Masters and commanders

Nicholas A. Basbanes, the author of five works of nonfiction, served as a naval officer aboard the aircraft carrier Oriskany during the Vietnam War.

The Middle Sea

A History of the Mediterranean

John Julius Norwich

Doubleday: 668 pp., $39.95


Six Frigates

The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

Ian W. Toll

W.W. Norton: 560 pp., $27.95

TWO new histories -- one engagingly written on a grand scale by a master craftsman, the other a richly detailed case study by a first-time author with a flair for storytelling -- begin with the same premise and arrive at the same essential conclusion: To achieve power on an international stage, a nation must first secure command and control of the high seas.

In "The Middle Sea," John Julius Norwich, the British chronicler of many bestselling histories, considers 5,000 years of political, cultural and religious conflict around the Mediterranean, which he calls an "utterly unique" body of water that links three of the world's continents and has served as the crossroads of numerous civilizations. In sharp counterpoint to this sweeping saga of human turmoil is "Six Frigates," San Francisco-based writer and Wall Street analyst Ian W. Toll's examination of the United States and its groping emergence as a global force in the two decades leading up to and including the War of 1812.

Professing to be an amateur historian -- his 18 works of history notwithstanding -- Lord Norwich (his formal name is John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich) makes clear what his study of the Mediterranean is and what it is not: "I am no geologist, and rather than launch my story some six million years ago I decided to begin, not with rocks and water, but people."

Norwich, having written compelling accounts of a medieval monarchy (the Normans), a republic (Venice) and a sprawling empire (Byzantium), now takes a comprehensive approach that draws insight from his literary endeavors and the penetrating works of others. The Mediterranean, he states, "is a miracle," a "cradle of cultures" open to the Atlantic only by the Strait of Gibraltar and the principal means of commerce and communication for centuries -- and thus the instrument of dominance in the region.

It is the interaction and inevitable clash of these cultures over five millenniums that Norwich reviews in "The Middle Sea." He mentions the first ruler of the region, King Minos of Crete, credited by Greek historian Thucydides with creating the region's first great navy. The Phoenicians were the first true seafaring society to ply the waters of the Middle Sea, "compulsive travelers" who sailed to every reach of the Mediterranean, bringing with them the most enduring gift of all, the alphabet. The Greeks and the Trojans, the Romans and the Carthaginians, Islam and Byzantium, Muslims and Crusaders, Italian principalities, duchies, city-states and republics of every stripe move kaleidoscopically through his pages, with one iconic name after another -- Alexander the Great, Gregory the Great, Otto the Great, Frederick the Great, Charlemagne, Napoleon -- making their claims on posterity.

Covering so much history means that the book can never be much more than a teasing overview of an unfolding drama. But with his conversational style, Norwich is like an old friend, and his witty asides are a constant delight. "It must have been fun to be a Minoan," he observes of the "peaceful, carefree" people who dominated the eastern Mediterranean until about BC 1400. Of King Alaric I's low-key plunder of Rome in AD 410, he writes: "A sack, nevertheless, remains a sack; and the Goths, Christians, though they may have been, were very far from being saints."

"Six Frigates" opens with the American republic -- brash, robust and eager to establish itself as a maritime power -- struggling in the aftermath of independence. The young nation may well have prevailed on the battlefield, but Britain remained a superpower and the Royal Navy -- ever proud and supremely professional -- the unquestioned master of the high seas.

"England's naval supremacy in the early years of the nineteenth century was unlike anything the world had ever seen before, or has since," Toll writes. Adm. Horatio Nelson's decisive defeat of the French fleet off Trafalgar in 1805 had the immediate result of forcing every other great power "virtually to abandon the sea and seek refuge in its harbors." Without a navy to protect them, and with a mother country in no mood to assist its former subjects, U.S. merchant ships became easy prey for Mediterranean pirates operating out of the Barbary States of Tripoli, Morocco, Tunis and Algiers.

Fully laden U.S. ships were boarded, plundered and seized by the score, their sailors often kept captive under horrific conditions and held for ransom. Egregious tributes were demanded and paid. Rather than constantly ante up money -- no deal was ever final -- the Americans chose to engage this new threat directly. On March 27, 1794, President Washington signed into law a bill authorizing the appropriation of $688,888 to construct six warships known as frigates, four of them rated for 44 guns, two for 36. This hotly contested decision -- some members of Congress opposed the creation of a professional navy, and a powerful Quaker constituency decried military force of any kind -- provides the genesis for a highly readable narrative embracing 20 eventful years in U.S. history.

Toll details the process of designing, building, launching, manning and sailing these wooden-hulled ships, explaining such nuances as the superiority of timbers hewn from native North American live oak trees and how the British practice of forceably conscripting seaman from U.S. vessels led inexorably to renewed hostilities in 1812. Though the war was indecisive, the Americans proved themselves a worthy match to the Royal Navy; the era of British invincibility and undisputed control of the lucrative sea lanes was over.

Toll's most engaging sections recount the legendary engagements of the six frigates -- the Constitution, the Constellation, the Chesapeake, the Congress, the President and the United States. He draws on the rich resources of official documents, records, logbooks, journals and letters compiled and published over the last 80 years by the Navy. He gives life to such figures as commanders Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull and ship designer Joshua Humphreys.

Admirers of the late novelist Patrick O'Brian will relish Toll's telling of Hull's broadside battle with the British frigate Guerriere in 1812, an electrifying victory that earned the Constitution the nickname "Old Ironsides." Just as riveting is his account of the engagement two months later of the frigate United States with the British warship Macedonian 500 miles off the Azores, a triumph for Decatur and his crew, who towed their prize back to America.

At the time, a British naval periodical carried an article with the headline: "On the Remarkable Success of the Young American Navy." Toll is more pointed: "America's tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had ever known." *

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