The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek

by stephenpalmersf

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe

I picked this book up in Hay-on-Wye over the summer. In recent years I’ve bought quite a few books on remarkable voyages of exploration, and when I worked at Waterstones I had a similar historical phase. There’s something about tales of exploring the little-known planet which fascinates me.

Barry Cunliffe is an author well known to students of archaeology, his field of expertise focusing on north and west European areas. This book takes the reader back 2,400 years to the age when Greece was dominant in the Mediterranean and Rome was yet to rise in any significance. Pytheas was a residence of Marseilles, then a vital Greek trading settlement. The extraordinary voyage refers to a years-long exploration which Pytheas undertook of France, England and Scotland, including various Scottish isles, Iceland, then the north European coast possibly as far as the Baltic sea. Motives offered include the spirit of exploration and the search for sources of tin and amber.

What’s so admirable about this book is that, as it tells an exciting tale of ancient enquiry, it never fails to lose sight of the fact that our knowledge of Pytheas comes via a chain of many sources, some of whom believed Pytheas and some of whom did not. Thus the entire field of classical enquiry is thrown into an appropriately sceptical light. Cunliffe is particularly good when trying within reasonable limits to disentangle guesswork and authoritative source. On the whole though he is a Pytheas believer (unlike the grumpy Strabo, whom he regularly quotes).

Highly recommended to all fascinated by tales of exploration, whether ancient or relatively modern.