Circumnavigating Africa

A Phoenician ship on a Phoenician coin

One of the most interesting anecdotes in the HerodotusHistories is the story about the circumnavigation of Africa by a group of Phoenician explorers (4.42). In Aubrey de Selincourt‘s translation:

Africa is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who … sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the African coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Africa, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Africa was first discovered by sea.

The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened. In class, I often use this to explain Herodotus’ method: he tells the stories he heard, but he does not always believe it himself. He’s not a simple teller of tall stories, but is sometimes skeptical, and the reader must be extremely alert if he wants to learn – to decode – Herodotus’ own ideas. (Nearly all modern literature about the battle at Thermopylae is irrelevant, because almost all scholars have ignored that it is introduced with the highly significant gnomê, “in my opinion”: Herodotus does not claim that Leonidas’ presumed self-sacrifice is a fact.)

But to return to our Phoenician explorers, it is interesting to know that at this very moment, a group of mostly British sailors is trying to repeat the great voyage. You will find their website here and you can track them here. I must confess that I am a bit puzzled about their route, because they do not stay close to the shore, as the ancient Phoenicians must have done (explanation). I can understand that they wanted to evade the Somalian pirates, so it makes sense that they made a detour to a point even east of the Seychelles, but I am surprised that in the Atlantic, they visited Saint Helena. As a landlubber, I can only think of sea currents, but somehow, it strikes me as a bit inauthentic.

That being said, it is a good thing that archaeology can be presented as an adventure. The real adventure is, of course, intellectual, but our neo-Phoenicians make science accessible and comprehensible in a way that is better than imitating Indiana Jones, as Zahi Hawass does.

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3 Responses to Circumnavigating Africa

  1. justinfromnewyork says:

    “The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened.”

    I’m confused by this. Could you elaborate? Are you saying that Herodotus’ judgment is wrong in this case?

    I’m not trained in the classics but I read his book, and seems like a lot of the tales Herodotus passes along are indeed probably just tall tales, and he seems to indicate so.
    Like the way he describes the phoenix… obviously it was a tall tale, and Herodotus seems to imply as much, but he still passes along what he heard anyway. Also he passes along the Scythians’ account of their origin, while hinting that it might just be a tall tale.

  2. I’m confused by this. Could you elaborate?

    Yes. Herodotus’ remark that he cannot believe that the sailors had the sun to northward of them, proves that the Phoenicians were really on the southern hemisphere. Herodotus, who did not know that the earth was spherical, cannot have invented this. The fact that he distrusts it and explains why, ensured that we can still know it – and now that the Phoenicians really went to the deep south.

  3. justinfromnewyork says:

    Ah ha. Boy do I feel stupid now! Of course the answer was sitting right there; if it were a snake, it would have bit me.
    “The reader must be extremely alert!”

    Thanks for clearing that one up.

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