The opinions of the ancients respecting the great body of water, which they knew to extend beyond the straits at the entrance of the Mediterranean, must be viewed historically; and such a view will best exhibit the meaning of the several names which they applied to it.
The word Ocean
) had, with the early Greeks, a sense entirely different from that in which we use it.
In the poets, Homer and Hesiod. the personified being, Ocean, is the son of Heaven and Earth (Uranus and Gaia), a Titanic deity of the highest dignity, who presumes even to absent himself from the Olympic councils of Jove; and he is the father of the whole race of water-nymphs and river-gods. (Hes. Th. 133
, foll. 368; Hom. Il. 20.7.
) Physically, Ocean is a stream
(expressly so called) encircling the earth with its ever-flowing current; the primeval water, which is the source of all the other waters of the world, nay, according to some views, of all created things divine and human, for Homer applies it to the phrases Θεῶν γένεσις
and ὅσπερ γένεσις πάντεσσι τέτυκται.
; comp. Verg. G. 4.382
, where Ocean is called patrem rerum,
with reference, says Servius, to the opinions of those who, as Thales, supposed all things to be generated out of water.)
The sun and stars rose out of its waters and returned to them in setting. (Il. 5.5
.) On its shores were the abodes of the dead, accessible to the heroic voyager under divine direction. (Od.
x., xi., xii.) Among the epithets with which the word is coupled, there is one, ἄψορρος
), which has been thought to indicate an acquaintance with the tides
of the Atlantic; but the meaning of the word is not certain enough to wan-ant the inference. (Hom. Il. 18.399
; Hesiod, Hes. Th. 776
Whether these views were purely imaginary or entirely mythical in their origin, or whether they were partly based on a vague knowledge of the waters outside of the Mediterranean, is a fruitful subject of debate. Nor can we fix, except within wide limits, the period at which they began to be corrected by positive information. Both scripture and secular history point to enterprises of the Phoenicians beyond the Straits at a very early period; and, moreover, to a suspicion, which was attempted more than once to be put to the proof, that the Mediterranean on the W. and the Arabian Gulf on the S. opened into one and the same great body of water.
It was long, however, before this identity was at all generally accepted.
The story that Africa had actually been circumnavigated, is related by Herodotus with the greatest distrust [LIBYA
]; and the [p. 1.312]
question was left, in ancient geography, with the great authority of Ptolemy on the negative side In fact, the progress of maritime discovery, proceeding independently in the two directions, led to the knowledge of the two great expanses of water, on the S. of Asia, and on the W. of Africa and Europe, while their connection around Africa was purely a matter of conjecture. Hence arose the distinction marked by the names of the Southern
and the Western
Seas, the former being constantly used by Herodotus for the Indian Ocean [ARABICUS SINUS
], while, somewhat curiously, the latter, its natural correlative, is only applied to the Atlantic by late writers.
Herodotus had obtained sufficient knowledge to reject with ridicule the idea of the river Ocean flowing round the earth (2.21, 23, 4.8, 36); and it deserves notice, that with the notion he rejects the name
also, and calls those great bodies of water, which we call oceans, seas.
In this he is followed by the great majority of the ancient writers; and the secondary use of the word Ocean, which we have retained, as its common sense, was only introduced at a late period, when there was probably a confused notion of its exact primary sense.
It is found in the Roman writers and in the Greek geographers of the Roman period, sometimes for the whole body of water surrounding the earth and sometimes with epithets which mark the application of the word to the Atlantic Ocean, which is also called simply Oceanus; while, on the other hand, the epithet Atlanticus is found applied to the Ocean in its wider sense, that is, to the whole body of water surrounding the three continents.
Herodotus speaks of the great sea on the W. of Europe and Asia, as the sea beyond the Pillars
(of Hercules) which is called the Sea of Atlas
(ἡ ἔξω στηλέων θάλασσα ἡ Ἀτλαντὶς,
--fem. adj. of Ἄτλας,--καλεομένη
: Her. 1.202.)
