Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The Man Who Discovered Britainby Barry Cunliffe
Around 330 B.C., a remarkable man named Pytheas set out from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille) to explore the fabled, terrifying lands of northern Europea mysterious, largely conjectural zone that, according to Greek science, was too cold to sustain human life and yet was somehow, they knew, the source of precious commodities such as tin, amber,
Around 330 B.C., a remarkable man named Pytheas set out from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille) to explore the fabled, terrifying lands of northern Europea mysterious, largely conjectural zone that, according to Greek science, was too cold to sustain human life and yet was somehow, they knew, the source of precious commodities such as tin, amber, and gold.
Whether Pytheas headed an expedition or traveled alone, he was the first literate man to visit the British Isles and the coasts of France and Denmark, and there is convincing evidence that he traveled on to Iceland and the edge of the ice-packan astonishing voyage at the time. Pytheas's own account of the journey, titled On the Ocean and published in about 320 B.C., has not survived, though it echoes in the works of ancient historians like Herodotus and Strabo. Their allusions to his voyage represent the beginnings of European history and underscore how much of a pioneer Pytheas was, for Britain remained without further explorers until Julius Caesar and his legions landed there almost 300 years later.
Archaeologist Barry Cunliffe knows perhaps more than anyone about the world through which Pytheas traveled, and he has sifted the archaeological and written records to re-create this staggering journey. Beginning with an invaluable pocket history of early Mediterranean civilization, Cunliffe illuminates what Pytheas would have seen and experiencedthe route he likely took to reach first Brittany and then England; the tin-mining and, even then, evidence of ancient cultures he would have witnessed onshore; the challenge of sailing in a skin boat; the magic of amber and the trade routes by which it reached the Mediterranean. In telling this story, Cunliffe has chronicled an essential chapter in the history of civilization.
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Pytheas the Massaliot
All cities are proud of their heroes. Their statues stare grandly down from their pedestals, telling more about the age that sculpted them than about the people themselves or the times in which they lived. Marseille ancient and modern has always seen itself as a great maritime power, and on its entrepreneurial trade reputations and fortunes have been and continue to be made. Where better, then, to proclaim its ancient heroes, Pytheas and Euthymenes, than framed in temple-like niches set in the façade of the Marseille Boursethe stock exchangestaring out across its famous enclosed harbor, the Calanque, now crammed with pleasure boats but until comparatively recently, when the size of oceangoing ships and container vessels demanded more accessible berths along the nearby coast at La Joliette, the greatest natural commercial harbor of the Mediterranean.
Pytheas and Euthymenesshadowy figures of the fourth century B.C. but worthy role models for more recent city fathers. Both were adventurers prepared to move out of the comfortable, familiar waters of the Mediterranean to explore the monster-ridden ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Euthymenes sailed south along the coast of Africa, reaching at least Dakar and Senegal, and he may even have got as far as Ghana, while Pytheas sailed north, bringing back tales of tin-producing lands, islands where amber was washed up by the sea and, in the far, far north, Thule, where the ocean waters congealed. "Rubbish," said later Greek commentators, "the man was a charlatan and made most of it up."Yet here he stands in a place of honorthe place of honor high on the front of the Bourseheavily cloaked against the northern cold, survey gear in his left hand, and a beefy right arm folded across his body in a stance of aggressive protection as he stares steadfastly into the distanceout to sea. A charlatan or a heroic adventurer? A mere collector of anecdotes or an original observational scientist? These are the questions this book will explore.
On his return Pytheas wrote a book, On the Ocean (Peri tou Okeanou), sometime about 320 B.C. The actual Greek text no longer exists but it was quoted by at least eighteen other writers over the next nine hundred years. How many of them actually had access to an original manuscript or were quoting some secondary or tertiary source is difficult to say, but as with Chinese whispers the passing down of information has led to some curiously garbled results. How many copies of On the Ocean were ever made? No doubt the Massaliots had one and there must have been at least one in Athens. Copies would also have been produced for the great libraries of Pergamum and Alexandria, but all have disappeareddestroyed in acts of violence or dispersed to monasteries to lie forgotten and to crumble away. The chances of a fragment surviving in one of the few remaining monastic libraries or preserved in the mud of a Mediterranean harbor waiting to be found by archaeologists are remote indeed. Historians must be content with what has come down to us in the works of othersand relish the challenge of making sense of it all.
