Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Around Africa according to Herodotus

Some of the most amazing feats of exploration are very poorly known. For example it appears that the first circumnavigation of Africa was achieved some time during the reign of Pharaoh Necho II of the Saite dynasty, (610-595 B.C.E.).1 Herodotus describes the voyage as follows:

For it is clear that Libya [Africa] is surrounded by water except for where it borders Asia. The first one we know of to have discovered this fact was Nechos king of Egypt. After he had stopped excavation work on the canal, which extended from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, he sent some Phoenicians off on boats with orders to sail around Libya and back through the Pillars of Herakles [Straits of Gibraltar] into the Mediterranean Sea and to return by that route to Egypt. And so the Phoenicians set out from the Erythraean Sea [Red Sea] and sailed the Southern Sea. Whenever autumn came, they would put in to shore at whatever region of Libya they happened to have reached in order to sow seeds. There they would wait for the harvest, and after reaping their crops, they would sail on again. This they did for two years, and in the third, they came around through the Pillars of Herakles and returned to Egypt. They mention something else which I do not find credible, though someone else may: that when they were sailing around Libya, the sun was on their right side as they went.2

Phoenician Merchant Ship

Not surprisingly the above account has given rise to much discussion about whether or not it describes a real event. The consensus seems to be that it does for two main reasons.

First the amount of time given for the voyage, more than two years is realistic given the types of ships available and their limitations. Certainly the added detail of the crews stopping twice to sow crops also rings true. Secondly the detail that Herodotus records only to dismiss it as unbelievable, i.e., the sun being on their right is in fact true. This is true because in the Northern Hemisphere the sun if one is sailing westward the sun would always be on the left in the south. When one crosses the equator, the sun would appear overhead and then south of the equator the sun in the Southern Hemisphere would appear to the right in the north.3

It is in fact the second detail that is most convincing and it is rendered even more convincing in that Herodotus dismisses this as untrue. Apparently because he was unaware of the idea of the Earth having a spherical shape.4

Even in antiquity the above story was doubted by many. For example:

In giving the names of those who are said to have circumnavigated Libya Poseidonius says that Herodotus believes that certain men commissioned by Neco accomplished the circumnavigation of Libya; and adds that Heracleides of Pontus in one of his Dialogues makes a certain Magus who had come to the court of Gelo assert that he had circumnavigated Libya. And, after stating that these reports are unsupported by testimony,…5

The Historian Polybius also expressed doubts:

Just as with regard to Asia and Africa where they meet in Aethiopia no one up to the present has been able to say with certainty whether the southern extension of them is continuous land or is bounded by a sea,…6

Finally the great polymath Ptolemy had Africa joined to Asia! For example see this map made from the coordinates given in Ptolemy’s book.7

Ptolemy’s World Map

Also the whether or not the voyage actually happened has been doubted up to today, for various reasons.

The lack of detail for example, even the name of the Commander is not given. The lack of detail is hardly surprising however given that at the time it is unlikely that much more than a summary report would have been deposited in any archive or that after c. 100 years there would be much recorded except a brief summary and oral reports.

Further in regards to Herodotus; he may have heard details and simply recorded a bare summary of what he heard. We do know that Herodotus did not record everything he heard.8

So it appears that the lack of detail such as a notification of the disappearance of the Great Bear constellation, etc., is not much of a problem, further why then not ignore the telling detail of the position of the sun?

