Pytheas (Πυθέας, Πυθέας ο Μασσαλιώτης ) (c.380 – c.310 BC) was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer from the Phocaean colony Massilia (today Marseille). He made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe around 325 BC (before common era). He traveled over a considerable part of Great Britain, circumnavigating it between 330 and 320 BC. Pytheas was the first Graeco-Roman to describe the Midnight Sun, the aurora and Polar ice, and the first to mention Germanic tribes.


Pytheas described his travels in a book On the Ocean (Περι του Ωκεανου). It has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by later authors. Among them, Polybius and Strabo accused Pytheas of documenting a fictitious journey he could never have funded. His story is, however, plausible. The trip may have been underwritten by a wealthy patron. Pytheas estimated the circumference of Great Britain within 2.5% of modern estimates. There is some evidence he used the Pole Star to fix latitude and understood the relationships between tides and phases of the Moon. In northern Spain, he studied the tides, and may have discovered that they are caused by the Moon. This discovery was known to Posidonius.

Pytheas was not the first person to sail the seas around Britain. Trade between Gaul and Britain was already routine; fishermen and others would travel to the Orkneys, Norway or Shetland. The Roman Avienus writing in the 4th century AD mentions an early Greek voyage, possibly from the 6th century BC. A recent conjectural reconstruction of the journey Pytheas documented has him traveling from Marseille in succession to Bordeaux, Nantes, Land's End, Plymouth, Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides, Orkneys, Iceland, Britain's east coast, Kent, Helgoland, returning finally to Marseille.

The start of Pytheas's voyage is already a mystery. The Carthaginians had closed the Strait of Gibraltar to all ships from other nations. Some historians therefore believe that he travelled overland to the mouth of the Loire or the Garonne. Others believe that, to avoid the Carthaginian blockade, he may have stuck close to land and sailed only at night. It is also possible he took advantage of a temporary lapse in the blockade, known to have taken place around the time he travelled.

Cornwall was important because it was the main source of tin. Pytheas studied the production and processing of tin there. He circumnavigated Britain, and found that tides could be very high there. He recorded the local name of the islands in Greek as Prettanike, which Diodorus later rendered Pretannia. This supports theories that the inhabitants called themselves Pretani or Priteni, 'Painted?' or 'Tattooed?' people, a term Romans Latinised as Picti (Picts). He is quoted as referring to the British Isles as the "Isles of the Pretani."

Pytheas visited an island six days sailing north of Britain, called Thule. It has been suggested that Thule may refer to Iceland but parts of the Norwegian coast, the Shetland Islands and Faroe Islands have also been suggested by historians. Pytheas says Thule was an agricultural country that produced honey. Its inhabitants ate fruits and drank milk, and made a drink out of grain and honey. Unlike the people from southern Europe, they had barns, and threshed their grain there rather than outside.

He said he was shown the place where the sun went to sleep, and he noted that the night in Thule was only two to three hours. One day further north the congealed sea began, he claimed. As Strabo says (as quoted in Chevallier 1984):

Pytheas also speaks of the waters around Thule and of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, like a "marine lung", in which it is said that earth and water and all things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.

The term used for "marine lung" actually means jellyfish, and modern scientists believe that Pytheas here tried to describe the formation of pancake ice at the edge of the drift ice, where sea, slush, and ice mix, surrounded by fog.

After completing his survey of Britain, Pytheas travelled to the Shallows on the continental North Sea coast. He may also have visited the Baltic Sea, but he did visit an island which was a source of amber, probably Helgoland.

He may have returned by the way he came; or perhaps by land, following the Rhine and Rhône rivers.

Literary influence

It is clear that Pytheas' own writings were at least an important source of information to later periods, and possibly the only source. The astronomical author Geminus of Rhodes mentions a "Description of the Ocean." Marcianus, the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes, mentiones a periodos ges (a trip around the earth) or "[periplus]" (a sail around). As is common with ancient texts, multiple titles may represent a single source, for example, if a title refers to a section rather than the whole. Whether one or many, none of Pytheas' own writings remain, and extant accounts of his voyage are primarily contained in Strabo, Diodorus of Sicily and Pliny the Elder.

