Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

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The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Massilliote Periplus

Broighter Gold Boat, National Museum
of Ireland, Dublin
The what? you say. I know, I can’t pronounce it either. The Massilliote Periplus was a Phoenician sailing manual or sea merchant’s handbook thought to date from c.600 BC. The word periplus comes from the ancient Greek for “circumnavigation.” Massilliot(e) derives from the Greek colony of Massalia, founded around the same time from which the manual comes. Unfortunately, the original book has been lost, but the good news is: in the fourth century AD, a Roman writer called Rufus Festus Avienus wrote a poem called Ora Maritima that draws information from the periplus. The poem’s title translates as The Maritime Shores or The Sea Coasts. Avienus was a native of Volsinii in Etruria, and according to an inscription his full name includes another name, Postumius, that precedes all the rest. In a few modern references, Rufus appears as Lucius instead, but this could simply be error.

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.

Additionally, Ireland, called the Holy Isle in this case, is mentioned and said to be inhabited by the race of Hierni—the Irish. The island of Albiones is also named. This is Britain. The important issue to note is that although the British Isles, Brittany, and the Celts have all been identified, the poem does not place the Celts in the British Isles. That doesn’t mean the periplus itself did or did not—this will never be known—but it does establish that trade routes between the islands and Celtic lands on the European continent existed as early as c.600 BC., the same time the Greeks were colonizing all over the Mediterranean, the Near East and the Black Sea regions. We do know some form of the Celts eventually ended up in the British Isles—attested from their languages, art and other material evidence that spread and absorbed the earlier Neolithic people already there. The question is: did they migrate because of the trade routes? Did they do so sometime later? Or were they already there by the time the Phoenicians came?

(1) Avienus. Ora Maritima. Trans. by J.P. Murphy. Chicago: Ares Publishing, 1977.
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