Ulysses’ Dream. The Mediterranean, the Sea of History

José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec

Historian and writer

All civilisations have been created from a latent structure that imbues them with reason. This should be the objective of all historical research, to try to reveal, in this way, the secret life of the feelings of a group of people, their effect on everyday decisions, and the indivisible stories that forge a shared history. The so-called “Ulysses’ Dream” arises from this desire, which took possession of Mediterranean culture to guide the specific life of the men of that sea, so that they would undertake a permanent reading of the classics as an antidote to oblivion and the foundation of their enlightenment. Thus, the dream is revealed as a legacy that the past offers the future to guide its steps and not make the same mistakes, those conflicts whose echo still resonates because of the inept ways in which they were resolved.

Around the end of the fourth century BC, a bold young man called Pytheas, a native of Marseilles, began a long journey that led him to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in a northwestern direction, towards the island of Thule and beyond, towards the wonders of the arctic horizons, from the aurora borealis to the lands of perpetual snow, passing through geysers and icebergs floating in the sea.1 Hellenism was at its height and, driven by Alexander the Great, Mediterranean culture was a good illustration of the awareness of a territory forged in myths that reflected an immortal history.

The story of Pytheas illustrates a lifestyle based on curiosity, where the four sources of knowledge of Classical Antiquity, philosophy, geography, history and poetry, merge. Accordingly, the objective of the journey was, for the first time, to understand the world as an enigma to be solved; and he set out to discover it, not to satisfy a practical need (for example, the tin or the murex-purple dye routes), but because he had been captivated, following Anaximander’s old maxim, by the need to know where things come from. The form of the story is Greek – life is an incessant destruction of the past and exaltation of fate – but the description of the places visited and impressions of the journey are, almost without exception, Hellenistic; it is, therefore, a description filled with a powerful element of fantasy that the historian Polybius and the geographer Strabo criticised so much. What can one expect if the contemplation of nature exceeds everything previously known and for that very reason the old sense of the archaic is diluted to give way to an overcoming of fate?

What can one expect if the contemplation of nature exceeds everything previously known and for that very reason the old sense of the archaic is diluted to give way to an overcoming of fate?

Human will comes down to the only way of understanding life: Alexander’s act before the Gordian Knot illustrates this; cutting is the same as untying. The stories of the Mediterranean focus on that act, which is the same act that Pytheas performed when he chose the journey to unravel what was hidden from the eyes of his contemporaries. If we think based on understanding the messages that nature sends us, we will conclude that chance is the response to fate. But can we represent a determined past without recourse to the history that made it possible? The telling of this immortal story will be the most appropriate way of updating the meaning of life innate to the human being.

However, the development of specialisation has created a gap in the awareness of that reality. The more it is valued, the more the longue durée dissipates, knowledge of the past sinking into what the Czech historian František Graus, with a highly melancholy expression, called “a cabinet of baubles.”2 By fragmenting knowledge, the human being has become an accumulator to serve a large database controlled by algorithms that increasingly block innovative creativity. For this way of analysing the past, lifestyles and personal concerns have no value: the best of the human being is marginalised from the outset. I studied history and philosophy precisely to avoid submission to technology, which ultimately overshadows the creative impulse.3 At the suggestion of Georges Duby, I learned to situate the precise framework of the longue durée promoted by Fernand Braudel, especially in the study of the legacy of the Mediterranean world.4 From my readings and the courses I followed, I understood that all civilisations have a latent structure underpinning them; one that imbues them with reason. And with this discovery began the adventure of a long research that must be understood and judged, if necessary, in accordance with the order of the time of its gestation, forty-two years ago.

