The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek

by Barry Cunliffe

Walker Books, April, 2002.
Hardcover, 192 pages.
ISBN: 0802713939

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek immediately immerses the reader in the Mediterranean world of 340 B.C. Barry Cunliffe is uniquely equipped to take the reader on this journey. He is a professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, as well as the author of several books on ancient history, including The Ancient Celts, and Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples. Professor Cunliffe has personally visited many of the sites mentioned in the text. The amazing complexity of this world with its many settlements around the perimeter of the Mediterranean is laid out for the reader in a wealth of detail gleaned from Professor Cunliffe's encyclopedic knowledge of the time. Details about the trade practices of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean area, and in-depth scholarship about the geological changes that have occurred over time enrich the story of what became the foundation for the cultures upon which we have built our contemporary western-dominated world.

As always, trade built not only wealth; it built curiosity and exploration. To find supplies of the most desired goods that people sought to purchase and possess was to find wealth and power. Massalia, which is today called Marseille, was a Greek colony, and Pytheas is now enshrined in a statue set in the facade of the Marseille Bourse, or stock exchange. Around 320 B. C., Pytheas wrote a book about his voyage called On the Ocean, that sadly has been lost. Nevertheless, excerpts from his book have been quoted by at least eighteen ancient authors and commentators whose works, luckily, did survive the vicissitudes of life in the tumultuous history of the region. Pytheas described lands to the north of the Mediterranean and the peoples who inhabited these lands. The search for the desirable goods, such as amber and tin, lured Pytheas to explore what was no doubt the coasts of France, the Netherlands and the southern shores of Britain. He described the customs of the various inhabitants and even noted that the ocean and waters of certain lands were "congealed" -- which makes us wonder if he even arrived in Iceland.

No matter where Pytheas actually explored, Professor Cunliffe's fascinating pictures of this ancient world and the inhabitants of the lands north of the Mediterranean make The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek an intensely interesting book to read. The many facts that his research has turned up are laid out in a vibrant portrait of a time that still seems shrouded in mystery to most readers. The mysteries of the beginnings of the modern Europeans are recounted for us in this very entertaining work of scholarship.

--Sarah Reaves White

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This review was published in the April, 2002 of The Internet Writing Journal.

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