According to the wikipedia page on Germanic tribes, (direct quotation)

The first news about the Germanic world are contained in the lost Pytheas work. It is believed that Pytheas travelled to Northern Europe, and his observations about the geographical environment, traditions and culture of the Northern European populations were a central source of information to later historians, possibly the only source.[38] Authors such as Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus cite Pytheas in disbelief, although Pytheas' observations are substantially correct. Though Pytheas was not the first explorer of those lands (for example Himilco, Phoenicians, Tartessians), he was the first to describe these populations, and it is fair to say that much of the Germanic peoples' history enters into view through Pytheas.

Source #38 in Wikipedia is (direct quotation)

The only ancient authors we know by name who saw Pytheas' text were Dicaearchus, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Crates of Mallus, Hipparchus, Polybius, Artemidorus and Posidonius, as Lionel Pearson remarked in reviewing Hans Joachim Mette, Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: Gruyter) 1952, in Classical Philology 49.3 (July 1954), pp. 212–214.

Despite this however, no citation is given for where Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus cite Pytheas in disbelief. But more importantly, there is no explanation as to why these scholars disbelieved in Pytheas. Hence, my question is simple: why did Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus disbelieve in Pytheas? What reason is there for this? Also, what evidence is there that Pytheas was largely correct, as Wikipedia claims without proof or citation? In addition, a citation, reference or link on where these scholars cite Pytheas in disbelief and what the context of the citation was would be appreciated.

  • There is no tag for germanic tribes so I put the europe tag instead, being the closest tag I could find.
    – Cicero
    Jul 4, 2015 at 3:04

1 Answer 1


Generally speaking, Pytheas of Massalia had an apparently undeserved reputation as a "liar of the first magnitude" during antiquity. Much of what we know of this comes from Strabo, who is incidentally Pytheas' most vocal critic. Strabo argues against the authenticity of the Massilian's reports primarily based on the dimensions of Great Britain and the (non)existence of Thule.

While not on your list, other classical writers such as Polybius shared this disbelief. Polybius in particular could not believe the grandiose achievements, probably out of envy. On the other hand, not all writers were so sceptical. His contemporary Greek historian Timaeus is reported to have believed him; Pliny the Elder, who relied on Timaeus' second hand source, is not always convinced, but did incorporate his materials into his own works.

On the topic of Britain, Strabo writes in his Geographica that:

Britain itself stretches alongside of Celtica with a length about equal thereto, being not greater in length than five thousand stadia, and its limits are defined by the extremities of Celtica which lie opposite its own ... But Pytheas declares that the length of Britain is more than twenty thousand stadia, and that Cantium is several days' sail from Celtica (1.4.3).

Upon scrutiny, it appears Strabo mistook the southern shores of Britain, which faced France, to be its longest side. In contrast, Pytheas correctly understood Britain to be much longer vertically than it is horizontally. The dimensions they gave also differed, with Pytheas greatly overestimating the size of Britain while Strabo erred in the opposite direction. This however might be due to a conversion error:

Pytheas in his work can only have stated how many days he took to sail along the coasts, and his day's sail in these unknown waters was certainly a short one. But the uncritical Timaeus, who was moreover a historian and not a geographer, may, according to the custom of his time, have converted Pytheas's day's journeys into stadia at the usual equation of 1000 stadia (about 100 geographical miles) for one day's sailing.

- Nansen, Fridtjof, and Chater, Arthur. In Northern Mists. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Given the conflicting understandings, Stabo thus reasoned that Pytheas could not be trusted to report honestly on new discoveries, since he was already "wrong" about known locations.

But that the things which Pytheas has told about Thule, as well as the other places in that part of the world, have indeed been fabricated by him, we have clear evidence from the districts that are known to us, for in most cases he has falsified them, as I have already said before, and hence he is obviously more false concerning the districts which have been placed outside the inhabited world. (4.5.5)

The island of Thule, which Pytheas places to the north of Britain, falls under this category. Strabo doubted the Massalian's account, which was admittedly rather fantastical sounding, on the basis that no other writer corroborates Pytheas' rather unique exploration. He also believed that the island would have been too cold to support life, due to how north it is reported to be.

Pytheas of Massilia tells us that the areas around Thule, the most northerly of the Brittanic islands, are the most remote ... [but] modern writers have nothing to say about any country beyond Ierne, which lies to the north of Britain and near thereto, and is the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence because of the cold; and therefore, in my opinion, the northern limit of our inhabited world is to be placed there (2.5.8).

While we cannot be certain what Pytheas might be referencing here, there are several islands to the north of mainland Britain, such as Shetland or Iceland. We also understand today that the Gulf Stream enables northern Europe to be warmer than it would have been given its nearness to the North Pole. Unaware of these facts, however, Strabos saw this as proof that Pytheas was a liar.

Lastly, Strabo cites Polybius in disbelieving that Pytheas was capable of what he reported to have achieved.

Pytheas asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world — an assertion which no man would believe, not even if Hermes made it (2.4.2).

Ultimately, disbelief in Pytheas' observations stemmed partially from ignorance and narrowmindedness, somewhat unreasonably aggravated by factual inaccuracies.


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