Pytheas: The Explorer

Books and Articles

  • Chanin-Morris, R. (2005) "The Edge of the World", Independent
  • Cunliffe, B. (2002) The extraordinary voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The man who discovered Britain (revised ed.) Walker & Co ISBN 0802713939 also in Penguin ISBN 0142002542
  • Roseman, C. H. (1994) Pytheas of Massalia, On the ocean: Text, translation and commentary Ares Publishing ISBN 0890055459
  • Frye, J. & Frye H. (1985) North to Thule: An imagined narrative of the famous lost sea voyage of Pytheas of Massalia in the 4th century B.C. ISBN 0912697202
  • Chevallier, R. (1984) The Greco-Roman Conception of the North from Pytheas to Tacitus (in Arctic, vol. 37, no. 4, Dec. 1984, p. 341-346)
  • Stefansson, V (1940) Ultima Thule: Further Mysteries of the Arctic

Original material copied from [1] (with permission)

Edward Conybeare: Early Britain--Roman Britain

D. 1.—But contemporary with Aristotle lived the great geographer Pytheas; whose works, unfortunately, we know only by the fragmentary references to them [34] in later, and frequently hostile, authors, such as Strabo, who dwell largely on his mistakes, and charge him with misrepresentation. In fact, however, he seems to have been both an accurate and truthful observer, and a discoverer of the very first order. Starting from his native city Massilia (Marseilles), he passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and traced the coast-line of Europe to Denmark (visiting Britain on his way), and perhaps even on into the Baltic.[16] The shore of Norway (which he called, as the natives still call it, Norgé) he followed till within the Arctic Circle, as his mention of the midnight sun shows, and then struck across to Scotland; returning, apparently by the Irish Sea, to Bordeaux and so home overland. This truly wonderful voyage he made at the public charge, with a view to opening new trade routes, and it seems to have thoroughly answered its purpose. Henceforward the Phoenician monopoly was broken, and a constant stream of traffic in the precious tin passed between Britain and Marseilles.[17]

D. 2.—The route was kept as secret as possible; Polybius tells us that the Massiliots, when interrogated by one of the Scipios, professed entire ignorance of Britain; but Pytheas (as quoted by his contemporary Timaeus, as well as by later writers) states that the metal was brought by coasters to a tidal island, Ictis, whence it was shipped for Gaul. This island was six days' sail from the tin diggings, and can scarcely be any but [35] Thanet. St. Michael's Mount, now the only tidal island on the south coast, was anciently part of the mainland; a fact testified to by the forest remains still seen around it. Nor could it be six days' sail from the tin mines. The Isle of Wight, again, to which the name Ictis or Vectis would seem to point, can never have been tidal at this date. But Thanet undoubtedly was so in mediaeval times, and may well have been so for ages, while its nearness to the Continent would recommend it to the Gallic merchants. Indeed Pytheas himself probably selected it on this account for his new emporium.

D. 3.—In his day, as we have seen, the tin reached this destination by sea; but in the time of the later traveller Posidonius[18] it came in wagons, probably by that track along the North Downs now known as the "Pilgrims' Way." The chalk furnished a dry and open road, much easier than the swamps and forests of the lower ground. Further west the route seems to have been viâ Launceston, Exeter, Honiton, Ilchester, Salisbury, Winchester, and Alton; an ancient track often traceable, and to be seen almost in its original condition near "Alfred's Tower," in Somerset, where it is known as "The Hardway." And this long land transit argues a considerable degree of political solidarity throughout the south of the island. The tale of Posidonius is confirmed by Caesar's statement [36] that tin reached Kent "from the interior," i.e. by land. It was obtained at first from the streams of Dartmoor and Cornwall, where abundant traces of ancient washings are visible, and afterwards by mining, as now. And when smelted it was made up into those peculiar ingots which still meet the eye in Cornwall, and whose shape seems never to have varied from the earliest times. Posidonius, who visited Cornwall, compares them to knuckle-bones[19] αστρηαγαλοι [astrhagaloi]

