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Ancient Greek Government › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

The ancient Greeks were particularly concerned with such fundamental questions as who should rule and how? Should sovereignty ( kyrion ) lie in the rule of law ( nomoi ), the constitution ( politea ), officials, or the citizens? Not settling on a definitive answer to these questions, government in the ancient Greek world, therefore, took extraordinarily diverse forms and, across different city -states and over many centuries, political power could rest in the hands of a single individual: (monarchies and tyrants) or in a select few (the oligarchies) or in every male citizen: democracy - widely regarded as the Greeks' greatest contribution to civilization.
Our knowledge of the political systems in the ancient Greek world comes from a wide range of sources. Whilst for Athens, it is possible to piece together a more complete history, we have only an incomplete picture of the systems in most city-states and many details of how the political apparatus actually functioned are missing. Surviving, though, are over 150 political speeches and 20,000 inscriptions which include 500 decrees and 10 laws. There are also two specifically political texts with the same title, The Constitution of the Athenians, one written by Aristotle or one of his pupils and the other attributed (by some) to Xenophon. Other sources which discuss politics and government include Aristotle's Politics and the historical works of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. In addition, politics is often lampooned in the comedies of Aristophanes.


Athens' constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of the minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. ( Pericles, 431 BCE)
The word democracy derives from the Greek dēmos which referred to the entire citizen body and although it is Athens which has become associated with the birth of democracy ( demokratia ) from around 460 BCE, other Greek states did establish a similar political system, notably, Argos, (briefly) Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai. Athens is, however, the state we know most about. The assembly of Athens met at least once a month, perhaps two or three times, on the Pnyx hill in a dedicated space which could accommodate 6000 citizens. Any male citizen 18 years or over could speak (at least in theory) and vote in the assembly, usually with a simple show of hands. Attendance was even paid for in certain periods which was a measure to encourage citizens who lived far away and couldn't afford the time-off to attend. Citizens probably accounted for 10-20% of the polis population, and of these it has been estimated that only 3,000 or so people actively participated in politics. Of this group, perhaps as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings ( xynomosiai ) and groups ( hetaireiai ).Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, also pointed out that the dēmos could be too easily swayed by a good orator or popular leaders (the demagogues) and get carried away with their emotions. Perhaps the most famous bad decision from the Athenian democracy was the death sentence given to the philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.


Issues discussed in the assembly ranged from deciding magistracies to organising and maintaining food supplies to debating military matters. There was in Athens (and also Elis, Tegea, and Thasos) a smaller body, the boulē, which decided or prioritised the topics which were discussed in the assembly. In addition, in times of crisis and war, this body could also take decisions without the assembly meeting. The boulē or council of 500 citizens waschosen by lot and had a limited term of office, which acted as a kind of executive committee of the assembly. The decrees of the Assembly could also be challenged by the law courts. Similar in function to the boulē was the council of elders (selected men over 60), the gerousia, of Sparta, which also had the two Spartan kings as members and had certain legal powers. Similar bodies of elders existed in Corinth and Stymphalos. In Athens, the Areopagus was a similar such council, where elders were made members for life.
In other Greek states then, there were also democratic assemblies, sometimes, though, with a minimum property stipulation for attendees (as in the Boiotian federation 447-386 BCE). Some city-states also mixed democratic assemblies with a monarchy (for example, Macedonia and Molossia).


In the Greek world monarchies were rare and were often only distinguishable from a tyranny when the hereditary ruler was more benevolent and ruled in the genuine interest of his people. The most famous monarchies were those in the states of Macedonia and Epeiros, where the ruler shared power with an assembly, limited though these were in practice. Although Sparta also possessed a citizen assembly, it is most famous for its system of two kings. Not absolute monarchs, they did, however, hold great power when they led the Spartan army in times of war. During peacetime the kings were kept in check by ephors ( ephoroi ) who were themselves elected by the assembly. Clearly, a degree of political consensus was necessary for this overlapping apparatus to function. The kings were also members of the gerousia and were admitted from a young age, so that they must have had a significant advantage over the other members who couldn't join until they were 60. Spartan kings could, however, be put on trial and even exiled.


