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Thread: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    Pytheas of Massalia (from what is now Marseille, France), an ancient Greek geographer who lived from roughly 350 to 285 BC, not only made measurements of latitude and was the first to make a connection between the tides and the phases of the moon, but was also a renowned explorer. While the Carthaginian Hanno the Navigator was famous for exploring the Atlantic and West Africa, Pytheas was equally famed in his day for reaching northern Europe (two centuries before Gaius Julius Caesar). There were certainly contemporary Greeks like Dicaearchus who doubted many of his tales, but we are fortunate enough to have their criticism, because the written works of Pytheas have sadly been lost. Much of what we know about him is preserved in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder. It is through these authors that we know others wrote about Pytheas, such as the Sicilian Greek historian Timaeus.

    Sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar (or in his day, the Pillars of Hercules), Pytheas apparently sailed around the Iberian Peninsula and up the Atlantic coast of France to reach England and perhaps other parts of the British Isles. According to the Massaliote Periplus, Greeks had reached the British Isles as far back as the 6th century BC, in voyages spurred by the advent of the lucrative tin trade (the Carthaginian explorer Himilco reached northwestern France during the 5th century BC for the same reason). However, much more fantastical is the idea of Pytheas perhaps reaching Ireland, Iceland, and the Baltic region where he says he reached the borderlands of the Scythians. His preserved descriptions of the lands of the Hyperboreans, along with the isle of Thule, are also very curious.

    So what do you guys think? With the surviving evidence, albeit imperfect and summarized in the works of others who came after him, do you think he reached places well beyond the British Isles? Do you think he sailed around Denmark or even the southern shores of Norway and Sweden to reach the Baltic Sea and perhaps Prussia?

    It's at least pretty clear that he reached the Arctic Circle, seeing how he is the first person in history to describe the Midnight Sun.

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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    The easiest route would probably just be up the Norwegian coast after jumping straight from Scotland, how to know to sail into the Baltic, he would go further east than north first

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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    Its possible, just highly unlikely.
    Britain's reasonable enough, you find it by following the coast, and maybe asking for directions from a local fisherman or something. The Baltic region is possible, as finding it isn't the problem, but gets less likely as its very far from home. Places like Iceland however, which are well out of the way of the coast or any trade route, tend to be discovered by accident, typically by people being blown off course by a storm. And even after they were found, good luck finding them again without the likes of a compass, or the way back home afterwards for that matter; there's a reason sailors were highly reluctant to sail the open ocean in pre-modern times.

    This whole concept of sailing off away from shore trying to find new landmasses didn't really take off in Europe (or anywhere else outside Polynesia as far as I'm aware) until Columbus. Hell, after Columbus, even; when he did it most people thought he was crazy, and didn't entirely believe him until decades afterwards when someone else corroborated his claims (and got the Americas named after him in the process; that really should have gone to Columbus). The famed Scandinavian colonies in the north Atlantic and North America, for comparison, were originally discovered by sailors blown off course, as opposed to someone deliberately looking for them.
    The risk of coming back half starved, dehydrated, and suffering from scurvy after months at sea with nothing to show for it was just too great, and that's if they came back at all. And most of the time when people did find something, it was just a bunch of small islands out in the middle of the ocean; not worthless if they're arable, but hardly enough to justify the risks. Especially since our foolhardy explorer can't exactly patent the island to guarantee its exclusivity.
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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    By far the most likely scenario is that he visited Norway. As I recall, Pytheas was said to have taken four days to travel from Kantion (Kent) to Berenike (Cornwall), his starting point being defined as the narrowest poin in the channel. Drawing a straight line in Google Maps, this would be about 495 km. In reality, he would have followed the coast, so an estimate can be made that the actual distance travelled was something like 640 km. So, perhaps 160 km per day.

