Pytheas of Massalia and the circumnavigation of Britain

Statue of Pytheas outside the Palais de la Bourse, Marseille

When we turn our minds to the western Mediterranean of antiquity images of the titanic struggle between Carthage and Rome, known as the Punic wars, are what is most readily invoked, however this does not tell the whole story. Indeed, for a time Greek colonists who headed west were in the ascendancy and chief amongst them was the city of Massalia, modern Marseille, France. This article is the next in a series, you don’t need to have read the parts introducing Antiquity, on the Babylonian world map, on the maps of Hecataeus and Anaximander, Herodotus, Eratosthenes or Carthage to follow this one, but they do provide context.

Massalia played an important role in pushing the boundaries of the known world of antiquity further to the west, partly through establishing colonies of its own in southern France and the eastern seaboard of Spain. However, in many ways the city’s most important contribution to the development of knowledge of the geography of the world in antiquity can be pinpointed to a couple of key individuals. First of all a man named Euthymenes is said to have led an expedition down the west coast of Africa in the early 6th century BCE, apparently reaching as far as a great river which he thought was the Nile but could well have been the Senegal. Unfortunately, we do not have much knowledge of his voyage beyond this tantalising glimpse. However, in the late 4th century BCE another Massiliote named Pytheas wrote an account of his voyage to the north called On the Ocean, in which he appears to have circumnavigated the island of Britain and possibly sailed beyond to Iceland or Norway and even the arctic. It is again unfortunate that his account has not come down to us, but we do have enough references to it in other texts, some rather scathing and sceptical, that historians have been able to reconstruct a plausible interpretation of Pytheas’ journey.

Pytheas’ possible route

To understand the full ramifications of Pytheas expedition, an overview of the world of the late 4th century BCE and of the Greek colonists of the western Mediterranean is helpful to set the context.

For an observer of the 320’s BCE, when Pytheas account was probably written, the eye is drawn most sharply towards the campaigns of Alexander the Great, often dimming the light cast upon the western Mediterranean at this time. Even when we do draw our attention to the west, Carthage appears to reign supreme. A city already about 500 years old at this point, Carthage had cast off its deference to its mother city of Tyre when that city was conquered by the rising Persian empire in the 6th century BCE. In the years since its independence from Tyre, Carthage had risen to become the hegemon of the Phoenician colonies and much of the western Mediterranean itself. In this context, it is easy to see how most attention is drawn to this dominant entity, but looking a little closer, the story is not quite so clean cut.

The Carthaginian Hegemony of the Western Mediterranean

Rome, although rising, was still to burst beyond the bounds of its Italian homeland, perhaps holding our gaze only because of what it would later become. But a large part of the western Mediterranean was dominated by Greek city states. As with their kin back in their homeland, these cities were fractious and competitive, often fighting each other, but nevertheless they remained a thorn in Carthage’s side and prevented that city from complete domination of the western Mediterranean. Greek colonisation of these lands goes back centuries beyond the 4th century BCE and it is worth pausing to reflect a little on this.

Throughout the first 500 years of the first millennium BCE, many Greek cities began to look beyond their homeland to increase trade, access to resources and perhaps ease the burden of overpopulation. The resulting explosion of colonising activity would see over 500 new Greek foundations throughout the Mediterranean and Black seas, perhaps accounting for as much as 40% of all Greeks in the Hellenic world by 500 BCE.

To the west of Greece, a lot of the colonising activity would be focused on southern Italy and Sicily, a region that would come to be called Magna Grecia (Greater Greece). However, the Ionian city of Phocaea seems to have concentrated on establishing colonies in what is now southern France and Spain, which would come to be seen as something of a distant and remote frontier by many Greeks, and the point at which their own influence clashed most pointedly with the Phoenicians. The most important of Phocaea’s colonies would be Massalia and for a short time Massalia could have rivalled both Carthage and Rome for dominance in the west.

Massalia was founded in around 600 BCE. According to most sources, the land on which the city was established was obtained from the local Ligurian Segobridges. It is, however, difficult to separate the tale of the founding of the city from legend. It was said that a Phocaean Greek named Protis was searching for places to site a new trading outpost when he came upon a cove at a place named Lacydon. Whilst exploring the area further, Protis made contact with the Segobridges, whose king, Nannus, invited him to a banquet. The purpose of the feast was for the king’s young daughter to choose a spouse. To everyone’s surprise, she presented the ceremonial cup which indicated her choice of husband to Protis and the land that was to become Massalia was given to the Greek as a wedding gift.

The legends would take a violent turn as the settling Greeks were said to have come into conflict with the Segobridges, perhaps reflecting actual conflict between the newcomers and the local inhabitants. Despite this conflict, Massalia would grow quickly, becoming a major maritime port and having a significant influence on the area, evidenced, for example, by the widespread distribution of coins minted in Massalia across the region. Much like Carthage, the city would receive a boost to its power and strength in about 525 BCE, when its mother city of Phocaea was conquered by the expanding Persian empire and the inhabitants fled to Massalia.

