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

Review of Barry Cunliffe's Account of Pytheas, by Bingley

By Bingley

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, The Man Who Discovered Britain, by Barry Cunliffe

Pytheas, a Greek living in Massalia (Marseilles) in the late 4th century B.C., wrote a book called "Peri Tou Okeanou" or "About the Ocean", in which he tells of his voyages in the Atlantic and circumnavigating Britain. Unfortunately, the book itself is lost, but it is quoted directly or used as a source by Polybius and Strabo, neither of whom is very complementary to Pytheas, and the Elder Pliny, among others.

Barry Cunliffe, Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford, tries to establish whether Pytheas was a trustworthy source, discussing what Pytheas and his contemporaries would have known about the world, and using his own archaelogical knowledge to discuss what Pytheas would have seen on his voyage and where Pytheas actually went.

The first chapter gives a brief run down of Massalia's founding as a Greek colony and its social and political institutions and relationships. Chapter 2 explores what the development of Greek knowledge about the world outside the Mediterranean down to Pytheas' day. Chapter 3 gives the political background to Pytheas' voyage -- the increasing competition in the Western Mediterranean between Carthage and the Greeks -- and it's implications for where Pytheas started from. Chapters 4 to 7 discuss Pytheas' actual voyage, while Chapter 8 rounds off the story with a discussion of the sources and their attitudes to Pytheas. The book is illustrated throughout with sketch maps for the geographically challenged.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. The topic is interesting but I had real problems with Cunliffe's portrayal of Pytheas himself. It wasn't till I got to the final chapter that I realised why. Cunliffe quotes Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who compares Pytheas to Captain Cook, and Cunliffe has obviously taken this to heart. His Pytheas is definitely a noble scientist-explorer more suited to an idealised 18th or 19th century figure than a Greek of the 4th century B.C. I have no idea what the real Pytheas would have been like but this portrayal felt anachronistic enough to make me increasingly uneasy as I read the book.

It's a shame, because Cunliffe's themes -- what did the Greeks know about North-Western Europe, and what do we know about prehistoric North-Western Europe and how do we know it are interesting -- but this presentation caused me to feel troubled even by what Cunliffe says on matters which fall within his own area of expertise.

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