The Mediterranean Sea was a fundamental feature in the development of civilizations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In this lesson, we’ll look at the role of Mediterranean Sea trade across history.
Trade in the Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean is a beautiful place. With temperate climates, sparkling blue waters, and abundant natural resources, it’s really no surprise that some of the earliest civilizations in Africa and Eurasia developed around the Mediterranean Sea. It’s also unsurprising that these various civilizations decided to stay in touch. The Mediterranean Sea features consistent winds and currents, and ancient sailors were quickly able to move from sailing small riverboats along the coasts to sailing through wider areas of open sea. Throughout history, the Mediterranean Sea was the center of expansive networks of communication and trade, and ancient people first used it to connect the region and later used it to connect the world.
Ancient Mediterranean Trade
Many of the ancient civilizations to first develop around the Mediterranean region relied heavily on rivers, and sailing became an immediately important technology. By as early as the third millennium BCE, ancient sailors were using well-established sea routes to trade with cultures all around the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, and others participated in sophisticated trading networks, but perhaps no one dominated the Mediterranean Sea more than the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a trading-based culture and were such prolific traders that their alphabet became the de facto language of international trade. You may recognize it; the alphabet we use to this day is based on Phoenician characters.
For centuries, the Mediterranean Sea connected people of the region, especially with the rise of the Roman Empire in the first century BCE. Although most Mediterranean Sea traders would never go beyond this area, the products they sold entered into markets that spread through Africa and into the Indian Ocean. In fact, during the first centuries CE, the Roman Empire was involved in trade routes that stretched to India and even, at times, China.
Trade in the 13th Century Forward
After the fall of the Roman Empire, these expansive international trade networks went into decline, although the Mediterranean Sea was still full of traders hopping across the region. Then, in the 13th century CE, something changed. The Mongol Empire, the largest empire in recorded history formed and led by Genghis Khan, managed to unite almost all of Asia under their control, and they opened the region up to trade. Europe and Asia were reconnected through a series of trade routes known as the Silk Roads, which included several maritime routes that connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas to the Indian Ocean and then on to China. Chinese spices, silks, and other products made Mediterranean trading cities like Venice and Genoa extraordinarily wealthy.
This era of trade brought several changes to the Mediterranean region. For one, cities around the sea all flourished, and that wealth poured through society creating a renaissance. Literally. The Italian Renaissance, the growth of education, art, and philosophy that redefined European culture, was a direct product of the wealth flowing around the Mediterranean. However, while people were trading products, they were also trading ideas. Islamic astronomy and mathematics entered Europe largely through these trade routes, leading to the invention of better ships that could sail further and further away from coasts and improved navigational techniques involving mapping the stars.
These improvements would prove to be critical to history. In the 14th century, the Mongol Empire collapsed, closing the Silk Roads. In 1453, the city of Constantinople, in modern-day Turkey, was captured by the Islamic Ottoman Empire, ending the Byzantine Empire and cutting off Christian kingdoms from the Red Sea. All in all, the Mediterranean routes were severed from China, but Europeans desperately wanted to regain this trade and the wealth that came with it. Using their knowledge of sailing developed in the Mediterranean, the Portuguese started expanding south along the western coast of Africa, looking for another route to China and developed the caravel, the first ship that could sail in completely open waters.
As they made it south towards the tip of Africa, the Spanish used Italian merchant sailors to try and find China by going a different direction: west. Christopher Columbus, from the Italian trading city of Genoa, was trained in Mediterranean sailing and exposed to the navigational and map-making techniques of Mediterranean maritime trade. In fact, it was these maps that convinced him that China could be reached by sailing west. He never found China but did manage to locate something else. I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of it.
Some of the world’s oldest settled civilizations developed roughly around the Mediterranean region. These societies mastered basic sailing techniques by the 3rd millennium BCE, and the Mediterranean Sea became the focus of international trade routes that exist to this day. In particular, the Phoenicians helped propel this along. They were a trading-based culture and were such prolific traders that their alphabet became the de facto language of international trade. Throughout ancient history, people exchanged ideas, products, and people over these routes, at times engaging in trade networks that stretched into Asia.
After the Mongol Empire, which was the largest empire in recorded history formed and led by Genghis Khan, united Asia in the 13th century, the Mediterranean region was directly connected to Asia through overland and maritime routes connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, then the Indian Ocean, and then China. Europe became tremendously wealthy, helping lead to the Italian Renaissance, which saw the growth of education, art, and philosophy that redefined European culture.
However, a century later, the Mongol Empire collapsed and the Silk Roads, which were the trading routes that connected Europe to Asia closed. Using the sailing, shipbuilding – particularly the caravel, the first ship that could sail in completely open waters – map-making, and navigational techniques learned from the exchange of ideas between Mediterranean, Christian, and Islamic kingdoms, sailors began expanding into the Atlantic Ocean. The rest, as they say, is history.