Let´s continue with the second part of the exploration in the Ancient Age. In the previous chapter we told how the Carthaginians, led by the navigator Hannon, enrolled in the exploration of the western coasts of Africa until they reached equatorial latitudes. Theories even appeared that spoke of a foray into Brazilian lands. But there is still more.
Exploring Atlantic Europe
The Carthaginian admiral Himilcón, contemporary of Hannon, led an expedition along the western coasts of Europe in order to discover the source of tin supply of the Tartessians, in what would later become known as the Cassiterides Islands. To maintain the monopoly on this metal, the Carthaginians spread false news about alleged dangers lurking in the Atlantic waters, such as sea monsters, strange mists, huge algae, etc.
A well-known story relates how a Carthaginian merchant purposely wrecked his boat when he was chased on his way to the Cassiterides by a Roman ship, so that it would not discover the tin source. Upon returning to Carthage, the Senate compensated him for the lost ship and cargo, and thanks to this policy the Romans did not discover the source of the metal until much later.
But not only the Carthaginians ventured into the northern waters of Europe. The Greeks also managed to travel these routes, highlighting the most famous Hellenic explorer in the west: Pytheas. The distinguished geographer and sailor from Marseille is awarded the discovery of the North Sea and the British Isles.
Pytheas intended to reach by sea the oestrimnian ports on Breton lands and confirm rumors about boreal regions in which day and night were six months long. Following the Carthaginian routes to Breton lands, he managed to circumnavigate the island of Great Britain and on the Scottish coasts he heard for the first time about Thule, which is believed to be Iceland or Norway. Finally he crossed the North Sea and visited the already inhabited islands of Heligoland, off the Jutland peninsula.
This trip was very controversial in its time, especially by those unaware of the influence of the Gulf Stream on the northwestern European climate, and some phenomena described as “marine lung” that seem to correspond to the typical fogs that occurred in Danish and Scandinavian lands .
The journey of Piteas delimits the northern border of the world known to the ancient world, since Norway was believed to be in reality an island, and the Romans in their fight against the Germanic peoples never had contact with such places.
The new exploration of the Middle East
Continuing with the tradition of the Mesopotamians and the Hittites, the Persians managed to explore and manage the extensive territories that go from the Aegean Sea to the Caucasus, and from the Caspian Sea to the Indus Valley, with Darius I as a great conquering figure.
During this time there was already evidence of the Indian Ocean, the coasts of Arabia and the Persian Gulf. However, great explorations were organized during the Persian Empire, according to Herodotus, and by order of King Darius I, the Greek sailor Scylax of Caryanda carried out all the exploration of the Persian coast from the Indus River to Egypt around 510 B.C. This successful journey was replicated by order of Alexander the Great two centuries later.
After the Greek victories in the Greco-Persian Wars, a period of great curiosity about the Asian continent was unleashed. This conflict against the Persian Empire and the stories collected by the Greek mercenaries in the expedition of the Ten Thousand, had brought them into contact with various unknown peoples and unsuspected customs for the Hellenic world, resulting in the organization of new trips for scientists. Doctors, geographers, adventurers, and merchants toured the Middle East, visiting Phrygia, Armenia, and India.
Alexander the Great
Also known as Alexander III of Macedonia, Alexander the Great was King of Macedonia, Hegemon of Greece, Pharaoh of Egypt, and Great King of Media and Persia. He is considered the greatest explorer of Antiquity and the architect of the opening of all the countries of the East to classical Greek knowledge.
He crossed Syria and Palestine until reaching Egypt. He walked the banks of the Caspian Sea and headed east to explore the Gutghen River basins and the Rechef Rud and Meched valleys. In 327 B.C. he prepared the expedition to India, crossing the Punjab to the shores of the Hiphasis (today known as the Beas River). There, his army refused to continue, so he had to give up exploring the Ganges and the eastern limits of the inhabited world.
He made his way back to Macedonia through the Gedrosia and Carmania regions (southern Pakistan), while ordering his admiral Nearcho to explore the mouth of the Indus and return to Susa by sea, as Scylax of Caryanda did centuries ago.
If you want to know more about Alexander the Great, have a look a this documentary.
Nearcho’s journey is well known to historians thanks to the admiral’s own official account. It is known that the descent through the Indus waters was without setbacks, and that the land supply lines followed them in parallel to the mouth. But from that point they had to face painful conditions due to lack of food and demoralization of the crew. At the shores of Camarnia, the change of scenery, more sandy, restored their determination, and upon entering the Persian Gulf, the sailors recovered their spirit by feeling closer to home.
The legacy of Alexander the Great
Different expeditions perpetuated the figure of the Macedonian king:
In Greece, Seleucus I commissioned Patroclus to explore the Caspian Sea to find out if it was a circular ocean gulf, thereby seeking a maritime connection to India. However, it was impossible for him to prove it due to the wars between Caucasian peoples and Parthians in Azerbaijan.
In Egypt, the Ptolemy dynasty inherited the spirit of Alexander and the ancient Egyptians on the exploration of the Red Sea, where numerous settlements were founded along its coasts.
A scientific interest in the sources of the Nile also originated. Thanks to the expeditions of Dalion and Aristocreon the existence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile was recorded, and later other travelers entered these regions.
During periods of peace in the Roman Empire, explorations intensified. Commercial traffic to India was regular, with more than 120 boats a year despite being a very long journey. In this period merchants discovered the island of Taprobana, an island in the Indian Ocean that may refer to somewhere in Sri Lanka or Sumatra (Indonesia).
Hippalus and the monsoon
The Greek sailor Hippalus was the forerunner of the first direct voyage to India from the Red Sea, taking advantage of the monsoon winds. With the implementation of this new route, about AD 50, the cabotage navigation was abandoned for the open sea routes, the latter being used until the Modern Age thanks to the knowledge of these winds. According to Pliny the Elder, the southwestern monsoon wind was known as Hippalus in his honor.
On the other hand, the eastern coast of India is less well documented. During the empires of Nero and Claudius there was a cabotage navigation from Ceylon to the Ganges delta, extending to the Indochina coast. In the time of the Emperor Hadrian, a navigator named Alexandre experimented with open sea navigation in the Bay of Bengal and managed to reach the Malacca peninsula, gaining access to the waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the port of Cattigara (Óc Eo, in Vietnam ).
The explorations in Africa are not very detailed, but it is known that the Romans obtained great information from the Sahara desert and the Atlas Mountains. Although the Azores and the Canary Islands were also discovered, they were never colonized.
The Iron Age is full of great trips and extraordinary discoveries if we consider the means that were available. This is only a modest summary of what ancient civilizations have been able to contribute about the knowledge of the world around us, from a classic Mediterranean point of view.
- Maluquer de Motes, Juan, (1970), La Conquista de la Tierra, La Edad Antigua, Salvat Editores S.A. y Alianza Editorial S.A. Depósito Legal M. 22.903 – 1970
- Conde-Salazar Infiesta, Luis; Lucena Giraldo, Manuel, (2009), Atlas de los exploradores españoles, GeoPlaneta, ISBN 9788408086833, OCLC 556943554
- Morère Molinero, Nuria E. (coord.), (2009), Viajes en el Mediterráneo antiguo, Centro de Estudios Ramón Areces, Universidad de Sevilla, ISBN 9788480048248