Tyrants were sole rulers of a state who had taken power in an unconstitutional manner, often murdering their predecessor.However, Greek tyrants were not necessarily evil rulers (as the word signifies today); they simply looked after their own interests. Syracuse in Sicily had a run of famous tyrants, for example, Dionysios from 405 BCE and his son Dionysios II, who took over in 367 BCE. Others include Pesisistratos in Athens (from c. 560 BCE) - a typical benevolent tyrant who actually paved the way for democracy, Pheidon in Argos (c. 660 BCE), Lykophron in Thessaly, the Kypselidai, which included Periander, in Corinth (c. 657-585 BCE), and Polykrates in Samos (530-522 BCE). For Athenians, tyranny became the exact opposite of democracy, a position that allowed the citizens of Athens to feel a certain superiority. This feeling was especially evidenced in the demonizing of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes, the tyrants par excellence.


An oligarchy is a system of political power controlled by a select group of individuals, sometimes small in number but it could also include large groups. For the Greeks (or more particularly the Athenians) any system which excluded power from the whole citizen-body and was not a tyranny or monarchy was described as an oligarchy. Oligarchies were perhaps the most common form of city-state government and they often occurred when democracy went wrong. Unfortunately, information concerning oligarchies in the Greek world is sparse. We know that in 411 BCE in Athens, 'the oligarchy of the 400' took power out of the hands of the Assembly and were themselves superseded by a more moderate oligarchy of 5000. In 404 BCE, following the defeat of the Athenian military forces in Sicily, there was an oligarchy of ' the Thirty Tyrants ' in Athens which was a particularly brutal regime, noted for its summary executions. Megara and Thebes were other states which had an oligarchic system.



In Athens the law was devised and enforced by magistrates ( archai ). All citizens were eligible for the position, and indeed there may well have been a certain expectation that the honourable citizen would play his active part in civic life. For the Greeks, the state was not seen as an interfering entity which sought to limit one's freedom but as an apparatus through which the individual could fully express his membership of the community. The regular turnover of archai, due to limited terms of office and the prohibition of re-election, meant abuse of power was kept in check and the rulers would in turn become the ruled. Various boards of officials also existed to make administrative decisions; members of these were usually taken from each of the ten traditional tribes. Many civic positions were sort-term and chosen by lot to ensure bribery was kept to a minimum. Importantly, positions of power often required not only free time but also financial layout to fund municipal projects such as ship building and festivals. Therefore, it was probably the case that public positions were in reality dominated by the wealthier citizens.
In Sparta the most important state officials were the five ephors. These were probably elected by the assembly of Sparta and they held office for only one year. However, during that time they had power over most areas of civic life and they could appoint and check on all the other public officials.
Military commanders also held public office in some city-states. In Athens, the board of ten elected generals, known as the strategoi, could influence the agenda of the assembly and so prioritise their own causes. They were subject to votes of confidence by the Assembly but this didn't stop Pericles, for example, holding office as strategos for 15 consecutive years.

Ancient Greek Literature › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Donald L. Wasson

Greek literature has influenced not only its Roman neighbors to the west but also countless generations across the European continent. Greek writers are responsible for the introduction of such genres as poetry, tragedy, comedy, and western philosophy to the world. These Greeks authors were born not only on the soil of their native Greece but also in Asia Minor ( Ionia ), the islands of the Aegean, Sicily, and southern Italy.


The Greeks were a passionate people, and this zeal can be seen in their literature. They had a rich history of both war and peace, leaving an indelible imprint on the culture and people. Author and historian Edith Hamilton believed that the spirit of life abounds throughout Greek history. In her The Greek Way she wrote,
Greek literature is not done in gray or with a low palette. It is all black and shining white or black and scarlet and gold. The Greeks were keenly aware, terribly aware, of life's uncertainty and the imminence of death. Over and over again they emphasize the brevity and the failure of all human endeavor, the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyful. [...] Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction involved thereby. (26)
To fully understand and appreciate Greek literature one must separate it, divide the oral epics from the tragedies and comedies as well as the histories from the philosophies. Greek literature can also be divided into distinct periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. The literature of the Archaic era mostly centered on myth; part history and part folklore. Homer ’s epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey and Hesiod ’s Theogony are significant examples of this period. Literary Greece begins with Homer.Since writing had not yet arrived in Greece, much of what was created in this period was communicated orally, only to be put in written form years later.
The Classical era (4th and 5th centuries BCE) centered on the tragedies of such writers as Sophocles and his Oedipus Rex, Euripides ’s Hippolytus, and the comedies of Aristophanes. Lastly, the final period, the Hellenistic era, saw Greek poetry, prose, and culture expand across the Mediterranean influencing such Roman writers as Horace, Ovid, and Virgil.Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, much of what was created during the Archaic and Classical period remains only in fragments.