On 28 January 1980, I was in the city of Naples to read, at the inaugural session of the 18th Maritime History Conference, a paper entitled “Ulysses’ Dream: Maritime activity in Mediterranean culture as a phenomenon of structure”.5 With the limited time available in these academic events, I attempted to summarise the arguments that, in my view, had been put off in Mediterranean studies and that, in substance, came to underline, as Luigi de Rosa recalls in the introduction to the conference proceedings, “a structure of civilisation, a channel through which techniques of navigation, knowledge of maritime routes, types and forms of activity, products and production techniques, skills and initiatives, contracts and behaviours, consumption models, mentalities and ideals were transmitted. A functional and dynamic system that transformed the historical process of the people who lived in and for that sea, promoting institutions and development mechanisms, without completely cancelling out the characteristics of each of the unique civilisations; rather, favouring inside a general system a variety of models in which each in its own way assumed the dynamism characteristic of the sea.” And in this vein, my work sought to fill a void in the context of historiography, since it was evident – as the renowned professor Antonio Di Vittorio pointed out in the pages of The Journal of European Economic History – attempted to explore the role of seafaring in the formation of that cultural tradition which dominated the Mediterranean from the Homeric epics onwards, and to relate the development of seafaring activities with the social and economic developments occurring along the shores of the Mediterranean.”6

Undoubtedly, on that icy Neapolitan morning I revealed, one by one, the different aspects of the existence of the people who made the history of this sea and I wondered about the meaning of the adventures described exemplarily in Homer’s The Odyssey, endeavouring to reveal the secret life of feelings and their effect on everyday decisions. Thus, I was then able to conclude that “Ulysses’ dream” (a journey back home full of successes) took possession of Mediterranean culture to guide the concrete life of the men of this sea, to protect them against the tendency to oblivion of tradition at the changing of eras, and so that they maintain a lifestyle through a permanent reading of the classics as the basis of their enlightenment about what has to be done at all times and in all circumstances. In this respect, I understand and share the determination of my teacher Georges Duby in instilling in me the need to imagine the interstices of life, where documents only offer clues, since the revelation of the imaginary of society is the main motivation of the historian’s craft; and now I add my own observation that has helped me to work through difficult times, and that could very well be considered an epilogue to those years in which the historian’s craft was transformed with unusual techniques of access to knowledge: there is no point in a telling of the past that cannot discover the unknown parts of the stories told.

“Ulysses’ dream” (a journey back home full of successes) took possession of Mediterranean culture to guide the concrete life of the men of this sea

The revelation of the latent structure of civilisations is the only raison d’être of the historian’s craft in the 21st century, since this is how he has to show the legacy that the past offers to the future to guide its steps and not enter the labyrinths with no way out tried on previous occasions. This is how I described it in the co-authored book 27 Leçons d’histoire, published by Seuil in 2009, which reproduced the lecture I gave in the Grand Palais in Paris on Wednesday 29 October 2008, where I made it clear that Ulysses’ dream is the great legacy of the Mediterranean world, despite having been described in different languages and at different times: the legacy that forged Europe.7

Seen from this perspective, I realised that this idea of the Mediterranean legacy of European culture is a radical and complete vision of what a book dedicated to unravelling the imaginary of the Mediterranean ought to be. As I did so, in the manner of the historian’s craft, I read the impressions of the trip to Greece that Count Harry Kessler took with his friends, the sculptor Aristides Maillol and the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, annotated in his monumental Diary. His comments are a great tribute to the fables, mythical stories of the ancients, for which the three travelling friends felt an infinite liking, sometimes impulsive, and that resulted in the beautiful sculpture of a dazzling naked body of a thinking woman that he decided to call “La Méditerranée” (The Mediterranean): before her it can only be affirmed that the decisive apothegm of classical culture, the Nosce te ipsum, which appeared in the pronaos of the temple of Apollo in Delphi and that Socrates made his own, is the extreme dimension of a lifestyle born and matured on the shores of the sea.