The former name was naturally applied to it in contradistinction to the Mediterranean, or the sea within the Pillars ἡ ἐντὸς Ἡρακλείων στηλῶν θάλασσα,
2.1; Dionys. A. R. 1.3
; Plut. Pomp. 25
); and the latter on account of the position assigned to the mythical personage Atlas, and to the mountain of the same name, at the W. extremity of the earth [ATLAS
]. (Comp. Eur. Hipp. 3
; Aristot. Prob.
26.54.) Both names are constantly used by subsequent writers.
The former name is common in the simpler form of the Outer Sea
(ἡ ἔξω θάλασσα, ἡ ἐκτὸς θάλαττα,
Mare Externum, Mare Exterius) ; outer,
with reference sometimes to the Mediterranean, and sometimes to all the inner waters of the earth. Another name constantly used is that of the Great Sea
(ἡ μεγὰλη θάλασσα,
Mare Magnum), in contradistinction to all the lesser seas, and to the Mediterranean in particular.
It was also called the Western Sea
(Ἑσπέριος Ὠκεανὸς, δυτικὸς
and δυσμικὸς ὠκεανὸς,
The use of these names, and the ideas associated with them, require a more particular description.
The old Homeric notion of the river Ocean retained its place in the poets long after its physical meaning had been abandoned; and some indications are found of an attempt to reconcile it with later discoveries, by placing the Ocean outside of all the seas of the world,
even of the outer seas. (Eur. Orest. 1377
Afterwards,, the language of the old poets was adapted to the progress of geographical knowledge, by transferring the poetical name of the all-encircling river,
to the sea
which was supposed (by most geographers, though not by all) to surround the inhabited world; and this encircling sea was called not only Ocean, but also by the specific names applied to the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, in the work de Mundo,
falsely ascribed to Aristotle (100.3), it is said that the whole world is an island surrounded by the Atlantic Sea (ὑπὸ τῆς Ἀτλαντικῆς καλουμένης θαλάσσης περιρρεομένη
: and, again, πέλαγος δὲ, τὸ μὲν ἔξω τῆς οἰκουμένης, Ἀτλαντικὸν καλεῖται, καὶ ὁ Ὠκεανὸς, περιρρέων ἡμᾶς
), and the same idea is again and again repeated in other passages of the work, where the name used is simply Ὠκεανὸς.
Similarly Cicero (Somn. Scip.
6) describes the inhabited earth as a small island, surrounded by that sea which men call Atlantic,
(illo mari, quod Atlanticum, quod Magnum, quem Oceanum, appellatis in terris). When he adds, that though bearing so great a name, it is but small, he refers to the idea that there were many such islands on the surface of the globe, each surrounded by its own small portion of the great body of waters.
Strabo refers to the same notion as held by Eratosthenes (i. pp. 56, 64, sub fin.;
on the reading and meaning of this difficult passage see Seidel, Fr. Eratosth.
pp. 71, foll., and Groskurd's German translation of Strabo), who supposed the circuit of the earth to be complete within itself, “so that, but for the hindrance arising from the great size of the Atlantic Sea, we might sail from Iberia (Spain) to India along the same parallel;” to which Strabo makes an objection, remarkable for its unconscious anticipation of the great discovery of Columbus, that there may be
two inhabited worlds (or islands) in the temperate zone. (Comp. i. p. 5, where he discusses the Homeric notion, i. p. 32, and ii. p. 112.) Elsewhere he says that the earth is surrounded with water, and receives into itself several gulfs “from the outer sea” (ἀπὸ τῆς ἔξω θαλάττης κατὰ τὸν ὠκεανὸν,
where the exact sense of κατὰ
is not clear: may it refer to the idea, noticed above, of some distinction between the Ocean and even the outer seas of the world?). Of the gulfs here referred to, the principal, he adds, are four: namely, the Caspian on the N., the Persian and Arabian on the S., and the Mediterranean (ἡ ἐντὸς καὶ καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς λεγομένη θάλαττα
) on the W. Of his application of the name Atlantic
to the whole of the surrounding Ocean, or at least to its southern, as well as western, portion, we have examples in i. p. 32 (καὶ μὴν σύρρους ἡ πᾶσα Ἀτλαντικὴ θάλασσα, καὶ μάλιστα ἡ κατὰ μεσημβρίαν
), and in xv. p. 689, where he says that the S. and SE. shores of India run out into the Atlantic sea; and, in ii. p. 130, he makes India extend to “the Eastern Sea and the Southern Sea, which is part of the Atlantic” (πρός τε τῆν ἑώαν θάλατταν καὶ τὴν νοτίαν τῆς Ἀτλαντικῆς
). Similarly Eratosthenes had spoken of Arabia Felix as extending S. as far as the Atlantic Sea (μέχρι τοῦ Ἀτλαντικοῦ πελάγους, Strab. xvi. p.767
, where there is no occasion for Letronne's conjectural emendation, Ἀιθιοπικοῦ,
a name also which only occurs in the later geographers).
Of the use of the simple word Oceanus,
as the name of the Atlantic Ocean, by writers about Strabo's time, examples are found in Cicero (Leg. Manil.
12), Sallust (Sal. Jug. 18
), Livy (23.5
), Horace (Hor. Carm. 4.14
. 47, 48), and Virgil (Georg.
4.382); and the word is coupled with mare
by Caesar (Caes. Gal. 3.7
, mare Oceanum
), Catullus (Carm.
114, 6), [p. 1.313]
and Ovid (Ov. Met. 7.267
, Oceani mare
It should have been stated earlier that Polybius calls it the Outer
and Great Sea
(3.37. § § 10, 11, τὴν ἔξω καὶ μεγάλην προσαγορευομένην
); and in another passage he says that it was called by some Ὠκεανός,
by others, τὸ Ἀτλαντικὸν πέλαγος
Of the geographers subsequent to Strabo, Mela states that the inhabited earth is entirely surrounded by the Ocean, from which it receives four seas, one from the N., two from the S., and the fourth from the W. (1.1), meaning the same four gulfs which are specified by Strabo (see above).
After describing the shores of the Mediterranean, he proceeds to speak of the sea without the Straits, under the name of Oceanus, as ingens infinitumque pelagus,
and he particularly describes the phenomena of the tides; and then adds, that the sea which lies to the right of those sailing out of the Straits and washes the shore of Baetica, is called aequor Atlanticum
(3.1). Elsewhere he speaks of the sea on the W. of Europe and Africa by the general name of Oceanus (2.6), and by the special names of Atlanticum Mare (1.3, 4, 3.10), and Atlanticus Oceanus (1.5). Pliny speaks of it as mare Atlanticum, ab aliis magnum
(3.5. s. 10).
Ptolemy distinguishes the Atlantic from the other outer seas or (as he generally calls them) oceans, by the name of the Western Ocean
(ὁ δυτικὸς ὠκεανὸς,
2.5.3), and makes it the W. boundary of Europe and Libya, except in the S. part of the latter continent, where he supposes the unknown land to stretch out to the W. (7.5.2, 8.4.2, 13.2).
Agathemerus (2.14) says that the Great Sea (ἡ μεγάλη θάλασσα
) surrounding the whole inhabited world is called by the common name of Ocean, and has different names according to the different regions; and, after speaking of the Northern, Southern, and Eastern Seas, he adds, that the sea on the west, from which our sea (ἡ καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς θάλασσα,
the Mediterranean) is filled, is called the Western Ocean (Ἑσπέριος Ὠκεανὸς
), and, κατ᾽ ἐξοχήν,
the Atlantic Sea (Ἀτλαντικὸν πέλαγος
In another passage (2.4) he says that Lusitania lies adjacent to the Western Ocean (πρὸς τῷ δυσμικῷ Ὠκεανῷ
), and that Tarraconensis extends from the Ocean and the Outer Sea
to the Mediterranean; but whether we should understand this as making a precise distinction between the Outer Sea, as on the W. of Spain, and the Ocean, as further N., is not quite clear.
