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On The Ocean
The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe
© 2013 James LaFond
My fields of interest, my literary curiosity, are generally not representative of my values. I am a dichotomous reader. I resent authority more deeply than most yet have read every book on war leaders I can get my curious paws on. I have read more about Alexander the Great than any other warrior, yet I would resent his rule with a totality most of you would not. War is the penultimate expression—the primal reason-for-being—of the Nation State and I never grow tired of reading about it, even though I am so anti-establishment I will not even vote.
Alexander, for all of his megalomaniac flaws had many virtues, one being wanderlust tempered with a real thirst for discovery. I have often thought that Alexander only self-destructed after his men refused to explore new worlds via slaughter. It might seem a crude way to tour the world—killing everyone who impinges on your itinerary. However, to a large extent Alexander was an explorer, and that has made him human too me. Otherwise he would just be a monster in my mind. At the time that he was dying in the cradle of civilization, I am certain he would have been thrilled to know that a young man of Massalia [Marseille], a Greek colony beneath the towering Alps, was even then setting out to explore the unknown, armed with little more than his wits.
The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek
Barry Cunliffe
2001, 2002, Walker & Company, NY, 195 pages
Pytheas made a journey over 2330 years ago to locate sources of tin, amber and gold. His journey appears to have been a trade mission/scientific survey. He was a scholar no doubt. Upon his return to the shores of The Middle Sea he wrote a book that survived perhaps 500 years. Like many such books housed in the great libraries of Hellenic and later Roman Alexandria destroyed in natural disasters and during civil upheavals, On The Ocean did not survive antiquity.
Pytheas’ story seemed unbelievable to some other respectable ancient scholars. Cunliffe, Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford, sets out to reconstruct the voyage of one of our earliest known explorers. Through archaeology and a painstaking reading of the ancient literature in which Pytheas’ book was cited or served as a source, the professor seems to bend time itself as he demonstrates how fragmentary evidence and scattered inferences may be utilized to reconstruct past events. This is very much like watching a dinosaur geek [I forget what they are called and most certainly cannot spell it] reconstruct a giant animal skeleton from a few bones.
Readers that are not deeply interested in Pytheas’ world or professor Cunliffe’s discipline may be put to sleep. Pytheas was the first of that most curious brand of author, the explorer journalist. If you are as curious about his world as he was you should enjoy Barry Cunliffe’s reconstruction of Pytheas’ amazing journey into the unknown.
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