During the Archaic period, the poets' works were spoken - an outcome of an oral tradition - delivered at festivals. A product of Greece's Dark Ages, Homer's epic the Iliad centered on the last days of the Trojan War, a war initiated by the love of a beautiful woman, Helen. It brought an array of heroes such as Achilles, Hector, and Paris to generations of Greek youth. It was a poem of contrasts: gods and mortals, divine and human, war and peace. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the book under his pillow and even believed he was related to Achilles.


Homer's second work, the Odyssey, revolved around the ten-year “odyssey” of the Trojan War hero Odysseus and his attempt to return home. While most classicists and historians accept that Homer actually lived, there are some who propose his epics are the result of more than one author. Whether his or not, Homer's works would one day greatly influence the Roman author Virgil and his Aeneid. After Homer, lyric poetry - poetry to be sung - came into its own.
There were many others who ”wrote” during this period, among them were Aesop, Hesiod, and Sappho. The noted storyteller Aesop may or may not be the great fabulist of the ancient world. Professor and classicist DL Ashilman in his introduction to the book Aesop's Fables, wrote, "Aesop may not be a historical figure but rather a name that refers to a group of ancient storytellers." Convention claims that he was born a slave around 620 BCE in Asia Minor. After he received his freedom, he traveled throughout Greece collecting stories, including The Mischievous Dog, The Lion and the Mouse, and The Monkey as King. These stories often ended (not always happily) with a moral such as honesty is the best policy, look before you leap, heaven helps those who help themselves, and once bitten, twice shy. Written down years after his death, Aesop's fables were among the first printed works in vernacular English.
Another poet of the Archaic Period was Hesiod, the author of Theogony, a hymn to Apollo ’s Muses. He has been called the father of didactic poetry. Like Homer, little is known of his early life except that he came from Boeotia in central Greece.Theogony told of the origins and genealogies of the gods, the kingdom of Zeus. Hesiod wrote:
With the Heliconian Muses let us start
Our song: they hold the great and godly mount
of Helicon, and on their delicate feet
They dance around the darkly bubbling spring
And round the altar of the mighty Zeus. (23)
Later in the poem, he said:
Hail, daughters of Zeus
Give me sweet song
To celebrate the holy race of gods
Who live forever, sons of starry Heaven
And Earth, and gloomy Night, and salty Sea. (26)
His others works include Works and Days, The Shield of Herakles, and Catalogue of Women.
Lastly, one of the few female lyric poets of the period was Sappho, often called the tenth Muse. Born on the Aegean island of Lesbos, her poems were hymns to the gods and influenced such Romans poets as Horace, Catullus, and Ovid. Much of her poetry remains in fragments or quoted in the works of others.


