II. ONCE UPON A… WAVE
Chronicle 1. SAILING AROUND / PERIPLUS
WHAT WAS EXACTLY THE MOTIVE behind man’s decision to take his chances and go out to sea? As always, he had needs to satisfy: he initially searched for a better place to live. Navigation started long ago during migrations: the first humans e.g. arrived in Australia, presumably by boat, around 45,000 BCE. After settling down, man’s needs changed: there was much food in the sea and he could certainly fish far better with a canoe or a small boat. The more he familiarized himself with the sea, the further he went out there, and thus the vessel also became a means of transport. Men started exchanging goods and, as long as production increased, the boatmen were divided into fishermen and traders – and warriors, as well. Commerce developed further in parallel with navigation. A sea trader was obliged to start taking down notes and mapping out his routes. This notebook gradually developed into a
P E R I P L U S
“PERIPLUS” is the Latinization of the Hellenic word περίπλους, ‘a sailing-around’. The word was understood by the ancient Greek speaker in its literal sense; however, it also developed specialized meanings, one of which became a standard term in the navigation of Hellenes, Phoenicians, and many others.(a) Such a periplus was a manuscript listing – in order and with approximate intervening distances – the ports and coastal landmarks that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore. It served the same purpose as the Roman itinerarium of road stops. The navigators, however, added various notes, which, if they were skilled geographers (as many were), became part of their own additions to geography. In that sense the periplus was a type of log. The form of periplus is at least as old as the earliest Hellene historian, Hecataeus of Miletus. The works by Herodotus and Thucydides contain passages that appear to have been based on such peripli.
The Milesian Hecataeus (Ἑκαταῖος, c. 550–c. 476 BCE) flourished during the time of the Persian invasion. Having travelled extensively, he settled in his native city devoting his time to the composition of geographical and historical works. He is the first Greek historian and one of the first classical writers to mention the Celts. Some have credited him with a work entitled Γῆς περίοδος (World Survey, or Travels Round the Earth), written in two books. Each book is organized like a periplus, a point-to-point coastal survey. One, on Europe, is essentially a Mediterranean periplus, describing each region in turn, reaching as far north as Scythia. The other, on Asia, is arranged similarly to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. He described the countries and inhabitants of the world, the account of Egypt being particularly comprehensive. It was accompanied by a map, based upon Anaximander’s map of the Earth, which he corrected and enlarged. The work only survives in fragments, by far the majority being quoted in Ethnica, the geographical lexicon compiled by Stephanus of Byzantium (fl. 6th century CE). The other known work of Hecataeus was the Genealogiae, a rationally systematized account of the legends and myths of the Hellenes, a break with the epic myth-making tradition, which survives in fragments, just enough to show what we are missing.
Anaximander (Ἀναξίμανδρος, c. 610–c. 546 BCE) was a pre-Socratic philosopher that succeeded his master, Thales, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, as head of the Milesian school where he counted Anaximenes and, arguably, Pythagoras among his pupils. According to available historical documents, he is the first philosopher known to have written down his studies, although only one fragment of his work remains. He was an early proponent of science trying to observe and explain different aspects of the universe, with a particular interest in its origins. In astronomy, he attempted to describe the mechanics of celestial bodies in relation to the Earth. In physics, his postulation that the ‘apeiron’ (ἄπειρον) was the source of all things led Hellenic philosophy to a new level of conceptual abstraction. He created a map of the world contributing greatly to the advancement of geography. According to Carl Sagan, he conducted the earliest recorded scientific experiment.
Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος, c. 484–c. 425 BCE), born in Halicarnassus, is regarded as the “Father of History”. He was the first historian known to systematically collect his materials, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. He is exclusively known for writing The Histories, a record of his ‘Inquiry’ into the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars that culminated in 490 and 480-479 BCE – especially since he includes a narrative account of that period, which would otherwise be poorly documented; and numerous long digressions concerning the various places and people he encountered during his wide-ranging travels around the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and beyond.
“Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται”…
(Herodotus of Halicarnassus’ “Researches” are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples…)
It was rather conventional at that time for authors to have their works ‘published’ by reciting them at popular festivals. Herodotus took his Histories to Olympia, in the Olympian Games, and presented his entire work to the assembled spectators in one sitting, receiving rapturous applause at the end. According to a different account, he refused to begin reading his work until some clouds offered him a bit of shade, by which time however the assembly had dispersed – thus the proverbial expression “Herodotus and his shade” to describe anyone who misses his opportunity through delay.
The Athenian Thucydides (Θουκυδίδης, c. 460–c. 395 BCE) is the notable author of the History of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens (431-404 BCE) to the year 411. Its finale is recounted by Xenophon in his Hellenica. Thucydides is regarded as the father of “scientific history” because of his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods. He has also been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the relations between nations as based on might rather than right. His classical text is still studied at military colleges worldwide, and the Melian dialogue still remains a seminal work of international relations theory.(b)
This Greek civil war, the Peloponnesian War, a few years after the glorious end of the Persian Wars, marked the dramatic end to the Golden Age of Hellenic civilization.
