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Pytheas, Tacitus and Thule

  • David J. Breeze (a1) and Alan Wilkins (a2)


The ancient sources for the location of Thule are reviewed.1 It is suggested that the identification of the Shetland Isles as Thule was an error by Agricola. The identification was then accepted by Ptolemy, who moved Thule from the more northerly location implied by Pytheas’ account to the site of the Shetland Isles. This would account for his description of Thule/Shetland as one island. The coincident location of Ptolemy's Thule with Shetland suggests that the Roman fleet did see the islands. The emendations of Wolfson relating to Thule are examined and rejected. There is no evidence that Agricola's fleet landed in Shetland.



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Cary, M., and Warmington, E.H. 1963: The Ancient Explorers (rev. edn), London
Cunliffe, B. 2001: The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, London
McPhail, C. 2014: ‘Pytheas of Massalia's route of travel’, Phoenix 68, 247–57
Rivet, A.L.F. 1974: ‘Some aspects of Ptolemy's Geography of Britain’, in Chevallier, R. (ed.), Littérature gréco-romaine et géographie historique. Mélanges offerts à Roger Dion, Paris, 5581
Rivet, A.L.F., and Smith, C. 1979: The Place-Names of Roman Britain, London
Roseman, C.H. 1993: Pytheas of Massalia: Roman Reactions to a Greek Explorer, C May Marston Lectures, Paper 10, Seattle, 18
Roseman, C.H. 1994: Pytheas of Massalia: On the Ocean. Text, Translation and Commentary, Chicago
Tierney, J.J. 1959: ‘Ptolemy's Map of Scotland’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 79, 132–48
Wolfson, S. 2008: Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia. The Achievements of Agricola's Navy in their True Perspectives, BAR British Series 459, Oxford



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