But there is far more than the chance survival of a few classical texts on which to build this story. The activities of archaeologists over the last century or so have revolutionized our understanding of the past. In the world of literate Mediterranean civilization archaeology has gradually built up a systematic, and largely objective, structure against which to judge the reliability of, and to create the context for, the limited array of biased anecdotes that come down to us in the guise of "ancient history" (though I must admit that not all scholars of ancient history would be prepared to see it in this way). In the barbarian world beyond, the impact of archaeology has been even greater, creating from the earth a picture of the social and economic development of all the preliterate peoples. We now know a great deal about the places Pytheas claims to have visited and the people who lived therefar more than any of his contemporaries could possibly have known. But even more important is that the totality of the data now available allows us to glimpse the dynamics of the world that Pytheas inhabited. It was a world of change, of developing horizons, of contacts over huge distances, of commodities and ideas flowing and knowledge expanding. The Mediterranean states were part of a fast-growing world system incorporating the whole of Europe and North Africa, characterized by increasing interdependence. Tip the balance in one place, however remote, and the dislocation would have been felt throughout. There was a degree of equilibrium, but it was unstable. This was the world of Pytheas and an expanded knowledge of it enables a better understanding of the actions of this remarkable man.
A few meters from the edge of the Vieux Port de Marseille, at the lower end of La Canebière, a large bronze plaque has been set into the concrete. It reads, "Ici vers l'an 600 avant J. C. des marins Grecs ont abordé venant de Phocée cité Grecque d'Asie Mineure. Ils fondèrent Marseille d'où rayonna en occident la civilisation": "Here around 600 B.C. Greek sailors arrived from Phocaea, a Greek city in Asia Minor. They founded Marseille, from where civilization spread to the west." As civic accounts of history go it is a straightforward and accurate statement, although whether Marseille could lay claim to being the sole font of civilization in the western Mediterranean might reasonably have been contested by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans. A rather more questionable rendering of the Greek arrival is to be found, somewhat inappropriately, on the monumental stairway of Marseille's main railway station, the Gate St.-Charles. Here we are greeted by a statue of a stern Greek matron accompanied by two healthy children riding in the prow of a ship. The meaning of all this, made more puzzling by the accompanying dolphins, looking distinctly like Pekinese, is clarified by the inscription explaining the allegoryMarseille Colonie GrecqueMarseille, a Greek colony.
That Marseilleor Massalia, as it was known to the Greekswas a Greek colony is not in doubt, nor is its settlement by Phocaeans from the Greek town of Phocaea on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (not to be confused with Phoenicians from the coast of what is now Lebanon and Syria, who colonized the coast of North Africa, parts of Sicily and Sardinia, and southern Iberia). The Phocaeans were among the more entrepreneurial of the eastern Greeks, renowned, according to the historian Herodotus, for sailing in warships called penteconters to explore the Aegean and the northern part of the western Mediterranean. It was as a result of these voyages of reconnaissance that they identified potential sites for settlement, eventually choosing to establish colonies at Massalia in about 600 B.C. and Alalia, on the east coast of Corsica, about 565 B.C.
Among the ancient writers there are two different traditions for the date of Massalia's foundation, one about 600 B.C., the other fifty-five years later. The first is most likely to be correct and is given strong support by the archaeological evidence, which shows that the earliest Greek pottery from the site dates to this time. How the erroneous later date came to be accepted by reputable historians like Thucydides and Pausanias is not without interest. It seems that they were simply conflating events. In about 545 the Persian armies led by Cyrus the Great, intent on establishing control of the cities of Asia Minor, attacked the mother city of Phocaea, forcing the inhabitants to flee in their ships. They made for their colony of Alalia with the intention of settling, but the sudden buildup of Greeks here was seen as an escalating threat by the Etruscans facing them just across the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Until the Phocaeans had arrived in the region sixty years before, the Etruscans had controlled the maritime traffic of the northern part of the western Mediterranean and were trading widely around the shores, from the Alpes Maritimes far down the coast of Iberia. The foundation of Massalia curtailed these activities, though not disastrously; but the new influx of refugees was the last straw. An inconclusive sea battle ensued, with Carthaginians weighing in on the side of the Etruscans. Although the Greeks had the upper hand, they showed considerable discretion and decided to take themselves off to southern Italy to establish a new home at Velia safe among the other Greek colonies already there. It is easy to see how the ancient historians became confused, and without the conclusive archaeological evidence for the earliest settlement at Massalia its foundation date might still be in dispute.