In fact the lack of elaborate detail, and fanciful stories are powerful indicators that the story is likely true. It sounds relatively prosaic and the only detail that Herodotus gives that he considers fanciful is absolutely true! Further the argument that the Pharaoh Necho would never approve of such a speculative venture is completely speculative. The fact is we do not know enough about him to judge what was or was not within his character.9

As for problems such as if they could make the voyage if they lacked a compass? It should remembered that they were following a coast line. On the way south on their west side and on the way north on their east side. This is not all that difficult. Given that sea travel in those days tended to be coast hugging and not a huge amount of cross oceanic travel, and considering that this particular voyage being into the unknown would if anything tend to be even more coast hugging it is not likely that a compass would be necessary to do it at all.10

Some have alleged the voyage is to short. This can be dismissed without further ado. The voyage took over two years, plenty of time even with two stops to grow crops. The idea that the sailors from the Northern latitudes would not have been able to judge when to plant makes them singularly unobservant and they could also ask the locals.11

As for why such a voyage was not repeated at a later date if it was in fact done. It should be remembered that the evidence we have indicates that later attempts to circumnavigate Africa were through the Mediterranean and down the west coast of Africa. There the currents and winds, especially for the vessels used in antiquity made such an attempt very difficult. In fact the Portuguese when they attempted it had great difficulty, because of winds and currents near the African coast. In the end they found that sailing far out into the Atlantic and then at the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope sailing East was the best way to do it. For the ships of antiquity such a voyage was frankly suicidal!12


The following is a possible reconstruction of the voyage. They probably left in November from a Red Sea port, they would have sailed out of the Red sea and into the Indian Ocean. There the wind and current would sweep them south. Until the Mozambique current caught them and moved them even further south past the Cape of Good Hope. Near by they may have stopped and sowed and harvested some crops, perhaps in May. Circumstances along with their orders would have urged them north, since the currents and winds that eased their journey south would have made any return voyage back up the east coast of Africa in the ships they had extremely difficult.

After the harvest the winds and currents would have helped them north up to the great bend of Africa. Along the Guinea coast they would have encountered winds and currents that were hostile but they could get past those obstacles because they could use oars. Some time in November December they would have stopped in Morocco and sown more crops and after harvesting them returned through the Mediterranean to Egypt after a voyage of c. 2 ½ years!13 They must have been glad to get home.

Of course for both the Phoenicians and Nechos this trip served to tell them that going around Africa for trade or shifting ships was not practical at the time. It also was a feat of sailing that was not duplicated, that we know of, for c. 2000 years. It was simply not practical until the late 15th century.

It is however of interest that even that long ago men were trying out daring feats of exploration and discovery and that man thirst for knowledge is not a modern invention.

1. Herodotus, The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, p. 297-298, Cary, M. & Warmington, E. H., The Ancient Explorers, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1963, pp. 110-119, James, Peter, & Thorpe, Nick, Ancient Mysteries, Ballantine books, New York, 1999, pp. 368-369, Casson, Lionel, The Ancient Mariners, Minerva Press, New York, 1959, pp. 129-132, Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 5, Rennell, James, The Geographical System of Herodotus, V. 2, Second Edition, C. J. G. & F. Rivington, London, 1830, pp. 348-408, at Internet Archive Here.

2. Herodotus, 2007, Book 4, s. 42. Some translations add “-to northward of them.” See Herodotus, The Histories, 2nd Revised Edition, Penguin Books, London, 2003, Book 4. s. 42.

3. Herodotus, 2007, p. 299, Footnote 4.42.4a, James, pp. 370-371, Cary, p. 115, Casson, pp. 131-132.

4. James, p. 370.

5. Strabo, Geography, Book 2, s. 4, at LacusCurtius, Here.

6. Polybius, The Histories, Book 3, s. 38, at Lacus Curtius, Here.

7. See also Ptolemy, The Geography, Book 4, at Internet Archive, Here.

8. Lateiner, Donald, The Historical Method of Herodotus, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1989, pp. 59-75, Cary, pp. 114-115.

9. Cary, p. 115, Casson, pp. 131-132, James, pp. 369-373.

10. Cary, 115-116. James, IBID.

11. Cary, pp. 116-117, Casson, pp. 131-132.

12. Cary, pp. 117-118, Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 220-223, James, p. 374, Rennell, pp. 348-408.

13. Cary, pp. 117-119, James, p. 374, Casson, 131-132, Rennell, pp. 348-408.

Pierre Cloutier

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