1902 Encyclopedia > Pytheas

Ancient Greek navigator and geographer
(4th century BC)

PYTHEAS of Massilia was a celebrated Greek navi-gator and geographer, to whom the Greeks appear to have been indebted for the earliest information they possessed, of at all a definite character, concerning the western regions of Europe, and especially the British Islands. The period at which he lived cannot be accurately determined ; but it is certain that he wrote, not only before Eratosthenes, who relied much upon his authority, but before Dicœarchus, who was a pupil of Aristotle, and died about 285 B.C. Hence he may probably be regarded as about contem-porary with Alexander the Great. His work is now wholly lost, and appears to have been consulted in the original by comparatively few ancient writers, most of the statements cited from it being confined to detached points, which may easily have been derived at second or even third hand. We are hence left almost wholly in the dark as to the form and character of the work itself, but the various titles under which it is cited by later writers point rather to a geographical treatise, in which he had embodied the results of his observations, than to a continuous narra-tive of his voyage like that of a modern navigator.

Some modern writers have supposed Pytheas to have been sent out at the public expense, in command of an expedition organized by the republic of Massilia; but there is no ancient authority for this, and the statement of Polybius, who had unquestionably seen the original work, is express, that he had undertaken the voyage in a private capacity and with limited means. All that we know concerning the voyage of Pytheas (apart from such detached notices as those already referred to) is contained in a brief passage of Polybius, cited by Strabo, in which he tells us that Pytheas, according to his own statement, had not only visited Britain but had personally explored a large part of it, and stated its circumference at more than 40,000 stadia (4000 geographical miles). To this he added the account of Thule (which he placed six days' voyage to the north of Britain) and the adjoining regions, in which there was no longer any distinction between the air and earth and sea, but a kind of mixture of all three, forming a substance resembling the gelatinous mollusc known as the Pulmo marinus, which rendered all naviga-tion and progress in any other mode alike impossible. This substance he had himself seen, but the other state-ments he derived from hearsay. Returning from thence he visited the whole of the coasts of Europe bordering on the ocean as far as the Tanais (Polyb. ap. Strab., ii. p. 104). This last sentence has led some modern writers to suppose that he made two different voyages; but this ; is highly improbable, and the expressions of Polybius > certainly imply that his explorations in both directions, first towards the north and afterwards towards the east,! formed part of one and the same voyage.

The circumstance that the countries visited, and to a certain extent explored, by Pytheas were not only pre-viously unknown to the Greeks—except perhaps by vague hearsay accounts received through the Phoenicians—but were not visited by any subsequent authority during a period of more than two centuries led some of the later Greek geographers altogether to disregard his statements, I and even to treat the whole story of his voyage as a fiction. Eratosthenes, indeed, who wrote about a century after his time, was disposed to attach great value to his authority, though doubting some of his statements; but Polybius, about half a century later, involved the whole in one sweeping condemnation, treating the work of Pytheas as I a mere tissue of fables, like that of Euhemerus concerning ' Panchaaa; and even Strabo, in whose time the western regions of Europe were comparatively well known, adopted to a great extent the same view with Polybius.

In modern times a more critical examination has arrived at a more favourable judgment, and, though Gossellin in his Recherches sur la Geographic des Anciens (vol. iv. pp. i 168-180) and Sir G. C. Lewis in his History of Ancient Astronomy (pp. 466-481) revived the sceptical view, the tendency of modern critics has been rather to exaggerate than to depreciate the value of what was really added by Pytheas to geographical knowledge. The fact is that our information concerning him is so imperfect, and the scanty notices preserved to us from his work at once so meagre and discordant, that it is very difficult to arrive at anything like a sound conclusion. It may, however, be considered as fairly established that Pytheas really made a voyage round the western coasts of Europe, proceeding from Gades, the great Phoenician emporium, and probably the farthest point familiar to the Greeks, round Spain and Gaul to the British Islands, and that he followed the eastern coast of Britain for a considerable distance to the north, obtain-ing information as to its farther extension in that direction which led him greatly to exaggerate its size. At the same time he heard vaguely of the existence of a large island to the north of it—probably derived from the fact of the groups of the Orkneys and Shetlands being really found in that position—to which he gave the name of Thule. No ancient writer (except a late astronomer, who merely refers to it in a passing notice and obviously at second hand) asserts that Pytheas had himself visited Thule; his account of the Sluggish Sea beyond it was, as stated by Polybius himself in the passage already cited, derived merely from hearsay.

