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(fl. 4th cent. bc)
  • Nicholas Purcell

Pytheas (fl. 4th cent. bc), explorer, was the first Greek author to describe Britain. He is an authority rather than a personality but seems to have come from Massalia (Marseilles). Not mentioned, as far as is known, by Aristotle, he was treated with suspicion by his pupil, the polymath Dikaiarkhos of Messana (fl. c.320–300 bc). At more or less that date, or a little later, he was quoted with more approval by the Sicilian Greek historian Timaios of Tauromenion. Timaios wrote in radical isolation in exile in Athens in the early third century bc. It is not safe to conclude either that Dikaiarkhos was appraising a recently published work, or that Timaios recognized the intellectual merits of a contemporary narrative. The work of Pytheas, as it is known from attributed quotations, mainly in the Geography of Strabo and the Natural History of the elder Pliny, claimed to detail the Atlantic coast northwards from Gades (Cadiz). It contained genuine toponyms: apart from 'Prettania' (Britain) and 'Ierne' (Ireland), it included 'Kantion' (the land of the Cantii, Kent), 'Ouxisame' (probably Ouissant), and the land of the Ostimii (probably the later Osismi) of Brittany. Its estimate of the circumference of Britain was, however, about double the correct value. Further allusions to a great gulf, an amber-producing island, and the famous sluggish sea beyond the northern island of Thoule (Thule), have provoked copious debate but little agreement. Thoule itself, though identified by Tacitus and Ptolemy as Shetland, was apparently beyond Britain. It was possibly Iceland, and (as far as written sources go) would seem not to have been known to Greek or Roman voyagers after Pytheas. The book identified Pytheas as a private citizen (as distinct from a state-sponsored voyager) and a poor man (a term which fits, but does not prove, the idea that he was a commercial captain). It also made use of astronomical observations, and seems to have been the first work to propound the idea of an Arctic circle. A number of passages in Diodorus Siculus's Universal History may also be derived from Pytheas through Timaios. Some of their ethnographic details have become well known: a description of the mining and sale of tin, and picturesque glimpses of life on Thoule. Diodorus's account adds the toponyms 'Orkadion' (on the coast of Scotland facing Orkney, probably Dunnet Head, Caithness), and Belerion (in the Cornish peninsula, either Land's End or the Lizard). These were the promontories which, with Kantion, became the angles of the standard triangular representation of Britain. He also mentions the island 'Iktis', which should be Vectis (Wight), though the (probably imaginative) description is more reminiscent of St Michael's Mount.

The literary genre in which such a voyage was presented cannot be reliably deduced from these snippets. Timaios's interest may indicate that it shed light on the geography of myth, and it was certainly soon classified as marvel literature. It is not very likely that the work had (as it was once normal to argue) a primarily utilitarian aim, to be compared to the accounts of post-classical explorers or fitted into a context of commercial rivalry between the Greeks of the western Mediterranean and the Carthaginian communities which dominated the Strait of Gibraltar. On the other hand, the vilification which it received later, especially from Strabo, may equally derive from the wrong expectations; and the evidence of the toponyms suggests that Pytheas had (as would not be surprising at Massalia in the late fourth century) some contact with people who (by whatever means) had genuine experience of travelling in the Atlantic seaboard and the narrow seas. It remains possible that the first-person narration which seems to have underlain the exposition of the coasts in order (which was a normal way of presenting geographical material) was more than a commonplace.


  • C. H. Roseman, Pytheas of Massalia: on the ocean (1994)
  • C. F. C. Hawkes, Pytheas: Europe and the Greek explorers, a lecture delivered at New College, Oxford on 20th May 1975, revised and amplified with ten maps (1977)
  • V. Manfredi and L. Braccesi, Mare Greco: eroi ed esploratori nel Mediterraneo antico (1992)
  • A. L. F. Rivet and C. Smith, The place-names of Roman Britain (1979)