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A fresco from the Minoan town at Akrotiri showing the port town, the harbor, and ships. Minoan civilization is an example of an ancient thalassocracy. Their fleets dominated the Aegean, colonizing many locations, but not moving inland. This topic is covered under Political economy, which falls under Political science Akrotiri minoan town.jpg
A fresco from the Minoan town at Akrotiri showing the port town, the harbor, and ships. Minoan civilization is an example of an ancient thalassocracy. Their fleets dominated the Aegean, colonizing many locations, but not moving inland. This topic is covered under Political economy, which falls under Political science

A thalassocracy or thalattocracy [1] sometimes also maritime empire, is a state with primarily maritime realms, an empire at sea, or a seaborne empire. [2] Traditional thalassocracies seldom dominate interiors, even in their home territories. Examples of this were the Phoenician states of Tyre, Sidon and Carthage, and the Italian maritime republics of Venice and Genoa of the Mediterranean; the Chola dynasty of Tamilakam and the Austronesian states of Srivijaya, the Omani Empire and Majapahit of Maritime Southeast Asia. Thalassocracies can thus be distinguished from traditional empires, where a state's territories, though possibly linked principally or solely by the sea lanes, generally extend into mainland interiors [3] [4] in a tellurocracy ("land-based hegemony"). [5]


The term thalassocracy can also simply refer to naval supremacy, in either military or commercial senses. The Ancient Greeks first used the word thalassocracy to describe the government of the Minoan civilization, whose power depended on its navy. [6] Herodotus distinguishes sea-power from land-power and spoke of the need to counter the Phoenician thalassocracy by developing a Greek "empire of the sea". [7]

Its realization and ideological construct is called maritimism (as in the case of the Estado Novo), contrasting continentalism.

History and examples of thalassocracies

Mediterranean region in the Classical era

Thalassocracy was a new word in the theories of the late 19th century, from which some conclude it was a scholarly innovation of the times. It was rather a resurrection of a word known from a very specific classical document, which Myres calls “the List of Thalassocracies.” It occurs in the Chronicon of Eusebius, the early 4th century Bishop of Caesarea Maritima, the ruins now in Israel. [8] In Eusebius, the list is a separate chronology. Jerome, 4th-century theologian and historian, creator of the Vulgate, interspersed the same items, translated into Latin, in his Chronicon of world events. [9]

The items contain the words “obtinuerunt mare,” strictly speaking, “obtained the sea,” and not “hold sea power,” although the latter meaning may be implied as a result. Just as Jerome utilized the chronology of Eusebius, so Eusebius utilized the chronology of Castor of Rhodes, a 1st-century BC historian. His work has been entirely lost except for fragments, including his list of thalassocracies. A thousand years later, the Byzantine monk, George Syncellus, also used items from the list in his massive Extract of Chronography.

Over the centuries the realization grew that all these references to sea-power in the Aegean came from a single document, a resource now reflected in the fragments of those who relied on it. C Bunsen, whose translator was one of the first to use thalassocracy, attributed its discovery to the German scholar, Christian Gottlob Heyne. [10] In a short work composed in 1769, published in 1771, [11] Eusebius’ Chronicon being known at that time only through fragments in the two authors mentioned, Heyne reconstructed the list in their Greek and Latin (with uncanny accuracy), the whole title of the article being Super Castoris epochis populorum thalattokratesanton H.E. (hoc est) qui imperium maris tenuisse dicuntur, “About Castor's epochs of thalattocratizing peoples; that is, those who are said to have held the imperium over the sea.”

To thalattokratize is “to rule the sea,” not just to hold sea power like any other good fellow with a strong navy. The thalattokratizer holds the imperium over the watery domain just as if it were a country, which explains how such a people can “obtain” and “have” the sea. The list presented therefore is one of successive exclusive domains. No two peoples can hold the same domain or share rule over it, although they can operate under the authority of the thalassocrat, a privilege reserved for paying allies.

According to Bunsen, the discovery and translation of the Armenian version of Eusebius’ Chronicon changed the nature of the search for thalassocracy. It provided the original document, but there was a disclaimer attached, that it was in fact “an extract from the epitome of Diodorus,” meaning Diodorus Siculus, a 1st-century BC historian. The disclaimer cannot be verified, as that part of Diodorus’ work is missing, which, however, opens the argument to another question: if Eusebius could copy a standard source from Diodorus, why cannot Diodorus have copied it from someone else?

