The Mediterranean is a small sea, yet it is mythologically vast. Odysseus wandered it for ten years before finding his way back to Ithaca from the fallen city of Troy. Various attempts to plot his movements on modern maps make his criss-crossings look slightly ridiculous, as if they were caused not by capricious gods but by a drunk steersman.
The Mediterranean must have seemed vast to the ancient Greeks, as it did to Dante, who writes of Odysseus’ final adventure, past the Pillars of Herakles – that is to say, the Strait of Gibraltar – and into the Atlantic, the great unknown. It is a brief adventure, for the ocean swallows them in short order: transgressing that geographical limit means stepping out of history, culture and life itself.
Recent studies indicate that the Greeks, the Phoenicians and the Romans, rather than being limited to hugging the coastline in search of visual points of reference and swift shelter from the storms, were in fact perfectly capable of navigating on the open sea as well as by night, using the stars. But reading the Odyssey one still gets a vivid sense of what it might have felt like to live in a small world with more coastline than land, encircling the sea. This was their universe, with its inward horizon placed like a bullseye somewhere between the coasts of Northern Africa and Greece or Italy.
In the Odyssey, the sea is a source of prodigy and danger but above all it’s the space between the places, and the force the pushes the hero from one to the other. Had he really been that smart, Odysseus might have figured out that he was better off walking to the Greek port nearest to Ithaca. Instead, after each adventure, he let himself and his crew be taken by the waters to a random destination chosen by the gods.
The sea in the Odyssey, then, stands for both fate and myth. The myth part is what transforms real places that Homer’s audience might have heard of into imaginary ones. Thus Scylla and Carybdes, the rocks and the tumultuous waves that guard the strait between Sicily and Calabria, are fittingly reshaped into monsters, and Cumae, near Naples, where the sulphur rises from the earth, becomes the gateway to the underworld. As for the fate part, in the case of the Odyssey it’s never in much doubt. There will be but one survivor.
The Mediterranean is a small sea and just like everyone else I struggle to fathom how hundreds of people could be lost there at a time, attempting to make a crossing of little over 100 hundred miles. As if we lived again in ancient times, fate has become bound for would-be migrants and refugees in the names of ordinary towns and islands in foreign lands. Like Lampedusa, which in my childhood was a tourist destination known for its landscape and its beaches, and hadn’t yet become what it is today: a garrison and a morgue.
We have modern navigation, aerial reconnaissance and the technology to build safe vessels. So how did we turn this small sea back into a place of almost unimaginable danger? The boats on which the migrants are transported aren’t real boats, in part because if they were, they could be turned away. They are lighters, flatboats, wrecks before they even leave the port. They are designed to hopefully get through, hopefully unseen, and often lack the basic means of calling for help. And so two years ago 300 migrants died within sight of Lampedusa when they lit a fire on the boat to attract rescuers, and the boat went up in flames.
Then for a while there was Mare Nostrum, Latin for ‘our sea’, a search and rescue operation designed to reduce migrant deaths and given an ancient name, as if to hark back to a time when the continent still aspired to civilisation. But the operation was never meant to last longer than a year, its costs being both economic and political, and so it was dutifully discontinued last September. Now this week, with six-seven hundred freshly dead – we cannot even count them – the same political forces that marched against that small humanitarian effort have called for a naval blockade.
Thirty centuries of progress, both technical and human, have been wound back by globalisation, war and the vanishing aspirations of our politics. This is what has made our small sea vast again, and impossible by design to safeguard or control: a barrier between worlds to be crossed at one’s peril.