
  5. Mollat Du Jourdin, see note 6., 27.
  6. Fernand Braudel: Mediterrane Welt. In: Fernand Braudel, Georges Duby, Maurice Aymard, Die Welt des Mittelmeeres. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer 1987/2006, 8. French edition: La Méditerranée. L’espace et l’histoire,les hommes et l‘héritage. Paris: Flammarion 1986.
  7. Bernd Thum : Eine Geopolitik funktionaler Räume. Der erweiterte Mittelmeerraum als Beispiel. In :WIKA-Report 2 (2014), S. 17-35 (Online:– Bernd Thum: From the EuroMediterraneanPartnership towards a Geopolicy of the Wider Euro-Mediterranean Area as a ‘FunctionalSpace’ . In: Europa bottom-up Nr. 12. Berlin: Maecenata-Stiftung 2015 (online:
  8. Yamina Bettahar, Bernd Thum: Introduction. In: Y.B. and B.T. (eds.): Circulations et échanges dans l’espaceeuro-méditerranéen (XVII-XXI siècles). Paris: Editions Kimé 2016, 5-6 (= Philosophia Scientiae2016/2) (online:
  9. Giambattista Vico : Principj di una Scienza Nuova d’intorno alla commune Natura delle Nazioni. Naples1725-1744. German edition: Giovanni Battista Vico: Prinzipien einer neuen Wissenschaft über die gemeinsame Natur der Völker. 2 Teilbände. Hamburg: Meiner 1990.
  10. Vico, see note 11, paragraph 83.
  11. Vico, see note 11, paragraph 46.
  12. Mollat Du Jourdin, see note 6, 63.
  13. Vico, see note 11, paragraph 741 (“poetical geography“), see also 634-636.
  14. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Online:
  15. Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Influence of Sea Power upon History. 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, New York 1890, see in particular chapter I, 25-89 (online:
  16. In 2012 the German political scientist Claus Leggewie published a book, which tried to redefine Europe’s relationship with the Arab world. Its title is “The Future is in the South. How the Union for the Mediterraneancan revive Europe ” (C.L.: Zukunft im Süden. Wie die Mittelmeer union Europa wiederbeleben kann. Hamburg: edition Körber-Stiftung 2012).
  17. The author does not consider this scenario to be totally utopistic. Individual elements have already been proposed by renowned think-tanks such as EuroMeSco, the Euro-Mediterranean Study commission (see note 9). There are also state initiatives being on their way, such as the EU’s Southern Neighborhood Policy,the Africa-EU Partnership or the program Compact with Africa. Cooperation in a true spirit of togetherness and belonging would enhance the value of these initiatives.

From Europe and the Mediterranean: Talking, Learning, Working, and Living Together 4:2 (2017 11-20), published by Europa Bottom-Up (SSOAR Open Access Repository) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-commercial – No Derivative Works 3.0 Germany  license.