It is at this point that Myres picks up the argument. Noting that thalassokratesai, “be a thalassocrat,” meaning “rule the waves,” was used in a number of authors: elsewhere by Diodorus, by Polybius, 2nd century BC historian, of Carthage, of Chios by Strabo, 1st century BC geographer and some others, he supposes that the source document might have been available to them all (but not necessarily, the cautious Myres points out). [12] The document can be dated by its content: a list of 17 thalassocracies extending from the Lydian after the fall of Troy to the Aeginetan, which ended with the cession of power to Athens in 480 BC. The Battle of Salamis included 200 new Athenian triremes plus all the ships of its new ally, Aegina. Despite various revolts Aegina went on to become part of the Delian League, an imperial treaty of the new Athenian thalassocracy. Thucydides writes of it after 432 BC, but Herodotus, who visited Athens “as late as 444 B.C.” does not know a thing about it. This tentative date for the Eusebian list does not exclude the possibility of an earlier similar document used by Herodotus. [13]

Myres’ historical reconstruction of the list

The order of thalassocracies in the various versions of the list is nearly fixed, but the dates need considerable adjustment, which Myres sets about to reconcile through all historical sources available to him. He discovers some gaps. The solidest part of the list brackets the Ionian Revolt. The Milesian thalassocracy is dated 604-585 BC. It was ended by Alyattes of Lydia, founder of the Lydian Empire, who also fought against the Medes. The latter struggle was ended by the Eclipse of Thales at the Battle of the Halys River in 585 BC, when the combatants, interpreting the phenomenon as a sign, made peace. The Lydians were now free to turn on Miletus, which they did for the next 11 years, reducing it. When the Persians conquered Lydia in 547/546 they acquired the Ionian cities.

After 585 BC there is a gap in the list. Lesbos and one or more unknown thalassocrats held the sea in unknown order. [14] In 577 BC began the thalassocracy of Phocaea. Breaking out of its Anatolian cage, it founded Marseilles and cities in Spain and Italy, wresting a domain away from Carthage and all other opponents. [15] Their thalassocracy ended when, in the revolt of the Lydian Pactyas, who had been instructed to collect taxes by the Persians, but used them to raise an army of revolt, the Ionian cities were attacked by the Persians. The Phocaeans abandoned Phocaea about 534 BC and after much adventuring settled in the west.

The thalassocracy of Samos spans the career of the tyrant, Polycrates, there. [16] The dates of the tyrant are somewhat uncertain and variable, but at some time prior to 534 BC, he and his brothers staged a coup during a festival at Samos. Samos happened to have a large navy of pentekonters. Becoming a ship collector, he attacked and subdued all the neighbouring islands, adding their ships to his fleet. Finally he added a new model, the trireme. His reign came to an end about 517 BC when, taking up the Great King's invitation to a friendly banquet for a discussion of prospects, he was suddenly assassinated. There were no prospects.

However, if he had chosen not to attend, he was doomed anyway. Some of his trireme captains, learning of a devious plot by him to have them assassinated by Egyptian dignitaries while on official business, sailed to Sparta to beg help, which they received. The adventurous young king, Cleomenes I, was spared the trouble of killing Polycrates, but led an expedition to Samos anyway, taking the thalassocracy for two years, 517-515. Adventure and piracy not being activities approved by the Spartan people, they tagged him as insane and insisted he come home. [17] The sea was now available to Naxos, 515-505.


Austronesian proto-historic and historic maritime trade networks in the Indian Ocean Austronesian maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean.png
Austronesian proto-historic and historic maritime trade networks in the Indian Ocean

The Austronesian peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia developed the Indian Ocean's first true maritime trade network. [18] They established trade routes with Southern India and Sri Lanka as early as 1500 BC, ushering in an exchange of material culture (like catamarans, outrigger boats, lashed-lug and sewn-plank boats, and paan) and cultigens (like coconuts, sandalwood, bananas, and sugarcane); as well as connecting the material cultures of India and China. Indonesians in particular traded in spices (mainly cinnamon and cassia) with East Africa, using catamaran and outrigger boats and sailing with the help of the Westerlies in the Indian Ocean. This trade network expanded west to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar by the first half of the first millennium AD. It continued into historic times, later becoming the Maritime Silk Road. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]

