Did the Phoenicians circumnavigate Africa?

Claim

The ancient Phoenicians were the first to circumnavigate the continent of Africa.

Rating

Mostly true

Explanation

According to Herodotus, the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II (r. 610-595 BC) stopped an ambitious plan to build a canal that linked the Nile River with the Red Sea and ordered an expedition to see if it was possible to sail around Libya (the name given to most of what is now Africa). He wanted to know if it was possible to set sail from the Red Sea and travel around Libya (Africa) to enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Pillars of Hercules (i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar).

Herodotus’ account

For this perilous journey into the unknown, Necho chose the most experienced sailors available to him, a crew of Phoenicians. An unknown number of ships were sent from the Red Sea and were ordered to sail around Libya, returning to Egypt to report their findings (Herodotus 4.42):

So, the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea; whenever autumn came they would put in and plant the land in whatever part of Libya they had reached, and there await the harvest; then, having gathered the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the pillars of Heracles and came to Egypt. There they said (what some may believe, though I do not) that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand.

Herodotus recounts the only version of this story that exists in the written record. In this short passage he is frustratingly vague – he offers no names, no geographic observations, or any of his usual ethnographic tangents for which is famous. He offers two specific details to the story: the sowing and gathering of crops, and the position of the sun. As Roller (2006: 25) observes, the latter is by far the most significant of the two.

Herodotus expresses scepticism in this story, specifically about the position of the sun, which ironically is the best evidence for proving this journey took place. For the summer sun to be on the right-hand side as the ship is circumnavigation in a clockwise direction (or in the north as they travelled west), the ship would need to have crossed the Tropic of Cancer – something achieved very early on in the voyage as they left the Red Sea. But for the sun to be on the right-hand side, rather than just to the north, the ships would have needed to travel west for a lengthy period of time, the most likely points being the southern end of Africa, or perhaps the Gulf of Guinea.

Of course, it is worth noting that it is not necessarily true that observing the position of the sun as it would appear south of the Tropic of Cancer means the full circumnavigation took place. They could easily have turned around and come back unsuccessful. Yet, Herodotus is clear that, aside from his misgiving about some of the details, this voyage was the first to prove that Libya was surrounder by water.

Other voyages

Other ancient sources do suggest that circumnavigation of Africa was feasible.

According to Heraclides of Pontus (quoted by Posidonius; referenced in Strabo, 2.3.4), a man by the name of Mago appeared in the court of the tyrant Gelon of Syracuse (early fifth century BC), claiming that he had sailed around Africa, but did not provide any evidence. It is unclear whether Mago is a name, suggesting a Carthaginian origin, or a job title, making the person a Persian Magus.

Pliny the Elder offers a possible clue, or a blatant red herring, in his account of the fifth-century BC Carthaginian explorer Hanno (Natural History 2.67):

While the power of Carthage was at its height, Hanno published an account of a voyage which he made from Gades to the extremity of Arabia.

This suggests a counter-clockwise circumnavigation, from modern Spain round to the Red Sea. Hanno was a member of the Magonid family, possibly aligning Pliny’s story with that of Heraclides. Unfortunately, Hanno’s published account, his Periplus, is known to us through a Greek translation which does not support this story in any real way. Hanno travelled no further than the Gulf of Guinea before having to turn back as he was running out of provisions - the sun would, for a short while, have been on his right hand side as he sailed west.

Ancient criticism

Later writers were very sceptical about these claims of circumnavigation. The Greek historian Polybius had himself travelled along the north west coast of Africa, and had access to Carthaginian records, so his survey of the available knowledge of eastern and southern Africa is quite stinging (Polybius 3.38):

But as no one up to our time has been able to settle in regard to those parts of Asia and Libya, where they approach each other in the neighbourhood of Ethiopia, whether the continent is continuous to the south, or is surrounded by the sea … none of us as yet knows anything of the northern extent of this district, and anything we can ever know must be the result of future exploration.

Strabo was similarly dismissive of these stories (Strabo 2.3.5):

But this Bergæan nonsense, either the coinage of his own brain, or of some other story-teller, in whom he trusts, he pretends to be worthy of our belief.

A Bergaean tale was a proverbial phrase to describe a fairy-tale or fanciful story.

This dismissal of earlier exploration is indicative of Hellenistic geography at that time. It was not just the circumnavigation of Africa that was called into doubt, but similar expeditions by Greek explorers such as Pytheas of Massalia in northern Europe, and Eudoxus of Cyzicus in the Indian Ocean (he also attempted to circumnaviagte Africa, but never returned).

What made the African story so hard to accept for later geographers was the prevailing belief that the Atlantic Ocean did not connect with the Indian Ocean - so to circumnavigate Africa was in itself an impossibility. This theory was popular, and became highly influential through Ptolemy’s Geography.

Conclusion

Herodotus’ story has had its critics from the ancient world right through to the modern day. His story is so short and lacks any real detail. That being said, his observation about the position of the sun, combined with other reports from the ancient world about other possible journeys around Africa, does make for compelling evidence.

The biggest rebuttal to this claim is that the ancient world did not retain this knowledge, and that later explorers did not succesfully repeat the voyage. But this would not be the only time breakthroughs of knowledge were dismissed or lost to the ancient Mediterranean cultures.

It is for this reason we have rated this claim as mostly true.

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References

  • Duane W. Roller, Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (2006)
  • Duane W. Roller, Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome (2015)
  • J. Oliver Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (1948)
  • E. J. Webb, ‘The Alleged Phoenician Circumnavigation of Africa: Considered in Relation to the Theory of a South African Ophir,’ The English Historical Review vol. 22: 85 (1907), pp. 1-14.
  • Daniela Dueck, Geography in Classical Antiquity (2012)