Pytheas Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Gallic explorer{$I[g]Europe;Pytheas} Pytheas undertook the first lengthy voyage to the North Atlantic and may have circumnavigated England. This knowledge of the West, together with his astronomical observations, provided the basis for centuries of study.

Early Life

It is a special characteristic of the study of antiquity that the fewer facts scholars know about a figure, the more they seem to write about him or her. So it is that an enormous bibliography about Pytheas (PIHTH-ee-uhs) of Massalia, the first known man to explore the far reaches of the North Atlantic, has evolved.

The time period of Pytheas’s voyage has been determined with some certainty. He seems to have used a reference work that dates to 347 b.c.e., but because he is not mentioned by Aristotle, perhaps the voyage had not occurred before Aristotle’s death in 322 b.c.e. Also, according to Strabo, Pytheas is quoted by Dicaearchus, who died c. 285 b.c.e. Thus, the voyage most definitely occurred between 347 and 285. At this time Carthage was the leading city of the western Mediterranean and controlled all traffic in and out of the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). It is, therefore, sometimes claimed that Pytheas could have escaped this blockade only while Carthage was distracted in the war with Syracuse. If these assumptions are correct, the voyage took place between 310 and 306. Further, because Pytheas was surely a mature adult when he undertook the journey, scholars place his birth roughly between 350 and 325.

The date for the voyage is important, for it is believed that Pytheas opened the world of the West to Greek exploration at the same time that the wonders of the Far East were trickling back to the Mediterranean region as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. The cosmopolitan Hellenistic age was being born, and a quest for knowledge of far-off lands and their marvels was to play a large role in it. Apart from this tenuous but probable date, only two firm facts about Pytheas’s life—his financial condition and his place of origin—are known. Polybius, also quoted by Strabo, sneers at Pytheas’s voyage, asking if it was likely that a private citizen, and a poor one at that, ever undertook such a venture. Although Polybius was far from impartial, this comment may indicate that the voyage was state-sponsored.

His place of origin, Massalia, was founded c. 600 b.c.e. by Phocaea in Asia Minor. One of the most ambitious seafaring Greek towns, it soon controlled the coast, from its fine harbor down to modern Ampurias, seventy-five miles northeast of Barcelona. A Massaliote named Euthymenes was said to have sailed south along Africa until he saw a river filled with crocodiles (possibly the Senegal), and Massalia had early trading connections with metal-rich Tartessus in Spain. Friction with Carthage was inevitable, as the two powers sought control of these rich trade routes. Into this tradition of Massaliote adventurism Pytheas was born, poor but ambitious.

Life’s Work

Not a word of Pytheas’s works remains. It has been suggested that Pytheas’s own works were not available to such authors as Diodorus Siculus (who wrote under Julius Caesar and Augustus), Strabo (who wrote under Augustus), and Pliny the Elder, who preserved for posterity meager fragments of Pytheas’s research by quoting from or citing his works.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Pytheas was remembered fondly as an astronomical scientist. Using only a sundial, he calculated the latitude of Massalia with remarkable accuracy. He noted first that the pole star was not really at the pole and was also the first to notice a relationship between the moon and the tides. Much of the information on latitudes and geography that he brought back from his voyages was deemed sufficiently accurate to be used by such famous ancient scholars as Timaeus, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy.

Pytheas the explorer, however, had another reputation entirely, neatly summed up by Strabo’s calling him “the greatest liar among mortals.” The nature and name of the work that reaped such abuse are unknown. The work may have been called “On the Ocean,” “The Periplus” (meaning “voyage”), or “Travels Around the World.” Modern scholars generally believe that it was a single work and that it recounted Pytheas’s voyage. There is much to be said, however, for the theory that it was a general work of geography in which he reported his own firsthand observations, along with the rumors and reports he heard from others. If this is so, the scorn of later antiquity, relying on a spurious text, is more understandable. One can imagine the same comments being directed at Herodotus if only the more marvelous passages of his work had survived in this fashion.

With all that as warning, it is still...

(The entire section is 1994 words.)