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It is extraordinary that as accomplished a historian as Barry Cunliffe should choose to embark on a historical trail where the evidence is minimal, given the usual rigidity of historians to rely on hard evidence to construct their histories. It is also quite refreshing and the opening preface has an almost amused tone in its admission. In fact, the author makes it clear that much of our evidence for Pytheas can be seen in attributes of his commentating style and quotations by Diodorus or Strabo can thus be deduced as originally his. A little tenuous, but plausible.
Cunliffe begins his deconstruction of the Pytheas myth by clearly explaining the origins and timouchoi government of Massilia (Marseille) as a Greek colony of Phocaea. Explanations of the seafaring wealth of the city give way to an expounding of the use of amphorae in archaeological works to understand trading patterns of the ancient world.
One comment is a little debatable, as Cunliffe implies that the elite Hallstatt of Western Europe had a prestige goods economy created (or at the least, exacerbated) for them by the trade flowing out of the Mediterranean, which, perhaps too neatly, fits the historian's view of the ancient Greek world model of civiliser and barbarian.
There is a good precis of the effects of the Celtic migrations of the 5th - 3rd centuries B.C. and a chronological set of mini-biographies on the Greek philsophers of Miletus, - Anaximander and Thales being prominent - Herodotus, Pythagoras, Aristotle et al, which serves to place the current Greek view of the world, both geographical and sociological. These, and additional references to Avienus and the periplus document used by mariners, all build to a world where the unsailed Ocean gives rise to both myth and philsophical imaginings.
A world that Pytheas was born into.
The book then digresses somewhat. Having admitted at the start of this work that there was very little sources to discuss, Cunliffe feels he has license to talk about the British experience. On the evidence of the aforementioned stylistic comparability, Cunliffe launches into a discouse on trade routes to Cornwall (justified as a potential route taken by Pytheas as it mentions tidal flow which Pytheas was interested in - though we aren't really given evidence to prove that). Nevertheless, the author is now pernitted to debate the location of various ancient sites in order to predict the Pythean route. Once he tenously advances his theory Cunliffe digresses into the origins of tin, from a geological explanation to the finished traded article. He cycles through industrialization, marketing infrastructures and a more general discussion on the social structure of the time. There is an effort to remember the title of the book, with the odd `If Pytheas had visited here, then he'd've found such and such'. But, given the admission at the start that this was liable to happen, one cannot complain too much. As a result we get a long detour on the history of Cornwall with an interesting side discussion on the origins of the name Britain.
Yet, by page 100, Cunliffe is back on the book title's implied content as we route westwards towards Ireland (there is a lengthy chapter on Ultima Thule - Iceland?), dragging further astronomical musing in, - given sailing and astronomy are inextricably linked in the ancient world, not unexpected - boat construction and other items as we route around Scotland down the Amber coasts until the final leg back to Massilia.
The final chapter deals with various ancient sources such as Dicaearchus, Avienus, Timeaus, Eratosthenes, Strabo and Polybius. Cunliffe discusses the press (most of it critical) that Pytheas gets and this is an excellent discussion. In some respects, it might have been better if it came at the beginning rather than the end.
So, an intriguing book that unbashedly states it's liable to wander off the subject matter (and does) yet introduces us to an explorer who has come down to use through tantalising excerpts from later commentators, yet, by the very end, we get a sense of affinity with a man who set off to discover the world was more the the Mediterranean.