The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Anglais) Relié – 4 janvier 2002
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The writings of Pytheas are problematic because so little survives and much of that in second and third hand accounts from other sources. I was looking for a semi-fictionalized account with flights of fancy and florid prose, but instead the technically proper, pragmatic yet enthusiasic descriptions of the lands travelled might actually have been better. There was not a voice in the back of my brain saying "Aw, you just made that up."
Most of the analysis involves taking single observations of Pytheas and correlating these to other sources, scientific and astronomical observations and contemporary archeological evidence in order to find the most reasonable interpretation. This book offers a rare glimpse into Celtic western Europe in the 4th century BC with wonderfully explanatory descriptions of the tin trade, the amber trade and luxury items from the Mediterranean working their way into the Celtic world. I appreciated the author's discussion of the full Hellenistic intellectual scene and the influence Pytheas had on Greek understanding of the world.
(Spoiler Alert) The author places Pytheas in Iceland as the fabled "Ultima Thule" while some other historians say the land mentioned must have been Norway instead. I was disappointed that the author did not discuss more thoroughly maritime travel to Iceland in classical times. To my knowledge there is no archeological or written evidence that humans reached Iceland before the 6th Century AD Irish. Yet Pytheas' latitude measurements indicated he reached a north latitude just short of the arctic circle. The author also gives credit to Pytheas for circumnavigating Great Britain, disputed by others.
Using the journey of Pytheas the Greek in the 4th Century b.c. as his focus, Professor Cunliffe gathers a cornucopia of information and speculation into a fascinating narrative. I appreciated the way he wove a variety of information about the time and place, from Iceland to Egypt, from late b.c. to early c.e., from Classic writings. My usual reading about this period usually focuses on something particular, like Caesar and the Gauls, or Rome and Carthage, but this little book gives me a context that I will be able to refer to in the future.
I have read other books by Professor Cunliffe and while I appreciate his research, scholarship, and caution in drawing conclusions, I happily detected a looser speculation in this book. Something more entertaining, and if I may speculate myself, a bit of fun on his part. I even found the last chapter on why Polybius disliked Pytheas to be downright gossipy.
Cunliffe is Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford, so he knows the archeological record well and he discusses various sites that are representative of the areas Pytheas visited. He also carefully evaluates and explains the potential biases and distortions in the surviving commentaries on Pytheas's travels. For example, some later scholars refused point-blank to accept that humans could survive in such cold climates.
I was initially surprised by the claimed extent of Pytheas's travels, but by the end I was convinced that Pytheas did indeed reach the far North (almost certainly Iceland) and record its short summer nights and high latitude for future geographers.
An amazing tale, well told. Despite being scholarly, Cunliffe's account is consistently well written, entertaining and enlightening.