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*Puqe/as), of Massilia, in Gaul, a celebrated Greek navigator, who sailed to the western and northern parts of Europe, and wrote a work containing the results of his discoveries. We know nothing of his personal history, with the exception of the statement of Polybius that he was a poor man (apud Strab. ii. p. 104). The time at which he lived cannot be determined with accuracy. Bougainville (Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr. vol. xix p. 143) maintained that he lived before Aristotle, but the passage on which he relied (Arist. Met. 2.5.) is not sufficient to warrant this conclusion. Vossius (de Historicis Graecis, p. 125, ed. Westermann) places him in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, but this is certainly too late a date. As he is quoted by Dicaearchus, a pupil of Aristotle (Strab. ii. p.104) and by Timaeus (Plin. Nat. 37.11), he probably lived in the time of Alexander the Great, or shortly afterwards.


The works of Pytheas are frequently referred to by the ancient writers. One appears to have borne the title Περὶ τοῦ Ὠκεανοῦ (ἐν τοῖς περὶ τοῦ Ὠκεανοῦ, Geminus, Elem. Astron. in Petav. Uranol. p. 22), and the other to have been called a Περίπλους (Marcianus, in Geogr. Min. vol. i. p. 63, ed. Husdon), or as it is termed by the Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius (4.761), Γῆς περίοδος. That he gave an account of the north-western coasts of Europe is evident from Strabo, who refers to his statements respecting Iberia, Gaul, and other countries (Strah. i. p. 64, ii. p. 75, iii. p. 158, iv. p. 195). It would appear from Pytheas' own statement, as related by Polybius (apud Strab. ii. p. 104), that he undertook two voyages, one in which he visited Britain and Thule, and of which he probably gave an account in his work On the Ocean ; and a second, undertaken after his return from his first voyage, in which he coasted along the whole of Europe from Gadeira (Cadiz) to the Tanais, and the description of which probably formed the subject of his Periplus. Some modern writers, however, maintain that the passage in Strabo may be interpreted to mean that Pytheas undertook only one voyage; but we think that the words are scarcely susceptible of such an interpretation.

The following are the principal particulars which ancient writers have preserved from the works of Pytheas. 1. He related that at the extreme west of the inhabited world was a promontory of the Ostidamnii, called Calbion, and that islands lay to the west of it, the furthest of which named Uxisama was a three days' sail (Strab. i. p.64). Strabo treats all this as the pure invention of Pytheas. 2. He further related that he visited Britain, and travelled over the whole of the island as far as it was accessible; and he said that it was 40,000 stadia in circumference. As to Thule and those distant parts he stated that there was neither earth, sea, nor air, but a sort of mixture of all these, like to the mollusca, in which the earth and the sea and every thing else are suspended, and which could not he penetrated either by land or by sea. The substance like the mollusca Pytheas had seen himself, but the other part of the account he gave from hearsay (Polyb. apud Strab. ii p. 104). Pytheas made Thule a six days' sail from Britain ; he said that the day and the night were each six months long in Thule (Strab. i. p.63; Plin. H.N 2.77). 3. He spoke of a people called Guttones, bordering upon Germany, and dwelling upon a gulf of the sea called Mentonomon, in a space of (6000 stadia. he added that at the distance of a day's sail there was an island named Abalus, to which amber was brought by the waves in spring ; that the inhabitants used it instead of firewood, and sold it to the neighbouring Teutoni. Timaeus gave credit to this account, but called the island Basilia. ( Plin. H.N. 37.11.)

The credibility of the statements of Pytheas was differently estimated by the ancient writers. Eratosthenes and Hipparchus refer to them as worthy of belief; but other writers, especially Polybius and Strabo, regard them as of no value at all. Polybius says that it is incredible that a private man, and one who was also poor, could have undertaken such long voyages and journeys (apud Strah. ii. p. 104); and Strabo, on more than one occasion, calls him a great liar, and regards his statements as mere fables, only deserving to be classed with those of Euhemerus and Antiphanes (Strab. i. p.63, ii. p. 102, iii. pp. 148, 157, 158). Most modern writers, however, have been disposed to set more value upon the narrative of Pytheas. In reply to the objection of Polybius it has been urged that he may have been sent on a voyage of discovery by the Massilians, at the public expence, in order to become acquainted with the country from which the Carthaginians procured amber. There seems no reason to doubt that he did go on a voyage to the northern parts of Europe; but the reasons for his undertaking it must be left in uncertainty. It would appear from the extracts which have been preserved from his works, that he did not give simply the results of his own observations, but added all the reports which reached him respecting distant countries, without always drawing a distinction between what he saw himself and what was told him by others. His statements, therefore, must be received with caution and some mistrust. It is equally uncertain how far he penetrated. Some modern writers have regarded it as certain that he must have reached Iceland in consequence of his remark that the day was six months long at Thule, while others have supposed that he advanced as far as the Shetland Islands. But either supposition is very improbable and neither is necessary; for reports of the great length of the day and night in the northern parts of Furope had already reached the Greeks. before the time of Pytheas. There has been likewise much dispute as to what river we are to understand by the Tanais. Without stating the various opinions which have been advanced, we may remark that the supposition of Ukert appears to us the most probable, namely, that the country which Pytheas describes as the one from which amber came may have been the Cimbrian peninsula (Denmark, &c.), and that when he reached the Elbe, he concluded that he had arrived at the Tanais, which separated Europe from Asia.

Pytheas cultivated science. He appears to have been the first person who determined the latitude of a place from the shadow of the sun; and it is expressly stated that he determined the position of Massilia by observing the shadow of the sun by the gnomon (Strab. ii. pp. 71, 115). He also paid considerable attention to the phaenomena of the tides, and was well aware of the influence of the moon upon them. (Fuhr, De Pythea, p. 19.)


Arvedson, Pytheae Massiliensis Fragmenta, Upsalae, 1824.

Further Information

The voyages of Pytheas have been discussed by a large number of modern writers : we can only refer to the most important works on the subject : -- Bougainville, Sur l'Origine et sur les Voyages de Pythéas, in Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr. vol. xix. pp. 146-165; D'Anville, Sur la Navigation de Plyhéas à Thule, ibid. vol. xxxvii. pp. 436-442 ; Ukert, Bemerkungen über Pytheas, in his Geographie der Griechen und Römer, vol. i. part i. pp. 298-309; Fuhr, De Pythea Massiliensi, Darmstadt, 1835; Straszewick, Pythéas de Marseille et la Géographie de son Temps, Paris, 1836, translated into German by Hoffmann, Leipzig, 1838.

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