Von Hofmannsthal’s comments are a great tribute to the fables, mythical stories of the ancients, for which the three travelling friends felt an infinite liking

I have carried this research with me for four decades, and I have described it in articles, lectures, papers and book chapters. I had never thought of writing a summary, as I believed that ideas disseminated in journals, brochures and co-authored books in different languages and places of publication were fine, and that, similarly, those small contributions of a casual tone were enough, in the sense that they were written for various reasons, always on demand. But the coronavirus came into my life and I faced fate, as Ulysses did after the Trojan War, according to Homer, of course. I did so on a trip to the city of Gubbio (Italy), where I had been invited to open the Festival del Medioevo which, in 2020, was dedicated to the Mediterranean, the sea of history. I made the organisers’ idea my own and used it as the title of the inaugural lecture, the introduction to my summary book, and this article.

Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper (1909). Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, Great Britain.

Sitting at the front of the auditorium, while the sindaco – that is, the mayor – introduced the event, I realised that the time had come in my life for the summary; I had to speak clearly about what I thought about the Mediterranean world, obeying the imperative that my writing has dictated: a narrative history that, while still thorough, can be read like a novel. In this case, I have willingly accepted the fact of converting that great event in world history, which is the Mediterranean, into a plot full of characters, some famous, others unknown; all, however, key to understanding the spirit that nests in the lands around this sea. When travelling, feeling and studying the Mediterranean in Genoa, Venice, Procida, Naples, Ravello, Palermo, Florence, Barcelona or Nice, I became aware of the story; this happens sometimes in life.

Why did I choose “Ulysses’ Dream” as the title for a Mediterranean story of longue durée? I will try to explain.

There is a story traditionally attributed to Homer that tells of a man’s return home from a long voyage across the Mediterranean. The adventures of Ulysses, which is the character’s name, is one of the most brilliant descriptions of the geography of Greek colonisation; but also, and certainly to a greater extent, an appreciation of the game of the gods, between rationality and paradox, who did not leave the hero alone for a moment, until he returned to his wife Penelope, who was waiting for him weaving a blanket, an excellent metaphor for the spinners of fate,8 figures of women so fascinating despite their disturbing, sometimes terrible, features when they show themselves in the form of Pandora, Antigone or Clytemnestra.

The epic poem about the Mediterranean was born out of the tragic confrontation of the mortal individual with the universe of immortal gods.9 In the two worlds there are countless bridges analysed by Homer with the use of irony. Never before had the idea occurred to a rhapsode of wanting to know what the gods thought (the rules of their game) through a creative effort that gave rise to the Greek miracle. The effort to return to Ithaca forges the myth concerning the Mediterranean world, because by seeing the event with a tragic nature and exemplary courage, it decisively indicates a declared point of arrival: the aftermath of history, the next day.

The Mediterranean is a space of multiple crossroads, constructed through the development of several myths: that of the weddings of Cadmus and Harmony, of Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods, of Perseus in his desire to fly, of Oedipus confronting his father at a crossroads, of Jason looking for the fleece of gold with the Argonauts, and others that we understand as fragments of the poetics of the world based on an encyclopaedic bricoleur, inventor of universal systems armed with all the cultural materials possible: these myths are the greatest challenge ever made to the laughter of the gods at the human desire to find a way out. Do perhaps Zeus, Pallas Athena, Hera and the other gods laugh when they observe the castaway who travels the Mediterranean geography from one end to the other looking for a way out? They laugh, certainly, but at the same time they are disturbed by what they see. Because Ulysses sees the journey back home after the war as an opening of his life to the game of the gods, who have put him in a labyrinth; but they have also discovered his ability to escape it, although to do so he must identify himself as Nobody to escape the Cyclops, the monster that symbolises the element of terror inherent in the game – in most of his adventures his proverbial cunning is shown in this way.

Do perhaps Zeus, Pallas Athena, Hera and the other gods laugh when they observe the castaway who travels the Mediterranean geography from one end to the other looking for a way out?

Ulysses travels surprised by what he perceives intensely in the world around him. Astonishment is a tragic faculty, the product of man’s submission to fate, to what is written. The poet tells the story of the shipwrecks, the long voyages through exotic places, the fight against the Cyclops, the interest in the sirens, the fascination with Circe; and with these descriptions he assesses the peoples who inhabit the shores of the Mediterranean. Ulysses recalls that the same sea harbours all his adventures.

