Thursday, January 3, 2013

History through the Eyes of . . . Pytheas the Greek

Randall Stephens

I've been reading Peter Ackroyd's wonderful Foundation: The History of England, Volume 1 (Pan, 2012). In typical fashion, Ackroyd's prose sparkles and he ranges effortlessly from the misty realms of prehistory to the demise of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, in 1509.  Fascinating anecdotes, panoramic descriptions of geography, and the voices of the dead make the book come alive.  One character in particular in the early pages piqued my interest. 

He was one of the earliest travelers to describe the landscape and customs of the British Isles. Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas made his voyage to northern Europe in roughly 325 BC.  Pytheas's chief work, On the Ocean, is lost somewhere in the dustbin of history.  But, we know of his discoveries through the Greek historian Polybius and the Greek geographer Strabo, as well as Pliny the Elder in later years.  And he was cited by around 18 others as well.

Here is Strabo on suspicions surrounding the Greek wanderer: "Pytheas asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world—an assertion which no man would believe, not even if Hermes made it." Zing. The ancients used him as a model of untrustworthiness.  He was, in their words, a liar.

In fact, though, Pytheas was darn close in his estimation of Britain's circumference. What he called the island Prettanike or Brettanial stuck. He may have visited Norway and/or Iceland as well. 

It's likely that Diodorus' (1st century BC) description of Britain draws from Pytheas' firsthand account. So, though we don't get history directly through the eyes of Pytheas, we do in a round about way.  Here Diodorus describes the mining of tin in the southwest of England:

The inhabitants of Britain who dwell about the promontory known as Belerium 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;19 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 or Gaul; and finally, making their way on foot through Gaul for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river Rhone.

In recent years there has been some revision on Pytheas. Contra the ancients and there deep-seated Pytheas skepticism, see Barry Cunliffe, The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Penguin Books, 2002). 


Lisa Clark Diller said...

This is a great advertisement for Ackroyd's book. I'll be going out to get it immediately. There's nothing like remembering how remote England seemed to the centers of "Western Civilization." Thanks for sharing this, Randall!

Randall said...

Lisa: I think you'd really enjoy the book. A serious page-turner.