ORB Online Encyclopedia
Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue
Section 1: The Inland Sea
To properly understand the significance of the Mediterranean, and the culture that grew up around it in ancient times, we must reject any lingering idea we may have that Mediterranean history is European -- or at least exclusively European -- history. The "Mediterranean" sea is the sea within the lands, between Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Mediterranean is important because it is a highway between these three continents. Throughout our period, the area which we now call "the Middle East" Southwest Asia and Egypt, the richest of African countries in antiquity supported cultures that were far more populous and prosperous than those of Europe. The great religious movements started here; the most powerful rulers were located here. Southwest Asia and Egypt are the oldest homes of urban life ("civilization"). Between A.D. 300 and 700 these areas continued to be among the most urbanized parts of the world. Their cities were economic and cultural powers, and exercised a great deal of influence on areas to the north and west. And more -- this area connected Europe to the Indian Ocean, around which most of the world's population lived. The ancient and medieval geographers who put Europe to one side, and Jerusalem and the Nile in the center were reflecting an important reality.
The connection of the Mediterranean basin with Southwest Asia and Egypt is close and old. Urbanization, a style of life based on large settlements that support a specialized artisan population and that trade with each other, originated here before 3000 B.C. (perhaps much earlier). After 800 B.C. Greek and Phoenician traders and colonists created an urban network that took in the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea, integrating their shores with the older urbanized lands of Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt. The network thrived, the cities at its nodes grew; they became the economic infrastructure that made the Roman empire possible.
Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.