Ancient Voyages Beyond the Mediterranean
Today, people think nothing of boarding an airplane and flying from one continent to another. Would it surprise you that even in Bible times, people traveled long distances?
ABOUT one thousand years before Christ, King Solomon built a fleet of ships that sailed with those of the king of Tyre to bring desirable goods from afar to Israel. (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:22) In the ninth century B.C.E., at the Mediterranean port of Joppa in Israel, the prophet Jonah boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.a (Jonah 1:3) In the first century C.E., the apostle Paul made a voyage from Caesarea in Israel to Puteoli, modern-day Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples, Italy.—Acts 27:1; 28:13.
Historians know that by Paul’s day, merchants from the Mediterranean area were regularly sailing via the Red Sea to India, and by the mid-second century, some had pushed as far as China.b What, though, do we know about early voyages beyond the Mediterranean to the west? How far did ancient sailors go in that direction?
Early Phoenician Voyages
Centuries before the time of Paul, seafaring peoples had established trading colonies in the West. It is believed that the Phoenicians, whose homeland lay in modern-day Lebanon, reached the Atlantic by 1200 B.C.E. About 1100 B.C.E., they founded Gadir, now the Spanish port city of Cádiz, just beyond the straits of Gibraltar. Among the commodities available there were locally mined silver and tin, imported by Atlantic traders.
Greek historian Herodotus recorded that in the seventh century B.C.E., Pharaoh Necho of Egypt assembled a flotilla of Phoenician ships, manned by Phoenician crews, at the head of the Red Sea. The objective was to circumnavigate Africa from east to west.
By that time, the Phoenicians had been exploring the coasts of Africa for centuries. Still, because of adverse winds and currents, sailors who set out southward along the continent’s Atlantic Coast would have struggled to get very far. For the new expedition, according to Herodotus, the Phoenicians started out from the Red Sea and followed the eastern African coast southward into the Indian Ocean. By about midyear, they went ashore, sowed seed, stayed long enough to reap a harvest, and then sailed on. In the third year, said Herodotus, they rounded the whole continent, entered the Mediterranean, and returned to Egypt.
Herodotus concluded his account by saying that the Phoenicians reported things he could not believe, including their remark that in sailing around the tip of Africa, they saw the sun on their right. It would be difficult indeed for an ancient Greek to believe this. Anyone who has lived all his life north of the equator is used to seeing the sun in the south. Thus, when he is heading west, the sun is on his left. But at the Cape of Good Hope, which lies south of the equator, the midday sun is in the north—on the right of anyone heading west.
For centuries, Herodotus’ account has been the subject of debate among historians. It might seem incredible to many that mariners so long ago could have circumnavigated Africa. However, scholars believe that Pharaoh Necho did commission such an expedition and that such a journey was possible, given the skills and knowledge of the time. “Such a voyage is perfectly feasible,” states historian Lionel Casson. “There is no reason why a crew of Phoenicians could not have carried it out in the span of time and in the fashion Herodotus describes.” To what extent Herodotus’ account is factual cannot be established with certainty. Nonetheless, it provides a glimpse of the tireless effort to expand sea travel to regions unknown at such an early time.
Pytheas Sails North
The Phoenicians were not the only early Mediterranean people to push westward toward the Atlantic. Among the colonies that Greek mariners established around the Mediterranean was Massalia, now the French city of Marseilles. The city prospered, thanks to seaborne and overland commerce. From Massalia, traders sent Mediterranean wine, oil, and bronzeware to the north, and from the north, they acquired raw metals and amber. Doubtless, the Massiliotes were interested in the sources of these goods. Thus it was that about 320 B.C.E., Pytheas the Massiliote set out to see those distant northern lands for himself.
On his return, Pytheas wrote an account of his travels entitled On the Ocean. Though the original Greek text of his book no longer exists, it was quoted by at least 18 ancient writers. These quoted parts indicate that Pytheas carefully described the seas, tides, geography, and populations of the areas he visited. He also used the length of the shadow cast by a gnomon, or surveying staff, to calculate the angle of elevation of the midday sun on a known date, and from that he estimated how far north he had traveled.