    On his journey to Thule, Pytheas is stated to have started from the island of "Berrice", and sailing for six days from there. Berrice is thought to be the island of Lewis. Google maps shows distance from Lewis to Trondheim (once again, straight line) as about 1050 km. Making 160 km a day, Pytheas would have been able to sail 960 km away from Lewis during the 6 days he took to reach Thule. Since he probably made a bit better time of it on the open sea than on the coast, Trondheim seems a solid candidate for Pytheas' Thule. In any case, Thule is said to be inhabited, and agriculture is practiced, so we can safely rule out Iceland.

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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    Quote Originally Posted by Linke View Post
    The easiest route would probably just be up the Norwegian coast after jumping straight from Scotland, how to know to sail into the Baltic, he would go further east than north first
    Quote Originally Posted by Charerg View Post
    By far the most likely scenario is that he visited Norway. As I recall, Pytheas was said to have taken four days to travel from Kantion (Kent) to Berenike (Cornwall), his starting point being defined as the narrowest poin in the channel. Drawing a straight line in Google Maps, this would be about 495 km. In reality, he would have followed the coast, so an estimate can be made that the actual distance travelled was something like 640 km. So, perhaps 160 km per day.

    On his journey to Thule, Pytheas is stated to have started from the island of "Berrice", and sailing for six days from there. Berrice is thought to be the island of Lewis. Google maps shows distance from Lewis to Trondheim (once again, straight line) as about 1050 km. Making 160 km a day, Pytheas would have been able to sail 960 km away from Lewis during the 6 days he took to reach Thule. Since he probably made a bit better time of it on the open sea than on the coast, Trondheim seems a solid candidate for Pytheas' Thule. In any case, Thule is said to be inhabited, and agriculture is practiced, so we can safely rule out Iceland.
    Good posts. I also suspected it would have been Norway instead of Iceland as well, but it is still very curious how he described the Midnight Sun of the Arctic Circle. That is considerably further north than the British Isles, grazes the northern shores of Iceland, and encompasses roughly the northern third of Norway. Of course, it's possible that he could have simply heard about the existence of the Midnight Sun from fellow travelers or locals he met in the various places he visited.

    Quote Originally Posted by Caligula's_Horse View Post
    Its possible, just highly unlikely.
    Britain's reasonable enough, you find it by following the coast, and maybe asking for directions from a local fisherman or something. The Baltic region is possible, as finding it isn't the problem, but gets less likely as its very far from home. Places like Iceland however, which are well out of the way of the coast or any trade route, tend to be discovered by accident, typically by people being blown off course by a storm. And even after they were found, good luck finding them again without the likes of a compass, or the way back home afterwards for that matter; there's a reason sailors were highly reluctant to sail the open ocean in pre-modern times.

    This whole concept of sailing off away from shore trying to find new landmasses didn't really take off in Europe (or anywhere else outside Polynesia as far as I'm aware) until Columbus. Hell, after Columbus, even; when he did it most people thought he was crazy, and didn't entirely believe him until decades afterwards when someone else corroborated his claims (and got the Americas named after him in the process; that really should have gone to Columbus). The famed Scandinavian colonies in the north Atlantic and North America, for comparison, were originally discovered by sailors blown off course, as opposed to someone deliberately looking for them.
    The risk of coming back half starved, dehydrated, and suffering from scurvy after months at sea with nothing to show for it was just too great, and that's if they came back at all. And most of the time when people did find something, it was just a bunch of small islands out in the middle of the ocean; not worthless if they're arable, but hardly enough to justify the risks. Especially since our foolhardy explorer can't exactly patent the island to guarantee its exclusivity.
    It's pretty amazing that he took this journey in the first place. Apparently his fellow Massaliotes were interested in discovering the true origin of the tin and other trade items they were receiving, such as amber from the far north. I'm not really sure what the payoff was for this particular journey other than his chance scientific discoveries of the moon causing the rising and falling of the ocean tides and the latitudal ranges for various distant locations. In other words, I'm not sure what sort of financial benefits this crew was looking for in exploring these places. Perhaps the Massaliotes were looking to establish new colonies to bolster both their wealth and security? They were often engaged in hostilities with Carthage and had lost Corsica to Carthage a couple centuries before this. Do you think they were looking for a way to control the trade routes and bypass some of the middle men?

