The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek – Barry Cunliffe

09 May

PithySome 2.300 years ago a Greek adventurer named Pytheas set out on an astonishing expedition: to find out what lay in the fabled lands of Northern Europe.  Rumours abounded of these fearsome barbarian territories, but Pytheas was the first literate man ever to visit them.  Here Barry Cunliffe recreates his staggering journey as he sailed to the islands of Britannia, home of our distant ancestors – the ‘tattooed folk’ – and beyond, all the way to Ultima Thule, the mysterious Arctic limits of the known world…

I hadn’t heard of Pytheas before this book and these days this obscure chap is a marginalised figure, a brief footnote of history.  Thanks to Cunliffe, this intrepid Greek now comes out of obscurity and is revealed as an adventurer, a man of curiosity who explored Britain and parts of Scandinavia before many of the famous travellers of antiquity.

As well as being a travelogue and biography – albeit a little less than expected – there is also lots of a lot of scene setting, involving lots of explanation about the current politics and customs of the day, not to mention plenty of lift hitching…maritime style.

Pytheas wrote about his adventures which are sadly lost to us apart from a few fragments, so this book is also a detective story, with the author using later writers’ comments on Pytheas’ book as sources in conjunction with archaeology.  The irony of using these authors is that most disbelieved that P. has actually made his journey so gives a fascinating look at the jealousy and petulance of great writers and the character assassination they descend to when wishing to appear the supreme authority on matters.

The book is therefore going to be based on educated assumptions and these are always reasonable and established through evidence from a wide range of varying sources.  It’s a captivating journey, digging through various archaeological strata of earth and memory and not only brings the voyage to life but also the wider economic and social situation of the time.

History is great, encompassing myth, wine distribution, astronomy and geography amongst others, I was fascinated to see how goods were moved and how the Mysterious North had an impact in its dealing with the Mediterranean Peoples and influenced markets.  It’s intriguing to see how so many cultures intermingled and interacted as well as to be given some back story on the migrations of people around the Northern edge of the Med and how the powers that be established themselves.

There are some maps included as a guide to the journey and the places mentioned, which are hand drawn and very basic.  They’re adequate but a handy atlas will give you a better idea of the lengths of travel involved and also a way to pinpoint the places more accurately.  Having said that however, the hand drawing seems like something of the time period of the book, which adds to the feel, so as picky as I may be, they are still worthy additions and offset the preciseness of the text agreeably enough

Overall its a solid, detailed read giving succinct insights into the era, written in a scholarly manner that is easy to read, if a little dry on occasion.  It’s not spectacular by any means but it is a celebration of a figure who deserves to be remembered after so many years of diminished reputation and for that it is more than satisfactory.  It’s hard to imagine my island as mysterious or even confined to the outer limits of the world in these global times but seeing it through the eyes of a traveller of yesteryear makes me appreciate how strange we can seem to others of different cultures still when we are only a click away from each other.


Posted by on 09/05/2015 in History, Travel


Tags: , , , , , , ,

29 responses to “The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek – Barry Cunliffe

  1. Bumba

    09/05/2015 at 23:19

    As for the “strangeness” of the Brits, well you’re still strange! In the EU, out of the EU, with Scotland, without Scotland, with Liberals, without Liberals (well, that part isn’t so strange). Ancient history has been illuminated by recent archeological research. Scientists have filled in a lot of gaps in the history of humankind, the migrations, the interactions between the early peoples. Someday, they’ll unearth these blogs and say “On no!”


    • Ste J

      10/05/2015 at 08:16

      We’re decisive us Brits, we just aren’t decisive together in any shape or form. I wonder what people would make of our blogs in the future, I would hope for some wildly out of context scenario though, just to keep people guessing and hopefully elevating us to kings or what not.


  2. Jill Weatherholt

    09/05/2015 at 23:53

    Gotta love those maps! Thanks for the review, Ste J.


    • Ste J

      10/05/2015 at 08:11

      I do love a good map, fantasy books always have good maps but I like to have a good nosy at where I am whenever a book has some travelling in it, it’s my overly obsessive side coming out I think.


  3. Alastair Savage

    10/05/2015 at 09:31

    Oh but the British Isles are dark and mysterious places but sometimes we don’t see it. There’s a great moment at the start of Heart of Darkness when the narrator likens the Victorian incursions into Africa to the Romans’ arrival in Britain, and the fear of the legionaries as they surveyed this wintry, unknown wilderness.


    • Ste J

      10/05/2015 at 20:01

      I suppose it’s a bit like closing time…Living here I am probably inured to the mysteries. Heart of Darkness, probably the longest shortest book I’ve ever read.