D. 4.—The vessels which thus coasted from the Land's End to the South Foreland are described as on the pattern of coracles, a very light frame-work covered with hides. It seems almost incredible that sea-going craft could have been thus constructed; yet not only is there overwhelming testimony to the fact throughout the whole history of Roman Britain, but such boats are still in use on the wild rollers which beat upon the west coast of Ireland, and are found able to live in seas which would be fatal to anything more rigidly built. For the surf boats in use at Madras a similar principle is adopted, not a nail entering into their construction. They can thus face breakers which would crush an ordinary boat to pieces. This method of ship-building was common all along the northern coast of Europe for ages.[20] Nor were these [37] coracles only used for coasting. As time went on, the Britons boldly struck straight across from Cornwall to the Continent, and both the Seine and the Loire became inlets for tin into Gaul, thus lessening the long land journey—not less than thirty days—which was required, as Polybius tells us, to convey it from the Straits of Dover to the Rhone. (This journey, it may be noted, was made not in wagons, as through Britain, but on pack-horses.)

D. 5.—Thus it reached Marseilles; and that the trade was founded by the Massiliot Pytheas is borne testimony to by the early British coins, which are all modelled on the classical currency of his age. The medium in universal circulation then, current everywhere, like the English sovereign now, was the Macedonian stater, newly introduced by Philip, a gold coin weighing 133 grains, bearing on the one side the laureated head of Apollo, on the other a figure of Victory in a chariot. Of this all known Gallic and British coins (before the Roman era) are more or less accurate copies. The earliest as yet found in Britain do not date, according to Sir John Evans, our great authority on this subject,[21] from before the 2nd century B.C. They are all dished coins, rudely struck, and rapidly growing ruder as time goes on. The head early becomes a mere congeries of dots and lines, but one horse of the chariot team remains recognizable to quite the end of the series.

D. 6.—These coins have been found in very large [38] numbers, and of various types, according to the locality in which they were struck. They occur as far north as Edinburgh; but all seem to have been issued by one or other of the tribes in the south and east of the island, who learnt the idea of minting from the Gauls. Whence the gold of which the coins are made came from is a question not yet wholly solved: surface gold was very probably still obtainable at that date from the streams of Wales and Cornwall. But it was long before any other metal was used in the British mints. Not till after the invasion of Julius Caesar do we find any coins of silver or bronze issued, though he testifies to their existence. The use of silver shows a marked advance in metallurgy, and is probably connected with the simultaneous development of the lead-mining in the Mendip Hills, of which about this time we first begin to find traces.

E. 1.—The trustworthiness of Pytheas is further confirmed by the astronomical observations which he records. He notices, for example, that the longest day in Britain contains "nineteen equinoctial hours." Amongst the ancients, it must be remembered, an "hour," in common parlance, signified merely the twelfth part, on any given day, of the time between [39] sunrise and sunset, and thus varied according to the season. But the standard hour for astronomical purposes was the twelfth part of the equinoctial day, when the sun rises 6 a.m. and sets 6 p.m., and therefore corresponded with our own. Now the longest day at Greenwich is actually not quite seventeen hours, but in the north of Britain it comes near enough to the assertion of Pytheas to bear out his tale. We are therefore justified in giving credence to his account of what he saw in our country, the earliest that we possess. He tells us that, in some parts at least, the inhabitants were far from being mere savages. They were corn-growers (wheat, barley, and millet being amongst their crops), and also cultivated "roots," fruit trees, and other vegetables. What specially struck him was that, "for lack of clear sunshine[22]," they threshed out their corn, not in open threshing-floors, as in Mediterranean lands, but in barns.

