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Ocean Exploration & Ancient Greece

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The ancient Greeks were innovators in the realm of ocean exploration. Part of that is due to the strides made in navigation and cartography. In this lesson, we'll look at a few of the advances of oceanography in ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece

A recent popular movie showed the amazing story of Tami Oldham Ashcraft, a sailor who survived 41 days adrift at sea in the 1980s. Tami's harrowing story of survival captured the public imagination because, in today's world, technology and advances in oceanography mean that taking to the seas is safer than ever. But what about before modern technology, cartography, and ocean exploration? How did ancient people manage to sail great distances and explore the furthest reaches of the world?

Believe it or not, people sailed great distances even thousands of years ago. Polynesians, for example, settled on islands as far-flung as Tahiti, Hawai'i, and Easter Island. And on the other side of the globe, ancient Greeks used math to explore the Northern Hemisphere and map out their discoveries.

Ancient Greece lasted from about the 12th century BC to about the 6th century AD. The culture in ancient Greece was massively influential to modern Western cultures in areas of government, economics, art, literature, math, and science. Early ocean explorers from ancient Greece influenced future oceanography, or the study of the seas, and cartography, or the art and science of creating maps.

Let's take a closer look at a few influential Greek ocean explorers and how they shaped the Western world.

Pytheas

Today, it's not unusual for people to sail way off from the sight of the shore. But back in ancient Greece, this was not only unusual, but it was also dangerous. What would happen if, without shore in sight, you got lost?

Pytheas was a Greek astronomer and navigator who came up with a way of measuring location based on the distance from the horizon to the North Star. This was revolutionary at the time because it meant that sailors and explorers could go further afield, exploring the oceans without clinging to the shoreline in fear that they would go off course.

Pytheas himself sailed very far away from the Greek colony where he was born. He sailed around the British Isles, and some believe he went as far north as Iceland. At any rate, he was likely the first explorer to sail all the way around the British Isles and brought word back about the people living there.

Eratosthenes

Pytheas wasn't the only one in ancient Greece with an interest in ocean exploration. Eratosthenes was a famous mathematician who developed latitude and longitude as a way to measure the Earth. He also calculated the Earth's circumference and was off by less than 150 miles in his calculations. An amazing feat considering that at the time the Western world hadn't even known about the existence of the Americas yet!

Perhaps most important to the future of ocean exploration, though, was Eratosthenes' role as the second librarian of the Library of Alexandria, which was a collection of some of the most important documents of the world's knowledge at the time. Founded by Alexander the Great, the library allowed knowledge to propagate throughout the ancient world. Eratosthenes and the other librarians were guardians and teachers of advances in science, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, art, and literature. This includes ocean exploration and the early days of oceanography.

Unfortunately, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed sometime between 100BC and 300AD. The exact time and cause of the destruction is unknown, though some early estimates say that over 40,000 scrolls were lost in a fire.

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