      • Alastair Savage

        11/05/2015 at 07:28

        A sentence by Joseph Conrad is like another author’s chapter…


  4. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    10/05/2015 at 09:35

    A very comprehensive review. You read books from so many not-so-common genres and, your views on them pique my interest. 🙂

    The last line still holds true even today. Every culture seems strange to other cultures even when we are just a click away….


    • Ste J

      10/05/2015 at 19:58

      If I can get people interested in subjects and ideas then it makes me happy. I love exploring the obscure as it’s a challenge to write about but it also brings something varied to the blog. It pleases me that I can interest you in new things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

        12/05/2015 at 09:37

        I’ve come across a number of book blogs in the blogosphere. But, your’s is a different one. I enjoy reading it as it lets me know about a number of not-so-known but good books…. 🙂


        • Ste J

          16/05/2015 at 13:12

          I do like to find the lesser read books, those ones that tend to get missed with the bigger names out there. I like to try and offer something different to keep your attention.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. shadowoperator

    10/05/2015 at 15:30

    Though I’m not much of a history reader, you make this sound like a very challenging book, Oh Pytheas of the blogosphere!


    • Ste J

      10/05/2015 at 19:54

      It’s not so much challenging as just a little dry in places but is an effective read when it comes to understanding that certain part of history and its peoples.


  6. Lucy

    12/05/2015 at 08:17

    Rumours abounded of ‘Fearsome Barbarian territories’? Comforting to know that *Leeds/Bradford/Manchester/Nottingham/Liverpool/Newcastle/Glasgow/Dundee/Aberdeen *delete as appropriate haven’t changed much in 2,300 years.


    • Ste J

      16/05/2015 at 13:25

      Now the gun crime has calmed down, we are less barbarian like around Nottingham way these days, well unless the ice hockey team is playing of course!


      • Lucy

        16/05/2015 at 14:15

        That’s nice to know 🙂 I lived in Bulwell about 12 years ago and worked in Queen’s Med, times were interesting!


        • Ste J

          16/05/2015 at 14:17

          Bulwell, the place where dreams come true…just not very often! Ha!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. clarepooley33

    12/05/2015 at 23:37

    Barry Cunliffe’s name is familiar to me but I don’t know that I’ve read anything by him. Looking at his photo he looks familiar too – he may have been on TV at some time perhaps. I love reading history books and this sounds interesting. Another book is added to my lengthening list!


    • Ste J

      16/05/2015 at 13:21

      I’m not sure if he’s done TV, I can imagine him doing TV though with the way he writes. If I owned a bookshop I could make a killing from reviewing these good books hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sherri

    14/05/2015 at 10:53

    How utterly fascinating. I have never heard of Pytheas The Greek either…who knew? And I find it so interesting what you say about the jealousy and sabotage of others who think they know better. Living in America for almost 20 years gave me a renewed appreciation of old Blighty, always loving the countryside here, but I came to love it, and our peculiar ways, even more when away from it. And having just spent 5 days in Jersey and celebrating Liberation Day on the 70th anniversary of VE Day after 5 years of occupation by the Nazi’s and what the islander’s suffered during that time, I have come to appreciate our beautiful country even more. Especially fully appreciating just how close we came to occupation here. And how different the world could have been. Thanks for another great review Ste, I am going to get this book for my eldest son and then read it myself (or maybe the other way round).


    • Ste J

      16/05/2015 at 13:29

      A gift for somebody else on the proviso that you can borrow it afterwards is always the best sort of gift to get. It is always fascinating to see how the titanic stupidity of world leaders can affect so many people’s lives. I do appreciate our country so much sometimes, despite its bad bits we do have some good points as well like being overly polite.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sherri

        18/05/2015 at 20:24

        And saying sorry for everything lol!!


        • Ste J

          19/05/2015 at 10:05

          Ah of course the national pastime even when we don’t need to do it. we are a strange race.


  9. readinpleasure

    15/05/2015 at 18:49

    Your varied interest in the various genres is really impressive. I also love history and discoveries, Just that I get lazy along the way. Great review, my dear. 🙂


    • Ste J

      16/05/2015 at 13:14

      Haha, I get lazy as well, that’s why I prefer others to do the travelling so I can sit at home and pretend I am an intrepid hunter hehe. I’m have put more random stuff on the TBR pile just for you.


  10. Cecilia

    15/05/2015 at 19:52

    Great review, thanks for your thoughts.


    • Ste J

      16/05/2015 at 13:16

      Thanks for taking the time to read.



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