Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

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.

Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

In my last post, I discuss the first part of John B Grainger’s book ‘Rome, Parthia & India‘. The scene is set in the mid second century B.C, with the Roman Republic on a high following its victory over Carthage, and the old successor states of Alexander the Greats empire falling into chaos as usurpers and internal strife leaves them in a weakened state.

The rest of the story

By 130, Greek Bactria was more or less gone. The nomadic Saka and Yuezhi had invaded, pillaged the cities and forced the remaining Greeks out to the east. One of the big archeological sites here is Ai Khanoum or Alexandra-on-the-Oxus – judging by the coins present, this may not have even lasted beyond the end of the reign of Eucratides I in 145 B.C. The Indo-Greek state that survived would become locally influential on culture, but its connections with the rest of the Greek world would be largely myth and rumour and by 10 A.D it too would conquered by nomadic scythians.

Continue reading Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

Post 58: Rome, Parthia and India (part 1)

In many ways this book is mis-titled, but I haven’t quite decided what the replacement could be: The Decline and Fall of the Seleucid Empire fits well but the scope of the book is wider than that; the Fall of the Hellenistic World would bring in Macedonia and Bactria, but be both too grand and too narrow for this tale. The best summary is perhaps the book’s subtitle The Violent Emergence of A New World Order 150-140 B.C.

It’s another of the new releases by Pen & Sword that have flooded onto bookshelves in the last few years, mostly by new authors. John D. Grainger, however, is not a new author – he has written over two dozen books. These do cover a variety of topics, but return again and again to the late Hellenistic period – the decline of Macedonia, the wars of the Maccabees, the Aetolian League and multiple books on the Seleucids. This book attempts to put some of these apparently disparate pieces together into a single narrative, telling how the world flipped from the post-Alexander situation of domination by various Greek successor states to the era of Roman (and Parthian) domination.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and, other than Carthage, the era isn’t all that well known – so I’ve decided to split this review into two parts; the first will lay the background for the story and the second will bring these to a conclusion and discuss Grainger’s attempts to put this all together.

Continue reading Post 58: Rome, Parthia and India (part 1)

Post 29: The Greek Myths by Robert Graves

It turns out that Robert Graves, of I, Claudius fame, really likes mushrooms. He also really likes his own form of Good Goddess pagan mysticism.

I generally try to be positive in my blog posts, which is somewhat helped by the fact that I tend to read books or listen to podcasts that I actually enjoy (or at least think I will enjoy). I bought this book in the second hand section at Blackwell’s Bookshop with high (and somewhat naive) expectations – his reputation for historical fiction is well deserved so I was eager to see his factual take on Greek mythology. I had a number of issues with this book – a few of them my fault for not really understanding what the author was attempting to do beforehand, but there were others for which I would pin the blame on the author.

Continue reading Post 29: The Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Post 22: From Democrats To Kings

This book by Michael Scott, published in 2009 by Icon, picks up from where one of my recent reviews, Alciabiades by P.J Rhodes, left off1. In 404 B.C. Sparta, with Persian backing, have triumphed in the Peloponnesian War and Athens was left on its knees, with its unique system of democracy replaced by a set of pro-Sparta oligarchs. Athens will rebound quickly however, and the next century will be filled with even more power struggles between the Greek city states and by the introduction of new major players to this drama. It ends with one of these rising powers, Macedon, uniting Greece and much of the known world under the rule of its warrior kings – Philip and Alexander2.

Continue reading Post 22: From Democrats To Kings

Post 15: Alciabiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor

Written by P.J Rhodes and published by Pen & Sword in 2011, this book is possibly the only one in recent years to act as a biography of Alciabiades (as the subtitle says, a famous Athenian playboy, general and traitor). If that’s exactly what you’re looking for you probably don’t have many options in terms of popular history, but for most people it would act to give more detail on particular aspects of the Peloponnesian War, life in ancient Athens and to shine more light one of the fascinating characters of ancient Greek history. Rhodes’ academic qualifications are fantastic (formerly Professor of Ancient History and the resident Greek specialist at Durham Uni, now an Emeritus Professor) but how well can he transfer this to a general audience?

Continue reading Post 15: Alciabiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor

Post 3: Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire

Dividing The Spoils

The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire

Dividing the SpoilsAnother book review here – this time Dividing the Spoils by Robin Waterfield, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press. I thought this was a particularly interesting topic for a book – there’s often a bit of a gap left in history between Alexander conquering the world and the successor kingdoms that made up the world during Rome’s rise. How these kingdoms came to be is rarely filled in but it’s a fascinating tale, full of battles, intrigue, murder and all kinds of twists and turns. The book takes the narrative from Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. until ~280 B.C. when the founders of the successor dynasties conveniently die within a few years of each other, providing both a natural beginning and ending to the book. The book sets out to be accessible and enjoyable, focusing on the major personalities of that period of history. I gather that the study of history has moved on a bit from “the great man theory” (as the author acknowledges in his introduction) but this is perhaps one case where it may be a useful approach. The book does also have asides on economic and cultural developments during this period – though these could have been covered in a little more detail.

Continue reading Post 3: Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire