Pytheas : biography

Here Strabo launches another quibble. Hipparchus, relying on Pytheas, according to Strabo, places this area south of Britain, but he, Strabo, calculates that it is north of Ierne. Pytheas, however, rightly knows what is now Scotland as part of Britain, land of the Picts, even though north of Ierne. North of southern Scotland the longest day is 19 hours. Strabo, based on theory alone, states that Ierne is so cold that any lands north of it must be uninhabited. In the hindsight given to moderns Pytheas, in relying on observation in the field, appears more scientific than Strabo, who discounted the findings of others merely because of their to him strangeness. The ultimate cause of his skepticism is simply that he did not believe Scandinavia could exist. This disbelief may also be the cause of alteration of Pytheas’ data.

Literary influence

Pytheas was a central source of information to later periods, and possibly the only source.The only ancient authors we know by name who saw Pytheas’ text were Dicaearchus, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Crates of Mallus, Hipparchus, Polybius, Artemidorus and Posidonius, as Lionel Pearson remarked in reviewing Hans Joachim Mette, Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: Gruyter) 1952, in Classical Philology 49.3 (July 1954), pp. 212-214.

Strabo, citing Polybius, accuses Pytheas of promulgating a fictitious journey he could never have funded, as he was a private individual (idiōtēs) and a poor man (penēs). Markham proposes a possible answer to the funding question:. seeing that Pytheas was known as a professional geographer and that north Europe was as yet a question mark to Massalian merchants, he suggests that "the enterprise was a government expedition of which Pytheas was placed in command." In another suggestion the merchants of Marseilles sent him out to find northern markets. These theories are speculative but perhaps less so than Strabo’s contention that Pytheas was a charlatan just because a professional geographer doubted him.Geographica .

Strabo does explain his reasons for doubting Pytheas’ veracity. Citing numerous instances of Pytheas apparently being far off the mark on details concening known regions, he says: "however, any man who has told such great falsehoods about the known regions would hardly, I imagine, be able to tell the truth about places that are not known to anybody." As an example he mentions that Pytheas says Kent is several days’ sail from Celtica when it is visible from Gaul across the channel. If Pytheas had visited the place he should have verified it personally.

The objection although partially true is itself flawed. Strabo interjects his own view of the location of Celtica, that it was opposite to Britain, end to end. Pytheas, however, places it further south, around the mouth of the Loire (see above), from which it might justifiably be several days’ sail. The people across from Britain in Caesar’s time are the Germani in the north and the Belgae in the south. Still, some of the Celtic lands were on the channel and were visible from it, which Pytheas should have mentioned but Strabo implies he did not.

Strabo’s other objections are similarly flawed or else completely wrong. He simply did not believe the earth was inhabited north of Ierne. Pytheas however could not then answer for himself, or protect his own work from loss or alteration, so most of the questions concerning his voyage remain unresolved, to be worked over by every generation. To some he is a daring adventurer and discoverer; to others, a semi-legendary blunderer or prevaricator.

The logical outcome of this tendency is the historical novel with Pytheas as the main character and the celebration of Pytheas in poetry beginning as far back as Virgil. The process continues into modern times; for example, Pytheas is a key theme in Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. Details of Pytheas’ voyage also serve as the backdrop for Chapter I of Poul Anderson’s science fiction novel, The Boat of a Million Years.