E. 2.—From other sources we know that these old British farmers were sufficiently scientific agriculturalists to have invented wheeled ploughs,[23] and to use a variety of manures; various kinds of mast, loam, and chalk in particular. This treatment of the soil was, according to Pliny, a British invention[24] (though the Greeks of Megara had also tried it), and he thinks it worth his while to give a long description of the [40] different clays in use and the methods of their application. That most generally employed was chalk dug out from pits some hundred feet in depth, narrow at the mouth, but widening towards the bottom. [Petitur ex alto, in centenos pedes actis plerumque puteis, ore angustatis; intus spatiante vena.]

E. 3.—Here we have an exact picture of those mysterious excavations some of which still survive to puzzle antiquaries under the name of Dene Holes. They are found in various localities; Kent, Surrey, and Essex being the richest. In Hangman's Wood, near Grays, in Essex, a small copse some four acres in extent, there are no fewer than seventy-two Dene Holes, as close together as possible, their entrance shafts being not above twenty yards apart. These shafts run vertically downwards, till the floor of the pit is from eighty to a hundred feet below the surface of the ground. At the bottom the shaft widens out into a vaulted chamber some thirty feet across, from which radiate four, five, or even six lateral crypts, whose dimensions are usually about thirty feet in length, by twelve in width and height. When the shafts are closely clustered, the lateral crypts of one will extend to within a few feet of those belonging to its neighbours, but in no case do they communicate with them (though the recent excavations of archaeologists have thus connected whole groups of Dene Holes). Many theories have been elaborated to account for their existence, but the data are conclusive against their having been either habitations, tombs, store-rooms, or hiding-places; and, in 1898, Mr. [41] Charles Dawson, F.S.A., pointed out that, in Sussex, chalk and limestone are still quarried by means of identically such pits. The chalk so procured is found a far more efficacious dressing for the soil than that which occurs on the surface, and moreover is more cheaply got than by carting from even a mile's distance. At the present day, as soon as a pit is exhausted (that is as soon as the diggers dare make their chambers no larger for fear of a downfall), another is sunk hard by, and the first filled up with the débris from the second. In the case of the Dene Holes, this débris must have been required for some other purpose; and to this fact alone we owe their preservation. It is probable that the celebrated cave at Royston in Hertfordshire was originally dug for this purpose, though afterwards used as a hermitage.

E. 4.—Pytheas is also our authority for saying that bee-keeping was known to the Britons of his day;[25] a drink made of wheat and honey being one of their intoxicants. This method of preparing mead (or metheglin) is current to this day among our peasantry. Another drink was made from barley, and this, he tells us, they called κονρμι [kourmi], the word still used in Erse for beer, under the form cuirm. Dioscorides the physician, who records this (and who may perhaps have tried our national beverage, as he lived shortly after the Claudian conquest of Britain), pronounces it [42] "head-achy, unwholesome, and injurious to the nerves": κεφαλαλγές ἐστι καὶ κακόχυμον, καὶ τοῦ νεύρου βλαπτικόν [kephalalges esti kai kakhochymon, kai tou neurou].

E. 5.—Not all the tribes of Britain, however, were at this level of civilization. Threshing in barns was only practised by those highest in development, the true Britons of the south and east. The Gaelic tribes beyond them, so far as they were agricultural at all, stored the newly-plucked ears of corn in their underground dwellings, day by day taking out and dressing κατεργαζομένους [katergazomenous] what was needed for each meal. The method here referred to is doubtless that described as still in use at the end of the 17th century in the Hebrides.[26] "A woman, sitting down, takes a handful of corn, holding it by the stalks in her left hand, and then sets fire to the ears, which are presently in a flame. She has a stick in her right hand, which she manages very dexterously, beating off the grains at the very instant when the husk is quite burnt.... The corn may be thus dressed, winnowed, ground, and baked, within an hour of reaping."

