BMCR 2022.08.14

Pytheas of Massalia: texts, translation, and commentary

, Pytheas of Massalia: texts, translation, and commentary. Routledge classical translations. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xxii, 206. ISBN 9781032019987 $160.00.

Possibly more of a Marco Polo than a Vasco da Gama, Pytheas of Massalia (modern day Marseille) abandoned his native Mediterranean to explore Europe’s Atlantic coast, circumnavigate Britain and perhaps advance as far as the Baltic. He wrote a book on this adventure, On the Ocean, which unfortunately has been lost, and the few fragments that we have (all indirect, with the exception of a single sentence) tell us neither his route, nor how he travelled, nor his purpose. For what it could have told us about the Celts and the other peoples with whom its author had direct contact or heard about, the disappearance of Pytheas’ book is most regrettable. A sad fate for the man who put Britain on the map, centuries before Julius Caesar’s legions crossed the English Channel.

There are those who think that On the Ocean disappeared because Pytheas’ countrymen found it difficult to believe what they read about: frozen seas, islands at the uninhabitable confines of the earth—all these things would have seemed the nonsensical inventions of a mythomaniac and would have given Pytheas the infamous fame of a Baron Münchhausen of Antiquity. I do not think this to be the case, even though some of our sources (such as Strabo) are hostile to him. After all, no one ever stopped reading Herodotus, for example, because of what he says in the Histories (4.13) about the Issedones, the one-eyed Arimaspi, the gold-guarding griffins, and the Hyperboreans. And how many scholars of Antiquity and the Middle Ages took into account the verdict of the ignored Strabo? Pytheas ceased to be read, possibly, because as the Roman Empire advanced towards the north of Europe, more detailed and updated pieces of information rendered his account somewhat obsolete. It is a pity, because otherwise we would possess today the oldest known description of the shores of Armorica, of the British Isles, and perhaps of the coasts of the Netherlands, Denmark and the Baltic countries—and we would be able to locate with reasonable precision the so-often-sung “Ultima Thule”.

The edition of fragmentary works tends to be a rather thankless task. There will always be those who will disagree with the principles of organization, the definition of the corpus (what to include and what to leave out), the analysis and translation of the fragments, etc. Of course, works that have reached us in their entirety can also provoke heated and not always cordial discussions, but I perceive a greater acrimony among those who study the Epic Cycle, for example, than among those dedicated to the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the field of fragmentary literary works it sometimes seems even more difficult to challenge rooted understandings with new interpretations, even when they are equally plausible and well substantiated.

I met Pytheas of Massalia through a magazine article published in 2004, in fact a very brief paraphrase of Barry Cunliffe’s book, published three years earlier. My fascination was immediate: from the article I moved to Cunliffe, and from him to Christina Horst Roseman’s edition of the testimonia and fragments.[1] Roseman’s arguments (1994, pp. 149-51) in favour of the hypothesis that Pytheas may have travelled as a passenger on local merchant ships, passing from one vessel to another as he went along, complemented by Cunliffe’s suggestion (2002, pp. 56-58) that he might not have circled the Iberian Peninsula, but crossed from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through the rivers Aude and Garonne, seemed so correct to me that I never doubted them. Indeed, that first itinerary had become so fossilized in me that I initially thought it strange and unreasonable that Lionel Scott would dare to challenge it.

But Roseman’s hypothesis is refuted with accuracy and clarity on pp. 14-19 of Scott’s Pytheas of Massalia, the book reviewed here. Based on the expression “the locals showed us where the sun sleeps”[2] in F7 (Geminus of Rhodes, 6.9), Scott suggests that the Greek explorer actually commanded the small crew of a ship propelled by sail and oars, possibly a penteconter, a vessel associated both with Phocaea and Massalia.[3] Scott’s arguments include a possible trading and good-neighbor agreement between Massalia and Carthage (p. 17), which would have ensured Pytheas’ passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, and a discussion of the practicality of traveling as a passenger on local merchant ships that perhaps did not set sail very often throughout the year (pp. 18-19). It is necessary to recognize the relevance of Scott’s views, even if we cannot definitively exclude the validity of Roseman’s suggestion.

(On the other hand, Cunliffe’s suggestion that Pytheas may have avoided traveling around the Iberian Peninsula is summarily rejected [p. 14] based on Strabo’s use of the term παρωκεανῖτις in 2.4.1 [F30], and on his mention of Iberia in 3.2.11 [F34].)

