Maritime Exploration of Australia: The Greeks

Eratosthenes' map of the world (c. 276 BC  c. 195/194 BC)

The British colonisation of Australia was but the last of many preceding contacts possibly stretching back to Bronze Age times. Ages-old stories of the mystic 'Land of Gold' to the south were often told. The ancients regarded the mysterious southern continent with awe, as an earthly paradise overflowing in all manner of wealth; yet even in the days of Homer, the southern hemisphere became synonymous to some with death and the afterworld and some bronze Age Greeks associated the southern continent with the Elysium fields where the souls of the dead resided.

This confusion of an earthly paradise with the after-world (or underworld) of the dead would persist into Mediaeval European times, but these thoughts do not appear to have plagued the minds of the average Bronze Age mineral-seeking explorer, who believed that the lands beyond the Erythraean Sea (Indian Ocean) were rich beyond imagination. Thus, in the wake of the extensive cross-ocean mineral-seeking and trade expeditions that increased worldwide as the Copper and then the Bronze Age wore on and, with seafarers from as far as afield as India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Mediterranean lands competing with one another in countless voyages that were crisscrossing the Indian Ocean, it is most unlikely that Australia would not have been discovered or at least searched for by any number of hardy mariners from many distant lands.

Perhaps too, even they were merely 'rediscovering' the mysterious great south land, for its existence had, it seems, always been preserved in the 'lost paradise' creation mythology of many nations over a vast area of the Euro-Asian continent. It was not only seen as the "Land of the Gods" of the Egyptians and the lost paradise of the Uru of the Sumerians, but the 'motherland' of Man, a continent possessing vast, limitless quantities of all manner of minerals, precious stones and pearls. Given Australia's great mineral wealth, they certainly had the island continent summed up accurately.

Without any doubt, the ancients were far more advanced in their thinking than the Europeans of the Dark Ages, for they believed in a round earth as well as the existence of both a Southland and a continent covering the South Pole. Herodotus (born around 490 BC) wrote in "The Histories" that Aristagoras, the ruler of Miletus (500 BC) possessed a bronze tablet upon which lands and seas were engraved. Pytheas of Marseilles, a geographer and astronomer (330 BC), sailed the Atlantic Ocean as far as the arctic circle and provided a scientific explanation of the midnight sun. Annaeus Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD)(right) could have been referring of the southern continent or America when he wrote his famous verse in the 'Medea'; "There will come a time after many years when the Ocean will loose the chains that fetter things, and the great world will lie revealed, and a new mariner, like unto him who was Jason's pilot, Tiphys, will reveal a new world, and then Thule will not be the most extreme of all lands".

Philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) wrote in "Timaeus" about the Atlantic Ocean and all lands beyond America. "In those days the Atlantic was navigable from an island situated to the west of the straits which you call the Pillars of Hercules; from it could be reached other islands and from the islands you might pass through the opposite continent which surrounds the true ocean." Plato (right) alludes to the Pacific Islands beyond the American continent, and Asia/Europe/Africa beyond. Thus, the ancient Greeks appear to have been familiar with the Australian region.

Fragments of records speak of Greek voyages to a mysterious southern continent. About 300 BC Iambulus (as told by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheke) a Greek set sail from Somaililand for the 'happy land of the south' said to lie across the (Indian) Ocean. On his return he described how he reached a hitherto unknown land. Eudoxus (408-347 BC) of Cnidus in southern Asia Minor (Turkey) fitted out a large ship with supplies, artisans, physicians and dancing girls(!) on a voyage from the Red Sea to India. He said he sailed off course and the land he described reaching could have been the Western Australian coast. A Roman map of India dating from around 70 AD describes islands below India which could represent Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Java, and perhaps Australia, as below these is the crude but reasonable accurate outline of Antarctica. Another crude map, drawn by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela in 50 AD identifies a southern continent which he called 'Antichthones' (see map). A manuscript fragment by an unknown Roman writer of the same period describes animals with pouches in which their young were carried.

The Roman map makers seem to have been well aware of the southern continent, no doubt through the assistance of Greek geographers and other, possibly much earlier sources. The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) is a Greek periplus of the 2nd century AD, describing navigation and trading opportunities along the coasts of the Red Sea, East Africa, and as far as India. Although the author is unknown, it is clearly a firsthand description by someone familiar with the area, and is unique in providing accurate insights into what the ancient world knew about the lands around the Indian Ocean. Although the "Erythraean Sea" is generally held to be the ancient term for the Red Sea, to the Greeks it included the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

Lucian of Samosata (120 to 180 AD) was a Syrian-Greek writer responsible for the first fictional accounts of extraterrestrial life. He also wrote "A Traveller's True Tale" of a distant land inhabited by savage inhabitants where the young of animals were carried in pouches. Lucian came from Samosata, on the Euphrates; the Euphrates leads into the Persian Gulf from which vessels sailed for India and beyond before Lucian's time. It seems likely that some story of marsupials may have reached the Gulf Ports in the days of Lucian second or third hand. The two regions where marsupials are found are Australia and South America (opossums). The first marsupial known in Europe was brought there in 1500 by the Spaniard Vicente Yanes Pinzon.

Anative of Palos, in 1492 Pinzon sailed with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the West Indies as captain of the Nina. It was his story of the 'monsterous beast' of Pinzon's and of trees "so large that it took six men with outstretched arms to span one", that led some early Australian historians to the conclusion that Pinzon, and Amerigo Vespucci who accompanied him, had visited the southwestern corner of Australia, near Cape Leeuwin, though it is more likely he had in fact explored the coasts of Brazil.


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