Oral recitation of poetry, as well as lyric poetry, morphed into drama. The purpose of drama was to not only entertain but also to educate the Greek citizen, to explore a problem. Plays were performed in outdoor theaters and were usually part of a religious festival. Along with a chorus of singers to explain the action, there were actors, often three, who wore masks. Of the known Greek tragedians, there are only three for whom there are complete plays: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.Oddly, these are considered among the great tragic writers of the world. Hamilton wrote:
The great tragic artists of the world are four, and three of them are Greek. It is in tragedy that the pre-eminence of the Greeks can be seen most clearly. Except for Shakespeare, the great three, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides stand alone. Tragedy is an achievement peculiarly Greek. They were the first to perceive it and they lifted it to its supreme height. (171)
Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BCE) was the earliest of the three. Born in Eleusis around 525/4 BCE, he fought at the Battle of Marathon against the Persian invaders. His first play was performed in 499 BCE. His surviving works include Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants (a play that beat out Sophocles in a competition), Prometheus Bound, Oresteia. Part of the Oresteia trilogy, his most famous work was probably Agamemnon , a play centering on the return of the Trojan War commander to his wife Clytemnestra, who would eventually kill him. After killing her husband she showed little remorse, she said
This duty is no concern of yours.
He fell by my hand,
by my hand he died, and by my hand
he will be buried, and nobody
in the house will weep. (99)
Most of Aeschylus's plays were centered on Greek myth, portraying the suffering of man and the justice of the gods. His works were among the first to have a dialogue between the play's characters.
Sophocles (c. 496 – c. 406 BCE) was the second of the great tragic playwrights. Of his 120 plays performed in competition, only 20 were victorious, losing far too many to Aeschylus. Only three of his seven surviving plays are complete. His most famous work, part of a trilogy, is Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King, a play written 16 years after first of the three, Antigone, a play about Oedipus' daughter. The third in the series was Oedipus at Colonus, relaying the final days of the blinded king. The tragedy of Oedipus centered on a prophecy that foretold of a man who would kill the king (his father) and marry the queen (his mother). Unknowingly, that man was Oedipus. However, the tragedy of the play is not that he killed his father and married his mother but that he found out about it; it was an exploration of the tragic character of a now blinded hero.

Bust of Sophocles

The third great author of Greek tragedy was Euripides, an Athenian (c. 484 - 407 BCE). Unfortunately, his plays - often based on myth - were not very successful at the competitions; his critics often believe he was bitter about these losses. He was the author of 90 plays, among which are Hippolytus, Trojan Women, and Orestes. Euripides was known for introducing a second act to his plays, which were concerned with kings and rulers as well as disputes and dilemmas. He died shortly after traveling to Macedon where he was to write a play about the king's coronation. His play Medea speaks of a bitter woman who took revenge against her lover by killing her children. In pain Medea screams:
O great Thesis and lady Artemis, do you see what I suffer, though I bound my accursed husband by weighty oaths? How I wish I might see him and his bride in utter ruin, house and all, for the wrongs they dare to inflict on me who never did them harm. (55)
Another playwright of the era was the Athenian author of Greek comedy, Aristophanes (c. 450? – c. 386 BCE). Author of Old Comedy, his plays were satires of public persons and affairs as well as candid political criticisms. Eleven of Aristophanes' plays have survived along with 32 titles and fragments of others. His plays include Knights, Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmorphoria, The Frogs, and Clouds, a play that ridiculed the philosopher Socrates as a corrupt teacher of rhetoric. His actors often wore grotesque masks and told obscene jokes. Many of his plays had a moral or social lesson, poking fun at the literary and social life of Athens.


Among the major contributors to Greek literature were the philosophers, among them Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, and Epicurus. One of the most influential Greek philosophers was Plato (427 – 347 BCE). As a student of Socrates, Plato's early works were a tribute to the life and death of his teacher: Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. He also wrote Symposium, a series of speeches at a dinner party. However, his most famous work was The Republic, a book on the nature and value of justice.
His student, Aristotle (384 – 322 CE), disagreed with Plato on several issues, mainly the concept of empiricism, the idea that a person could rely on his/her senses for information. His many works include Nichomachean Ethics (a treatise on ethics and morality), Physics, and Poetics. He was the creator of the syllogism and a teacher of Alexander the Great.


A final group of contributors to ancient Greek literature are the historians: Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius. Both Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) and Thucydides (460 – 400 BCE) wrote around the time of the Peloponnesian Wars. Although little is known of his early life, Herodotus wrote on both the wars between Athens and neighboring Sparta as well as the Persian Wars. During his lifetime, his home of Halicarnassus in western Asia Minor was under Persian control. Although he is often criticized for factual errors, his accounts relied on earlier works and documents. His narratives demonstrate an understanding of the human experience and unlike previous writers, he did not judge. He traveled extensively, even to Egypt.
His contemporary, Thucydides, was the author, although incomplete, of a History of the Peloponnesian War. Part of his history was written as it happened and looked at both long-range and short-range causes of the war. His massive unfinished work would be completed by such Greek authors as Xenophon and Cratippus.