More problematic is Scott’s identification of Thule with Norway, considered certain in Appendix 6 (“Thule and the Frozen Sea”, pp. 152-60). The philological argument borrowed from Grønvik (Thule = the Old Norse Thulr) is interesting, but I don’t think Iceland can be dismissed so summarily as an alternative. First, the fact that it was not inhabited until the 8th century does not prove that Iceland could not have been used seasonally by fishermen and seal hunters, for example. Besides, Iceland was discovered because someone “had once sailed into the unknown for many days . . . with no reason to think that there was any land anywhere to their north” (p. 154), be that someone a Celtic, British, Irish or Viking navigator. Furthermore, from the imperfect information at our disposal, the only sensible conclusion is that Thule may have been “Iceland, western Norway, some uninhabited rock, a distant land mass seen in temperature inversion, or even some island eroded away centuries ago by Atlantic storms” (Roseman, 1994, p. 158).

Scott’s edition is organized as follows: list of maps (p. x), preface (p. xi), acknowledgements (p. xiii), abbreviations and citations (p. xv), distances and timings (p. xix), introduction (p. 1, divided into “Pytheas and his book” and “problems of presentation”), the background to Pytheas’ voyage (p. 5, divided into “Massalia, trading city”, “knowledge of the north”, “exploratory voyages before Pytheas”, “relations with Carthage and passage through Gibraltar”, “the astronomical background”, and “Pytheas sets off”), the fragments (p. 24), appendixes 1 to 7 (p. 121, dealing with “the alleged Massiliot Periplus”, “Pytheas’ contributions to astronomy”, “the word for ‘hour’”, “Pytheas’ amber island(s)”, “the Ost- tribe(s)”, “Thule and the frozen sea”, and “Strabo’s view of western Europe”), a coda (p. 165), a table of concordance (p. 184), abbreviations (p. 186), bibliography (p. 187), a list of passages cited (p. 192), and an index (p. 198). There are in total six maps in the book (on pages 9, 51, 161, 178, and 179).

The 39 fragments[4] (pp. 24-120) are arranged in alphabetical order of the name of our sources in English, meaning that Geminos is printed after Diodoros Siculus, and that he in turn is preceded by Cleomedes and Cosmas Indicopleustes.[5] As a result, Pytheas’ voyage constantly moves forward and backward, and fragments dealing with the same region (e.g. FF13 and 19 that describe the Orcades and Thule) end up separated, even though “the references are listed alphabetically by author, with cross-references and Appendices for common matters” (p. 3). Scott chooses to do so because “many references touch on more than one topic” (loc. cit.) and he does not want to divide up the texts. It must be noticed that six of the fragments are dubious at best. These are FF4-6 (Timaeus, via Diodorus Siculus), FF12-13 (Pomponius Mela), and F32 (Strabo, 2.5.41 = F6c Mette).[6] Each fragment or reference is complete with bibliographic location (e.g. F14 Pliny NH 1.2, 1.4, 1.37), original text (at times longer than the fragment itself for context), translation, and attached commentary. And although Scott claims his is not “a critical edition as such”, some textual elements are discussed (e.g. in F30, p. 97).

Because of the way it challenges some accepted deductions about Pytheas and his voyage, and because it is very well produced, Scott’s edition is a welcome addition to the studies on the Greek explorer. It does not supplant Roseman’s edition (nor could it, since no new fragments of Pytheas have been discovered in the meantime), but complements it. Some typos could have been eliminated with an extra revision. The worst I noticed is the conversion of 42,500 stades into 68,000 km in F4 (Diodorus Siculus, 5.21.4, p. 30). Although a simple rule of three with the other conversions given in the same passage clarifies that the correct distance is 6,800 km, on p. 32 these same 42,500 stades become 7,730 km. Another typo is in the concordance table (p. 184), where F12 appears twice, the second time between FF14 and 15, with different correspondences each time. I found no typos in the transcription of the Greek text in the fragments I have compared, and the translations are all correct, although Scott seems sometimes to ignore what his predecessors say. For example, in F1 (p. 24) he disregards Roseman’s commentary (1994, pp. 103-103), and translates “the waxing and waning of the moon” instead of “the fullness and faintness of the moon”. A valid choice, given the Greek text, but at least a footnote should have been included noticing the alternative.