According to Dionysius Periegetes, the earth is surrounded on every side by the “stream of unwearied Ocean” (of course a mere phrase borrowed from the early poets), which, being one, has many names applied to it; of which, the part on the west is called Ἄτλας ἑσπέριος,
which the commentators explain as two adjectives in opposition (6.27-42; comp. Eustath. Comm.
and Bernhardy, Annot.
ad loc.; also comp. Priscian, Perieg.
37, foll., and 72, where he uses the phrase Atlantis ab unda;
Avien. Descr. Orb.
19, 77, foll., gurgitis Hesperii, aequoris Hesperii tractus,
398, Atlantei vis aequoris,
409, Hesperii aequoris undam
). At 5.335 he speaks of the Iberian people as γείτων Ὠκεανοῖο πρὸς ἑσπέρου.
Agathemerus, Dionysius, and the imitators of the latter, Priscian and Avienus, describe the four great gulfs of the Outer Sea in nearly the same manner as Strabo and Mela.
Avienus (Or. Marit.
pp. 80, foll.) distinguishes from the all-surrounding Ocean the sea between the SW. coast of Spain and the NW. coast of Africa which he calls Atlanticus sinus,
and regards it as a sort of outer gulf of the Mediterranean (gurges hic nostri maris;
comp. 390, foll., where Oceanus, pontus maximus, gurges oras ambiens, parens nostri maris,
is distinguished from Hesperius aestus atque Atlanticum salum
); and, respecting the names, he adds (402, 403):
Hunc usus olim dixit Oceanum vetus, Alterque dixit mos Atlanticum mare.
Suidas defines the term Ἀτλαντικὰ πελάγη
as including both the Western and Eastern Oceans (Ἑσπέριος Ὠκεανὸς καὶ Ἑῷος
), and all unnavigable seas; and the Atlantic Sea he explains as the Ocean (Ἀτλαντὶς θάλαττα ὁ Ὠκεανὸς
It is enough to refer to such variations of the name as Atlanteus Oceanus
(Claud. Nupt. Hon. et Mar.
280, Prob. et Olyb. Cons.
35), and Atlanteus Gurges
1.223); and to passages in which particular reference is made to the connection between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the Straits, which are sometimes called the mouth of the Atlantic Sea,
or of the Ocean
(τὸ τῆς θαλάττης τῆς Ἀτλαντικῆς στόμα, Scymn. Ch. 138
; Oceani Ostium, Cic. Leg. Manil. 12
; Strab. iii. p.139
Respecting the progress of discovery in the Atlantic, allusion has been made above to the early enterprises of the Phoenicians; but the first detailed account is that of the voyage of Hanno, who was sent out from Carthage, about B.C. 500, with a considerable fleet, to explore the W. coast of Africa, and to found colonies upon it. Of his narrative of his voyage, we still possess a Greek translation.
The identification of his positions is attended with some difficulty; but it can be made out that he advanced as far S. as the mouths of the Senegal
[LIBYA: Dict. of Biog. art. Hanno.
] Pliny's statement, that Hanno reached Arabia, is a fair example of the exaggerations prevalent on these matters, and of the caution with which the stories of the circumnavigation of Africa should be examined. (2.67.) About the same time the Carthaginians sent out another expedition, under Himilco, to explore the Atlantic N. of the Straits. (Plin l.c.
) Himilco's narrative has not come down to us; but we learn some of its contents from the Ora Maritima
of Avienus. (108, foll., 375, foll.)
