pytheas journey to britain ca 325BC


pytheas lived in the greek colony of massilia (near present-day marseilles, france), and documented his seaward exploration of northwest europe in on the ocean, a work which was cited by later authors such as strabo and pliny the elder. prior to pytheas’s voyage, carthage had prevented the greeks from sailing past the strait of gibraltar (identified in this map by its ancient name, the pillar of hercules). however, the carthaginians left the passage unguarded during a war with rome, allowing pytheas free passage. in his route (shown in red), he sailed northward into the bay of biscay and eventually landed in britain, making contact with the natives. he continued his voyage northward hoping to reach an island named thule, which he believed was the northernmost place on earth. due to his recording a great difference in the length of day and night, scholars believe that pytheas may have reached as far as the arctic circle, possibly as far as iceland and norway (shown in blue). pytheas, in addition to being considered the first known arctic explorer, is believed to have completed the longest sea journey (at over 8,000 miles) in ancient times.

in around 325BC he embarked on a voyage to explore the northern coasts of europe. his motivation may have been commercial, seeking sources of tin and amber. he, apparently, travelled widely in britain, which was unknown territory to the classical world. on his return to massalia (c.320BC), pytheas wrote a book: ‘peri tou okeanou’ (on the ocean). unfortunately, this book has not survived. however, fragments are found in the works of other authors. pliny the elder (AD23–AD79), in his ‘natural history’, writes:
// opposite to this coast is the island called britannia, so celebrated in the records of greece and of our own country [i.e. rome]. it is situate to the north-west, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to germany, gaul, and spain, by far the greater part of europe. its former name was albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of britanniæ… pytheas and isidorus say that its circumference is 4,875miles// ‘natural history’ book iv chapter 30
actually, an earlier spelling of ‘britannia’ was ‘pretannia’. it seems then that, when pytheas arrived, the inhabitants of ‘albion’, called themselves the ‘pretani’ or ‘priteni’. so it was that albion became known as pretannia, and then britannia, to the classical world. pliny’s source was not pytheas’ original text. he got his information second hand, from a, now lost, work by timaeus of tauromenium (c.356BC–c.270BC). timaeus was a greek of sicilian birth, as was diodorus siculus (c.90BC–c.30BC). diodorus also made use of timaeus in his own work, which he called: ‘bibliotheca historica’ (library of history). though he doesn’t say, it seems clear that diodorus’ information about britain originated with pytheas. diodorus says:
// britain is triangular in shape, very much as is sicily, but its sides are not equal. this island stretches obliquely along the coast of europe, and the point where it is least distant from the mainland, we are told, is the promontory which men call cantium [kent], and this is about one hundred stades from the land, at the place where the sea has its outlet, whereas the second promontory, known as belerium [the penwith peninsula of cornwall], is said to be a voyage of four days from the mainland, and the last, writers tell us, extends out into the open sea and is named orca. of the sides of britain the shortest, which extends along europe, is seven thousand five hundred stades, the second, from the strait to the [northern] tip, is fifteen thousand stades, and the last is twenty thousand stades, so that the entire circuit of the island amounts to forty-two thousand five hundred stades.//
// and britain, we are told, is inhabited by tribes which are autochthonous and preserve in their ways of living the ancient manner of life. they use chariots, for instance, in their wars, even as tradition tells us the old greek heroes did in the trojan war, and their dwellings are humble, being built for the most part out of reeds or logs. the method they employ of harvesting their grain crops is to cut off no more than the ears and store them away in roofed barns, and then each day they pick out the ripened ears and grind them, getting in this way their food.//
// as for their habits, they are simple and far removed from the shrewdness and vice which characterize the men of our day. their way of living is modest, since they are well clear of the luxury which is begotten of wealth. the island is also thickly populated, and its climate is extremely cold, as one would expect, since it actually lies under the great bear. it is held by many kings and potentates, who for the most part live at peace among themselves.//
//…. now we shall discuss the tin which the island produces. the inhabitants of britain who dwell about the promontory known as belerium [generally understood now as cornwall] are especially hospitable to strangers and have adopted a civilized manner of life because of their intercourse with merchants of other peoples. they it is who work the tin, treating the bed which bears it in an ingenious manner. this bed, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they then melt down and cleanse of its impurities. then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off britain and is called ictis; for at the time of ebb-tide the space between this island and the mainland becomes dry and they can take the tin in large quantities over to the island on their wagons. (and a peculiar thing happens in the case of the neighbouring islands which lie between europe and britain, for at flood-tide the passages between them and the mainland run full and they have the appearance of islands, but at ebb-tide the sea recedes and leaves dry a large space, and at that time they look like peninsulas.) on the island of ictis the merchants purchase the tin of the natives and carry it from there across the strait to galatia [gaul]; and finally, making their way on foot through galatia for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river rhône//
ictus is thought to be present day marizion which has held a harbour that dates back to prehistory and was used for the trade in tin. and as with diodorus’ account can only be reached by a now ancient trackway at low tide.