High North: Carthaginian Exploration of Ireland
In the ancient world, the British Isles were on the edge of knowledge, so far from civilization as to be placed in the realm of the almost mythical. Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, few men from the Mediterranean had been there. Winston Churchill chose to begin his History of the English Speaking Peoples at this point, because that is the point when he saw Britain as first making contact with the outside world. Modern archaeology has shown this assessment to be manifestly unfair. Britain was inhabited for millennia prior, its inhabitants built great tombs, mounds and stone circles, and traded across water with mainland Europe. Immigration, invasions and population exchanges took place with the mainland. Goods found their way through trade networks across Gaul to the Mediterranean.
Yet, if Britain was mysterious to classical authors, Ireland was the very edge of knowledge, a mysterious island with fertile soil but inhabited by strange and savage people. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, indeed, the island’s recorded history did not begin until St. Patrick visited the island in the 4th century AD. Yet, there is evidence of earlier contacts.
The Phoenicians had colonized the area around the Straits of Gibraltar from at least the 9th century BC. But their settlements did not range far, and there is little evidence of Phoenician exploration along the Atlantic coast past the settlements at Gadir and Mogador. Phoenician traders were content to buy their wares from local traders in Tartessos and Morocco and then resell them across the Mediterranean. Their suppliers in turn bought their wares from the interiors of Europe and Africa where Phoenicians could not reach.
This situation began to change in the 6th century. The first change was that the disparate Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean were all gradually brought under the control of Carthage. Now united as one maritime empire, their pooled resources could be used for greater ventures. One of these ventures was to go to war to protect the Carthaginian sphere of influence and monopoly on trade. The Greeks were halted in 535 BC after the battle of Alalia and the westward expansion of Greek colonies past Massalia was halted. A treaty was concluded with Rome in 509 BC which recognized separate spheres of influence and trade for Carthage and Rome.
The second venture was to outfit expeditions to explore the coasts of the Atlantic. Exploration could find new opportunities for trade and markets for Carthaginian goods. It could also cut out some of the middlemen in Spain and Africa, creating greater profits for Carthaginian traders.
A large scaled expedition under the command of Hanno explored the coast of Africa, founded several colonies along the coast of Morocco, and possibly reached as far as Cameroon. An account of the expedition has survived, but the exact date of this expedition is not known. Pliny the Elder says that it took place “while the power of Carthage was at its height.” Greek sources in the 4th century BC seem to have had knowledge of Hanno’s account. A general consensus has formed around a date of approximately 500 BC or the early 400s.
“At about the same time,” according to Pliny, an explorer named Himilco was sent to “to explore the remote parts of Europe.” Unfortunately, Himilco’s account of his voyage has not survived. Pliny does not mention anything about the expedition except that it happened.
We do have one ancient author who cited sections of Hanno’s report (or cited someone who cited Hanno’s report). Oddly, the source is Ora Maritima, a poem by the 4th century AD Roman poet Rufus Festus Avienus. Ancient sailors used a type of document called a periplus as a guide when sailing unfamiliar regions. A typical periplus contained listed information about winds, currents, maritime hazards, and sailing distances between ports. Ora Maritima (“The Sea-shore”) is a periplus written in the form of a poem. Given that this is roughly equivalent to writing a poem based on Mapquest directions, modern critics have been rather charitable to describe Avienus’ work as “rambling” and “rather second-rate.”
Himilco’s expedition would not have brought oared galleys to sail the rough waters of the North Atlantic. They would have been swamped. His expedition had to have sailed in round gauloi, Phoenician merchant vessels which sailed all over the Mediterranean. Their ships may have been reinforced or constructed differently for sailing the rough Atlantic seas. The inhabitants of Gadir would have had knowledge of what types of ships were necessary to navigate these waters.
Avienus does not leave us any record of the beginning of Himilco’s voyage. Where the expedition originated is unknown, but whether Himilco started out in Carthage or some other port one can surmise that he likely fitted out at Gadir. The sailors of Gadir fished in the Atlantic and would have possessed much knowledge of sea conditions and shipbuilding techniques that would have been invaluable to Himilco.
