Pytheas of Massalia

Around the year 330 BC, it is believed that a Greek explorer--Pytheas--from the colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles) sailed to the ends of what was the known world for the Greeks--to the British Isles, and possibly to Iceland.

Before the Greeks, Phonecians traded for tin in Cornwall; Heroditus reported on this in the fifth century, BC. Later, it was the Greeks who needed tin--kasseritos--for bronze, and it was believed by the historian Polybius that Pytheas was sent by the city fathers of Massalia to the "Kasiterides Islands" to find if he could obtain this tin.

In the process, Pytheas sailed not only to Britain--"Pretanike"--but also to the Orkneys (Orcadia), Ireland (Ivernia), and finally "a congealed sea" and lands where the sun shown for only three hours a day. He set foot on some of these islands these islands, interviewing and describing the inhabinates as farmers and fierce warriors in horse-drawn chariots (much like the later Irish sagas).

The strange northern land in the "congealed [icy?] sea" he called Ultima Thule--whether this refers to Iceland or the Shetlands is up to debate.

His book does not survive, but excerpts are found--often with the ridicule of the author--in the works of Strabo, Polybius, and Dikaiarkhos of Messina. However, Eratosthenes and Hipparchus did believe, and use his astronomical calculations, such as that the Pole Star was not truely north, and that the moon affects the tides. It is also believed that Pytheas was the first person to calculate the latitude of Marseilles.

The legacy of Pytheas was largely ignored, at least by Anglo historians, until the publishign of Sir Clement Markham's 1893 article "Pytheas, the Discoverer of Britain."


Carpenter, Rhys. Beyond the Pillars of Heracles. NY: Delacourt Press, 1966

Cunliffe, Barry. The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek. N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2003.

Back to "P" | Back to JCE

Mary Jones 2005