A reflection of this growing strength is that Massalia, along with other Greeks in the region, came into conflict with both Carthage and the Etruscans, resulting in several major engagements. The Massiliotes and their allies even defeated Carthage on a few occasions, notably in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE and it is at this point that Massalia could be said to have been on the road to becoming a credible rival to Carthage’s hegemony and Rome’s growing strength. However, this moment would prove to be fleeting and eventually the city would be forced to side with Rome in the Punic wars as its Italian and Phoenician rivals eclipsed it. However, it is at this moment of relative strength that Pytheas’ expedition took place.

A Celtic currach-style boat

The details of the voyage have been the subject of much dispute as historians have attempted to piece together the journey through the various fragmentary accounts. In the 19th century it was commonly thought that Pytheas must have travelled over land to begin his journey, from Massalia to the mouth of the Garonne or Loire rivers as the straits of Gibraltar were controlled by Carthage at this time and closed to shipping from other powers. The historian Barry Cunliffe amongst others, have even suggested that Pytheas may have carried out most of the journey on foot, taking to local Celtic currach-style boats when needed.

However, consensus has shifted to thinking that the western Greeks at this time may have had friendly relations with Carthage and so were free to operate unhindered around the straits of Gibraltar. There is no evidence in the sources to indicate conflict between the two at the time of Pytheas’ expedition. This view would seem to be reinforced by references to the straits of Gibraltar in Eratosthenes work when referring to Pytheas, although this account was dismissed as unrealistic by Strabo. But a plausible interpretation of the beginning to the voyage, supported by the contextual evidence, would see Pytheas sailing west out of the Mediterranean through the straits of Gibraltar probably in a Greek Holkas, a type of cargo ship, generally flat-bottomed, round-hulled, and propelled primarily by sails. A contrast to the more iconic triremes, the Greek warships.

A Greek Trireme

From here he would have sailed north, along the coast of Portugal, Spain, and France, possibly stopping in Brittany, regions that although distant and not well understood, were still within the bounds of the known world of classical antiquity at the time. It is at this point that Pytheas account turns to the circumnavigation of Britain. It is one that is not without controversy, even in antiquity the route described was disputed, particularly by Strabo. This was because Pytheas reportedly stated that he travelled the whole perimeter of Britain to a distance of 40,000 Stadia. Using Herodotus standard of 600 feet to one stadium would mean 40,000 Stadia equalling 4,545 miles, a distance which Strabo found unrealistically high. Although this criticism did not stop other scholars of antiquity taking Pytheas reported figure as the basis of their own work. Drawing a triangle around Britain with points at Balerion (probably Cornwall), Orkas (the Orkneys) and Kantion (Kent), which Diodorus Siculus stated was 42,000 Stadia and Pliny stated that Pytheas measured this to 4,875 Roman Miles. Although the distances do seem high and have been much disputed and debated for the last two thousand years, the rough outline we get from the accounts does seem to be accurate in the broad strokes which suggests there is some truth to the account.

From Brittany Pytheas crossed to Balerion (Cornwall) where he had his first encounter with the Britons. He witnessed the thriving tin mining industry in Cornwall, whose products would be exported as far as the Mediterranean world and could be one of the reasons for the expedition in the first place. It is from the accounts of these encounters that Diodorus Siculus seems to have taken his later name for Britain and its people, ‘Pretannia’ and ‘Pretanni’ respectively. These seem to be drawn from the P-Celtic division of the Celtic language. It is only later that the forms ‘Britannia’ and ‘Britanni’, drawn from the B-Celtic division, are used. The form can most easily be seen in the modern Welsh ‘Ynys Prydein’ (the island of Britain). The word suggests that the people described themselves as ‘the people of the forms’, as in shapes or pictures, the modern Welsh ‘pryd’ meaning form. It is a summation that would marry well with the later Roman description of some of the Britons north of Hadrian’s wall as Picts or Picti meaning painted.

The P-Celtic words also give us a clue as to the people Pytheas interacted with and the route he took around the island. Most obviously it shows that he probably had little to no contact with the Irish who spoke a Q-Celtic language and instead probably travelled along the coast of what is now Wales. From Wales it seems he may have made landfall on the isle of man before sailing up the west coast of Scotland and passing between the Inner and Outer Hebrides, taking several latitudinal readings as he went.

The next section of the journey is probably the most ambiguous and disputed, as it is speculated by some scholars and stated by other ancient sources that Pytheas dared to venture out into the North Sea. Strabo states that from the west coast of Scotland, Pytheas sailed for 6 days before he again encountered land, stopping on an island named Thule. The subject of much controversy, the island of Thule would appear on many ancient maps without ever having a settled location or shape. Some scholars have speculated that Pytheas could indeed have made it to Iceland, but it is a position that has not gained universal acceptance and remains much debated. Others have instead suggested that the account is slightly misleading and in fact he journeyed further east and landed in Norway. What does seem to be largely accepted is that Pytheas did in fact journey further north than any other person from the Mediterranean had before, that we know of, and so in this regard the account of his journey to Thule must be regarded as an epoch marking event in the history of exploration.