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    Abdülmecid I's Avatar ¡Ay Carmela!
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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    I agree that the western coast of Norway is the likelier candidate for Thule. The suggestions are widely ranged, from pessimists (Orkney Isles) to optimists (Greenland) and even crazies*. Pytheas also mentions the existence of huge, shiny jellyfish, which are thought to be either products of his vivid imagination or icebergs.
    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix View Post
    It's pretty amazing that he took this journey in the first place. Apparently his fellow Massaliotes were interested in discovering the true origin of the tin and other trade items they were receiving, such as amber from the far north. I'm not really sure what the payoff was for this particular journey other than his chance scientific discoveries of the moon causing the rising and falling of the ocean tides and the latitudal ranges for various distant locations. In other words, I'm not sure what sort of financial benefits this crew was looking for in exploring these places. Perhaps the Massaliotes were looking to establish new colonies to bolster both their wealth and security? They were often engaged in hostilities with Carthage and had lost Corsica to Carthage a couple centuries before this. Do you think they were looking for a way to control the trade routes and bypass some of the middle men?
    Yes, it's most probable that the motive behind Pytheas' journey was trade. The Phoenicians were very protective of their trade routes in Western Europe and they employed a great variety of methods to make sure that their monopoly will remain unchallenged. Inventing terror-stories, of gigantic sea monsters hungry for adventurous sailors was the friendliest tactic. When these rumours were doubted, then the way too critically-thinking cities would share a fate similar to Alalia's. So, it's reasonable to expect that Pytheas expected some financial profits from his "discoveries", but even if his reports were better received, I doubt that the Greek colonies would be in a position to face Carthage and the Phoenician colonies of Iberia on equal terms.
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    *There was a guy that claimed that Pytheas actually discovered... Chile. Apparently, the icebergs must have been coming from the Southern Pole... He based his entire theory on a phonetic similarity between the names of Colchis (since everybody knows that Pytheas' journey was the inspiration of the myth of the golden fleece) and an Indian tribe of the 16th century.

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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix View Post
    It's pretty amazing that he took this journey in the first place. Apparently his fellow Massaliotes were interested in discovering the true origin of the tin and other trade items they were receiving, such as amber from the far north. I'm not really sure what the payoff was for this particular journey other than his chance scientific discoveries of the moon causing the rising and falling of the ocean tides and the latitudal ranges for various distant locations. In other words, I'm not sure what sort of financial benefits this crew was looking for in exploring these places. Perhaps the Massaliotes were looking to establish new colonies to bolster both their wealth and security? They were often engaged in hostilities with Carthage and had lost Corsica to Carthage a couple centuries before this. Do you think they were looking for a way to control the trade routes and bypass some of the middle men?
    Maybe they were, though if that was their intention, they were in for a disappointment. The Romans would sail trade ships around Spain all the time a few centuries later, but they had ports all along the way for resupply and repair, as well as for their army or navy to go hunting any pirates, and didn't have to pay tolls to any foreign powers along the route. Without those, the journey starts sounding a lot less lucrative, given the distance and the state of the day's naval technology.
    I also don't think the Iberians and Gauls along the way would have appreciated a Greek colony popping up in their midst, and certainly had the muscle to voice their displeasure. Or that the local Phonecians would have just taken the competition lying down.

