Pytheas : biography

Polybius relates: "… on his return thence (from the north), he traversed the whole of the coast of Europe from Gades to the Tanais."Polybius XXXIV.5. Some authors consider this leg a second voyage, as it does not seem likely he would pass by Marseilles without refitting and refreshing the crew. It is striking that he encountered the border of Scythia, turned around, and went around Europe counter-clockwise until he came to the southern side of Scythia on the Black Sea. It is possible to speculate that he may have hoped to circumnavigate Europe, but the sources do not say. In other, even more speculative interpretations, Pytheas returned north and the Tanais is not the Don but is a northern river, such as the Elbe river..

Encounter with drift ice

[[Pancake ice in the Baltic in spring near the Swedish coast.]] After mentioning the crossing (navigatio) from Berrice to Tyle, Pliny makes a brief statement that: A Tyle unius diei navigatione mare concretum a nonnullis Cronium appellatur.

"One day’s sail from Thule is the frozen ocean, called by some the Cronian Sea."

The mare concretum appears to match Strabo’s pepēguia thalatta and is probably the same as the topoi ("places") mentioned in Strabo’s apparent description of spring drift ice, which would have stopped his voyage further north and was for him the ultimate limit of the world. Strabo says:Translation from .

Pytheas also speaks of the waters around Thule and of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, like a "marine lung", in which it is said that earth and water and all things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.

The term used for "marine lung" (pleumōn thalattios) appears to refer to jellyfish of the type the ancients called sea-lung. The latter are mentioned by Aristotle in On the Parts of Animals as being free-floating and insensate.IV.5. They are not further identifiable from what Aristotle says but some pulmones appear in Pliny as a class of insensate sea animal;Natural History . specifically the halipleumon ("salt-water lung").Natural History . William Ogle, Aristotle’s translator and annotator, attributes the name sea-lung to the lung-like expansion and contraction of the Medusae, a kind of Cnidaria, during locomotion. The ice resembled floating circles in the water. The modern term for this phenomenon is pancake ice.

The association of Pytheas’ observations with drift ice has long been standard in navigational literature, including Bowditch, which begins Chapter 33, Ice Navigation, with Pytheas. At its edge, sea, slush, and ice mix, surrounded by fog.


Pliny says that Timaeus (born about 350 BC) believed Pytheas’ story of the discovery of amber.Natural History, . Strabo says that Dicaearchus (died about 285 BC) did not trust the stories of Pytheas.Geographica (elsewhere paragraph 104). That is all the information that survives concerning the date of Pytheas’ voyage. Presuming that Timaeus would not have written until after he was 20 years old at about 330 BC and Dicaearchus would have needed time to write his most mature work, after 300 BC, there is no reason not to accept Tozer’s window of 330 BC – 300 BC for the voyage.. Some would give Timaeus an extra 5 years, bringing the voyage down to 325 BC at earliest. There is no further evidence.

If one presumes that Pytheas would not have written prior to being 20 years old, he would have been a contemporary and competitor of Timaeus and Dicaearchus. As they read his writings he must have written toward the earlier years of the window.

Discovery of Thule

Grain field in modern [[Trondheim, Norway]] Strabo relates, taking his text from Polybius, "Pytheas asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world."Geographica . Strabo does not believe it but he explains what Pytheas means by the ends of the world.Geographica . Thoulē, he says (today spelled Thule),Pliny uses Tyle. Vergil references ultima Thule in Georgic I, Line 30, where the ultima refer to the ends of the world. is the most northerly of the British Isles. There the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the Arctic Circle (see below on Arctic Circle). Moreover, says Strabo, none of the other authors mention Thule, a fact which he uses to discredit Pytheas, but which to moderns indicates Pytheas was the first explorer to arrive there and tell of it.