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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; the Italian maritime republics of Venice and Genoa of the Mediterranean; the Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu in India; the Omani Empire of Arabia; and the Austronesian empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit in 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 distinguished 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.

Origin of the concept: Eusebius' list[edit]

Thalassocracy was a resurrection of a word known from a very specific classical document, which British classical scholar John Linton Myres termed "the List of Thalassocracies".[8]: 87–88  The list was in the Chronicon, a work of universal history of Eusebius, an early 4th century bishop of Caesarea Maritima. Eusebius categorized several historical polities in the Mediterranean as "sea-controlling", and listed them in a chronology.[9]

The list includes a successive series of "thalassocracies", begins from the Lydians after the fall of Troy, and ends with Aegina, each controlled the sea for a number of years. The list therefore presents a series of the successive exclusive naval domains, as the total control of the seas changed hands between these thalassocracies.[10] Since it does not mention Aegina's final submission of its naval force to Athens, the original list was likely compiled before the consolidation of the Athenian-led Delian League.[11]

Eusebius' list survived through fragments of Diodorus Siculus' works, while also appeared in 4th-century theologian and historian Jerome's Chronicon,[12] and Byzantine chronicler George Syncellus' Extract of Chronography. German classical scholar Christian Gottlob Heyne reconstructed the list through fragments in 1771.[13] The list was then further surveyed by John Myres in 1906-07 and extensively studied by Molly Miller in the 1970s.[14]

History and examples[edit]


Austronesian proto-historic and historic maritime trade networks in the Indian Ocean[15]

The Austronesian peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia developed the Indian Ocean's first true maritime trade network.[15] 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.[15][16][17][18][19]

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.[20]

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.[20] Srivijaya was in turn subjugated by Singhasari around 1275, before finally being absorbed by the successor thalassocracy of Majapahit (1293–1527).[21]

The Arakkal Ali Rajas of Kannur, Kerala are another example. Ali Moossa, the fifth ruler is said to have conquered some of the Maladweep (Maldives) islands in 1183-84 CE.

Arakkal Thalassocracy in the Arabian Sea.

The connection with the Maldives and Lakshadweep (Laccadives) was well-known to the Portuguese and other Europeans, with the 9° channel separating Minicoy from the Laccadive group being referred to as the 'Mammali’s Channel' after the Arakkal kings. Even during the beginning of the 16th century, the king of Maldives was a tributary of this House. The Jagir of Laccadive islands, received by the Ali Rajas from Kolathiris in the 16th century, enhanced the status of the House.[22] Kannur (Cannanore) could effectively be characterised as a Muslim thalassocracy, acknowledging that the religious identity of the Ali Rajas had a significant role in their political prominence. A link can be made of the income from importing horses from West Asia to the political power of the Ali Rajas throughout the sixteenth century.[23]

Europe and the Mediterranean[edit]

Map and coats of arms of the maritime republics

Ancient maritime-centered or seaborne powers in the Mediterranean include Phoenicians, Athens (Delian League), Carthage, Liburnians and to a lesser degree Aegina and Rhodes.[24]

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]

In Northern Europe, Kingdom of the Isles lasted from the 9th to 13th centuries AD, and comprised the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and other islands off the coast of Great Britain.

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.

