The Sea and Civilization

The Sea and Civilization

A Maritime History of the World

Book - 2013
Average Rating:
Rate this:

A monumental retelling of world history through the lens of maritime enterprise, revealing in breathtaking depth how people first came into contact with one another by ocean and river, lake and stream, and how goods, languages, religions, and entire cultures spread across and along the world's waterways, bringing together civilizations and defining what makes us most human. 

Lincoln Paine takes us back to the origins of long-distance migration by sea with our ancestors' first forays from Africa and Eurasia to Australia and the Americas. He demonstrates the critical role of maritime trade to the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. He reacquaints us with the great seafaring cultures of antiquity like those of the Phoenicians and Greeks, as well as those of India and Southeast and East Asia, who parlayed their navigational skills, shipbuilding techniques, and commercial acumen to establish thriving overseas colonies and trade routes in the centuries leading up to the age of European expansion. And finally, his narrative traces how commercial shipping and naval warfare brought about the enormous demographic, cultural, and political changes that have globalized the world throughout the post-Cold War era.

This tremendously readable intellectual adventure shows us the world in a new light, in which the sea reigns supreme. We find out how a once-enslaved East African king brought Islam to his people, what the American "sail-around territories" were, and what the Song Dynasty did with twenty-wheel, human-powered paddleboats with twenty paddle wheels and up to three hundred crew. Above all, Paine makes clear how the rise and fall of civilizations can be linked to the sea. An accomplishment of both great sweep and illuminating detail, The Sea and Civilization is a stunning work of history.

Publisher: New York : Knopf, 2013.
Edition: First Edition.
ISBN: 9781400044092
Characteristics: xxxv, 744 pages, 16 pages of unnumbered plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Feb 02, 2018

I'm usually a quick reader, but this nearly 600 page book (if you don't count the notes and bibliography) is densely packed with information. Reading two chapters in one day was an accomplishment. This is in no way a criticism of Paine's writing style: he balances "the long view" with a detailed understanding of every period he writes about, and he's not without humor. It's just that this is a big subject, and it's difficult to race through it.

I picked this up because I wanted to understand naval history, but "maritime history of the world" is the perfect description. Yes, there's extensive information about naval strategy and tactics, as well as important battles and wars, during different periods of history, but there's even more on trade relationships and the politics that informed them, as well as pages of descriptions about various ship design philosophies and manufacturing techniques. And while most of this volume does center on Asia, Europe, and Africa, Paine also writes about Oceania and the sea faring people who lived there. I'm in awe of the etak navigation system used by the Polynesians, and even more so because that system was passed down for generations without writing.

"Trade" includes slavery early on, and Paine uses each opportunity to lay out the graphic horrors endured by all people sold as property. African slaves suffered horrible treatment over longer distances than other groups, but descriptions of slaves shipped from the Byzantine empire centuries before would have been preferable only because of the shorter trip. Until the early 20th century, many people willingly emigrating by ship also found the ship conditions to be, at best, unsanitary and crowded and, at worst, deadly.

While modern navies boast sophisticated weapons and power systems that couldn't have been conceived a century before, the real maritime story of the 21st century thus far is that of trade. The container shipping paradigm has allowed global trade to grow exponentially, but this isn't something that sticks in the popular consciousness because the design of the ships and the shipping facilities demands an isolation unheard of in famous port towns like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, to name only a few. Not surprisingly, this has had an effect on employment and working conditions, as has the practice of sailing under "ships of convenience".

I am only scratching the surface of what you will find in this book. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in history, especially world history.

Sep 18, 2017

A big slab of a book... and as thorough as can be expected from single volume treatment of a huge topic. Each chapter is self-contained and and the style is rather didactic, like one is being talked at rather than drawn in. There are many maps, and they are all at the beginning so that the reader must keep flipping back the front to see where the places are that are being referred to (it becomes a chore by the time one is halfway through the book); it didn't help that the written part did not explicitly refer to a particular map nor that the places referred to in the text sometimes had no corresponding label on the map. There was also no glossary nor diagrams of ships so as to help one understand the ship-related terminology.

Dec 14, 2013

This is a big read and I certainly could not finish it in one session of borrowing. I read a portion for research, and will buy the book in order to read it in its entirety. It is an excellent book, well thought out and organized, but it is big!


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at CPL

To Top