The Mediterranean Sea is the most significant geographical feature of southern Europe, the region that includes present-day Italy, Spain, and France. Greece, Turkey, and the other nations of the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa all have borders on or near the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome developed around the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient Romans were so proud and possessive of this body of water that they called it mare nostrum, which means “our sea.”

The Mediterranean Sea covers an area of about 970,000 square miles. Almost completely surrounded by land, it is an inland sea. It extends for about 2,232 miles eastward from the Strait of Gibraltar (separating Spain and Morocco) to the Levantine coast (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Sinai Peninsula). It reaches 680 miles from the northern end of the Adriatic Sea—an arm of the Mediterranean—to the coast of Libya in northern Africa. The average depth of the Mediterranean is about 4,920 feet.

The Mediterranean Sea is divided by the Strait of Sicily into western and eastern basins, or depressions in the earth’s surface that are filled by the ocean. These basins are dotted with numerous islands. The largest island in the Mediterranean is Sicily, which is located off the boot tip of the Italian peninsula. The major islands in the western basin are Sardinia, Corsica, and Majorca. Islands in the eastern basin include Cyprus and Crete, as well as the smaller island of Malta. The Aegean Sea, an eastern arm of the Mediterranean, contains hundreds of islands, the largest of which are Lesbos, Rhodes, Chios, and Samos.

Water from the Atlantic Ocean flows into the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Nile River, the longest in the world, flows through Egypt into the Mediterranean from its headwaters in Africa. The Ebro River (in Spain) and the Rhone (in France) also flow into the Mediterranean Sea. In Italy, both the Tiber River, which goes through Rome, and the Arno flow into the Mediterranean Sea.

The numerous inlets and bays of the Mediterranean coastline led to the development of transport and trade from earliest times. Both the Greeks and Romans used the Mediterranean Sea as a waterway for the shipment of grain, wine, olive oil, and other products. Early ship captains learned how to sail their galleys* through the sea’s unpredictable and often stormy waters. They raised their square sails when winds blew fair. Greek and Roman shippers tried to limit their activity to the period from late spring to early fall, when the weather was most settled and seas were generally calm. Shipping did not stop in the winter, however; it only slowed down.

The main purpose of Mediterranean shipping in ancient times was to transport cargo, not passengers. Ancient cargoes included fish sauce, olives, nuts, and honey, in addition to sacks of grain and jugs of wine and olive oil. Stone was the most difficult cargo to handle. It had to be moved by means of wagons, rollers, and ramps from quarries* in Africa and elsewhere to barges and then onto ships. Clay jars containing wine and oil also presented problems to ancient shippers. The fragile jars—standing more than three feet Kill and weighing about 50 pounds each—could be broken during loading and unloading or from being tossed about during a storm. Harbors dotted the Mediterranean coastline. Among the busiest and most famous of these were Delos in Greece, Alexandria in Egypt, and Ostia near Rome.

* galley large, open ship, propelled chiefly by oars, that was used for war and commerce throughout the ancient Mediterranean; Roman galleys also used sails


Travel across the Mediterranean was slow in ancient times. The prevailing winds, blowing from north to south, made travel in that direction the quickest. The voyage from Neapolis (Naples) to Alexandria on the coast of Egypt—about 1,000 nautical miles—took about nine days. The return trip might have taken as long as two months. On the return trip, ships had to sail all around the Mediterranean coast in search of a wind strong enough to fill their sails.

The numerous ships going across and around the Mediterranean Sea were easy prey for pirates. Piracy began as another way for poor people in coastal villages to make a living, but it soon developed into a full-scale industry. Pirates were aided by the many coves and out-of-the-way bays of the Mediterranean that were ideal for hiding out and preparing for ambush. Throughout the ancient world, piracy was regularly surpressed by various governments. The most famous enemies of pirates were the Romans. Such leaders as Julius Caesar and Pompey made names for themselves by successfully eliminating this scourge of the sea. (See also Quarries; Ships and Shipbuilding; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)

* quarry open pit from which stone is removed

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