When kept, it may usually have been stored, like that of Robinson Crusoe, in baskets;[27] for basket-making was a peculiarly British industry, and Posidonius found "British baskets" in use on the [43] Continent. But probably it was also hoarded—again in Crusoe fashion—in the large jars of coarse pottery which are occasionally found on British sites. These, and the smaller British vessels, are sometimes elaborately ornamented with devices of no small artistic merit. But all are hand-made, the potter's wheel being unknown in pre-Roman days.

E. 6.—Nor does the grinding of corn, even in hand-mills, seem to have been universal till the Roman era, the earlier British method being to bruise the grain in a mortar.[28] Without the resources of civilization it is not easy to deal with stones hard enough for satisfactory millstones. We find that the Romans, when they came, mostly selected for this use the Hertfordshire "pudding-stone," a conglomerate of the Eocene period crammed with rolled flint pebbles, sometimes also bringing over Niederendig lava from the Rhine valley, and burr-stone from the Paris basin for their querns.

E. 7.—These tribes are described as living in cheap εὐτελεῖς [euteleis], dwellings, constructed of reeds or logs, yet spoken of as subterranean.[29] Light has been thrown on this apparent contradiction by the excavation in 1889 of the site of a British village at Barrington in Cambridgeshire. Within a space of about sixty yards each way, bounded by a fosse some six feet wide and four deep, were a collection of roughly circular pits, distributed in no recognizable system, from twelve to [44] twenty feet in diameter and from two to four in depth. They were excavated in the chalky soil, and from each a small drainage channel ran for a yard or two down the gentle slope on which the settlement stood. Obviously a superstructure of thatch and wattle would convert these pits into quite passable wigwams, corresponding to the description of Pytheas. This whole village was covered by several feet of top-soil in which were found numerous interments of Anglo-Saxon date. It had seemingly perished by fire, a layer of incinerated matter lying at the bottom of each pit.

E. 8.—The domestic cattle of the Britons were a diminutive breed, smaller than the existing Alderney, with abnormally developed foreheads (whence their scientific name Bos Longifrons). Their remains, the skulls especially, are found in every part of the land, with no trace, in pre-Roman times, of any other breed. The gigantic wild ox of the British forests (Bos Primigenius) seems never to have been tamed by the Celtic tribes, who, very possibly, like the Romans after them, may have brought their own cattle with them into the island. According to Professor Rolleston the small size of the breed is due to the large consumption of milk by the breeders. (He notes that the cattle of Burmah and Hindostan are identically the same stock, and that in Burmah, where comparatively little milk is used, they are of large size. In Hindostan, on the contrary, where milk forms the staple food of the population, the whole breed is stunted, no calf having, for ages, been allowed its due supply of nutriment.) The Professor also holds that [45] these small oxen, together with the goat, sheep, horse, dog, and swine (of the Asiatic breed), were introduced into Britain by the Ugrian races in the Neolithic Age; and that the pre-Roman Britons had no domestic fowls except geese.[30]

E. 9.—If these considerations are of weight they would point to an excessive dependence on milk even amongst the agricultural tribes of Britain. And there were others, as we know, who had not got beyond the pastoral stage of human development. These, as Strabo declares, had no idea of husbandry, "nor even sense enough to make cheese, though milk they have in plenty."[31] And some of the non-Aryan hordes seem to have been mere brutal savages, practising cannibalism and having wives in common. Both practices are mentioned by the latest as well as the earliest of our classical authorities. Jerome says that in Gaul he himself saw Attacotti (the primitive inhabitants of Galloway) devouring human flesh, and refers to their sexual relations, which more probably imply some system of polyandry, such as still prevails in Thibet, than mere promiscuous intercourse. Traces of this system long remained in the rule of "Mutter-recht," which amongst several of the more remote septs traced inheritance invariably through the mother and not the father.