Leaving aside the subtleties of dates, Massalia has a splendid foundation myth. It comes in two parts: The first is recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo. He tells how when the first group of settlers were about to set out from their home city of Phocaea they received an oracle advising them to take with them a guide provided by the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Since no colonial expedition would dare to leave without heeding divine guidance, they sailed down the coast of Asia Minor and put in at the port of Ephesus, there taking on board their guide, Aristarche, "a woman held in very high honour," as well as a number of sacred images among which was a wooden statue of the deity, the many-breasted Artemis. The story ends appropriately when, after sailing the length of the Mediterranean, and making a successful landing at the site of their new city, they built a temple to the Ephesian Artemis to house the sacred objects and installed Aristarche as the priestess.
In his description of the city Strabo tells us that the temple of Artemis stood prominently on the headland above the harbor along with the temple of the Delphinian Apollo. Exactly where the two early temples were sited has not yet been established. Most likely they were on the high point of the promontory overlooking the harbornow the Butte des Moulinsbut it is possible that the lower hillockthe Butte St.-Laurentat the end of the promontory just above the harbor mouth was chosen. Sited here the temple would have been the first building to be seen from a ship approaching the harbor and the last to disappear from view on departure. Pytheas and his contemporaries would have found the sight comfortingly familiar.
Strabo's mention of the temple of the Delphinian Apollo is interesting. This was not the Apollo of Delphi but a different deity, a sea god, who, taking the form of a dolphin, guided ships safely across the oceans (and, incidentally, provided the iconographic reference for the pug-faced dolphins gracing the monument outside the railway station).
Another variant of the foundation myth is given by Justin, a historian of the second century A.D. quoting an earlier local writer of the first century B.C. In this story the Greek expedition was commanded by Protis. Their arrival corresponded with a ceremony organized by the local Celtic chieftain Nannos, at which his daughter Gyptis was to choose a husband from among her many suitors. The newcomers were invited to the party and the inevitable happenedGyptis chose Protis! Nannos accepted his daughter's choice, and to show his approval gave the Greeks land on which they founded their city. It is the stuff of all good mythslove, honor, and lasting friendship. What truth may lie behind it we shall never know, but again archaeology allows something of the background to be sketched in.
The Etruscans, as noted, were exploring and exploiting the coastal region of what is now southern France before the foundation of Massalia. The archaeological evidence shows that already by c. 650 B.C. a lively trade had grown upa fact amply demonstrated by the large quantities of Etruscan wine amphorae and drinking vessels found on a number of coastal sites, in particular at St.-Blaise in the Rhône delta near the mouth of the river. Excavations here have shown that the site was already occupied by natives before the Etruscan imports made their appearance, and with the earliest Etruscan finds there are indications of large-scale salt production and the manufacture of jewelry from coral. Taken together the evidence suggests that St.-Blaise may have been the site of a regular trading port, or emporion, where Mediterranean luxuries were exchanged for native products. There may well have been other similar sites along the coast, places such as Cap Couronne and Tamaris, where early material has also been found.
Other finds from these early "trading" levels include distinctive eastern Greek pottery and oil amphorae from Attica. More exotic imports, possibly from Greek workshops in the Greek cities of southern Italy, include bronze "Rhodian" flagons for pouring wine and cauldrons decorated with griffin heads. These made their way inland into the heart of barbarian Europe, quite possibly as diplomatic gifts for the native elite. It is impossible to say whether these precolonial Greek goods were carried in Greek ships or were transported by Etruscans who could easily have picked up cargoes of this kind in the harbors of southern Italyquite probably it was a combination of the two. But what it all shows is that the native communities of the coastal region were entirely familiar with traders, who for fifty years or more had been making regular summer visits to the established market sites laden with goods, which the natives were pleased to acquire to display as symbols of their own prestige. It was against this background that the Phocaeans arrived about 600 B.C. to establish the first permanent colony: it is little wonder that the native Celts were pleased to see them. It makes the foundation myth seem almost believable.
