Pytheas the Greek

380 BCE - 310 BCE

Sometimes credited with being “the man who discovered Britain,” Pytheas sailed from the colony of Massilia (modern Marseille) on the Mediterranean Sea, through the Pillars of Hercules, around Britain and back.

Pytheas was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer from the colony of Massilia (Marseille, France). He is credited with making a voyage between 330 and 320 BCE that carried him from the Phocaean colony northwest to Britain and beyond. He is the first Graeco-Roman to see and describe the Midnight Sun, the aurora and Polar ice. He recounted his travels in a book titled On the Ocean, which, tragically, has not survived. From the excerpts that remain though, we know he was able to circumnavigate the island of Britain, estimating the circumference within 2.5% of modern calculations. He understood the relationship of the Pole Star in fixing latitude and recognized the influence of the Moon phases on the tides.

He was not the first person to sail the seas around Britain. How do we know this? Trade with Gaul and Britain was already established. Fishermen had long traveled to the Orkney Islands, Iceland, Norway and the Shetland Islands. As for Pytheas, the surviving passages of his writing lead us to believe he traveled from Marseille to Bordeaux, Nantes, Land’s End, Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides, Orkneys, Iceland, Britain’s east coast, Kent, Helgoland, and, finally, back to Marseille. During this time, Carthaginians (a Phoenician colony on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa) controlled the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), closing it to ships from all other nations. It is probable that Pytheas was able to leave the Mediterranean Sea during a recorded lapse in the blockade.