Pytheas of Massalia

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(fl. Massalia [now Marseilles, France], 330 b.c.)


The tradition of Pytheas’ work is defective and controversial. He seems to have been inspired by the new knowledge of the earth as a sphere, probably through the writings of Eudoxus of Cnidus. He was close in his measurement of the latitude of his native Massalia and corrected Eudoxus’ position of the north celestial pole. His voyage to see the midnight sun led him to the exploration of Britain and the North Sea and to the discovery of the island that he called Thule, located on the Arctic Circle a six-day journey north of Britain. He described the sea near Thule as “neither land nor sea nor air but a mixture of all, like a sea-lung, in which sea and land and everything swing and which may be the bounds of all, impassable by foot or boat”; this description challenges explanation.

It is not known how Pytheas arrived at Thule or where it was located. The usual view is that Thule was Iceland, although some have argued vigorously for Norway. Iceland seems to fit the evidence better. Again, the usual view is that Pytheas navigated his own ship through the Strait of Gibraltar, but the alternative view that he went overland through France and traveled as a passenger on native vessels seems, on the whole, more feasible. The commercial situation, with Carthage in control of Gibraltar, and the Greek influence of Massalia radiating through France, seems to favor the latter view.

Pytheas had a good deal to tell about the nearer parts of northern Europe. He claimed to have traveled throughout Britain and along the entire coast of the Continent from Cádiz to the Don River (that is, to the boundary of Europe and Asia—wherever he supposed that was). But the preserved data are so meager, erratic, and corrupt as to be of little use. He certainly investigated the source of tin in south Britain and probably that of amber in the North Frisian Islands. His explorations were probably extended by inquiry and hearsay, and it is doubtful that he reached the Baltic Sea. Although his description of the shape of Britain is correct the dimensions he gave are much too large. The tradition is silent about Ireland, but he must have known of it.

Pytheas’ report of his explorations elicited controversy from the start, apparently because it conflicted with the established theory of uninhabitable torrid and frigid zones. Polybius was altogether hostile to it, and Strabo followed suit with abusive language. They classified Pytheas with the writers of fiction Euhemerus and Antiphanes. According to Strabo, Polybius said that even Dicaearchus of Messina did not believe him; this attack is the earliest known reference to Pytheas’ work. Polybius’ attitude may have been part of his polemic against his predecessor, the historian Timaeus, who had used Pytheas’ report in his digression on geography. The scientific geographers Eratosthenes and Hipparchus accepted Pytheas’ work at least in great part. There is no doubt that Pytheas’ opponents were mistaken, and he must rank as one of the greatest explorers of antiquity. The recorded history of Britain begins with him; and the name of Thule, which no other man of the ancient classical world reported on, is the hallmark of his influence.


On Pytheas and his work, see F. Gisinger, “Pytheas I,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, XXIV (Stuttgart, 1963), 314–366; R. Hennig, Terrae incognitae I, Altertum bis Ptolemäus, 2nd. rev. ed. (Leiden, 1944), 155–182; H. J. Mette, Pytheas von Massalia, Kleine Texte für Vorlesungen und Übungen no. 173 (Berlin, 1952); and J. O. Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (Cambridge, 1948), 143–151.

Aubrey Diller