The Hellenistic period produced its share of poets, prose writers, and historians. Among them were Callimachus, his student Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius, and the highly respected historian Plutarch. Unfortunately, like the previous eras, much of what was written remains only in fragments or quoted in the works of others.
The poet Callimachus (310 – 240 BCE) was originally from Cyrene but migrated to Egypt and spent most of his life in Alexandria, serving as a librarian under both Ptolemy II and III. Of his over 800 books, 6 hymns, and 60 epigrams, only fragments remain. His most famous work was Aetia ( Causes ), which revealed his fascination for the great Greek past, concentrating on many of the ancient myths as well as the old cults and festivals. His work heavily influenced the poetry of Catullus and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Aetia by Callimachus

His pupil Theocritus (315 – 250 BCE) originally from Syracuse also worked in the library at Alexandria, producing a number of works of which only 30 poems and 24 epigrams exist. He is said to be the originator of pastoral poetry. Like his teacher, his work influenced future Roman authors such as Ovid.
Apollonius Rhodius (born c. 295 BCE) was, like the others, from Alexandria, serving as both a librarian and tutor. Historians are unsure of the origin of the “Rhodius” attached to his name; some assume he lived for a time in Rhodes. His major work was the four books of the Argonautica, a retelling of the story of Jason's travels to retrieve the fabled Golden Fleece. And, like Callimachus and Theocritus, his work influenced Catullus and Virgil.
Besides poetry and prose, the best-known playwright of the era, the Athenian Menander (342 – 290 BCE), must be mentioned.Menander was a student of philosophy and leading proponent of New Comedy, authoring over 100 plays, including Dyscolus, Perikeiromene, and Epitrepontes. He was the master of suspense. His plays were later adapted by the Roman authors Plautus and Terence.
The Hellenistic world produced a few notable historians, too. Polybius (200 -118 BCE) was a Greek who wrote on Rome ’s rise to power. Denounced as too friendly to Rome, he was a proponent of Greek culture in Rome. Of his Histories, only the first five books remain of the 40 written.
Lastly, Plutarch (born c. 45 BCE) was one of the most famous of the Greek historians. Originally from Chaeronea, he was a philosopher, teacher, and biographer. Although he spent time in Egypt and Rome (where he taught philosophy), he spent most of his life in his home city. Later in life, he served as a priest at the oracle at Delphi. His most famous work Parallel Livesprovided biographies of Roman statesmen as well as such Greeks as Alexander, Lycurgus, Themistocles, and Pericles.Unlike other histories, he chose not to write a continuous history but concentrated on the personal character of each individual.He also wrote on ethical, religious, political, and literary topics of the day.


After the death of Alexander the Great and the growth of Hellenistic culture across the Mediterranean, Roman literature and art had a distinctive Greek flavor. Greek literature had risen from the oral tradition of Homer and Hesiod through the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes and now lay on the tables of Roman citizens and authors. This literature included the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. Centuries of poetry and prose have come down through the generations, influencing the Romans as well as countless others across Europe. Referring to the “fire” of Greek poetry, Edith Hamilton wrote, "One might quote all the Greek poems there are, even when they are tragedies. Every one of them shows the fire of life burning high. Never a Greek poet that did not warm both hands at that flame." (26) Today, libraries both public and private contain the works of those ancient Greeks. And, countless future generations will be able to read and enjoy the beauty of Greek literature.

