‘mare nostrum’: meanings and origin

The Latin phrase mare nostrum, literally our sea, was originally one of the names given by the Romans to the Mediterranean Sea.
—Cf. also ‘Mediterranean’: the sea in the middle of the earth.

For example, the following is from Bellum Iugurthinum (The Jugurthine War), by the Roman historian and politician Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus – 86-35 BC):

– Latin text—from C. Sallusti Crispi. Catilina, Iugurtha, Orationes Et Epistulae Excerptae De Historiis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1919), by Axel W. Ahlberg:

In divisione orbis terrae plerique in parte tertia Africam posuere, pauci tantummodo Asiam et Europam esse, sed Africam in Europa. Ea finis habet ab occidente fretum nostri maris et Oceani.

– Translation—from The Jugurthine War (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1899), by John Selby Watson; “the strait” refers to the Strait of Gibraltar:

In the division of the earth, most writers consider Africa as a third part; a few admit only two divisions, Asia and Europe, and include Africa in Europe. It is bounded, on the west, by the strait connecting our sea with the ocean.

In Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (London: Walton and Maberly; John Murray – 1857), the English lexicographer William Smith (1813-1893) explains that the Mediterranean Sea has had various names:

Internum Mare, the great inland or Mediterranean Sea, which washes the coasts of Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor.
Name.—In the Hebrew Scriptures, this sea, on the West of Palestine, and therefore behind a person facing the East, is called the “Hinder Sea,” and also the “Sea of the Philistines,” because that people occupied the largest portion of its shores. Pre-eminently it was “the Great Sea,” or simply “the Sea.” In the same way, the Homeric poems, Hesiod, the Cyclic poets, Aeschylus, and Pindar, call it emphatically “the Sea.” The logographer Hecataeus speaks of it as “the Great Sea.” Nor did the historians and systematic geographers mark it off by any peculiar denomination. The Roman writers call it Mare Internum or Intestinum, or more frequently, Mare Nostrum. The epithet “Mediterranean” is not used in the classical writers, and was first employed for this sea by Solinus *. The Greeks of the present day call it the “White Sea,” to distinguish it from the Black Sea. Throughout Europe it is known as the Mediterranean.

* Gaius Iulius Solinus was a Roman who lived in the third or fourth century AD, possibly worked as a grammarian, and is most widely recognised for his work, the Polyhistor. Possibly written sometime in the middle of the fourth century, the Polyhistor, alternatively known as the Collectanea rerum memorabilium and De situ orbis, touches on the natural history and geography of the regions known to the Roman Empire, as well as religious and social matters.

By extension, the phrase mare nostrum has come to denote any sea or other stretch of water belonging to, or under the control of, a nation.
These are the earliest occurrences of this extended use of mare nostrum that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From Speech of Mr. Randolph, on the Tariff Bill, in the House of Representatives, April 15, 1824—published in the Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia) of Friday 4th June 1824:

The Chesapeake Bay, mare nostrum, our Mediterranean Sea, gives us every advantage of navigation.

2-: From an attack, by ‘Pascal’, on Robert Walsh, of the National Gazette, published in the Kentucky Reporter (Lexington, Kentucky, USA) of Wednesday 5th December 1827—the context of this attack is obscure, and mare nostrum seems to be used figuratively:

Wholly absorbed in Syntax, he harasses the courteous Gales of the 13th rule of Murray, and vexes the soul of poor Ritchie when quietly navigating the gulph of consolidation mare nostrum, with wicked accounts of a newly discovered mountain of vacuum. […]
Note.—Mr. Randolph, in his admirable speech on Internal Improvement, termed the Chesapeake, mare nostrum, our Mediterranean. It is respectfully suggested that, from its superior importance and capaciousness, the Gulf of Consolidation should receive that title, since it is clearly due to the largest Gulf or Bay lying exclusively within the Virginia borders.

3-: From The Debate in the U.S. Senate, Monday February 4, 1830. Mr. Benton’s fourth day—published in The Boston Statesman (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Saturday 24th April 1830:

The West is not going to give up their steamboats […]. They are not going to abandon the Mississippi, mare nostrum,—our sea.

4-: From the account of a “speech of Col. Benton of Missouri, delivered in the Senate of the United States”—published in The Frankfort Argus (Frankfort, Kentucky, USA) of Wednesday 8th June 1831:

The Mississippi river was to the West what the Mediterranean sea was to the Romans; it is mare nostrum—our sea—and the steam boats, and other boats upon it constitute our navigation.

5-: From Correspondence of Commercial Advertiser. Senate Chamber, Washington, Feb. 23, published in the New-York Spectator (New York City, New York, USA) of Monday 29th February 1836 [Friday 26th February 1836?]:

Benton gave us […] the most motley mess of stuff which we have had since his own last melange […]. He had now collected together all that he could accumulate of history, biography, politics, metaphysics, statistics, (the last miserably unprecise,) which had any relation whatever to the fortifications and the standing army, which he proposed to increase by 4000 men. In summing up the glorious results of his fortification movements, he came to Key West; “yes, sir, when that shall be fortified, we shall have mare nostrum,” which, according to the gender, I suppose may mean our own mare, or our own Mary.

6-: From Speech of Mr. Benton, of Missouri, on the subject of the fortifications. U.S. Senate, Feb. 23, 1836—published in The Albany Argus (Albany, New York, USA) of Friday 18th March 1836:

If the system of defence required for the country be now adopted, many great objects heretofore planned must go into effect; a grand naval national arsenal at Burwell’s bay in Virginia, as recommended by the military naval board of 1821; a navy yard at Charleston, S. Carolina, and another at Pennsacola [sic]; with a fort and naval station at Key West, to command the Gulf of Mexico, to make that gulf what the Mediterranean sea was to the Romans, mare nostrum, our sea, belonging, as it ought, to the masters of the Mississippi, and considered and treated as the outlet and estuary of the king of floods.

In recent use, Mare Nostrum was the name given to a military and humanitarian operation launched by the Italian Government on Friday 18th October 2013. Aimed at tackling the humanitarian emergency in the Strait of Sicily, due to the dramatic increase in migration flows, Mare Nostrum had the twofold purpose of safeguarding human life at sea and bringing to justice human traffickers and migrant smugglers. This operation ended on Friday 31st October 2014, coinciding with the start of the European-Union operation called Triton.

Mare Nostrum logo—image: Ministero della Difesa:

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