David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.

Are all great civilisations doomed?

To quote Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, ‘We’re doomed, doomed!’ That seems to be the message of Paul Cooper’s eminently readable series of essays about how and why 14 civilisations rose to greatness and then collapsed. He begins with the Sumerians in the fourth millennium BC, at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, and

A wealth of knowledge salvaged from shipwrecks

The flow of histories of the world, or parts of it, in a bundle of items never ceases, 12 years after Neil MacGregor presented world history through 100 objects from the British Museum. Many of these were of unknown provenance and therefore disconnected from their original context. By contrast, world history built around shipwrecks offers

The danger of returning the Ghanaian ‘Crown Jewels’

I put the case in last week’s Spectator that museums in this country have been gripped by a sort of infectious madness. Since I wrote that article the number of cases of museumitis has piled up further, and there are worrying signs that the infection is spreading into Europe. It has been announced that 32

Does it matter if Hannibal is played by a black man?

It is becoming a familiar conundrum: whether to employ actors who match the ethnicity of the person they are portraying. Helen Mirren made the mistake of playing Golda Meir in a truly dreadful new film. The real mistake there was not the use of a non-Jewish actress, as some have complained, but the appalling quality

Was the Black Death racist?

Even the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, we are now being told, practised racial discrimination as it raged through Europe wiping out maybe half of the existing population. The new idea is that black people were more likely to die from the plague than white ones. The ‘evidence’ presented by an American researcher and

Tracey Emin and the problem with museum trustees

The Royal Academy has nominated Tracey Emin to be a trustee of the British Museum. There is quite a fanfare about the appointment – she is the first female artist to join the Board. Emin’s ability to shock and to push at the boundaries of what might be considered art, often invoking her own sex life,

Remembering Dido – and the fate of Carthage

It is a curious fact that between the foundation of Tunis by the Arabs in the 7th century and the foundation of Tel Aviv in the early 20th century no major cities were created on the shores of the Mediterranean. Even those cities were not quite new: Tunis, as Katherine Pangonis points out, was partly

Our future life on Earth depends on the state of the ocean

When we observe the ocean we rarely peek beneath its surface. As Helen Czerski shows in her lively and engrossing account of the physics of ocean spaces, we would not see much anyway. Sounds travel well in water, and blue whales talk to one another across thousands of miles; but light soon disappears, apart from

Why is Netflix pretending that Cleopatra was black?

‘I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’ So asserts a trailer for a new Netflix ‘docuseries’ looking at the lives of powerful women in history. Alas for the speaker, an American of African descent, her grandmother’s idea of historical truth was highly subjective.

Was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother a slave?

There is great excitement in Italy, which has spilled over into the British press: Carlo Vecce, a professor from Naples, has discovered documents in the archives of Florence that appear to indicate that Caterina, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, was a baptised slave who had been brought all the way to Tuscany from the

Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel is no place for solar panels

If Cambridge colleges were entitled to register protected characteristics, there is no doubt what they would be in the case of King’s College. Announcing the election of Dr Gillian Tett (currently at the FT) as the next Provost, the current Provost of King’s, Mike Proctor, has described the college as ‘this vibrant and forward-looking institution’.

Harry isn’t the first rebellious ‘spare’

A historian should feel a strong sense of déjà vu on reading about Prince Harry’s rebellion against his family. Rebellious ‘spares’ are a constant feature of English history since at least 1066. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s characteristically vivid new book The World: A Family History offers plenty of gory examples from ancient Egypt, medieval China and

The truth about getting into Oxbridge

Liz Truss suggests that all students who score straight A*s at A-level should be interviewed by Oxford or Cambridge. They, and their parents, might well wonder why they would not be summoned for an interview if they can achieve such impressive results. But it’s not that simple. Post-A-level candidates are much fewer in number than