Except for the account of the west coast of Africa with Cerne and the trade in Attic pottery, to which we have already referred, the Periplus of Scylax is not a particularly exciting work, nor has it any pretensions to literary style. Further, the text, which exists only in a single manuscript, is full of gaps, corrupt, and difficult. It is, however, a most important document and, as I mentioned it in the Periplus of Hanno, I propose to give a brief account of it here.This periplus surveys the lands bordering on the Mediterranean and Black Seas and can be dated at approximately 350 B.C. The author works clockwise around the Mediterranean and includes a little bit on the Atlantic coast of Africa but, importantly, not the Atlantic coast of Europe. Pytheas’ account is not until about 50 years later (when Carthage was occupied with Syracuse). As Kaeppel noted in his Pytheas essay, Carthage actively discouraged exploration in the European Atlantic in order to monopolize that trade. Toward that end, they also spread discouraging tales of the area.
The Periplus of Scylax belongs to a class of work, common in the classical world, which describes in regular order the coasts of countries. It does not give a general geographical survey of the countries themselves, but describes the maritime cities, headlands, gulfs, rivers, etc., just as they would present themselves to anyone sailing along the coasts, and adds distances from point to point. … As we shall see, the Scylax of this treatise cannot possibly be the Scylax of Coryanda, whose exploit is preserved by Herodotus and to whom we have already referred. That in the manuscript it is ascribed to Scylax of Coryanda is merely a proof of the fame of his exploit—the author, or authors (for it may easily be a compost) wished to send it forth under the aegis of a great name.
A few points from Kaeppel’s essay:
- The work mentions Rome, “the first passage in any extant author in which the name occurs.”
- While many descriptions and measurements are accurate, there are notable errors. One error involving the Ister River (Danube) persisted for quite a while, becoming enshrined in other works by logographers and poets alike (including Apollonius of Rhodes’ explanation of the Argonauts’ passage).
The most interesting part of the periplus to Kaeppel is the
account of the west coast of Africa as far as the Carthaginian settlement of Cerne, where the Greeks traded pottery, stone ornaments, and other good for ivory, gold, and skins. This trade, however, was not direct; it operated through the Carthaginians and it seems evident that our aruthor had no first-hand knowledge of the coast beyond Cape Soloeis (Cantin). Cape Soloeis he describes clearly by using Carthaginian sources, among them, possibly, the Periplus of Hanno. If the question be asked why the Carthaginians, while sedulously keeping the north Atlantic closed, allowed trade, albeit only through themselves, with their African settlements, the obvious answer is the demand for Attic pottery…, for which there was no substitute.
But, argues Graham Shipley, it is not the record of a voyage or a navigational handbook for sailors. It is, rather, the first work of Greek theoretical geography, written in Athens at a time of intellectual ferment and intense speculation about the nature and dimensions of the inhabited world. While other scientists were gathering data about natural science and political systems or making rapid advances in philosophy, rhetorical theory, and cosmology, the unknown author collected data about the structure of the lands bordering the seas known to the Greeks, and compiled sailing distances and times along well-frequented routes. His aim was probably nothing less ambitious than to demonstrate the size of the inhabited world of the Greeks.For more information and links, see the Wikipedia entry.