The next events recorded in Pytheas’ account are no less astounding and give further credence to the claim that Pytheas did indeed venture much further north than Britain. First, Pytheas is said to have witnessed the phenomenon of continuous daylight, therefore he must have entered a region far to the north close to the arctic circle. Further, Pytheas’ account records that a day’s sail north of Thule they encountered what he termed a ‘congealed sea’ and a ‘sea-lung’. These phrases have been much disputed and so it is worth quoting the passage from Strabo, who quoted Pytheas directly on this matter,

“Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unite the whole together”

Pancake ice

Given the context of Pytheas’ voyage and the preceding reports of endless daylight, the consensus has fallen on these terms being the best way that Pytheas could think of to describe a frozen arctic ocean, in the case of ‘congealed sea’, and the phenomenon of pancake ice for ‘sea-lung’. The Greeks used the term ‘sea-lung’ to refer to a jelly fish and it has been suggested that the floating ice may have resembled a jelly fish to Pytheas’ eye.

These accounts seem too consistent and detailed to be dismissed as inventions or exaggeration and so would suggest that Pytheas likely did reach a point near the arctic circle. Whether this point was near Iceland or Norway matters little when we consider that a man from the Mediterranean world of classical antiquity, a world which less than two hundred years previously knew precious little of the world beyond southern Europe and the near east, had reached as far north as the arctic circle, probably in a small wooden trading cog.

From here, Pytheas turned south to complete his circumnavigation of Britain, rounding a point he named ‘Kantion’, almost certainly the Kentish peninsula. However, it seems that Pytheas did not turn for home from here. Instead he may well have headed east along the northern coast of Europe. It is in this part of the voyage that we may once again have a clue as to the original purpose of the expedition. Much like the Carthaginian exploration voyages, as I have written about in another piece, the main reason for making such perilous journeys was to search for sources of raw materials. In Cornwall, Pytheas found the source of tin that had been flooding into the Mediterranean for centuries, in Northern Europe he may have been searching for the source of the valuable amber trade. This is evidenced as he seems to have made landfall on the island of Heligoland in the North Sea, a source of ample supplies of amber. As well as this, Pliny says that he encountered a Germanic people called the Gutones near a river estuary, possible somewhere near the mouth of the Rhine.

Amber, a valuable trade good in the ancient world

It is somewhat unclear where Pytheas went next, with some suggesting that he entered the Baltic sea and travelled as far as the mouth of the Vistula river in modern Poland, but it is difficult to verify this. Whether he did or did not venture into the Baltic, he made the long voyage back to the Mediterranean and Massalia soon after.

Pytheas probably wrote his account of the voyage sometime just before 320 BCE as it is around this date when the work starts to be cited by ancient scholars. The fact that it was cited so quickly, and appears to have been very widely spread around the classical world, with copies in at least the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, shows how valued and remarkable such a work was, even if it did come in for criticism by later scholars. Indeed, until the writings of Julius Caesar and Tacitus, On the Ocean was the only account the people of classical antiquity had of Britain and northern Europe. It is therefore a great shame that no copies of the work have survived to come down to us and that we know very little of Pytheas himself. What we can deduce about him and the cultural climate in which he existed is that there was a remarkable curiosity about the world, combined with a knowledge, skill and sense of adventure to strike out into the unknown, taking great risks to further understanding of the world. What fragments we do have of the work, suggest that, far from the fantastical account that Strabo suggests it is, it was in fact a reasoned and rational account, devoid of wild speculation and outlandish exaggeration. This further adds to the image we can build of Pytheas and the world in which he inhabited. It was a world in which myth and legend was giving way to reason and rational explanation, with a desire to discover, describe and document the world in ever more detail. In short, as we enter the middle of our period of study, we can see many similarities to our own world, with understanding and knowledge of the geography of the earth growing and a set of rational, almost scientific, tools being developed to explain and understand the new discoveries developing.

With the boundaries of classical antiquity being pushed ever further outward and more and more knowledge being drawn into the centre, Rome would soon step in to take its place as head of the classical world. The Romans would draw together more peoples of the classical world than any other empire before them, and in doing so they would consolidate its boundaries and take understanding of the world to a new height. The next group of articles will begin to track this Roman consolidation and we will start by taking a closer look at the geographer Strabo.

Main Sources

Garlinghouse, Thomas S. “On the Ocean: The Famous Voyage of Pytheas.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Jul 2017. Web. 23 Aug 2020.

Cunliffe, Barry, “The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek” Penguin Books, 2003.

Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006

Brooke-Hitching, Edward “The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps”, Simon and Schuster, London, 2018



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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.