|Broighter Gold Boat, National Museum|
of Ireland, Dublin
The periplus is important for its account of a sea voyage from the city of Massalia, which became the French city of Marseilles on the western Mediterranean. The manual describes the coast from Cadiz, Spain northward along the European Atlantic coast to Brittany, Ireland and Britain. The description is also the earliest known account of the sea trade route between southern Europe and the British Isles. Archaeology has corroborated these trade links.
The original book’s full contents, having been lost, are only known through Avienus’s poeticized and confused work based on the original. Only one manuscript of the poem survives. Scholars tell us that Avienus was simply copying information from the earlier material and had not actually traveled the seacoasts that are identified in the manual—he wrote as if some the cities were still in existence but had actually been abandoned by the time he wrote his poem. He also relied on Roman itineraries to give distances, sometimes incorrectly. That he did not update the material to reflect his own time turns out to be a good thing—it preserves the historical information from the manual that would have otherwise been distorted or destroyed.
For anyone involved in the history of the Celts, the periplus and the Ora Maritima are important because the periplus contained the first known recording of the Celts’ existence. In the poem, the Latin name “Celtarum” appears, meaning “Celts.” An English translation gives the following: “If anyone should dare to drive his ship into the waves from here at the Oestrymnic Island to where the air of Lycaon grows stiff, he enters the Ligurian land, empty of inhabitants. For because of a band of Celts and frequent battles, the fields have long been empty…”(1) Assuming this information was picked up directly from the manual, we are being told about a voyage from the extreme west of the Iberian peninsula (Spain) to the lands of the Ligurians who lived in northern Italy and southeastern France, and that the Celts had driven them out. There are also passages that name “Gallic soil,” a reference to Gaul, which is identified with Celtic lands before the Roman conquest.