The founding fathers will have been intent to establish two things above all, a suitable home for their gods and a constitution to rule themselves by. The temples have already been mentioned, but what of the constitution? Aristotle, active at about the time that Pytheas was growing up in Massalia, was impressed by the Massaliot constitution and wrote a detailed account of it. The original text does not survive, but it is referred to by Strabo three centuries later in sufficient detail to enable the main lines of government to be reconstructed. Strabo, too, was impressed: "The government under which the Massaliotes live is aristocratic, and of all aristocracies theirs is the best ordered since they have established an Assembly of six hundred men who hold the honour of that office for life. These are called Timouchoi." The word means simply the "holder of honors," but it almost certainly connotes a wealth qualification. To be eligible for election it was necessary for the family to have held Massaliot citizenship for at least three generations and for the aspiring councilor to have produced children. The unwieldy six hundred elected an executive committee of fifteen empowered to "carry on the immediate business of government," and a triumvirate of these were given the ultimate power. Among the duties of the fifteen would have been to serve as military leaders if the need arose and to provide the judiciary administering the laws, which, Strabo tells us, were based on those of Ionia and were publicly displayed for all to see.
Isolated scraps of the law code, mentioned by contemporary writers, suggest a somewhat austere regime, at least in theory. Women were allowed no wine, ribald theater was forbidden, and conspicuous consumption, such as heavy expenditure on elaborate funerals and expensive bridal dresses, was restricted. But there were compensations. Those wishing to commit suicide could make their case to the Timouchoi, and if convincing, the city would provide the necessary dose of hemlock at no cost. Public order was maintained by requiring all foreigners to hand in their weapons on entering the city, and for the dispatch of criminals it appears that a rusty sword was keptrusty, some have suggested, not to inflict greater agony but because of under use. For the wealthy and the free it was a comfortable, well-ordered existence.
Massalia's prosperity was based on its ability to control the trade around the shores of the northern half of the western Mediterranean and from these coastal regions into the barbarian hinterlands beyond. Westward from Massalia, across the Golfe du Lion, lay Emporion (the market), modern Ampurias. It was probably founded by the Phocaeans thirty or forty years after Massalia at about the same time as Alalia. Since it was only "two days and one night's" sailing from Massalia, it provided a convenient first stopping-point on the trade route that led down the Spanish coast toward the lucrative metal resources of southern Iberia. These were largely under the control of Phoenicians and their successors the Carthaginians, but Greeks had been penetrating the markets since the seventh century. In the middle of the fifth century a fortified Greek trading post was built at Santa Pola near the mouth of the river Segura. This was a carefully chosen location, because the Segura valley provided a major route westward to the upper reaches of the Guadalquivir valley along the north flank of which lay the silver-rich Sierra Morena, with the silver and copper resources of Tartessus farther west. By controlling the estuary of the Segura, the Greeks had access to the varied resources of western Iberia without having to contend with the competing, and increasingly hostile, interests of the Carthaginians, who controlled the southern coasts of Iberia and the approaching seaways.
Between Emporion and Massalia lay another Greek port, founded by the Massaliots, at Agde. Not only was it a convenient stopping-point on the coastal route, but it was also conveniently close to the mouth of the river Audethe first leg of an ancient and vital route that led, via the Carcassonne Gap, to the river Garonne and its wide estuary, the Gironde, a route that linked the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and had been in use for many millennia.
To the east of Massalia the narrow coastal strip between the sea and the Alpes Maritimes was lined with Greek ports, among them Olbia, Antipolis (Antibes), and Nikaia (Nice), all established by Massalia. All had fertile hinterlands producing wine and fruit and, no doubt, aromatic herbs, gathered from the upland garrigue, of the type which still enliven the flower market of Nice.
