Reconstructing the evolution of sea level during past warmer epochs such as the Pliocene provides insight into the response of sea level and ice sheets to prolonged warming1. Although estimates of the global mean sea level (GMSL) during this time do exist, they vary by several tens of metres2-4, hindering the assessment of past and future ice-sheet stability. Here we show that during the mid-Piacenzian Warm Period, which was on average two to three degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial period5, the GMSL was about 16.2 metres higher than today owing to global ice-volume changes, and around 17.4 metres when thermal expansion of the oceans is included. During the even warmer Pliocene Climatic Optimum (about four degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels)6, our results show that the GMSL was 23.5 metres above the present level, with an additional 1.6 metres from thermal expansion. We provide six GMSL data points, ranging from 4.39 to 3.27 million years ago, that are based on phreatic overgrowths on speleothems from the western Mediterranean (Mallorca, Spain). This record is unique owing to its clear relationship to sea level, its reliable U-Pb ages and its long timespan, which allows us to quantify uncertainties on potential uplift. Our data indicate that ice sheets are very sensitive to warming and provide important calibration targets for future ice-sheet models7.