Some 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.