The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The Man Who Discovered Britain

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9780802713933: The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The Man Who Discovered Britain

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 Europe―a 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-pack―an 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 experienced―the 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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About 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.

From Publishers Weekly:

Over 2,300 years ago, Pytheas of Massalia (now Marseille) embarked on an unprecedented journey to lands beyond the known boundaries of his world: the wilds of northern Europe. He was the first Greek to do so, and upon his return, he chronicled his adventures in On the Ocean alas, no longer extant. Many ancient writers put little stock in its revelations. The Roman geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Polybius, for instance, questioned whether Pytheas even made the voyage at all. But Oxford archeologist Cunliffe (The Ancient Celts) argues that there is enough evidence to prove that Pytheas discovered tin fields in Brittany, amber forests in the Baltic region and Ultima Thule, or Iceland. In this dramatic piece of historical detective work, Cunliffe employs archeology, literary studies, geography and imagination to recreate Pytheas's possible routes from the Mediterranean to Iceland and back home again. Cunliffe also draws on the writings of Pliny the Elder and the geographer Dicaearchus to demonstrate that several of Pytheas's near contemporaries welcomed his discoveries about the nature of the solstice and the influence of the moon on the tides. Although Cunliffe often has to speculate in the absence of Pytheas's own words, he nevertheless amasses strong evidence that Pytheas did indeed make his voyage. What Cunliffe neglects to do, however, is make Pytheas the convincing, three-dimensional hero of his own tale. 15 b&w illus., 6 maps.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Barry Cunliffe
Editorial: Walker & Company (2002)
ISBN 10: 0802713939 ISBN 13: 9780802713933
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