Felipe Fernandez-Armesto at Literary Review:
It took four thousand years for what the author calls ‘the two faces of peninsular Western Europe’ to come together. The evidence for how it happened forms mazes and deserts – sometimes bafflingly dense and convoluted, sometimes maddeningly barren and desolate. Cunliffe finds his way through these with skill. Like a searchlight operator, he switches focus continually, highlighting each sea alternately in vivid flashes or, at times, in sustained glare. He starts in the remotest period of antiquity about which speculation is worthwhile and is surely right to say that ‘seafaring was a fact of life’ in the Palaeolithic era. He shows how, from the sixth to the second millennium BC, there was more cultural traffic from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean than the other way round, plotting distributions of megaliths and bell beakers to demonstrate this. He welcomes us aboard with the merchants of Samos and Byblos who sailed to Tartessos – the El Dorado of antiquity – in the first millennium BC. He evokes the doggedness with which Roman generals overcame their men’s distaste for the sea to conquer Carthage and dominate the Atlantic littoral. He turns the comings and goings of medieval shipping into a coherent story. Finally, when his narrative reaches the end of what we conventionally call the Middle Ages, when Latin Christendom was functioning, albeit imperfectly, on both sides of the European watershed, Cunliffe points us towards Europe’s transatlantic expansion and the creation of an Atlantic world.
Along the way, he chronicles the transformation of Europeans’ perceptions of the Atlantic. Among early explorers it was a ‘journey’ or ‘a place for forgetting’. To peregrinatory Irish anchorites of the early Middle Ages, ‘the Western Sea was their desert’. By the end of the story, after Columbus had demonstrated the viability of commercially exploitable routes to and fro across the ocean, the Atlantic had become a ‘destination’. The space available for monsters and mythopoeia shifted westward to the New World.