Pytheas : biography

Circumstances of the voyage

Pytheas was not the first Mediterranean mariner to reach the British Isles. The Massaliote Periplus is a more extensive fragment preserved in paraphrase in the Ora Maritima, a poem of the 4th century AD written by the Roman, Avienus. This periplus of a ship from Marseilles on which the poem relies is uncertain in date, but is believed to be possibly from the 6th century BC, not long after the founding of the city. It primarily describes the coasts of southern Spain and Portugal, but makes brief mention of a visit to "the sacred isle" (Ireland, Ierne) located across from Albion (an early name for Britain).

The start of Pytheas’s voyage is unknown. The Carthaginians had closed the Strait of Gibraltar to all ships from other nations. Some historians, mainly of the late 19th century and before, therefore speculated (on no evidence) that he must have traveled overland to the mouth of the Loire or the Garonne. Others believed that, to avoid the Carthaginian blockade, he may have stuck close to land and sailed only at night, or taken advantage of a temporary lapse in the blockade.

An alternate theory holds that by the 4th century BC, the western Greeks, especially the Massaliotes, were on amicable terms with Carthage. In 348 BC, Carthage and Rome came to terms over the Sicilian Wars with a treaty defining their mutual interests. Rome could use Sicilian markets, Carthage could buy and sell goods at Rome, and slaves taken by Carthage from allies of Rome were to be set free. Rome was to stay out of the western Mediterranean, but these terms did not apply to Massalia, which had its own treaty. During the last half of the 4th century BC, the time of Pytheas’ voyage, Massaliotes were presumably free to operate as they pleased; there is, at least, no evidence of conflict with Carthage in any of the sources that touch on the voyage.

The early part of Pytheas’ voyage is outlined by statements of Eratosthenes that Strabo says are false because taken from Pytheas.Geographica . Apparently, Pytheas said that tides ended at the "sacred promontory" (Ieron akrōtērion, or Sagres Point), and from there to Gades is said to be 5 days’ sail. Strabo complains about this distance, and about Pytheas’ portrayal of the exact location of Tartessos. Mention of these places in a journal of the voyage indicates that Pytheas passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and sailed north along the coast of Portugal.


1620 edition of [[Strabo’s Geographica.]] Pytheas described his travels in a work that has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by later authors, most familiarly in Strabo’s Geographica,Book I.4.2-4 covers the astronomical calculations of Pytheas and calls him a prevaricator. Book II.3.5 excuses his prevarication on the grounds of his being a professional. Book III.2.11 and 4.4, Book IV.2.1 criticise him again, Book IV.4.1 mentions his reference to the Celtic Ostimi. Book IV.5.5 describes Thule. Book VII.3.1 accuses him of using his science to cover up lies. Pliny’s Natural History and passages in Diodorus of Sicily’s history. Most of the ancients, including the first two just mentioned, refer to his work by his name: "Pytheas says …" Two late writers give titles: the astronomical author Geminus of Rhodes mentions (ta peri tou Okeanou), literally "things about the Ocean", sometimes translated as "Description of the Ocean", "On the Ocean" or "Ocean"; Marcianus, the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes, mentions a (periodos gēs), a "trip around the earth" or (periplous), "sail around".

Scholars of the 19th century tended to interpret these titles as the names of distinct works covering separate voyages; for example, Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology hypothesizes a voyage to Britain and Thule written about in "Ocean" and another from Cadiz to the Don river, written about in "Sail Around". As is common with ancient texts, multiple titles may represent a single source, for example, if a title refers to a section rather than the whole. The mainstream today recognizes periplus as a genre of navigational literature and concedes that there was only one work, "on the Ocean", which was based on a periplus.