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The Ocean of Mount Atlas: Atlantic History and/in the Ancient World

Nicholas Purcell

University of Oxford

The counterpointing of Mediterranean and Atlantic histories is a natural corollary of the particular trajectory of European power in the world from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and it has gained authority and fame from the contribution of Fernand Braudel to the theory and practice of both Mediterranean history and its supplanting by a new Atlantic order. The substitution of a world of Atlantic exploration, exploitation, economic innovation, warfare, and imperialism for the older centralities of the Mediterranean basin has been central to mainstream grand narratives of European (later “Western”) economic and political domination and the marginalisation of the Moslem world. “Mediterranean to Oceanic” is a microcosm of such narratives.

At the same time, many crucial aspects of the formation of the Atlantic world are rightly seen as continuations on an oceanic scale of historical formations characteristic of the Mediterranean, as has been said both of ecologically devastating landscape-practices and the slave-trade. Oceans, and especially the Atlantic, have thus become implicated in self-regarding and critical histories of European global power, and have come to stand for certain sorts of economic and colonial success. They lend themselves to the rhetoric of scale and efficiency.

The worlds on which ancient historians work have to include the Atlantic façades of the European peninsula and the Maghreb. The historiography of later periods raises significant challenges for how we do this, which are complicated by the ways in which that historiography was itself shaped in part by ancient literary texts, such as Caesar and Strabo, which themselves propose certain schematic differences between Mediterranean and oceanic spaces, societies, and cultures. The place of “Phoenicians” in the ancient history of Mediterranean-Atlantic interaction is especially complicated, bridging the gap as it does between African and European sections of the north Atlantic littoral.

This paper aims at contextualising ancient accounts of the Atlantic, in two broad ways, both informed by new directions in maritime and very large-scale history over the last years. The first takes its cue from ancient ocean theory and looks at the Atlantic alongside the other oceanic space which it falls to ancient history to examine, the Indian Ocean. The second builds on the “micro-global” theory of recent years to investigate the actual movements of people and things in and around the ocean-Mediterranean interface “from below.” In both cases the comparative approach may help offset the schematisms of the larger dichotomy between different strands of thalassology, and help immunize against certain sorts of Atlantic exceptionalism. 

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New Perspectives on the Atlantic Facade of the Roman World

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