From a beautiful little book by Predrag Matvejevic (translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim) featuring lots of centuries-old maps and drawings of cities and the kind of rambling but painstakingly precise commentary I love:

The name of a sea depends on its location and its links to the lands along its shores and to their peoples. Ancient peoples like the Egyptians and Sumerians called the Mediterranean the Upper Sea because of its position with respect to them. It had many names in the Bible: the great sea (yam ha-gadol, Joshua 1:4), the uttermost or utmost sea (yam ha-aharon, Deuteronomy 11:24, 34:2), the sea of the Philistines (yam pelishtim, Exodus 23:31). At times it was called simply The Sea, everyone assuming the sea in question was the Mediterranean….

Both Hecataeus and Herodotus call the Mediterranean the Great Sea, as do the Phoenecians, who appear to have been the first to navigate it. In The Peloponnesian War Thucydides calls it the Hellenic Sea (1:4) because it belongs to Greece. The Greeks called it, accordingly, “our sea,” which nomenclature the Romans borrowed (mare nostrum) as did many after them. Plato is a bit more circumspect when he says, “the sea beside us” (par’ hêmin thalassa, from Phaedo 113a). In a text known under the title “De mundo” and perhaps wrongly attributed to Aristotle we find the fateful designation of “inner sea” (hê esô thalassa, 3.8) as opposed to the outer sea or ocean: it is this designation that will later give rise, in Latin translation, to the term Mediterranean.

Philology will help us to trace our sea’s history. The adjective mediterraneus was not a particularly refined word. Festus, a grammarian of the golden age, recommended that it be replaced by mediterreus, but recommendations of the sort are rarely heeded once a word has come into common use, and this was a time when Rome was on its way to becoming a major sea power. (By then the adjective meditullius—from tellus [earth] and possibly related to the Greek mesogaios [inland, in the heart of a country]—was archaic.) The word mediterraneus designated a landlocked space on the continent as opposed to maritimus. Cicero calls inland inhabitants “the most mediterranean of people” (homines maximi mediterranei, from In Verrem 2.5). Similarly, the noun mediterraneum designated the heart of the country (for example, and in the plural, mediterranea Galliae [the continental parts of Gaul]). The epithet mediterraneus came to be linked with the “inner sea” because the “inner sea” was itself landlocked…. But it was Isidorus Hispalensis, or Isidore of Seville, who turned the adjective into a proper noun: “The Great Sea [Mare Magnum] flows from the ocean in the west; it faces south and reaches north. It is called ‘great’ because other seas pale in comparison; it is called the Mediterranean because it washes against the surrounding land [mediam terram] all the way to the east, dividing Europe, Africa, and Asia” (“De Mediterraneo Mari,” Origines 12.16).

Isn’t that interesting? And the next time some Safiresque pedant criticizes current usage, ask him or her “So as a person of refined understanding, do you think the Mediterranean should properly be called the Mediterrean or the Meditullian Sea?” and watch the latter-day Festus flounder.


  1. Just happened on this post looking for something else, and was reminded of the excellent word meditullius. Also, it’s about time I had another look at that book.

  2. Meditullius: surrounded by several members of Cicero’s clan at a boring party in Tusculum.

  3. Ha!

  4. If you’re in Sumer and look toward the Med you’re facing – well, more upstream than not; so I can see calling it the “Upper Sea”. But in Egypt …??

  5. Especially since it’s furthest from Upper Egypt.

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