The wine production of this coastal strip from Nice to Massalia was a significant part of the Massaliot economy and is one of the activities that lends itself well to archaeological investigation. The reason for this is simple. Wine at this time was transported in thick-walled pottery containers called amphorae that, once emptied of their contents, were generally discarded. Being so robust, the shards are virtually indestructible and tend therefore to bulk large in archaeological excavations. From this unprepossessing material much valuable evidence can be gleaned. The shapes of the amphorae, changing through time, are a good indicator of date, while petrographic analysis of the amphora fabrics can usually tell in what region they were made, since heavy minerals in the clay or fine grits added as temper, once identified, may be found to be quite specific to a particular locality. Armed with these minutiae, archaeologists studying amphorae from a particular site occupied over a period of time should be able to show how the quantity of imported wine varied with time and from what regions and in what quantities the wine, at any one time, was coming. In this way the subtleties of the ancient economy can begin to be teased out.
One of the tools beloved of archaeologists is the distribution mapa map showing where a particular artifact has been found. Although there are dangers in relying too heavily on these maps, not least because the evidence is always very incomplete, they can be helpful. One, of particular interest, shows the distribution of distinctive Massaliot wine amphorae of the type in use between 540 and 350 B.C. As might be expected, they cluster in the coastal arc between Ampurias and Nice, but some traveled surprisingly far, right down the coast of Italy, with a concentration around the Bay of Naples, to the southern tip of Sicily, and along the Iberian coast to beyond Cape de Palos just east of Cartagena. One interesting feature of the Spanish distribution is the number of wreck sites identified offshorea stark reminder that not all trading enterprises were entirely successful. The map, then, shows something of the maritime reach of the Massaliot entrepreneurs, but it has one or two other stories to tell. The amphorae seem to have been drawn inland along the two main river routesthe Aude and the Rhône. Beyond that a few turn up in the valley of the Garonne and rather more in the barbarian heartland of west central Europe from Burgundy across to southern Germany. These are witnesses to quite different processes at work, which deserve some explanation.
The few amphorae in the valley of the Garonne are probably a reflection of local systems of exchange between neighboring tribes allowing a fairly low level of exotic goods to be moved over considerable distances. Much the same pattern is reflected in the distribution of painted Greek pottery arriving in boatloads from Attica to Massalia and Agde. The amphorae and fine wares are, of course, only the archaeologically visible part of what must have been a far more extensive "trade." But what passed the other way, from the barbarian world to the Mediterranean? We can only guess. Slaves perhapsalways a desirable commodity in the Mediterranean worldand it is a fair assumption that one of the most valuable of the trade goods was tin coming ultimately from southwestern Britain and Brittany. Tin was an essential component of bronze (crucial for making a whole range of things, from feasting gear and statues to brooches and hairpins), making up some 10 or 11 percent of the alloy, but little was to be had in the classical world. The most prolific sources lay along the edges of the Atlantic, a region of which many tales were told. There can be little doubt that Pytheas would have known these stories, and he may well have talked to traders about the route across Gául via the Garonne to the Atlantic along which the metal was carried.
Judging by the distribution of Massaliot amphorae, the Rhône and the Saône route was well used at this time. But it was not only wine that flowed north. Along with the amphorae went Attic cups to drink it from, bronze flagons to pour it, and elaborate bronze mixing vessels like the huge krater found at Vix in Burgundy and the cauldron decorated with crouching lions from Hochdorf near Stuttgart. In fact, what was finding its way northward into the barbarian communities of west central Europe were the complete sets of wine-drinking equipment that would have graced the Greek ceremony of the symposiona structured social occasion of good conversation well lubricated with alcohol. This said, it is doubtful whether the elite of western central Europe, in accepting the equipment of wine drinking, were adopting the manners and mores of the Greeks any more than the gentry of eighteenth-century England, in drinking tea poured from teapots into cups, had any serious appreciation of the subtleties of the Japanese tea ceremony. Both were simply adopting the trappings of exotic foreign behavior to demonstrate their own social preeminence.
Excerpted from THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE OF PYTHEAS THE GREEK by Barry Cunliffe. Copyright © 2002 by Barry Cunliffe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Barry Cunliffe is Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford. His books include The Ancient Celts and, most recently, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples.
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