Pytheas Biography

Pytheas, a Greek geographer and explorer from Massalia, embarked on a remarkable voyage to northwestern Europe in 325 BC. He became the first known explorer in the modern sense of the word, venturing all the way around Great Britain and visiting the Arctic, polar ice, and the Germanic tribes. Commissioned by merchants in his native city, Pytheas sought to find a route to the tin mines of southern Britain, challenging the Carthaginian monopoly. His successful circumnavigation of Great Britain and his lost memoir provided valuable descriptions of the land, including a mysterious place called the “Island of Thule,” which some believe could be Iceland or Greenland. Additionally, Pytheas demonstrated his astute astronomical knowledge by suggesting the moon’s influence on tides.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 65
  • Died on: 285 BC
  • City: Marseille, France

Childhood & Early Life

Pytheas was born in the Greek colony of Massalia on the south coast of France (now called Marseilles). The exact year of his birth or the details about his family are not known. Some sources suggest that he was born around 350 BC while others state that he was born circa 380 BC.

Later Life

It is not known how exactly Pytheas’ voyages began. It is believed that he was sent on his voyages by merchants in his native city to find a route to the tin mines of southern Britain which were the source of that valuable metal for all of Europe and the Mediterranean.

The trade in tin was fully controlled by the Carthaginians (from the city of Carthage in present-day Tunisia), who had closed the Strait of Gibraltar—the exit from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic—to all ships from other nations. The Greeks wanted to break their monopoly by finding an alternative route to the mines.

Pytheas began his voyage during the second half of the 4th century BC. Since the Strait of Gibraltar was blocked, he probably travelled overland or went on his voyage during a time when the Carthaginians were engaged in a war with Syracuse in Sicily (310-306 BC). It is not known exactly how, but he successfully made his way to the port of Corbilo at the mouth of the Loire River.

From there he probably followed the European shoreline to the tip of Brittany and sailed from there to Belerium (Land’s End) in Cornwall, the southwestern tip of Britain where the tin mines were located.

He maintained a detailed record of his travels in which he claimed to have explored a large part of Britain on foot. He accurately estimated its circumference at 4,000 miles (6,400 km). In his accounts he also wrote about how the inhabitants of Belerium extracted tin from the mines and how they engaged in trade.

Continuing his voyage, he set sail from Cornwall and sailed through the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland to reach the northern tip of Scotland. Over the course of his travels he may have even reached the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea. Pytheas described another land beyond northern Scotland: “Island of Thule.”

It is not clear if Pytheas actually visited Thule or merely described it on the basis of what he had heard. Based on his descriptions of the land, it is assumed that Thule was probably Norway in the present region of the city of Trondheim, although other locations have also been suggested.

Eventually he sailed back to Britain, and crossed the North Sea to the North Frisian Islands off the coast of Germany. He also explored the island of Heligoland, which he called Abalus. Finally he sailed back along the coast of Europe and returned home.

Major Works

Pytheas made the earliest recorded voyage to Britain, the Baltic, and the Arctic Circle. He described his travels in the memoir ‘Periplus’ which was widely known in antiquity. On his historical voyage, he circumnavigated and visited a considerable part of Great Britain, and accurately estimated its circumference at 4,000 miles (6,400 km). He was the first known person to describe the Midnight Sun, and also the first person to associate the tides to the phases of the moon. He was possibly the only source of information on the North Sea and the subarctic regions of Western Europe to later periods.

Personal Life & Legacy

Details regarding his personal life are not clear. Even the date of his death is shrouded in ambiguity. He is believed to have died around 300 BC or 285 BC.

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