Historical overview

Humans have been sailing the seas for at least 50 000 years, progressively migrating to all of the world’s islands, but no archaeological remains of Prehistoric navigation before 8000 BC have been found so far[0].

The Mediterranean Sea has been sailed for millennia since Prehistoric times, the Bronze Age, Greek and Roman times, with a climax in the first centuries of the Common Era.
As far as archaic seagoing shipping is concerned, Egyptian rulers have been sailing during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3300-2100 BC)[1]. In the Gulf, Mesopotanians were sailing to the Indus valley and to East Africa, via Dilmun (Bahrain) and Magan (Oman)[2].

Minoans from Crete were probably the first “professional” seafarers sailing internationally in the Mediterranean area. This spanned, in round figures, the period between 2000 BC and 1500 BC.

From 1500 BC to 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans ruled the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean as illustrated by Homer’s later epic on Achaeans fighting the Trojan War[3], while the Egyptians were still sailing on the Nile and on the Red Sea, and we know of Hatshepsut’s sailing from Myos Hormos on the Red Sea to the Land of Punt (ca. 1450 BC) and of Rameses III’s naval battle near Pelusion on the Nile against foreign invaders (1178 BC).

The Bronze Age ended around 1200 BC, when the Iron Age started with long “Greek Dark Ages” in Greece (1200-800 BC) corresponding to a Phoenician climax (Carthage was founded in 814 BC, but Byblos was already a trade port in the 3rd millenium BC). This was followed by a Greek revival called “Greek Archaic Period” (800-500 BC) and by the beter known “Greek Classical Period” (500-323 BC), the “Hellenistic Period” (323-31 BC) and the Roman period[4].

At the end of the Roman Empire (476 AD), it was western Europe that had its “Dark Ages”, for say five centuries, during which everything had to be rebuilt in the western Mediterranean … while the Arabs were over-active in the Indian Ocean.

And after that, came the Vikings

Finally, if you would like to read a recently published overview on ancient ports, I recommend Arnaud (2016) [5], Marriner (2017) [6], and Morhange (2016) [7]. For a complete overview on ancient seafaring, see Danny Lee Davis (2009) [8]. For a history of the ancient Mediterranean, see David Abulafia (2014) [9].


[0] PHILIPPE, M., 2018, “Un état des connaissances sur la navigation préhistorique en Europe atlantique”, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 115, 3, (p 567-597).
[1] MARCUS, E., 2002, “Early Seafaring and Maritime Activity in the southern Levant from Prehistory through the Third Millenium BCE”, in van den Brink & Levy eds, Egypt and the Levant, interrelations from the 4th through the Early 3rd millenium BCE, New approaches to Anthropological Archaeology, (p 403-417).
See also Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneferu & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahure
[2] POTTS, D., 2016, “Cultural, economic and political relations between Mesopotamia, the Gulf region and India before Alexander”, in Megasthenes and His Time, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, (p 109-118).
[3] Achaeans were also called Argives (or Danaans) by Homer, and Ahhiyawans by the Hittites and Ekwesh (or Denyen or Tanaju) by the Egyptians; today they are called ‘Mycenaeans’.
[4] For a superb overview of the Roman history, have a look at: BADEL, C. & INGLEBERT, H., 2014, “Grand Atlas de l’Antiquité romaine – Construction, apogée et fin d’un empire”, éd. Autrement, Paris, (191 p).
For Greek history, see: MARTINEZ-SEVE, L., & RICHER, N., 2019, “Grand Atlas de l’Antiquité grecque classique et hellénistique”, éd. Autrement, Paris, (191 p).
[5] ARNAUD, P., 2016, “Les infrastructures portuaires antiques”, in The Sea in History: The Ancient World – La Mer dans l’Histoire: L’Antiquité, General editor Christian Buchet, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.
[6] MARRINER, N., et al., “Harbors and ports, ancient”, 2017, A. S. Gilbert (ed.), Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, (p 382-403).
[7] MORHANGE, C., et al., 2016, “The eco-history of ancient Mediterranean harbours”, in The Inland Seas, Towards an Ecohistory of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, T. Bekker-Nielsen et R. Gertwagen (eds.), Verlag, (p 85-106).
[8] DANNY LEE DAVIS, 2009, “Commercial Navigation in the Greek and Roman World”, PhD thesis, University of Texas, Austin, (359 p).
[9] ABULAFIA, D., 2014, “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean”, Penguin Books, (943p).