The Ancient Sea

BookThe Ancient Sea

The Ancient Sea

The Utopian and Catastrophic in Classical Narratives and their Reception


December 1st, 2022





In the ancient Mediterranean world, the sea was an essential domain for trade, cultural exchange, communication, exploration, and colonisation. In tandem with the lived reality of this maritime space, a parallel experience of the sea emerged in narrative representations from ancient Greece and Rome, of the sea as a cultural imaginary. This imaginary seems often to oscillate between two extremes: the utopian and the catastrophic; such representations can be found in narratives from ancient history, philosophy, society, and literature, as well as in their post-classical receptions.

Utopia can be found in some imaginary island paradise far away and across the distant sea; the sea can hold an unknown, mysterious, divine wealth below its surface; and the sea itself as a powerful watery body can hold a liberating potential. The utopian quality of the sea and seafaring can become a powerful metaphor for articulating political notions of the ideal state or for expressing an individual’s sense of hope and subjectivity. Yet the catastrophic sea balances any perfective imaginings: the sea threatens coastal inhabitants with floods, tsunamis, and earthquakes and sailors with storms and the accompanying monsters. From symbolic perspectives, the catastrophic sea represents violence, instability, the savage, and even cosmological chaos.

The thirteen papers in this volume explore the themes of utopia and catastrophe in the liminal environment of the sea, through the lens of history, philosophy, literature and classical reception.

Contributors: Manuel Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar, Vilius Bartninkas, Aaron L. Beek, Ross Clare, Gabriele Cornelli, Isaia Crosson, Ryan Denson, Rhiannon Easterbrook, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Georgia L. Irby, Simona Martorana, Guy Middleton, Hamish Williams.

Author Information

Hamish Williams is Junior Fellow at the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, Warsaw and Lecturer at the University of Groningen. His publications include (ed.) Ross Clare is an independent scholar and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool. He specializes in the study of antiquity in popular culture, particularly video games, film and television, and science fiction and fantasy. He is the author of Ancient Greece and Rome in Videogames: Representation, Play, Transmedia (Bloomsbury 2021).

Table of Contents

Section TitlePage
Introduction (Hamish Williams and Ross Clare)
Section 1: Ancient History and Society
From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea: Tsunamis and Coastal Catastrophes in the Ancient Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean (Guy Middleton)
The Greek Notions of Sea Power (Vilius Bartninkas)
Plato Sailing Upstream: The Image of the Ship in the Republic (Gabriele Cornelli)
Sailing to Find Utopia or Sailing to Found Utopia? The Pragmatic and Idealistic Pursuit of Ideal Cities in Greek and Roman Political Philosophy (Aaron L. Beek)
Ruling the Catastrophic Sea: Roman Law and the Gains of a Utopic Mediterranean (Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz)
Section 2: Ancient Literature
The Seas are Full of Monsters: Divine Utopia, Human Catastrophe (Georgia L. Irby)
Order Among Disorder: Poseidon’s Underwater Kingdom and Utopic Marine Environments (Ryan Denson)
The Women and the Sea: The Subjective Seascape in Ovid’s Heroides (Simona Martorana)
The Anti-Tyrannical Adriatic in Lucan’s Civil War (Isaia Crosson)
Section 3: Classical Receptions
How to Detain a Tsunami: Impassable Boundaries against Ocean Chaos in Ancient and Modern Imaginaries (Manuel Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar)
Classical Dimensions of the Robinsonade Pantomime: Neptune, Aphrodite, and the Threat to Civilization (Rhiannon Easterbrook)
Minoan Utopias in British Fiction, after the Thalassocracy: Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth and Robert Graves’ Seven Days in New Crete (Hamish Williams)