We also do not know the size of Himilco’s voyage. Hanno is described as leading an expedition of 60 ships and 30,000 people, but these numbers have almost certainly been corrupted and exaggerated. Hanno also founded several colonies in the first part of his expedition, which we have no record of Himilco doing, so Himilco’s expedition was likely smaller anyways. It almost certainly did contain multiple ships, as ships were not that large nor did they carry a huge amount of cargo that that time.
Leaving Gadir, Himilco likely traveled north along the coast of the Iberian peninsula. Here there was likely coastal trade, but little of great value to Carthage. Heading north along the coast of Gaul, Avienus first picks up the tab, describing a promontory and islands called the Oestrymnides. These are generally identified with the Brittany peninsula and its offshore islands :
Under the head of this promontory, the Oestrymnic Bay lies open for the natives. In it the islands called Oestrymnides stretch themselves out. They lie widely apart and are rich in tin and lead. There is much hardiness in the people there, a proud spirit, an efficient industriousness. They are all constantly concerned with commerce. They ply the widely troubled sea and swell of monster-filled Ocean in skiffs of skin. For these men do not know how to fashion keels with pine or maple. They do not hollow out yachts, as the custom is, from fir trees. Rather, they always marvelously fit out boats with joined skins and marvelously run through the vast salt water on leather.
The description of the locals sailing in boats made of animal hide stretched over a wooden frame attests that Avienus was telling the truth when he wrote that his work was “drawn from old pages.” Even by the 1st century BC, the inhabitants of the Brittany Peninsula had developed keeled ships. During the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar fought a battle against a fleet of the Venetii, one of the peoples of the area. The Venetii used warships with high prows and sterns, strongly built sides and powered by both sails and oars. Skin boats obviously came much earlier and were useful for coastal transport of small amounts of goods.
The presence of tin in the islands would have been of great interest to the Carthaginians. In fact, tin was likely the primary motivation for norther exploration by Carthage. Tin is a very rare metal, making up only 0.001% of earth’s crust. It is also an essential element in the manufacture of bronze. And since bronze was used to make just about everything in the ancient world, from art to cooking utensils, tin was very valuable. Yet, only a few places had tin mines, and they were in Germany, Brittany, northern Spain, and Cornwall. Tin made its way to the Mediterranean through overland trading networks, but the people who lived there had no idea where it originated. Herodotus admitted as much when he wrote:
I cannot speak with certainty, however, about the marginal regions which lie toward the west in Europe…Nor am I certain of the existence of the Cassiterides Islands, from which we get our tin…Moreover, despite all my efforts to research the matter, I have been unable to find anyone who could say that he actually saw for himself that a sea exists on the far side of Europe. In any case, the far edges of the world are the source of the tin and amber that come to us.
But by Herodotus’ time, Carthaginian ships were plying these waters which remained unknown to most Greeks. Himilco’s next move was to sail north from Brittany towards Britain. He may have learned from the locals where more tin could be found, or he may simply have learned that there was land to the north. If Himilco made landfall in Cornwall, Avienus left us no record. If he did, he quickly continued his journey north. Two days sailing from the Oestrymnides, Himilco reached insula sacra, “The Holy Island”:
But from here, there is a two-day journey by a ship to the Holy Island – thus the ancients called it. This island, large in extent of land, lies between the waves. The race of Hierni inhabits it far and wide. Again, the island of the Albiones lies near, and the Tartessians were accustomed to carry on business to the ends of the Oestrymnides.
The identity of insula sacra is generally believed to be Ireland. It may originate from Ierne, the Greek name for Ireland which in turn comes from Iweriu, the name by which the island was known to its Celtic inhabitants. The land of the Albiones is Britain, which was known as Albion in very ancient times.
What was Ireland like when Himilco’s expedition made landfall there? The island had been inhabited for thousands of years. In earlier times, the inhabitants built megalithic structures and large monumental tombs and barrows. By the time of Himilco, the megalith-building culture was being displaced or absorbed by Celtic culture which had just arrived from mainland Europe. The island was in transition from its own Bronze Age to Iron Age, and iron weapons were being introduced. The countryside was dotted with “ring-forts,” farming homesteads with circular earthen walls that served as fences. An estimated 30,000 or 40,000 of these farms existed in Ireland. The political scene was fractured with numerous local chieftains controlling various areas and ruling from fortified hilltops. The people were largely agrarian, but metalworking in bronze and iron was common and trade was carried out with neighboring islands. Any trade deals likely had to be negotiated with local chieftains.