Pytheas’ personal interests were scientific. However, scientific exploration could hardly have been the chief aim of his voyage. Scholars have suggested, rather, that it was commissioned and financed by commercial interests in Massalia, which sent him to find a sea route to those distant coasts where they knew amber and tin could be obtained. Where, then, did Pytheas go?
To Brittany, Britain, and Beyond
It seems that Pytheas sailed around Iberia and up the coast of Gaul to Brittany, where he went ashore. We know this because one of his measurements of the sun’s angle above the horizon—which he likely took on land—fits a position in northern Brittany.c
The people in Brittany were experienced shipbuilders and mariners, who traded with Britain. Cornwall, the southwest tip of Britain, was rich in tin, an essential component of bronze, and it was there that Pytheas next headed. His report described the size and roughly triangular shape of Britain, suggesting that he must have sailed around the island.
While Pytheas’ exact route is a matter of conjecture, he may well have sailed between Britain and Ireland, landing on the Isle of Man, the latitude of which corresponds to his second measurement of the sun’s angle. The third measurement may have been taken on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. From there, he likely continued north to the Orkney Islands, north of the Scottish mainland, for his account, quoted by Pliny the Elder, reports that they were composed of 40 islands.
Six days’ sail north of Britain, Pytheas wrote, lay a land called Thule. Several ancient authors refer to Pytheas’ description of Thule as the land of the midnight sun. Another day’s sail from there, he wrote, brought one to where the sea was “frozen.” Just where Pytheas’ Thule lay has occasioned much debate—some say in the Faeroe Islands, others Norway, still others Iceland. Wherever Thule was, ancient writers believed it to be “the very farthest north of named locations.”
Presumably, Pytheas returned to Britain following much the same route by which he had left and then completed his circumnavigation of that island. Whether he further explored the northern European coast before returning to the Mediterranean, we do not know. In any case, Pliny the Elder quotes Pytheas as an authority on the amber-producing regions. Ancient sources of this precious material lay in Jutland, part of modern Denmark, and on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. Of course, Pytheas could have learned of these areas when visiting any port in eastern Britain, and as far as we know, he made no claim to have visited them himself.
The next known Mediterranean traveler to have written of his visit to Britain is Julius Caesar, who landed in the south of this island in 55 B.C.E. By 6 C.E., other Roman campaigns had reached as far as northern Jutland.
The Phoenicians and Greeks pushed the learned world’s knowledge of geography out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, to the southern reaches of Africa, and as far north as the Arctic. The world of that time was one of exploration, trade, expanding horizons, travel over enormous distances, and the consequent flow of ideas and knowledge.
Surviving records of ancient exploration must account for only a fraction of the voyages that intrepid seamen successfully completed. How many ancient mariners returned to their point of departure without ever writing about where they had been? And how many sailed from their homelands to distant shores, never to return? These questions remain unanswered. But we can discern something about the early spread of Christianity.—See the box above.
a This name is often identified with a region in southern Spain that Greek and Roman writers called Tartessus.
c In modern terms, at a latitude of 48°42’ N.
[Box on page 29]
The Good News “Preached in All Creation”
About 60-61 C.E., the apostle Paul wrote that the good news was “preached in all creation that is under heaven.” (Colossians 1:23) Did he mean that Christians had already preached in India, the Far East, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, the Baltics, and Pytheas’ Thule? That seems unlikely, but we cannot be specific.
It is beyond doubt, however, that the good news had spread extensively. Jews and proselytes who embraced Christianity at Pentecost 33 C.E., for example, carried their newfound faith at least as far as Parthia, Elam, Media, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Asia Minor, the parts of Libya toward Cyrene, and Rome—encompassing the world known to Paul’s readers.—Acts 2:5-11.
[Diagram/Map on page 26, 27]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Herodotus reported that in sailing around the tip of Africa, sailors saw the sun on their right
[Diagram/Map on page 28, 29]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
The extensive sea voyage of the Greek mariner Pytheas
AFRICAN NORTH COAST