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Article

Duane W. Roller

The Atlantic Ocean (literally “the Ocean of Atlas”) was known to Greeks since the time of Homer, but the term did not come into use until the 5th century bce, because of mythological associations of the giant Atlas with the far western Mediterranean. Phoenicians were the first to sail on the ocean, perhaps as early as the beginning of the first millennium bce, and Greeks first went beyond the Pillars of Heracles into the Atlantic in the latter 7th century bce. Much of the early Greek exploration of the Atlantic was due to Massalians, who by 500 bce had gone south of the Pillars into the tropics, and north perhaps to the British Isles, primarily seeking trade connections. The Carthaginians also went beyond the Pillars, even farther than the Massalians, but their explorations were only vaguely known to the Graeco-Roman world until 146 bce. The greatest Greek explorer of the Atlantic was Pytheas of Massalia, who in the latter 4th century bce explored the British Isles and headed north into the Arctic, discovering Thule (probably Iceland), and reaching the Norwegian coast. After the fall of Carthage, the South Atlantic was open to Greeks (and eventually Romans). Polybius of Megalopolis went to the equatorial regions, and Eudoxus of Cyzicus attempted to perfect a route to India around the continent of Africa. The Atlantic islands were also explored, in part. There is evidence for contact with the Madeiras and Canaries, and less certain information about the Cape Verdes and Azores. There is, however, no reliable evidence that anyone from Graeco-Roman antiquity crossed the Atlantic and returned to report on it: casual finds of antiquities in the New World are generally dismissed. Yet exploration of the Atlantic led to the development of tidal theories—tides in the Mediterranean are minimal—first by Pytheas, and then later by Poseidonius and others. The Romans added little to ancient knowledge of the Atlantic, although they explored the region between the British Isles and Scandinavia, which they named the North Sea. But a series of maritime disasters in the early 1st century ce led the Romans to abandon travel on the ocean, and nothing more was discovered until medieval times.

Article

Duane W. Roller

Exploration in antiquity was largely the result of commercial or military endeavours, rather than any pure quest for knowledge or scholarship. Nevertheless, from the first efforts of Greeks to move beyond the Greek heartland into the Black Sea and western Mediterranean, which began as early as the end of the Bronze Age, Greeks and Romans steadily explored around and beyond their world. By the late Roman period, almost all of the Eastern Hemisphere was known, with the exception of interior southern Africa and the far northeastern portions of Asia, and it was suggested that there might be other continents across the ocean. Despite an emphasis on trade and commercial contacts, there was also an increase in scientific and other scholarly knowledge. The beginnings of Greek exploration are apparent in the Odyssey of Homer and may go back to the latter part of the Bronze Age. By the latter 7th century bce, Greeks were moving outside of the Mediterranean to the Phoenician (later Carthaginian) trading cities such as Gadeira on the Atlantic. With the rise of the Persians, they began to learn about what lay to their east, and Alexander the Great created awareness of a world stretching as far as India. At the same time, Pytheas of Massalia explored the northern Atlantic as far as Iceland. The discipline of geography was invented by Eratosthenes of Cyrene in the latter 3rd century bce, and in the following century the explorer Polybius reached the Equator. Roman military operations in the north of Europe and the British Isles and trade journeys into central Africa meant those regions were brought into the sphere of knowledge of the Mediterranean world. Realization that the inhabited world, however vast, was only a small part of the total surface of the Earth led to theorization about other lands across the ocean, but there is no solid evidence that anyone from the ancient Mediterranean reached them and was able to report on them. By the latter 1st century bce traders became aware of Southeast Asia and China, and there were occasional contacts during the Roman period, but by the 2nd century ce the era of ancient exploration was at an end, and there was little further expansion of geographical knowledge until the Islamic period.