He needs to return home, to the Ionian island of Ithaca, away from the temptations that surprise him at every moment, but whose meaning he does not fully apprehend. Classical culture used the figure of that itinerant man to open a new chapter in the history of the Mediterranean; it delimited the geography of maritime expansion, set the border between civilisation and barbarism, and established Greek legacy as the starting point of a space shared by the peoples of the Mediterranean.

The Hellenist Jacqueline de Romilly wondered why Ulysses is the guide for our searches, and she herself answered: because Ulysses is the best example of a man who confronts the right of a god, the god Poseidon, who wants to retain for himself one of the main sources of wealth of this sea: maritime activity and its corollary, trade.10 Ulysses’ ingenuity was in showing the routes so that, through that knowledge, the sumptuary goods that made the Greeks rich and literary culture and art possible could be transported: wines from Rhodes, Athenian honey, walnuts from Pontus, dried fruits and salted fish from Byzantium, Chios cheese, Sicilian wheat or Tartessos silver, African gold, Persian tapestries and Phoenician fabrics. And with these goods, the ideas of a possible cosmos that understands identity as the sum of multiple differences. From that poetic genesis, and without forgetting the message contained in the myth, Mediterranean society sought an explanation for existence through history. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is resisting this idea, because, by Jove!, it does not want to account to anyone, in any way, for its life and miracles, not even the confessor, a figure from the past. Global museification is another serious difficulty: it presents events as contexts for works of art. Arriving in any Mediterranean city, you are struck by the feeling that there is a story about it, the monuments easily stand in your way. The experience of the past becomes intimate. You only need to stop for a moment and wonder why, in front of you, there is a fragment of something that was once important to society: a forum, temple, theatre, circus. This monumental art, in the middle of the street, cuts through the noise of intense traffic and time. Greek columns appear anywhere, unexpectedly; and a Gothic arch or sculptures by various artists; some famous, others barely known. However, the passerby who enjoys history does not get much out of it. He believes in its dramatic power, no more. Perhaps that is why situations are repeated with the same problems. For him, it is not the teacher of life, as has been suggested so many times, to recall Cicero’s old advice; rather he understands it as a key element of the classical legacy.

The history of the Mediterranean is unique and highly valuable. Just by making an effort, we celebrate it, appreciating its subtleties and elegant stories.11 The sadly famous Peloponnesian War, which made its interpreter, the historian Thucydides, great, showed how cruel the fury of neighbours is, a fury that has been repeated for centuries every time a people feels the need to be hegemonic, creating empires that end up evaporating soon after, leaving only a trace of spoils on the slopes covered with olive trees. Today, Homer’s poetry and Thucydides’ history are only a brief annotation in a school textbook, mixed with other works of less substance. When we think about the past of the Mediterranean, these passing reminders are sometimes taken into account, but not a word is said about what living in a border area truly meant.12

The echo of the conflicts in the Mediterranean floods our memory, as the expression of regret for the inept ways of solving problems in the past. Nevertheless, the more we advance in understanding Ulysses’ dream, the closer we are to understanding the Mediterranean as the cradle of a lifestyle based on the need to open up to the world. I believe, however, that it would be naive to regard the permanence of that dream as a reality unrelated to the pressure exerted on it by the three monotheistic religions that were born and developed in this sea: the foundations of Mediterranean culture are not only the result of Ulysses’ dream, but also the social effect of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The echo of the conflicts in the Mediterranean floods our memory, as the expression of regret for the inept ways of solving problems in the past

It is possible that this is what the thinkers of the Enlightenment failed to consider in their judgment on the Mediterranean legacy in European culture. Even if Nicole Loraux’s modern diagnosis of the absence of the feminine in enlightened aesthetic experience were true,13 it is impossible to assess the past and future of the Mediterranean without contemplating the conflict between the lightness inherent in Ulysses’ dream and the weight of the religious narrative, sustained by the faith that its fundamental texts (Bible, Gospels, Koran) are inspired by God. The path developed in the Middle Ages is a response to the challenge of accepting the belonging to one of the three monotheistic religions; that is, to a single God. The people of this sea became aware that the cultural legacy required them to recognise a world of many gods, openly polytheistic, but faith led them to accept that all this was something of the past. Religious experience often disputed with reason based on scientific knowledge, exemplarily present in the so-called Galileo case, the 17th century Italian scientist, convinced of the superiority of physics and mathematics over the religious story.

