I’m a big fan of Tom Holland. His book Rubicon (following after Robert Harris’ Cicero series) was a large part of what got me back into reading about history. I was a bit surprised then to find this book in the library, having managed to completely miss it. Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, it’s a beautifully presented hard-back book of only 90 or so pages.
The book is largely a discussion of the work that Athelstan (king 924 to 939) did to unify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms into a single English kingdom. As such it starts from the roots of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and it is surprisingly far through the book before Athelstan rears his head. As the book concludes this pacing makes sense; although the existence of a single English kingdom seems simple now, it is something that was never inevitable and often a struggle. This wasn’t concluded in one generation, it was the culmination of work by Athelstan’s predecessors – Edward the Elder and Alfred the Great. All three of these kings struggled with succession, other brothers and cousins laid strong claims to the Kingdom or parts thereof. The single English kingdom could have easily fragmented before it was even born.
Also facing this was the idea of Britain as a whole: the Scots had the kingdom of Alba, a gaelic term referring to the whole island; while the Welsh had prophecies about their reclaiming their old lands across the island. After wars in Scotland, Athelstan was proclaimed “rex totius Britanniae”, King of all Britain, in addition to his title “Rex Anglorum”, King of England. One of these would stick and one would not. As England formed as a single entity, so would Scotland and Wales.
Athelstan is often left as a postscript to the story of King Alfred. It’s good to see him and his achievements presented and discussed in this way, as a crucial period in shaping Britain.
Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘. This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible. Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.
With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered. Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds. As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.
Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough. Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on. Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.
Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north. Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since. Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice. Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland. As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb. The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.
The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful! It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.
We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation. It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.