The only unforgivable flaw of the edition is its price, far too expensive for a 226-page book, and one whose theme has great potential to arouse the interest of a wider readership. Greek explorers, real or imaginary, never cease to appeal to us, and even nowadays they populate movies, video games, books and comic books,[7] and Pytheas enjoys a reasonable popularity among the British. If Routledge considers this edition too scholarly, it could perhaps produce a popular version of it, adapted by Scott himself.[8]


[1] The article was written by Beto Guimarães (“Píteas, o Homem que Descobriu o Fim do Mundo”, in Aventuras na História, 6 (Fev. 2004)). My copy disappeared years ago, but the text can be read online.
Barry Cunliffe’s book is The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (London: Penguin, 12001). I possess the revised edition (Nova York: Walker & Co., 2002).
Roseman’s edition is Pytheas of Massalia, On the Ocean, text, translation and commentary by Christina Horst Roseman (Chicago (Ill.): Ares Publishers, 1994).
The editions by A. Schmekel, Pytheae Massiliensis quae supersunt fragmenta etc. (Merseburg: 1848), H. J. Mette, Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: 1952), and S. Bianchetti, Pitea di Massilia, l’Oceano (Pisa & Rome: 1998) must also be noted.

[2] It is possibly the only sentence preserved from On the Ocean—«ἐδείκνυον ἡμῖν οἱ βάρβαροι ὅπου ὁ ἥλιος κοιμᾶται» —, although there are those (e.g. Bianchetti, p. 191) who defend the position that the literal quotation continues:

«συνέβαινε γὰρ περὶ τούτους τοὺς τόπους τὴν μὲν νύκτα παντελῶς μικρὰν γίνεσθαι ὡρῶν οἷς μὲν δύο, οἷς δὲ τριῶν, ὥστε μετὰ τὴν δύσιν μικροῦ διαλείμματος γινομένου ἐπανατέλλειν εὐθέως τὸν ἥλιον».

Because of the connotation of the term “barbarians” nowadays, Scott prefers to translate βάρβαροι as “‘locals’, and [to] use the term generally for the inhabitants of a non-Greek place” (p. 4).

[3] This suggestion is not due to Scott, who merely picks it up and gives it renewed impetus adding fresh arguments to support it.

[4] Unlike Roseman, Scott does not distinguish fragments from testimonia, for “how far surviving texts can be said to contain something of an earlier writer’s work is never easy to define” (p. 1). Thus, each “citation is given a conventional F for fragment number, but they are called ‘references’ in this book” (loc. cit.).

[5] Scott sometimes chooses to transliterate the Greek names (e.g. Diodoros, Timaios), sometimes to use their Latin form. If he had spelled Kleomedes and Kosmas, the order of the fragments would have been different.

[6] There are arguments in favour and against the inclusion of each of them in the corpus, but no certainty. I approve Scott’s decision to include them, for in doing so he allows us as readers to come to our own conclusions. I think, however, that these dubious fragments should have been printed in a separate chapter of the book, after the others.

[7] In their latest adventure (Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad. Astérix et le Griffon. [Paris]: Les Éditions Albert-René, 2021), Asterix and Obelix follow the steps of the “great Greek explorer Trodéxès de Collagène” (Acros Thesevenses in the English translation by Adriana Hunter), who had entered the territory of Sarmatia (now Russia) and claimed to have found the mythical Griffin (if you don’t know what a Griffin is, look in any edition of Alice in Wonderland). And in the previous issue (idem, La Fille de Vercingétorix, 2019), the title character Adrenaline went in search of Thule in the company of a Gaulish hippie.

[8] My first review for the BMCR (2020.06.11) was corrected with kind enthusiasm by Bob Lamberton, whom I naturally thanked in a note. This prompted one of my readers, Will Altman, an old childhood friend of Bob, to write and ask me to put them in touch, which in turn put in march a story that was both sad and touching.
The story is not mine to tell, but I dedicate this simple text to the loving memory of L.R.

ἀλλὰ μεμνάσεσθ᾿ ἀ[
καὶ γὰρ ἄμμες ἐν νεότατι
ταῦτ᾿ ἐπόημμεν·
πόλλα μὲν γὰρ καὶ κάλα