He discovered the British islands, which he placed at the distance of four months' voyage from the Straits; and he appears to have given a formidable description of the dangers of the navigation of the ocean, from sudden calms, from the thick sluggish nature of the water, from the sea-weed and even marine shrubs which entangled the ship, the shoals over which it could scarcely float, and the seamonsters which surrounded the voyager as he slowly made his way through all these difficulties. Such exaggerated statements would meet with ready credence on account of the prevalent belief that the outer ocean was unnavigable, owing, as the early poets and philosophers supposed, to its being covered with perpetual clouds and darkness (Hesiod ap. Schol. Apollon. 4.258
; Pind. N. 3.79
; Eurip. Herod.
744); and it is thought, with much probability, that these exaggerations were purposely diffused by the Carthaginians, to deter the mariners of other nations from dividing with themselves the navigation of the ocean.
At all events, these stories are often repeated by the Greek writers (Hdt. 2.102
; Aristot. Meteor.
2.1, 13, Mir. [p. 1.314]Ausc.
136; Plat. Tim.
p. 24, 25, comp. ATLANTIS; Theophrast. Hist. Plant.
4.6.4; Scylax, p. 53
; Suid. s. v. ἄπλωτα πελάγη, Ἀτλαντικὰ πελάγη;
comp. Ideler, ad Aristot. Meteor.
p. 504, and Humboldt, Krit. Untersuch.
vol. ii. p. 67, foll., who explains the stories of the shallows and sea-weed as referring to the extraordinary phaenomena which the parts of the ocean near the coast would present at low water to voyagers previously unacquainted with its tides).
The most marked epochs in the subsequent history of discovery in the Atlantic are those of the voyage of Pytheas of Massilia (about B.C. 334) round the NW. shores of Europe, described in his lost works, περὶ τοῦ ὠκεανοῦ
and περὶοδος τῆς γῆς,
which are frequently cited by Strabo, Pliny, and others (Dict. of Biog. s. v.
); the voyage of Polybius, with the fleet of Scipio, along the W. coast of Africa [LIBYA
]; and the intercourse of the Romans with the British isles [BRITANNIA].
But, as the Atlantic was not, like the Indian Ocean, a great highway of commerce, and there was no motive for the navigation of its stormy seas beyond the coasts of Spain and Gaul. little additional knowledge was gained respecting it.
The latest views of the ancient geographers are represented in the statements of Dionysius and Agathemerus, referred to above.
So little was known of the prevailing currents and winds, and other physical features of the Atlantic, that their discussion does not belong to ancient geography, except with reference to one point, which is treated under LIBYA
namely the influence of the currents along the W. coast of Africa on the attempts to circumnavigate that continent.
The special names most in use for portions of the Atlantic Ocean were the following: OCEANUS GADITANUS, the great gulf (if the expression may be allowed) outside the Straits, between the SW. coast of Spain and the NW. coast of Africa, to which, as has been seen above, some geographers gave the name of the Atlantic Sea or Gulf, in a restricted sense: OCEANUS CANTABER (Καντάβριος ὠκεανός
: Bay of Biscay
), between the N. coast of Spain and the W. coast of Gaul: MARE GALLICUM or OCEANUS GALLICUS, off the NW. coast of Gaul, at the mouth of the English Channel:
and MARE BRITANNICUM or OCEANUS BRITANNICUS, the E. part of the Channel, and the Straits of Dover,
between the mouths of the Sequana (Seine
) and the Rhenus (Rhine
). All to the N. of this belonged to the Northern Ocean. [OCEANUS SEPTENTRIONALIS
Of the islands in the Atlantic, exclusive of those immediately adjacent to the mainlands of Europe and Africa, the only ones known to the ancients were those called by them FORTUNATAE INSULAE
namely, the Canaries,
with, perhaps, the Madeira
The legend of the great island of ATLANTIS
and its connection with the question of any ancient knowledge of the great Western Continent, demands a separate article.