On the Ocean: The Famous Voyage of Pytheas › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Thomas S. Garlinghouse

Sometime around 330 BCE, Pytheas, a little-known Greek merchant, embarked on an astonishing voyage. It was a voyage that would take him far beyond the known boundaries of the Mediterranean, into lands thought to exist only in myth and legend. When he returned, his voyage and the amazing things he had witnessed would be debated for centuries.
Pytheas was a citizen of the western Greek city of Massilia (modern-day Marseille), which became a major trading power in the western Mediterranean as a result of its favorable location along the southern coast of Gaul (France). He was known as a skilled navigator, astronomer, and mariner. His account of the voyage, called On the Ocean ( Peri tou Okeanou ), documented a sea journey to Britain, the North Sea, and the coastline of northeastern Europe, the mysterious northern lands that were the sources of the Mediterranean's supply of tin, amber, and gold. Written in Greek sometime around 325 BCE, it is perhaps the earliest documented description of the British Isles and its inhabitants. Significantly, it also contains tantalizing evidence that Pytheas may have reached as far north as Iceland and the Arctic Ocean. These were lands that in Greek myths were occupied by a race of giants known as the Hyperboreans. Unfortunately, little details about the voyage exist as the treatise has not survived. Although it was well known in antiquity, only fragments of it have been preserved, excerpted or paraphrased in the writings of other classical writers.


Unlike many of the maritime-focused writings of the time, On the Ocean is not considered a periplus, or at the very least it is not considered a typical periplus. These were essentially maritime logs or navigation guides. They contained a host of practical information such as distances between prominent coastal landmarks or astronomical observations intended to aid in sea voyages. By contrast, On the Ocean, although it does cover such information, is nonetheless much grander and more ambitious in scale. It is a firsthand account of Pytheas's voyage and contains a multitude of astronomical, geographic, biological, oceanographic, and ethnological observations. In fact, many modern scholars consider it a document of considerable scientific and anthropological significance.


The voyage of Pytheas has come down to us from several writers. Notably, these include Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Pliny the Elder, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Polybius. These last two writers, however, were openly hostile to the very idea of such a voyage. The geographer Strabo (63 BCE - 24 CE), for example, claimed in his famous work Geography that Pytheas was 'the worst possible liar' and that the majority of his writings were mere 'fabrications ' (Roseman, 24). Despite this, Strabo is a major source for Pytheas; he quotes the Greek explorer on a number of occasions in Geography, though most of these are presented in such a manner so as to discredit Pytheas and cast doubt on the validity of his voyage.
Many scholars believe that Strabo's harsh accusations were derived from the work of Polybius (c. 200 BCE - c. 118 BCE), the 2nd-century Greek historian who was even more vociferous in his denunciations of Pytheas. Book 34 of Polybius' The Histories, which only survives in fragments, is an extended polemic against Pytheas. The animosity directed at Pytheas from these two writers is curious and may, in fact, have stemmed from nothing more complicated than what British archaeologist Barry Cunliffe has called 'professional jealousy' (Cunliffe, 173).
Other classical writers, by contrast, were entirely well-disposed toward Pytheas and accepted On the Ocean as a valid account. Foremost among these was the historian Timaeus (c. 345 BCE - c. 250 BCE), who wrote a lengthy treatise on the history of Sicily and the western Mediterranean. He very likely had a copy of On the Ocean and quoted from it on numerous occasions in his own work. The famous geographer and chief librarian at Alexandria Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276 BCE - 194 BCE) also referenced Pytheas in a treatise that, like On the Ocean, has been lost but that was widely circulated in the ancient world.
Many scholars believe that the Roman historian and writer Pliny (23 CE - 79 CE) received much of his information about Pytheas from Timaeus. Like Timaeus, he quotes from On the Ocean a number of times in his work Natural History, frequently prefacing his statements with the phrase, "According to Pytheas…" or "Pytheas of Massalia wrote…" The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 BCE – 30 BCE), who wrote his monumental Bibliotheca Historica around the time of Augustus, was also known to have borrowed heavily from the writings of Timaeus, especially his discussion of ancient Britain.


Based on these (and other) scattered fragments, modern scholars have attempted to piece together aspects of the voyage, though many details remain speculative. For example, the kind of vessel Pytheas may have used has never been determined with any degree of certainty. In fact, a number of historians - Cunliffe among them - have suggested he traveled mostly on foot and may have used Celtic currach -style boats for water crossings. But it is also possible that Pytheas, if indeed he was a merchant, may have sailed on a holkas. These were Greek cargo ships, sturdy, well-made vessels with large drafts, designed primarily for hauling merchandise. Generally flat-bottomed, round-hulled, and propelled primarily by sails, these were very different from the sleeker, more well-known triremes, the Greek warships.