During celebrations for victory, someone sang a song of Euripides. The Spartans were so moved they changed their minds. “They felt that it would be a barbarous act to annihilate Athens that produced such men”…
Several examples of peripli have survived one way or another. The impression one gets, even with a first look at the list below, is that for a long time, from the 6th to the 4th centuries BCE, there was a Graeco-Phoenician “bras de fer” between Massalia and Carthage aimed at dominating the sea routes leading to regions rich mainly in gold, silver, tin and amber:
- The Massaliote Periplus is a description of Tartessian and Phoenician trade routes along the coasts of Atlantic Europe, possibly dating to the 6th century, either early or late, around 500 BCE, depending on the writer. Preserved in Avienus’ Ora maritima (Sea Coasts), it is a voyage from Marseille to the British Isles, circumnavigating Iberia.
- The Periplus of Hanno the Navigator, a Punic explorer of the early 5th century BCE, describing the coast of Africa from Morocco deep into the Gulf of Guinea. It was undertaken probably after Carthage’s crushing defeat in Sicily in 480 BCE (when Hanno became a king with no powers). Excluded from the markets of the East, the Punics turned westwards.
- The exploration of another Punic, Himilco the Navigator, who sailed in the sea routes described in the Massaliote Periplus, from the Mediterranean to the north-western shores of Europe, during the 5th century, as well.
- The voyage of Euthymenes of Massalia (ca 450-390 or, less probable, in the early 6th century BCE). Following Hanno’s route, Euthymenes must have sailed south to the Senegal River. His Periplus in the Outer Sea (possibly around 400 BCE) was lost and what survived are some references such as those made by Plutarch or Seneca the Younger (and… doubtful).
- The epic exploration of the greatest Massaliote navigator, Pytheas, ca 325 BCE, who completed a periplus of Europe, sailing to Britain, Scandinavia, the Baltic and, via river routes, the Black Sea. Only excerpts remain from his testimony, On the Ocean and World Survey, quoted by later authors, some of whom, such as Strabo (mistrustful as usual) and Polybius, treat with skepticism.
- During Pytheas’ periplus of Europe, Nearchus, an admiral of Alexander the Great, performed his Paraplus (sailing by the coastline), leading the Macedonian fleet from India (the rivers Hydaspes and Indus) to the Persian Gulf and meeting the king at Susa in 324 BCE. His testimony is preserved in Arrian’s Indica.
- The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the 1st century CE by some Alexandrian, gives the shoreline itinerary of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, starting each time at the port of Berenice. Beyond the Red Sea, the manuscript describes the coast of India as far as the Ganges River and the east coast of Africa (called Azania).
- The Periplus Ponti Euxini, describing the trade routes along the coasts of the Black Sea, was also written by Arrian in the early 2nd century CE.
“Armchair” historians tend to minimize the importance of the navigators’ peripli, as we have seen. Such is the case of the Periplus Outside the Pillars of Heracles by Charon of Lampsacus (first half of the 5th century BCE), the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax (4th or 3rd century BCE), the Periplus of Scymnus of Chios (around 110 BCE), or even the Periplus of the Outer Sea by Marcian of Heraclea (5th century CE), referring also to the British Isles. There are, however, significant losses, such as Democritus’ Periplus of the Ocean (5th-4th centuries BCE, see Chronicle 7), and a Periplus by Timosthenes of Rhodes in ten volumes (3rd century BCE). The latter was an admiral of the Ptolemaic fleet, navigator, geographer and cartographer, admired and cited by geographers like Strabo and Eratosthenes. Strabo revealed another talent of this truly versatile man: he composed a “Pythic nomos” (law), a “Pythian canon”, if you like, for aulos and kithara to be played at Delphi in the Pythian Games in celebration of the victory of Apollo over Python.(c)
“Nómoi, the most important form of composition in ancient Greece, evolved from a very old tradition, according to which the laws were sung by the people to be easily memorized and followed.” Now legislators do their best for the laws to be incomprehensible, though (or because) ignorance of the law is not forgiven…
Such voyages, of course, together with the logbooks that gradually evolved into peripli, date back to much earlier times. At the same time, whatever we know about many important voyages come from other sources and not from the navigators’ peripli. Notable examples:
- The voyages of Cretans during the Minoan thalassocracy.
- The expedition of the Argonauts.
- The wanderings of Odysseus.
- The epic periplus of Libya (that is, Africa) by the Phoenicians in the late 6th century on behalf of an Egyptian Pharaoh, mentioned by Herodotus. Having the Red Sea as a starting point, it took almost three years to complete. Trying to save his life, a Persian convict made an attempt to repeat the feat following the reverse course but finally gave up – and lost his life.
- The voyage of the (real) Scylax of Caryanda, a Greek navigator from Caria. According to the “Father of History”, he explored the coasts of the Indian Ocean (as far as the mouth of the Indus River returning afterwards to Suez) on behalf of the Persians in the same period, late 6th century, circa 510 BCE.
- The voyages of Eudoxus of Cyzicus (ca 150–100 BCE) to explore the Arabian Sea on behalf of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. According to Poseidonius and Strabo, he was the first to sail the monsoon wind system in the Indian Ocean in 118–116 BCE. He later attempted the first periplus of Africa departing from the West, namely Gades (modern Cádiz), but the expedition was lost – although some writers, such as Pliny, argue that he achieved his goal.
- A navigator possibly associated with Eudoxus (he is sometimes referred to as his captain) was Hippalos (ca 1st century BCE). In the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea he is credited with discovering the direct route from the Red Sea to South India crossing the Indian Ocean.
Before the Chronicles of ONCE UPON A… WAVE,
voyage with the Voyages of the MEDITERRANEAN PERIPLUS!