The people of this sea became aware that the cultural legacy required them to recognise a world of many gods, openly polytheistic, but faith led them to accept that all this was something of the past

But Ulysses’ dream maintains its magic at the moment when the story becomes reflective about the value of the past during the enlightened Grand Tour that marked life in the 18th century until it reached an exemplary tone with Gibbon, Lessing or Goethe. Napoleon before the pyramids, Champollion before the Rosetta stone, Nelson before the naval battle of Trafalgar… what can they do but think seriously about the culture of the Mediterranean? And so the eternal spring, the circle of time, begins again. Gibbon in the Forum, Goethe before the Roman countryside, Nathalie de Laborde on the arm of Chateaubriand in the Alhambra, Byron in Missolonghi, Mann at the Lido, and Joyce in Trieste. The paths of contemporary literature are drawn as a history parallel to that of the people of the Mediterranean. If I have tried to embrace them all with a wide angle, it is because I have also wanted to use cinema in the 20th century, which explicitly speaks of the Mediterranean and does so through a beautiful ellipsis: a legacy that constantly awakens questions, paintings, songs, gestures, doubts. What does this mean? Does the long path of Ulysses’ dream end with an unrealised desire? Perhaps.

The desire for the great values of the Mediterranean to finally manage to overcome the terrible stories that are often forged in this sea, from the enigmatic landings of the peoples of the sea in the opulent coastal cities of the empires of the Bronze Age to the unfortunate boats full of refugees fleeing from war and misery again. Today, we know that the stories that have forged the Mediterranean are indivisible, since all of them are valid for understanding the events that have taken place, and also their meanings.


1. This text is the introduction to my book El sueño de Ulises. El Mediterráneo, de la guerra de Troya a las pateras, Madrid, Taurus, 2022 (Catalan edition, Barcelona, Rosa dels Vents, 2022), duly adapted to the requirements of the journal in which it is now published, with footnotes and some additions.
2. F. Graus, Struktur und Geschichte, Sigmaringen, Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1991.
3. I have just described it as a feature of the 21st century in J. E. Ruiz-Domènec, Breve historia del siglo xxi. Del 11-S a la toma de Kabul, Barcelona, librosdevanguardia, 2022.
4. G. Duby, “L’héritage”, in François Hartog présente Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée, Paris, Flammarion, 2017, pp.351-370.
5. In R. Ragosta (ed.), Le genti del mare Mediterraneo, Naples, L. Pironti, 1981, vol. I.
6. A. di Vittorio, “The Seafarers of the Mediterranean”, in The Journal of European Economic History, vol. 10, 1981, pp. 213-221.
7. J. E. Ruiz-Domènec, “L’héritage méditerranéen de la culture européenne”, in Jean-Noël Jeanney, 27 Leçons d’histoire, París, Editions du Seuil, 2009, pp. 281-289.
8. M. Atwood, L’Odyssée de Pénélope, Paris, Flammarion, 2015
9. F. Hartog, Mémoire d’Ulysse, Paris, Gallimard, 1996.
10. J. de Romilly, Pourquoi Ulysse? Paris, Julliard, 1984.
11. P. Matvejević, Bréviare méditerráneen, Paris, Plurial, 2020.
12. G. Barbera, Mediterraneo, Milan, Solferino, 2021.
13. N. Loraux, Les experiénces de Tirésias. Le féminin et l´homme grec, Paris, Gallimard, 1989.