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 Royal Navy. 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[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (from Classical Greek: θάλασσα, romanized: thalassa, Attic Greek: θάλαττα, romanized: thalatta, transl. 'sea', and Ancient Greek: κρατεῖν, romanizedkratein, lit.'power'; giving Koinē Greek: θαλασσοκρατία, romanized: thalassokratia, lit.'sea power'),
  2. ^ Alpers, Edward A. (2013). The Indian Ocean in World History. New Oxford World History. Oxford University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0199929948. Retrieved 2016-02-06. Portugal's was in every sense a seaborne empire or thalassocracy.
  3. ^ P. M. Holt; Ann K. S. Lambton; Bernard Lewis (1977). The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge University Press. pp. 129–. ISBN 978-0-521-29137-8.
  4. ^ Barbara Watson Andaya; Leonard Y. Andaya (2015). A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1400–1830. Cambridge University Press. pp. 159–. ISBN 978-0-521-88992-6.
  5. ^ Lukic, Rénéo; Brint, Michael, eds. (2001). Culture, politics, and nationalism in the age of globalization. Ashgate. p. 103. ISBN 978-0754614364. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  6. ^ D. Abulafia, "Thalassocracies", in P. Horden – S. Kinoshita (eds.), A Companion to Mediterranean History, Oxford, 2014, pp. 139–153, here 139–140.
  7. ^ A. Momigliano, "Sea-Power in Greek Thought", The Classical Review, May 1944, 1–7.
  8. ^ Myres, John L. (1906). "On the 'List of Thalassocracies' in Eusebius". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 26: 84–130. doi:10.2307/624343. JSTOR 624343. S2CID 163998082.
  9. ^ "Eusebius: Chronicle". Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  10. ^ In Christian Gottlob Heyne's words, "to thalattokratize" is "to rule the sea", not just to hold sea power like any other ruler with a strong navy; the thalassocrat holds the exclusive imperium over the watery domain just as if it were a country, which explains how such a people can "obtain" and "have" the sea.
  11. ^ Myres 1906, pp. 87–88
  12. ^ The relevant section of the Chronicon in Latin may be found at "Hieronymi Chronicon pp.16-187". Retrieved 29 May 2017..
  13. ^ Heyne, Christian Gottlob (1771). "Commentario I: Super Castori Epochis etc". Novi Commentarii Societatis Regiae Scientiarum Gottingensis.
  14. ^ Molly Miller, The Thalassocracies (SUNY Press, 1971)
  15. ^ a b c Manguin, Pierre-Yves (2016). "Austronesian Shipping in the Indian Ocean: From Outrigger Boats to Trading Ships". In Campbell, Gwyn (ed.). Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 51–76. ISBN 978-3319338224.
  16. ^ Doran, Edwin Jr. (1974). "Outrigger Ages". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 83 (2): 130–140. Archived from the original on 2019-06-08. Retrieved 2019-10-15.
  17. ^ Mahdi, Waruno (1999). "The Dispersal of Austronesian boat forms in the Indian Ocean". In Blench, Roger; Spriggs, Matthew (eds.). Archaeology and Language III: Artefacts, languages and texts. One World Archaeology. Vol. 34. Routledge. pp. 144–179. ISBN 0415100542.
  18. ^ Doran, Edwin B. (1981). Wangka: Austronesian Canoe Origins. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 978-0890961070.
  19. ^ Blench, Roger (2004). "Fruits and arboriculture in the Indo-Pacific region". Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. 24 (The Taipei Papers (Volume 2)): 31–50.
  20. ^ a b Sulistiyono, Singgih Tri; Masruroh, Noor Naelil; Rochwulaningsih, Yety (2018). "Contest For Seascape: Local Thalassocracies and Sino-Indian Trade Expansion in the Maritime Southeast Asia During the Early Premodern Period". Journal of Marine and Island Cultures. 7 (2). doi:10.21463/jmic.2018.07.2.05.
  21. ^ Kulke, Hermann (2016). "Śrīvijaya Revisited: Reflections on State Formation of a Southeast Asian Thalassocracy". Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 102 (1): 45–95. doi:10.3406/befeo.2016.6231.
  22. ^ Kurup, KKN (1970). "Ali Rajas of Cannanore, English East India Company and Laccadive Islands". Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 32: 44–53. JSTOR 44138504. Retrieved 12 January 2024.
  23. ^ Prange, Sebastian. Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast.
  24. ^ Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (Yale University Press, 2020)
  25. ^ a b "Genoa | Geography, History, Facts, & Points of Interest". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-16.
  26. ^ stage. "History of Pisa". About Pisa: full tourist guide about the city of Pisa, Tuscany. Retrieved 2021-04-16.
  27. ^ "Pisa | Italy". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-16.
  28. ^ Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism (Harper & Row) 1984:119.
  29. ^ Walton, Nicholas. Genoa, 'La Superba': The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. Oxford University Press.[ISBN missing][page needed]
  30. ^ "Amalfi | Italy". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-16.
  31. ^ Gino Benvenuti Le Repubbliche Marinare. Amalfi, Pisa, Genova, Venezia – Newton & Compton editori, Roma 1989; Armando Lodolini, Le repubbliche del mare, Biblioteca di storia patria, 1967, Roma.
  32. ^ N. Bisson, Thomas (1991). The Medieval Crown of Aragon 'a Short History'. OUP Oxford.[ISBN missing][page needed]
  33. ^ "Western colonialism – Spain's American empire". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-17.
  34. ^ "British Empire | Countries, Map, At Its Height, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-17.
  35. ^ Fattori, Niccolò (2019). "The Conquering Ottoman Merchant". Migration and Community in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Greeks of Ancona, 1510–1595. Palgrave Studies in Migration History. Cham (Zug): Springer. p. 44. ISBN 978-3030169046. Retrieved 3 February 2020. The rise of an Ottoman thalassocracy over the eastern half of the Mediterranean [...].

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