Greek Trading Ship

Equally speculative is his precise route. However, it is generally accepted that Pytheas began his voyage from Massalia and sailed west through the Pillars of Hercules (the modern Straits of Gibraltar). He pushed out into the Atlantic, cruising north along the western coasts of Spain and France and possibly made landfall on Brittany. From there, he crossed the English Channel to a spot he called 'Belerion,' which modern scholars believe to be Cornwall. It was here he witnessed the British inhabitants mining tin for trade to Gaul and thence to the Mediterranean. Pliny, quoting Timaeus, writes: "there is an island called Mictis lying six days sail inwards from Britannia where tin is to be found. The Britons cross to the island in wicker boats sewn over with hides" (Cunliffe, 75). The precise location of this island is unknown but has been variously proposed as St. Michaels' Mount in Cornwall, the Mount Batten peninsula in Devon, or the Isle of Wight.
Diodorus Siculus called the island of Britain 'Pretannia' and its inhabitants the 'Pretanni.' Scholars believe both words, which likely came originally from Pytheas, derive from the common P-Celtic division of the Celtic language. This is the spelling Strabo also adopts in most of his references to the island. A number of later writers, by contrast, use the B-Celtic division spelling, rendering the word 'Britannia.' Diodorus Siculus describes the island of Britain as being "thickly populated, and its climate…extremely cold…" (Cunliffe, 108). He describes the Pretanni as a tribal people ruled by "many kings and aristocrats…" (Cunliffe, 108). He notes that they lived in houses of "reeds or timber" and describes them as subsisting off agricultural products (Cunliffe, 108). "Their way of harvesting their grain," he writes, quoting Pytheas, "is to cut off only the heads and store them in roofed buildings, and each day they select the ripened heads and grind them, in this manner getting their food" (Cunliffe, 108).
After observing the inhabitants of Cornwall and southwestern Britain, Pytheas likely proceeded north along the coast of Wales.It is possible he landed on the Isle of Man before sailing up the west coast of Scotland and passing between the Outer and Inner Hebrides. According to various sources, he made a number of landfalls; in fact, Strabo quotes Pytheas as saying he "traversed the whole of Britannike accessible by foot," but, in characteristic fashion, adds the aside that such a feat is patently absurd (Roseman, 48). Pytheas also took a number of latitudinal readings with his gnomon. This was a device like a modern-day stadia rod that was designed to take measurements of the sun's shadow from different latitudes and thereby calculate one's position. Pliny mentioned that to the north of the island of Britain lie the Orcades islands, which most scholars have assumed are today's Orkney Islands, though the precise number given by Pliny does not accord with the actual number. From there, some scholars believe Pytheas made the most daring leg of his voyage by leaving Britain behind and venturing into the North Sea.


According to Strabo, Pytheas sailed for six days before encountering a landmass he called Thule, which some scholars have identified as Iceland. Whether Pytheas indeed made landfall on Iceland is highly controversial, and the prospect has divided scholars for decades. Some have accepted that Thule was Iceland, while others have argued that it refers to Norway. The Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who explored the Arctic extensively, argued in his book Ultima Thule that the possibility of Pytheas reaching Iceland was quite credible. It was here, or somewhere in these northern climes, that Pytheas witnessed a phenomenon wholly foreign to the denizens of the Mediterranean, the nearly continuous daylight experienced by travelers in high latitudes during the summer months. Pliny remarks:
Last of all those mentioned is Thule where, as I have said, there are no nights during the solstice when the sun is passing through the sign of Cancer and also no days during the winter solstice. Some believe this is true for six continuous months (Roseman, 92).
A day's sail north from Thule, Pytheas further noted, brought one to the 'Congealed Sea,' a term scholars believe he used to describe the frozen Arctic Ocean. At this point, it is very likely that heavy fog, bone-chilling cold, and thick floes of ice prevented any further travel north. Nonetheless, it was in reference to this place that one of the most enigmatic passages from On the Ocean occurs. Strabo quotes Pytheas as saying that this high northern latitude was a place:
Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unite the whole together (Roseman, 125).
The puzzling term 'sea-lung' has long been the source of considerable speculation among modern scholars. It is not entirely clear to what Pytheas was referring when he used the term. The most rational explanation and the one which has been adopted by most modern researchers is that Pytheas was using a Greek term in order to describe a phenomenon, 'pancake ice,' which he had never witnessed and for which no term existed. Pancake ice is characteristically round and floats on top of the water. The sea lung was another term for a jellyfish ( pleumōn thalattios ), a creature that Aristotle had identified in his On the Parts of Animals. It too is round and floats on the surface or very near the surface of the water. A number of scholars believe that in attempting to describe this phenomenon, Pytheas simply fell back on the term sea lung, which perhaps most resembled this strange sight.
Returning from Thule, Pytheas likely cruised down the east coast of Britain, rounded the Kentish peninsula, which he called 'Kantion,' thus achieving a circumnavigation of the island. But instead of turning west and heading for home, there is evidence that Pytheas turned east, sailing along the northern coastline of Europe. Pliny argues that he encountered a Germanic people, the Gutones, who inhabited the shores of a large estuary. He also made landfall on an island (possibly Heligoland) known for ample supplies of amber. In fact, the voyage along this part of Europe may have been instigated by the desire to discover the source of amber, which held a considerable attraction for the Greeks. Some have argued that, from here, Pytheas pushed on into the Baltic Sea. He may have traveled as far east as the Vistula River in modern-day Poland before turning around and beginning the long sail back to the Mediterranean and home.


