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The Ancient Sailing Season, by James Beresford

Leiden/Boston: E.J. Brill, 2013. Pp. xvi, 364. Illus., maps, diagr., tables, notes, biblio., index. $182.00. ISBN: 9004223525.

The Complexities of Maritime Travel in the Ancient World

This work takes a look at one of the most important constants of ancient navigation, the “sailing season.”  By tradition, ancient sailors went to sea only between the onset of Spring to the setting of the Pleiades.  In this work, Prof. Beresford  (Lahore) subjects that idea to a very close examination. 

Beresford reviews ancient sources that directly discuss the sailing season, including not only Greek and Latin, but Hebrew texts as well.  He also analyzes histories that mention voyages in passing to elicit details of maritime travel, in both peace and war, to gather more evidence on the subject.  Beresford follows this documentary search with an examination of  post-Roman information, from the anecdotal to the scientific, on the “Mediterranean Climatic Regime.” 

Beresford next looks at the ships of the times, using literary sources supplemented by sea trials of modern reproductions, such as the Greek trireme Olympias.  This yields some surprises, most notably that ancient vessels were more able to sail into the wind than has generally been believed.  There follow accounts of the nature of ancient seamanship and the differences between sailing on the Mediterranean and on the Indian Ocean.  A final chapter looks at two groups with special maritime skills, pirates and fisherman. 

This work is essential for anyone interested in navigation, commerce, or war in the ancient world, and particularly for those interested in the Mediterranean, because “sailing strategies have remained all but unchanged” in the in region across the centuries. 

Note:  The Ancient Sailing Season is also available as an e-book, ISBN 978-9-0042-4194-7.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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