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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.

Himilco's Voyage.

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.[1]

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.[2]

“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.[3]

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.”[4]

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