It is not known how long Himilco’s expedition remained in Ireland, or what they accomplished there. But descriptions given in Avienus indicate that what followed the trip to the Holy Island may have been extremely unpleasant:
Himilco of Carthage reported that he himself had investigated these matters on a voyage, and he asserts that it [the sea] can scarcely be crossed in four months. No breezes propel a craft, the sluggish liquid of the lazy sea is so at a standstill. He also adds this: A lot of seaweed floats in the water and often after the manner of a thicket holds the prow back. He says that here nontheless the depth of the water does not extend much and the bottom is barely covered over with a little water. They always meet here and there monsters of the deep, and beasts swim amidst the slow and sluggishly crawling ships.
That is the Ocean, which pounds the far-flung world. That is the great deep, this the swell that encircles the shores. This is the supplier of inner salt water. This is the parent of our sea…The Ocean’s swell unfolds with long extend and and is widely diffused from its wandering shore. But very often the salt water extends so shallowly that it scarcely covers the underlying sands. Thick seaweed often tops the sea and the tide is hindered by marshy wrack. Many a beast swims through all the sea and great fear of monsters stalks the deep. Himilco of Carthage reported that he had once seen and tested these things on the Ocean. These things published long ago in the secret annals of the Carthaginians we have put forth to you. Now let our pen return to earlier topics.
These passages have been much debated. It is tempting to suggest that Himilco headed due west trying to cross to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Sargasso Sea. However, the repeated statements that the ocean is shallow seem to argue against this. The opposite view is that the report was propaganda designed to discourage Greeks or any other competitors from attempting to sail to the region. The passage is likely jumbled, after all, it was probably written in Punic, translated to Greek, possibly quoted in one or several authors before Avienus arranged the information in poetic form in Latin. Details may have become changed or obscured through this process.
The best that we can say is that Himilco reached some region where his expedition was becalmed. While sailing the ocean, he likely observed whales and sharks swimming around the boat. The areas overrun with seaweed could be kelp forests, or possibly an area overrun with seaweed which is four days out of Gibraltar. Sailing to Ireland likely involved crossing some open ocean outside of the sight of land, which could have been a nerve-wracking experience for those used to hugging the coasts. Finally, it has been suggested that the description of the journey taking four months is a garbled transmission and that four months was in fact the duration of Himilco’s entire expedition.
And this is the last that we hear of Himilco and his expedition. Presumably he returned to Carthage and published an account of his voyage. But what was the impact of this expedition? Its main legacy seems to have been opening up the coastal tin trade to Carthaginian merchants. Instead of buying tin from overland carriers, Carthage could buy tin direct from the mines, ship it back to the Mediterranean themselves, cut out the middlemen, and make greater profits. Avienus’ text states that “Colonists from Carthage…came to these seas,” which indicates that colonies may have been established at some point. If they were, they were likely small trading posts which left little to no archaeological traces of their presence.
In Brittany and Cornwall, the local economy became centered around tin mining, with large settlements springing up near riverborne tin deposits. Diodorus Siculus described the mining process in Cornwall in the 1st century BC:
The inhabitants of Britain who dwell about the promontory known as Belerium are especially hospitable to strangers and have adopted a civilized manner of life because of their intercourse with merchants of other peoples. They it is who work the tin, treating the bed which bears it in an ingenious manner. This bed, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they then melt down and cleanse of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain and is called Ictis; for at the time of ebb-tide the space between this island and the mainland becomes dry and they can take the tin in large quantities over to the island on their wagons…On the island of Ictis the merchants purchase the tin of the natives and carry it from there across the Strait to Galatia or Gaul; and finally, making their way on foot through Gaul for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river Rhone.
