Why read? These days it’s mainly work. This in contrast was for pleasure, and it is a pleasure. I’ve has this for a while but I haven’t written a review because I wanted to be able to refer back to the book as I wrote — and I mislaid it.
The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe, better known as a Professor of Iron Age Archaeology rather than an ancient historian. It’s a tale of the man who discovered Britain, because Natives don’t count. Pytheas did count because he was a Greek from the city of Massalia, modern day Marseilles, who tried to go as far north as he could.
The first couple of chapters explore what the state of the Mediterranean before Pytheas left on his trip in the fourth century BC. These days Marseilles the major port of France. It was however founded by Greeks around 600 BC, due to its location near the Rhone. The French coast was dotted with native and Greek settlements and the opposite shore of the Mediterranean was controlled by Punic colonies led by Carthage. There was increasing economic competition. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules was the Kingdom of Tartessos, which was a source of tin. However access was controlled by the Punic colony of Gadir (now Cadiz), and so there were potentially great rewards for a Greek who could find another source of tin.
Cunliffe speculates that by travelling up the Aude and down the Gironne rivers Pytheas could have travelled to the Atlantic coast and bypassed the Punic ships which guarded their trade routes. Travelling north along this coast he could then have sailed up to Armorica. Cunliffe argues that this would have been by a number of short-haul boats used by local traders. Almost like a BC hitchhiker. From Armorica it’s a short trip across to Cornwall and the tin mines. In this part of the text there’s a sense of the hold that Pytheas has on Cunliffe’s imagination. It’s known that Pytheas kept track of how far north he was by using a sundial and measuring the length of its shadow. From this one of his known measurements is consistent with the north coast of Brittany. Cunliffe can’t help but wonder if Pytheas visited Le Yaudet, an archaeological site he has been working on. This leads in the next chapter to the Isles of the Pretanni, the Britons. In this Greek culture meets the Iron Age reality of the British Isles. To the ancient Greeks the idea that people could choose to live so far north was scarcely believable, but here Pytheas claimed to have found thriving communities.
In chapter six Cunliffe gives his opinion on the location of Ultima Thule, the northernmost point of Pytheas’s world. Here the sea is gelatinous but where is here? He gives a strong case that it lies beyond the Shetland Isles, and is in fact Iceland. I’d want to read more about that but it is a tempting idea. Chapter seven is on his journeys to the source of amber, probably Jutland or the German and Frisian coast. The book closes with the final chapter on his return.
It’s worth sticking with, because it’s the final chapter which reveals the romance of Pytheas. He returned home and wrote a book, On the Ocean, and we know nothing more. We don’t even have the book just quotes. Sometimes we don’t even have the books that quote him, they too are quoted in other books. Cunliffe shows how in his time Pytheas was cited as an authority on the lands of the north. He also explores reasons why he came to be so disliked and disbelieved. This he puts down to Polybius who was writing a history of the Roman Empire. Polybius’s rival cited Pytheas and so to prove that he, Polybius, was the better historian he attacked his rival’s sources — including Pytheas.
Yet as Cunliffe says, it’s the things that no-one believed that showed Pytheas was right. Strabo discounts the existence of a peninsula where Brittany is and ridicules Pytheas for saying there is. Yet Cunliffe is eager to show that modern mapping vindicates Pytheas and that there is no reason not to assume he made this journey.
It’s this passion which is both the strongest and weakest aspect of this book. To some extent I’m not sure Cunliffe’s Pytheas is a Greek that I’d recognise, a noble scientist-explorer. This was from a period when there was certainly knowledge and observation but not science. It is tempting to compare Pytheas to modern explorers and Cunliffe does but one of the things that makes Pytheas so interesting is that he was an explorer in an age when there was little exploration. To say his journey was a quest for knowledge is to reduce discussion of what else his motives could have been. At the same time it’s also this passion that drives the book and makes it a good read. If you can pick up a cheap copy then you’ll have a bargain in your hands.