Massalia, France (05:13)
Pytheas was an astronomer and mathematician that lived in Marseille during the fourth century BC; the port city was a prosperous Greek colony. Little is known about him from personal accounts, but he and other Mediterranean scholars accepted Pythagoras’s theory that the Earth was round.
Scientific Contributions (03:46)
During Pytheas' time, astronomers used tubes to observe stars, compasses to measure angles, and sundials to track solar shadows. Pytheas experimented with obelisk types, accurately measuring Marseille's latitude. His calculations aided cartographers.
Debated Passage (05:07)
Some scholars believe Pytheas traveled to Thule to observe solar movements and prove the Earth is round. Others think his accounts are fictitious; Carthaginians controlled Mediterranean routes to the Atlantic. All agree he would have followed tin trade courses leading to Britain before heading north.
Nautical Capabilities (05:52)
Historians believe Pytheas borrowed merchant boats to sail to the Polar Circle. Texts and excavations of naval construction reveal that Northern European techniques advanced enough to produce enduring ships.
Maritime Navigation (04:41)
Pytheas observed and named the Celestial Pole; he followed coastal trade routes until unavailable. He was the first Mediterranean to describe the Atlantic tides. Strabo accused him of lying about the tidal phenomenon; modern skeptics believe his accounts were secondhand.
Ports On Route (04:48)
Pytheas stopped at Ouessant, whose people were dedicated to moon observation. He sailed on to Ictis Island, where tin mining and smelting occurred. He spoke the language of Celtic Ligurians, and communicated extensively with British Isles residents.
Mathematics At Sea (02:50)
Pytheas followed England’s coast north; he used astronomy and his sailing experience to measure distances. He found Britain roughly triangular, closely calculating its size. When he reached the northern tip, he sailed from one island to the next before heading to Thule.
Myth of Thule (07:41)
Controversy surrounds Pytheas' journey to the Arctic Circle despite his accurate descriptions of solar activity and weather conditions. Skeptics believe his knowledge as a geographer and astronomer made it possible for him to write about Iceland without reaching it.
Argonauts Passage (03:35)
Before returning to Massalia, Pytheas checked for routes between Europe and Asia, sailing the Scandinavian coast into the Baltic Seas. He found abundant amber deposits, produced by an ancient, submerged forest.
Believers and Detractors (07:38)
Pytheas wrote “Peri Oceanus”; historians debate whether it was a logbook or collection of descriptions. Strabo accused Pytheas of writing fiction, but scholars agree that it contained real geographical and cultural evidence. Little of the book survived, and his findings were stifled for 2,000 years.
Credits: Pytheas: The Traveling Astronomer (01:12)
Credits: Pytheas: The Traveling Astronomer
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