Diodorus was describing the overland trade route through Gaul, but Strabo gives us a description of trade with the coast of Cornwall (which he calls the Cassiterides):
The Cassiterides are ten in number, and they lie near each other in the high sea to the north of the port of the Artabrians. One of them is desert, but the rest are inhabited by people who wear black cloaks, go clad in tunics that reach to their feet, wear belts around their breasts, walk around with canes, and resemble the goddesses of vengeance in tragedies. They live off their herds, leading for the most part a nomadic life. As they have mines of tin and lead, they give these metals and the hides from their cattle to the sea-traders in exchange for pottery, salt and copper utensils. Now in former times it was the Phoenicians alone who carried on this commerce (that is, from Gades), for they kept the voyage hidden from every one else. And when once the Romans were closely following a certain ship-captain in order that they too might learn the markets in question, out of jealousy the ship-captain purposely drove his ship out of its course into shoal water; and after he had lured the followers into the same ruin, he himself escaped by a piece of wreckage and received from the State the value of the cargo he had lost. Still, by trying many times, the Romans learned all about the voyage.
The Phoenicians maintained a monopoly on the ocean route which was enforced by their naval control of the eastern Mediterranean. Only Phoenician ships could enter and trade in the area. When the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia visited Britain, he either evaded the blockade or traveled overland through Gaul. The ocean tin trade was not opened to Roman traffic until Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and Publius Crassus crossed over to Cornwall to observe the tin mining. He made the information widely available to those wishing to make the sea voyage.
Ireland, on the other hand, remained isolated. Julius Caesar learned of it and described it in some detail, but does not seem to have visited the island. After the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, trade between Ireland and Roman Britain was common but the Romans never moved to invade Ireland. The Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola invaded Scotland in 83 AD and pushed for authority and troops to invade Ireland, but was never allowed to. The ancient Irish had a reputation in the classical world for being fierce warriors. Diodorus Siculus reported that the inhabitants “eat human beings.” Strabo said that he had “nothing certain to tell” about Ireland “except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons” and “count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it.”
Irish raiders occasionally attacked Britain, and trade and contact took place, but Irish society developed without major outside influences until the early 400s AD, when a 16 year old Romano-British boy named Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and carried off as a slave to Ireland. Held captive for six years, he escaped and returned to Britain, only to see a vision calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. This he did, and he began preaching and converting the pagan Irish to Christianity. The recorded history of Ireland begins at this point, so one can safely say that the rest, as they say, is history.
 Polybius, The Histories, trans. by Mortimer Chambers (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), 3.22-23.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Perseus, trans. by John Bostock. 1855,
(accessed December 11, 2011), 2.67; Duane K. Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (New York: Routledge, 2006), 31.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 2.67.
 Philip Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World (University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas, 2001), 28.
 Piero Bartoloni, “Ships and Navigation,” in The Phoenicians, ed. by Sabatino Moscati (New York: Rizzoli, 1999), 86-89.
 Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World, 30.
 Rufus Festus Avienus, Ora Maritima, or, Description of the Seacoast [From Brittany Round to Massalia], trans. by J.P. Murphy (Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1977) lines 94-107.
 Avienus, Ora Maritima, line 9; Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, trans. by W.A. McDevitte, 1869,
(accessed December 12, 2011), 3.13.
Some have disputed this, arguing that the Oestrymnides are in fact off the north coast of Spain. However, Avienus describes the islands as two days’ sailing away from Ireland, which rules out Spain.
 “The Element Tin,”
 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 3.115.1-2.
 Avienus, Ora Maritima, lines 108-114.
 Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World, 30-32.
 George Coffey, The Bronze Age in Ireland (Illustrated Edition) (Teddington, England: The Echo Library, 2009), 13; Michael Herity and George Eogan, Ireland in Prehistory (London: Routledge, 1996), 222-223, 225-239; Daniel Webster Hollis, The History of Ireland, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001), 15-17.
 Avienus, Ora Maritima, lines 116-129, 390-393, 404-416.
 Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles, 28-29.
 Avienus, Ora Maritima, lines 114-115.
 Sandy Gerrard, The Early British Tin Industry (Stroud: Tempus, 2000), 16-21.
 Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, trans. by C.H. Oldfather, LacusCurtius,
(accessed December 13, 2011), 5.22.
 Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.L. Jones, LacusCurtius (
, accessed December 13, 2011), 3.5.11.
 Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles, 63-68; Strabo, Geography, 3.5.11.
 Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, 5.13; Tacitus, Agricola, 24; Strabo, Geography, 4.5.4; Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 5.32.
Image Sources: (Banner)
(Body): map based on free educational maps from the Maps for Students Page at the Ancient World Mapping Center; The Phoenician Ship Expedition
Article © Christopher Jones 2011.