Pytheas and The Discovery of Britain

October 24, 2011

Few schoolchildren learn about Pytheas of Massalia, or Marseilles as it is more familiar to British holidaymakers. Yet for a man of undistinguished birth, in a port city thousands of miles away from the British coast, living at a time when travel was both arduous and dangerous, Pytheas played an extraordinary role in the story of Britain.

In fact, it could be said that Pytheas invented Britain. For the Massalian adventurer was the first man to circumnavigate the British Isles, a feat which he achieved in around 320 BC (we aren’t entirely sure of the date). The reason for his obscurity? When he returned, presumably owing to his relatively lowly birth, he could not promote his exploits and the knowledge that he had gained well enough to attract articulate supporters. A book that he produced was influential – entering the work of the geographer Strabo and the polymath Pliny the Elder and probably many more thinkers and chroniclers. But for reasons of his own, Strabo in particular sought to denigrate the reputation of the long-dead Pytheas, preferring to project his own notions of the geography of north-west Europe and ignore the ideas of others. Pytheas’ trail-blazing exploits were left to fade away, but it is long past the time for his acceptance as one of history’s greatest geographers.

This is all admirably discussed in Barry Cunliffe’s concise, but beautifully put together book ‘the Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek’ (Massalia was founded as a colony by Phocean Greeks). As Cunliffe traces, Pytheas almost certainly sailed from near Bordeaux, to Armorica (now Brittany), then to Cornwall, past Anglesey, the Isle of Man and into the Hebrides. He then may well have visited Iceland – Cunliffe engagingly argues that the voyage would have been more than possible – before heading down the eastern coast of the British Isles, and down the channel to his starting point.

For the first time, an individual could say that they had a firm grasp of the scale and shape of Britain. Not only that, but Pytheas was a curious traveller, willing to strike inland and speak to local people. Strikingly, he did not raise a fleet or even command a ship with which to make his explorations. Instead, relying on his social skills, he seems to have hitched rides with fishermen, traders, perhaps even religious travellers, to make his way northwards. Aided perhaps by the cultural affinities between Celtic peoples of Gaul and those of Britain, his social feat is incredible, and there is no indication that he met with friction from local people.

From Cunliffe’s portrait, the Atlantic region of the British Isles emerges as a dynamic maritime civilization, teeming with connections, trading a rich variety of goods, with linkages to the continent. There must too, have been a deep tradition of hospitality to aid the wandering Pytheas, and a confident symbiosis of human creativity and the ocean. No wonder though, that Pytheas was met with scorn amongst some later chroniclers. It remains hard to believe that his voyage was possible, but Cunliffe’s work leaves little room for doubt.

Not least of the evidence for his accuracy were measurements made by Pytheas that were later relied upon by thinkers who sought to calculate latitude and the dimensions of the earth. Pytheas was more than capable of calculating his northern progress and brought back his observations, leaving a valuable legacy for his successors.

What would the curious, worldly Pytheas have made of modern nationalism though? His conception of the Isles as a discrete geographical unit relied upon the kindness and cooperation of their inhabitants. State machineries which distributed the right to travel and remain based on visas and passports would have been alien to him, at least on his travels. When he returned to Massalia, however, if a foreigner, he would have had to turn in his arms – city states anticipated what nations would later become. But as he travelled, he moved through a realm of ambiguity and negotiation, amongst peoples who did not know that they should claim the right to define who should exist on their territory.

Aside from everything else, the voyage of Pytheas is a wonderful teaching tool. After all, how many times have children been asked – in all seriousness – who discovered Britain? In his way, the discoverer was Pytheas, but British people rarely feel the need to lower themselves to the status of those peoples who, history accepts, had to be “discovered” to enter the modern world. But the voyage of Pytheas shows that Britons are no different in this respect.

His epic voyage is another good example of how foreigners were instrumental in the formation of “British” identity. I’ll try to look at this a bit more in the future.

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