Pytheas apparently wrote On the Ocean at some point after he returned to Massalia. When, of course, will probably never be known precisely. Cunliffe suspects it must have been written in the period before 320 BCE, because it was soon after this date that it was first cited, by the classical writer Dicaearchus, a student of Aristotle. It was afterward widely circulated and apparently studied, dissected, and argued about for at least the next two centuries. For a long time, indeed until the writings of Tacitus and Julius Caesar, On the Ocean was likely the only source of information about Britain and the northern latitudes.There were undoubtedly copies of it in the great libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria. It was probably at the latter, for example, that Eratosthenes obtained a copy of it. Over the centuries, however, perhaps as a result of benign neglect, deliberate destruction (the library at Alexandria underwent a series of devastating fires, for example), or some combination of these, On the Ocean was lost, and with it an account of one of classical antiquity's most significant voyages of discovery.
As for Pytheas himself, scholars know next to nothing about him. Except for a very brief blurb in the writings of Polybius, who scornfully refers to him as a 'private citizen' and a 'poor man' (Roseman, 48) modern historians have nothing concrete with which to describe his personality, his physical appearance, or even the motivations for his voyage. Such descriptions, if they exist at all, can only be divined from the scattered fragments of his writings, or what others have written about him. What these reveal, however, is a man not only skilled in navigation and the ways of the sea but also possessed of a capacious intellectual curiosity, a curiosity that exceeded the bounds of his Mediterranean world.

Stele of Polybius

It is this curiosity that is evident in On the Ocean. Indeed, despite the hyperbolic objections of Strabo and Polybius, On the Ocean is anything but a document fraught with logical impossibilities and wild tales. The fragments that survive point to a sober and objective account containing information valuable to modern scholars and scientists. These include its discussion of the moon's influence on the tides, its description of the midnight sun, its precise measurements of latitudes, and its ethnographic depictions of native peoples. All of these represent a man who, at least one scholar has maintained: "can be set apart from the other explorers and travelers of antiquity: a scientist who traveled…for reasons of pure research…becoming the first to see the entire ocean as his area of endeavor" (Roller, 63).
Today, few historians and scholars doubt the veracity of his voyage. Although debate continues to swirl about the places he actually visited, and other particulars of the voyage, the fact that he made such a voyage is rarely disputed. If the voyage was originally conceived as an economic venture, which some have suggested, it soon became, as the scattered fragments of On the Ocean attest, something more. Indeed, it became a journey of exploration in the truest sense of the word, an attempt to understand and gain knowledge about the world through direct observation. In doing so, Pytheas played a major role in demystifying these strange northern lands that had featured so prominently in the imaginations of the Greeks. For the modern world, moreover, he provided a glimpse, though fragmentary, of a world now lost to us.


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