Cunliffe, Barry. The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek.

Rev. ed. NY: Walker, 2002.

Cunliffe is a well-known archaeologist and classical scholar at Oxford who specializes in the interface between the land of Europe and the oceans surrounding it on three sides. He also has a talent for storytelling, which is not a bad thing in an historian.

I’ve long had a interest in exploration and discovery, especially in the early period, whether it’s the Egyptian voyage to Punt in the 11th dynasty, or the Greenlanders’ explorations of North America in the 11th century — or, in this case, the journey made by one adventurous Greek from Marseilles with a great and thoughtful curiosity about the world outside the Mediterranean where so many interesting and useful trade goods came from. About 330 BC, he set off to discover what he could find out about that world, and managed to make his way not only up the Atlantic coast of France (probably going overland from the present-day Narbonne to Toulouse to Bordeaux, rather than out past Gibraltar), but also across to Britain and the tin mines of Cornwall, up through the Irish Sea to the Orkneys, and out into the great open sea as far as Iceland — Ultima Thule — and the edge of the Arctic ice pack, then along the North Sea coast as far as Jutland, and then all the way back home again. And while I had always assumed (without really thinking about it) that Pytheas had his own ship, Cunliffe argues convincingly that he more likely shifted from one local trading vessel to another, taking advantage of local sailing knowledge and making use of local translators and guides. On his return, he wrote up his discoveries and observations (he made frequent reckonings of latitude) in an account called On the Ocean, which became a source for nearly every geographer and historian thereafter — though some of his successors decided he was making it all up. (“Ah, those Greeks,” you know.) And while no copies survive of his book, the many quotes from it by authors in later centuries allow Cunliffe to work out his route and to piece together many of the probable details. And all along the way, he provides historical and anthropological context, so the reader can see what Pytheas probably saw and can guess at what he made of it. This is an altogether fascinating and absorbing tale and the author displays his usual great skill in telling it in a highly informative, enjoyably discursive, and academically nonthreatening manner. Highly recommended.

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Published in: on 16 June 2012 at 5:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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