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The Rise of Seapower

Andrew Lambert

Seapower, a distinctive socio-political response to unique circumstances, emerged in the eastern Mediterranean between 2000 and 500 BC. Sea cities evolved to service the resource demands of great land-locked powers: Egypt, Anatolia and above all Mesopotamia. Sailing ships moved timber and metals over increasing distances. Insular Tyre, the ultimate sea city, relied on the sea for security and wealth. By 1000 BC these networks were expanding westward, to Sicily, Sardinia and the Atlantic coast, to obtain scarce metals. These trades made the sea worth controlling, and they facilitated cultural exchange between traders and suppliers. Trade required a degree of security from predation, by rival states or pirates, which became core missions for sea states, and a key point of distinction between them and land states. Merchants transformed the Mediterranean, operating from cities on or near the coast, dominated by artificial harbour structures and marketplaces. Sea empires were created to control and tax trade, in order to fund maritime security. Making the sea a controlled space and legislating for exclusive state control turned predators into pirates, and dealing with this threat gave sea states internal political legitimacy. Specialist, standing navies were funded by reconstructing the state as a tax-raising, increasingly inclusive polity. The constabulary force that dealt with pirates could be expanded to deny vital sea routes to rival states. The instrument of that transformation was the trireme, the defining motif of ancient seapower. By contrast, autocratic continental empires generally ignored the economic problem of piracy, using naval power to suppress seapower states and project their military might.

While many cities and states were active at sea, dominion over the ocean was of limited strategic significance until control of the sea could be sustained. The great powers of the Bronze Age, continental land empires operating on the same land mass, settled their differences at key terrestrial communication hubs. Sea power could not be a serious strategic choice until important states were separated by significant bodies of water and navies were capable of controlling them, stopping economic activity and the movement of armies by sea. Consequently seapower identities were only suitable for small, weak states that could secure an asymmetric advantage by focusing on the sea.

The politics of sea states evolved as trade expanded. Bronze Age palace cultures were replaced by less formal structures, dominated by elite groups having ‘strong mercantile interests’. Trade escaped the control of cities and states, which had to compete for a share of the taxes of an unruly offshore world. Sea culture impacted land powers, the hitherto static continental Egyptians shifting their capital north into the Nile Delta on several occasions. When Alexander the Great established a new coastal capital he emphasised Egypt’s belated integration into the wider Mediterranean world. Shifting the capital back to riverine Cairo after the Arab conquest marked another significant cultural shift – from Mediterranean to Middle Eastern state. Dynamic maritime cultures prompted alphabetic writing, and reduced the regional languages to Greek, Punic, Aramaic and Latin.

Sea power became a serious strategic force in the fifth century BC, as Carthage and Athens built seapower empires, ‘superbly adapted to, and successfully exploitative of, the Mediterranean’s attributes and rhythms’. Both harnessed specific combinations of internal and external opportunity, while their popular government and wealth prompted a fatal combination of fear and envy in land powers. Ultimately the sequence of conflicts that stretched from Salamis in 480 to the annihilation of Carthage in 146 BC transformed the Mediterranean into a single political and economic unit, linked by sea trade, but controlled by Roman Continental Imperialism, which swept aside all rivals – by sea as well as land.

Sea-based cultures and forms of representative government overcame the opposition of larger, more populous river-based theocracies, with their unchanging cycles of flood and harvest, because they offered hope, and above all progress – both intellectual and material. People made new lives in port cities. The Greeks came to dominate the cultural dimension, transmitting their dynamic, inclusive thinking through an alphabetic language, sea trade and success in war, shaping the great western powers, Rome and Carthage. The key lay in the creation of civic political authority, and a shared ‘Greek’ resistance to the imposition of a Persian monoculture. At its beating heart seapower was a response to the challenge of expanding maritime trade systems in a precarious world, one that existed at the whim of vast, static continental/military cultures.

From Seapower States by Andrew Lambert. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College London, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


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