Iceland did not become a permanent place of settlement until the 9th century. The first inhabitants that built a long-term community on Iceland predominantly came from Norway, and later descendants of the original settlers were convinced that their ancestors’ exodus from the old homeland was a form of protest against the growing authority of King Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940). It is clear that the Norsemen were the first settlers to turn Iceland into a long-term home. Yet, the question of if they were the first people to discover the island is another story. In fact, it is possible that Iceland may have been located by an ancient Greek explorer as early as the 4th century BCE and that Romans had this information at their disposal during the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.
The debate revolves around Pytheas, a 4th-century BCE citizen of the Greek settlement at Massilia (Marseilles) in ancient France, then known as Gaul. During the last decades of the 4th century, Pytheas set sail from Massilia and sneaked his way through the Carthaginian strait of Gibraltar to enter the Atlantic Ocean and began thoroughly exploring the lands far to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. During his travels, Pytheas kept detailed notes on the geography he encountered and the people that he met. When he returned from his expedition, he published a text that was reportedly titled, On the Ocean. Unfortunately, his original version of the book has been lost. Nevertheless, numerous Greek and Roman historians attested to the existence of Pytheas and his book. Through these later scholars, pieces of the lost text were preserved through quotation, critique and summary. By piecing together the commentary of historians such as Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Timaeus and Eratosthenes, we know most of the regions where Pytheas was said to have traveled.
According to the fragments and summaries of Pytheas’ journey, he began by leaving the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. He then traveled up the Iberian Peninsula and continued along the French coast, eventually rounding Brittany. Pytheas then crossed the English Channel and traveled along the west coast of England, Wales and Scotland. On that stretch of the journey, he also reportedly explored the smaller islands of Britain, such as the Hebrides and Orkney.
It is around this time that Pytheas may have discovered Iceland. From somewhere on the north tip of Britain, the Greek explorer set sail and traveled toward Arctic waters for six days. His exact trajectory is not known, but after the six days, Pytheas sighted land near what he called a “congealed” or “sluggish” sea, terms that possibly suggest icy water or the North Atlantic Current. Based on this evidence, scholars believe that Pytheas either reached Iceland or Norway at the end of his six-day trek from Britain. Whatever he found, Pytheas labeled it “Thule” and eventually departed the mysterious landmass for the British Isles. If he had not already seen Norway by this point, then he possibly saw Norwegian land on the next phase of his journey. Pytheas allegedly sailed into the Baltic through the North Sea and perhaps explored the coast of what is now Poland. At this point, however, Pytheas decided to start his return-trip home to Massilia and did not venture farther into the sea.
When the Romans began their conquest of Britannia under Emperor Claudius in the year 43, their maps were still influenced by Pytheas’ discoveries. Leading up to and during the time that Julius Agricola was governor of Britannia (r. 77-84), Roman influence had spread over England and Wales, as well as into significant portions of Scotland. In the year 83, Agricola sent a Roman fleet to explore the north of Britain. In their travels, the Roman sailors explored Orkney (which they called the Orcades) and found another island that they believed was Pytheas’ Thule. Yet, most scholars do not believe that the Roman expedition of 83 ever reached Iceland or Norway. Instead, it is thought that the Romans found Shetland and misidentified it as Thule.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (detail of a cup interior showing a frieze of five boats in contest. Attic black-figured cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.