The first thalassocracies in the Indo-Pacific region began to emerge around the 2nd century AD, through the rise of emporia exploiting the prosperous trade routes between Funan and India through the Malacca Strait using advanced Austronesian sailing technologies. Numerous coastal city-states emerged, centered on trading ports built near or around river mouths which allowed easy access to goods from inland for maritime trade. These city-states established commercial networks with other trading centers in Southeast Asia and beyond. Their rulers also gradually Indianized by adopting the social structures and religions of India to consolidate their power. [23]

The thalassocratic empire of Srivijaya emerged by the 7th century through conquest and subjugation of neighboring thalassocracies. These included Melayu, Kedah, Tarumanagara, and Mataram, among others. These polities controlled the sea lanes in Southeast Asia and exploited the spice trade of the Spice Islands, as well as maritime trade-routes between India and China. [23] Srivijaya was in turn subjugated by Singhasari around 1275, before finally being absorbed by the successor thalassocracy of Majapahit (1293–1527). [24]

Europe and the Mediterranean

Map and coats of arms of the maritime republics Le Repubbliche Marinare.jpg
Map and coats of arms of the maritime republics

Phoenicia and the Delian League were early examples of Mediterranean thalassocracies.

The Middle Ages saw multiple thalassocracies, often land-based empires which controlled areas of the sea, the best known of them were the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa and the Republic of Pisa; the others were: the Duchy of Amalfi, the Republic of Ancona, the Republic of Ragusa, the Duchy of Gaeta and the Republic of Noli. They were known as maritime republics, controlling trade and territories in the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. These contacts were not only commercial, but also cultural and artistic. They also had an essential role in the Crusades. [25] [26] [27]

The Venetian republic was conventionally divided in the fifteenth century into the Dogado of Venice and the Lagoon, the Stato di Terraferma of Venetian holdings in northern Italy, and the Stato da Màr of the Venetian outlands bound by the sea. According to the French historian Fernand Braudel, Venice was a scattered empire, a trading-post empire forming a long capitalist antenna. [28]

From the 12th to the 15th century the Genoese Republic had the monopoly on the Western Mediterranean trade, establishing colonies and trading posts in numerous countries, and eventually came to control regions in the Black Sea as well. It was also one of the largest naval powers of Europe during the Late Middle Ages. [25] [29]

The Early Middle Ages (c. 500–1000 AD) saw many of the coastal cities of Southern Italy develop into minor thalassocracies whose chief powers lay in their ports and in their ability to sail navies to defend friendly coasts and to ravage enemy ones. These include the duchies of Gaeta and Amalfi. [30] [31]

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Crown of Aragon was also a thalassocracy controlling a large portion of present-day eastern Spain, parts of what is now southern France and other territories in the Mediterranean. The extent of the Catalan language is a result of this; it's spoken in Alghero on Sardinia. [32]


Main trade routes of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Principales Rutas Comerciales del Imperio Espanol.jpg
Main trade routes of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.

With the modern age, the Age of Exploration saw some transcontinental thalassocracies emerge. Anchored in their European territories, several nations established colonial empires held together by naval supremacy. First among them chronologically was the Portuguese Empire, followed soon by the Spanish Empire, which was challenged by the Dutch Empire, itself replaced on the high seas by the British Empire, which had large landed possessions held together by the greatest navy of its time. With naval arms-races (especially between Germany and Britain), the end of colonialism, and the winning of independence by many colonies, European thalassocracies, which had controlled the world's oceans for centuries, diminished—though Britain's power-projection in the Falklands War of 1982 demonstrated continuing thalassocratic clout. [33] [34]

The Ottoman Empire expanded from a land-based region to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean and to expand into the Indian Ocean as a thalassocracy from the 15th century AD. [35]

List of historical thalassocracies

See also

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  1. (from Classical Greek : θάλασσα, romanized: thalassa, Attic Greek : θάλαττα, romanized: thalatta, transl.'sea', and Ancient Greek : κρατεῖν, romanized: kratein, lit. 'power'; giving Koinē Greek : θαλασσοκρατία, romanized: thalassokratia, lit. 'sea power'),
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