E. 10.—These savages knew neither corn nor cattle. Like the "Children of the Mist" in the pages of Walter Scott,[32] their boast was "to own no lord, receive [46] no land, take no hire, give no stipend, build no hut, enclose no pasture, sow no grain; to take the deer of the forest for their flocks and herds," and to eke out this source of supply by preying upon their less barbarous neighbours "who value flocks and herds above honour and freedom." Lack of game, however, can seldom have driven them to this; for the forests of ancient Britain seem to have swarmed with animal life. Red deer, roebuck, wild oxen, and wild swine were in every brake, beaver and waterfowl in every stream; while wolf, bear, and wild-cat shared with man in taking toll of their lives. The trees of these forests, it may be mentioned, were (as in some portions of Epping Forest now) almost wholly oak, ash, holly, and yew; the beech, chestnut, elm, and even the fir, being probably introduced in later ages.

E. 11.—Of the British tribes, however, almost none, even amongst these wild woodlanders, were the naked savages, clothed only in blue paint, that they are commonly imagined to have been. On the contrary, they could both weave and spin; and the tartan, with its variegated colours, is described by Caesar's contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, as their distinctive dress, just as one might speak of Highlanders at the present day.[33] Pliny mentions that all the colours used were [47] obtained from native herbs and lichens,[34] as is still the case in the Hebrides, where sea-weed dyes are mostly used. Woad was used for tattooing the flesh with blue patterns, and a decoction of beechen ashes for dyeing the hair red if necessary, whenever that colour was fashionable.[35] The upper classes wore collars and bracelets of gold, and necklaces of glass and amber beads.

E. 12.—This last item suggests an interesting question as to whence came the vast quantities of amber thus used. None is now found upon our shores, except a very occasional fragment on the East Anglian beaches. But the British barrows bear abundant testimony to its having been in prehistoric times the commonest of all materials for ornamental purposes—far commoner than in any other country. Beads are found by the myriad—a single Wiltshire grave furnished a thousand—mostly of a discoid shape, and about an inch in diameter. Larger plates occasionally appear, and in one case (in Sussex) a cup formed from a solid block of exceptional size. If all this came from the Baltic, the main existing source of our amber,[36] it argues a considerable trade, of which [48] we find no mention in any extant authority. Pytheas witnesses to the amber of the Baltic, and says nothing, so far as we know, of British amber. But, according to Pliny,[37] his contemporary Solinus speaks of it as a British product; and at the Christian era it was apparently a British export.[38] The supply of amber as a jetsom is easily exhausted in any given district; miles of Baltic coast rich in it within mediaeval times are now quite barren; and the same thing has probably taken place in Britain. The rapid wearing away of our amber-bearing Norfolk shore is not unlikely to have been the cause of this change; the submarine fir-groves of the ancient littoral, with their resinous exudations, having become silted over far out at sea.[39] The old British amber sometimes contained flies. Dioscorides[40] applies to it the epithet πτερυγοφόρον [pterugophoron] ["fly-bearing"].

E. 13.—The chiefs were armed with large brightly-painted shields,[41] plumed (and sometimes crested) helmets, and cuirasses of leather, bronze, or chain-mail. The national weapons of offence were darts, pikes (sometimes with prongs—the origin of Britannia's trident), and broadswords; bows and arrows being more rarely used. Both Diodorus Siculus [v. 30] and Strabo [iv. 197] describe this equipment, and specimens of all the articles have, at one place or another, been found in British interments.[42] The arms are [49] often richly worked and ornamented, sometimes inlaid with enamel, sometimes decorated with studs of red coral from the Mediterranean.[43] The shields, being of wood, have perished, but their circular bosses of iron still remain. The chariots, which formed so special a feature of British militarism, were also of wood, painted, like the shields, and occasionally ironclad.[44] The iron may have been from the Sussex fields. We know that in Caesar's day rings of this metal were one of the forms of British currency, so that before his time the Britons must have attained to the smelting of this most intractable of metals.

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