But the most important statement made by Pytheas in regard to this unknown land of Thule, and which has given rise to most controversy in modern times, was that connected with the astronomical phenomena affecting the duration of day and night in these remote arctic regions. Un-fortunately the reports transmitted to us at second hand in our existing authorities differ so widely that it is almost impossible to determine what Pytheas himself really stated. It is, however, probable that the version given in one passage by Pliny (H.N., iv. 16, 104) correctly represents his authority. According to this he reported as a fact that at the summer solstice the days were twenty-four hours in length, and conversely at the winter solstice the nights were of equal duration. Of course this would be strictly true had Thule really been situated under the arctic circle, which Pytheas evidently considered it to be, and his skill as an astronomer would thus lead him to accept readily as a fact what he knew (as a voyager proceeded onwards towards the north) must be true at some point. But this statement certainly affords no evidence that he had himself actually visited the mysterious land to which it refers. (See THULE.)

Still more difficult is it to determine the extent and character of Pytheas's explorations towards the east. The statement of Polybius that he proceeded along the whole of the northern coasts of Europe as far as the Tanais is evidently based upon the supposition that this would be a simple and direct course along the coast of Germany and Scythia,—Polybius himself, in common with theother Greek geographers till a much later period, being wholly ignorant of the vast projection of the Cimbric peninsula, and the long circumnavigation that it involved,—of all which no trace is found in the extant notices of Pytheas. Notwith-standing this, some modern writers have supposed him to have entered the Baltic and penetrated as far as the mouth of the Vistula, which he erroneously supposed to be the Tanais. The only foundation for this highly improbable as-sumption is to be found in the fact that in a passage cited by Pliny {H.N., xxxvii. 2, 35) Pytheas is represented as stating that amber was brought from an island called Abalus, distant a day's voyage from the land of the Guttones, a German nation who dwelt on an estuary of the ocean called Mentonomus, 6000 stadia in extent. It was a production thrown up by the waves of the sea, and was used by the inhabitants to burn instead of wood. It is not improbable that the " estuary" here mentioned really refers to the Baltic, the existence of which as a separate sea was unknown to all ancient geographers; but the obscure manner in which it is indicated, as well as the inaccuracy of the statements concerning the place from whence the amber was actually derived, both point to the sort of hearsay accounts which Pytheas might readily have picked up on, the shores of the German Ocean, without proceeding farther than the mouth of the Elbe, which is supposed by Ukert to have been the limit of his voyage in this direction. It must be observed also that amber is found on the western coasts of Germany, as well as in the Baltic, though not in equal abundance.

It is a very singular fact that no mention is found in any ancient writer, in connexion with the voyage of Pytheas, of the Cassiterides or Tin Islands, the exploration of which might naturally have been supposed to have been one of the chief objects of his voyage. It is indeed not im-possible that the statements on this subject preserved to us from Timseus, who wrote less than a century after him, were derived from Pytheas, though there is no proof of this. The trade with those islands was probably at this period exclusively in the hands of the Phoenicians, but we know that at a later time a considerable portion of the supply was carried overland through Gaul to Massilia. Whether the voyage of Pytheas had any effect in contributing to bring about the diversion of this lucrative trade we have unfortunately no information.

Whatever uncertainty still hangs around all that has been transmitted to us concerning the actual explorations of Pytheas. it is certain that he had one merit which distinguished him from almost all his contemporaries : he was a good astronomer, and was one of the first who made observations for the determination of latitudes, among others that of his native place Massilia, which he fixed with remarkable accuracy, so that his result, which was within a few miles of the truth, was adopted by Ptolemy, and became the basis of his map of the Western Mediterranean. Pytheas was also the first among the Greeks who arrived at any correct notion of the tides, and not only indicated their connexion with the moon but pointed out their periodical fluctuations in accordance with the phases of that luminary. Other observations concerning the manners and customs of the inhabitants of these remote regions are ascribed to him that are undoubtedly correct and tend strongly to prove that he had himself really visited them. Among these are the gradual disappearance of various kinds of grain as one advanced towards the north ; the use of fermented liquors made from corn and honey ; and the habit of threshing out their corn in large covered barns, instead of on open threshing-floors as in Greece and Italy, on account of the want of sun and abundance of rain.

The fragments of Pytheas have been collected by Arvedson (Upsala, 1821) and by Fuhr (De Pythea Massiliensl, Darmstadt, 1835). Of the numerous treatises and dissertations on the subject see for those of earlier date Ukert's "Bemerkungen über Pytheas" (in vol. i. of his Geog. d. Griechen it. Homer, pp. 298-309), which contains an excellent summary of all that is known concerning the author and his work. The question has been also discussed by
Sir G. C. Lewis, in his Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients (pp. 466-480, London, 1862), by Mr Bunbury, in his History of Ancient Geography (vol. i. chap. xv. sect. 2), and by Mr Elton, in his Origins of English History (London, 1882). A very elaborate but prolix and somewhat confused investigation of the whole subject will be found in Mullenhoff's Deutsche Alterthumskunde (vol. i. pp. 211-497, Berlin, 1870). (E. H. B.)

The above article was written by: E. H. Bunbury, M.A., author of History of Ancient Geography.

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