    It really might just have been a matter of curiosity. Its not like we don't fund these sorts of scientific curiosities ourselves today, whether publicly or privately (though I'll grant its gotten more common now with our industrialized resource surplus). Most scientific discoveries do end up profitable, though sometimes only centuries later to be reaped by someone else entirely; certainly not an investment for your average capitalist.
    I don't think the crew would have cared much though, assuming that like most crews throughout history, they were paid a salary as opposed to percentages. Probably a pretty decent salary for a sailor of the time as well, given the dangers of the task; either that, or someone sold the "glory of it" angle really, really well.
    Last edited by Caligula's_Horse; February 12, 2016 at 07:54 AM.
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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    Quote Originally Posted by Abdülmecid I View Post
    I agree that the western coast of Norway is the likelier candidate for Thule. The suggestions are widely ranged, from pessimists (Orkney Isles) to optimists (Greenland) and even crazies*. Pytheas also mentions the existence of huge, shiny jellyfish, which are thought to be either products of his vivid imagination or icebergs. Yes, it's most probable that the motive behind Pytheas' journey was trade. The Phoenicians were very protective of their trade routes in Western Europe and they employed a great variety of methods to make sure that their monopoly will remain unchallenged. Inventing terror-stories, of gigantic sea monsters hungry for adventurous sailors was the friendliest tactic. When these rumours were doubted, then the way too critically-thinking cities would share a fate similar to Alalia's. So, it's reasonable to expect that Pytheas expected some financial profits from his "discoveries", but even if his reports were better received, I doubt that the Greek colonies would be in a position to face Carthage and the Phoenician colonies of Iberia on equal terms.
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    *There was a guy that claimed that Pytheas actually discovered... Chile. Apparently, the icebergs must have been coming from the Southern Pole... He based his entire theory on a phonetic similarity between the names of Colchis (since everybody knows that Pytheas' journey was the inspiration of the myth of the golden fleece) and an Indian tribe of the 16th century.
    Lol. I never considered the idea that those stories of sea monsters in the Atlantic would have been fabricated by Carthaginians in order to scare Greek explorers away. Did those tales exist before or after Euthymenes of Massalia allegedly explored the mouth of the Senegal River in the 6th century BC? He was a contemporary of Hanno the Navigator from Carthage, who also explored West Africa. Perhaps Hanno's contemporaries were already growing wary of the Greeks nipping at their heels? They were already fighting over territory at this point, since the Massaliotes were kicked out of Corsica by the Carthaginians. They apparently became content with building a web of supportive colonies and settlements in southern France to aid Massalia, which lost its mother city of Phokaia to the Persians (Emporion in northwestern Spain, or Catalonia, was one of these Phokaian colonies as well).

    Quote Originally Posted by Caligula's_Horse View Post
    Maybe they were, though if that was their intention, they were in for a disappointment. The Romans would sail trade ships around Spain all the time a few centuries later, but they had ports all along the way for resupply and repair, as well as for their army or navy to go hunting any pirates, and didn't have to pay tolls to any foreign powers along the route. Without those, the journey starts sounding a lot less lucrative, given the distance and the state of the day's naval technology.
    I also don't think the Iberians and Gauls along the way would have appreciated a Greek colony popping up in their midst, and certainly had the muscle to voice their displeasure. Or that the local Phonecians would have just taken the competition lying down.

    It really might just have been a matter of curiosity. Its not like we don't fund these sorts of scientific curiosities ourselves today, whether publicly or privately (though I'll grant its gotten more common now with our industrialized resource surplus). Most scientific discoveries do end up profitable, though sometimes only centuries later to be reaped by someone else entirely; certainly not an investment for your average capitalist.
    I don't think the crew would have cared much though, assuming that like most crews throughout history, they were paid a salary as opposed to percentages. Probably a pretty decent salary for a sailor of the time as well, given the dangers of the task; either that, or someone sold the "glory of it" angle really, really well.
    Hah...I'd like to hear that conversation! That would be quite a salesman.

    I think you've persuaded me a bit in terms of what the Massaliotes had in mind, although it is possible they were thinking of the long-term, not just some short-term goals. Perhaps they were thinking of a way to challenge Carthage in the future. I can't think of any other concrete, practical reason why they would have sponsored this voyage.

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default Re: Aside from Great Britain, did the ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia really visit Iceland, the Arctic Circle, the Baltic region, and elsewhere?

    For anyone who's interested in reading up on this, there's a book by Barry Cunliffe that details the voyages of Pytheas.

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