Phoenician Voyager to Northewestern Shores of Europe
Carthaginian voyager, the first known sailor from the Mediterranean
to reach the northwestern shores of Europe. He wrote a story about his
adventures, which is now lost. It is quoted, however, by Roman authors,
and we are therefore able to reconstruct his travels.
The name 'Himilco' is Latin; it renders the Phoenician name Chimilkât,
which means 'my brother is milkât' - but it is unclear to us what
a milkât was.
Click the map, left, for a detailed image.
READ about the modern circumnaviation of Africa 2600 years after the Phoenicians and Preparations in Lebanon to Welcome the ship.
||Join PhoeniciaOrg Twitter
for alerts on new articles
||Visit our Facebook Page
for additional, new studies
The oldest available source on Himilco's voyage is Natural history
by the Roman scientist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.). He writes:
When the power of Carthage flourished, Hanno
sailed round from Cádiz to the extremity of Arabia, and published
a memoir of his voyage of his voyage, as did Himilco when he was dispatched
at the same date to explore the outer coasts of Europe. (Pliny
the Elder, Natural history 2.169a)
These words make Himilco a contemporary of Hanno; this great discoverer probably
lived in the sixth century, because one of the towns he founded Oualiddia
is mentioned by a Greek author who lived c.500 B.C. (click here).
If Pliny is right, Himilco lived in the sixth century, but it should
be stressed that 'when the power of Carthage flourished' is extremely
vague and can indicate anything between c.800 and c.250.
However, it seems that Pliny can be relied on when he states that Himilco's
aim was 'to explore the outer coasts of Europe'. A later author, the Roman
aristocrat Rufus Festus Avienus (c.350 A.D. - almost thousand years after
Himilco), quotes Himilco's narrative several times when he describes the Atlantic
coast in his poem The sea shore. This corroborates Pliny's words, although
it remains possible that Himilco's report included descriptions of other parts
of the world as well.
the sixth century
Himilco was not the first to sail on the northern Atlantic ocean. Avienus
reports that the Tartessians -native iron age Andalusians- visited the Oestrumnidan
isles to trade with the inhabitants; later, Carthaginian tradesmen traveled
along the same route (Sea shore 113-115). Avienus offers several clues
to locate the Oestrumnides: they were at two days' sailing distance from Ireland,
and they were rich in the mining of tin and lead. A vigorous tribe lives here,
proud spirited, energetic and skillful. On all the ridges trade is carried
on.This makes it possible to identify the Oestrumnidan isles with Cornwall,
the Scilly islands or Brittany. It is difficult to choose between these three
possibilities. Cornwall is rich in metal, but cannot be regarded as an archipelago;
the Scilly's are a group of islands, but there were no mines. The most likely
candidate is Brittany: Avienus states that the region beyond the Oestrumnides
is the country of the Celts. In ancient literature, the word 'Celt' is never
used to describe the inhabitants of the British isles; on the other hand,
the people of modern France are often called Celtic. (That many modern Irishmen,
Welshmen and Scots call themselves Celts, has to do with their native languages,
which are related to the language spoken by the ancient Gauls.)
Whatever the precise location of the Oestrumnidan isles, it is certain that
the native Andalusians (the 'Tartessians') traded with the inhabitants of
Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland. Much of this trade must have been indirect,
but it is certain that there was commerce. Archaeologists have discovered
that during the second millennium (the 'bronze age'), tin was brought to Andalusia
in increasing quantities. Along Europe's Atlantic fringe, there were close
cultural contacts and it is probable that Tartessian tradesmen could communicate
with people in the far north.
Phoenician interest in the Atlantic tin trade may have started as early as
the eleventh century B.C.: according to several Greek, Roman and Jewish authors,
modern Cádiz was founded c.1100. Up till now, archaeologists have not
been able to verify or refute this ancient tradition. There is more evidence
for the period after c.800, when the Phoenicians founded Carthage and several
colonies on the Costa del Sol (a.o., Malaga).
Himilco was, therefore, not sailing into foreign waters: he knew what he
was looking for (tin and other metals) and knew where to find it. If his expedition
took place in the sixth century, it is also possible to understand why he
decided to go north. It seems that the Phoenicians and Tartessians had become
enemies at the end of the seventh century, and it is certain that the Phoenician
world was shocked by he conquest of the mother country (modern Lebanon) in
587 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Carthage established itself
as the new capital of an informal empire of Phoenician colonies. That a Carthaginian
admiral explored the territories beyond Cádiz is not surprising.
In the sixth century, we also find Greek sailors in the west; Marseille is
their most famous colony. They and the Carthaginians were usually hostile
towards each other; the Carthaginians considered Andalusia, Corsica, and Sardinia
as their backyard and drowned everybody venturing west of Sicily. When Himilco
published his account, he did everything to describe his voyage as one of
hardship and trouble: it discouraged the Greeks from going west and had the
additional benefit that his own exploits were more impressive.
Three times Avienus quotes Himilco (Sea shores 114-129, 380-389, 404-415).
Although the Roman author claims to have read the Carthaginian account himself
(SS 414), this is probably not true.
In the first of the three 'Himilco blocks' in The sea shores, Avienus
states that Himilco wrote that it took four months to reach the Oestrumnides
(SS 117). Even when we assume that these isles were the Scilly
islands, four month is too long. Himilco must have landed at many ports;
perhaps he founded colonies - Hanno
did the same. (If so, these colonies were not very successful: not trace
has been found.)
Avienus goes on to say that the sea route was difficult: on large parts of
the route, there was no wind (SS 120). Seaweed made progress difficult
(SS 122); this may refer to Cabo de San Vicente in the southwest of
modern Portugal, where weeds gather in the summer. Avienus also mentions sand
bars (SS 125-6) and sea monsters (SS 128-9).
In SS 380-389, Avienus repeats what he has said: he mentions the Ocean's
vastness and the absence of wind. The only new element is fog, which Himilco
can have encountered everywhere. The third Himilco block (SS 404-415)
is again repetition: shallow waters, weeds, and monsters.
As we have already seen, it is likely that Himilco exaggerated the troubles
he encountered, because he wanted to boast of his own exploits and scare off
the Greek competitors.
We may speculate that Himilco also visited Helgoland. This was the place
where the ancients found amber and it may have been a goal of Himilco's expedition.
Avienus does not mention a northern voyage, but this silence does not prove
that Himilco did not visit the North sea - Avienus is interested in the Atlantic
ocean, not in the neighboring seas. A hypothetical visit of Himilco to Helgoland
would help explain why several sixth-century Greek authors start to speculate
about a legendary amber river, which they call Eridanus.
Article by Jona Lendering