REASSESSMENT OF VOCABULARY AND SENSE
We may begin with an analysis of what Tacitus tells us about Thule (Mainland, Shetland) in Agricola 10.4:
The fleet is involved in three activities; the first is an east-west voyage around northern Scotland for the first 115 time, the second involves the reduction of the Orkney Islands. But what is its role in the last section, as translated below, first by Mattingly 116 and next (but omitting the last incomplete sentence) by Aujac 117?
I maintain that these two translations, and all other translations hitherto produced, do not reflect the Latin. The interpretation of dispecta est is crucial. It does not mean sighted 118 nor seen from far off 119 nor glimpsed 120. The verb dispicere is an exact synonym for perspicere, paralleled in all its nuances: to pick out with the eyes, to distinguish 121 , to examine closely, to inspect thoroughly 122. All compounds of spic/spec- must initially embrace the physical concept of looking. The prefix dis-, as in the English dis-sect, reflects an analytical observation, which one would expect from naval surveyors, marking different points along the coast. dis -spic-spec- has its exact parallel in Greek, ana -scop-scept123 (cf. English parallels dis-solve and ana-lyse), which means examine well. Nowhere in any lexicon is it translated as sighted. If this meaning is not found for the Greek equivalent, how can it exist in Latin ? The definition of dispecta est, which OLD and TLL offer, is arbitrary. Since it was always assumed that the verb meant was sighted or glimpsed - an unsubstantiated assumption based on the misconception that Agricola's naval officers could not have reached Shetland - , few bothered to question the possibility of a different meaning. OLD should have cited this example right at the beginning of its second group of definitions (554.2), where the physical examination should precede the mental one. Volusenus returned, perspectis regionibus omnibus124 . This was a close examination of all the coastal areas (of Kent) in a reconnaissance mission to locate suitable harbours for Caesar's invasion force in 55BC. Thule was closely examined for similar reasons. Whence else, but from a close inspection, was Marinus 125 able to confirm five sets of co-ordinates for Ptolemy's Thule? This verb puts the Roman fleet in the coastal waters of Mainland, Shetland. The translations of Borzsák 126 (in Hungarian), was thoroughly (or well ) examined and A.R. Birley 127, was thoroughly viewed can be the only correct interpretations. Ogilvie was right to reject translations reflecting a sighting 128 (although he contradicts himself129 ). Such versions are illogical and imply that the fleet commander was given instructions to reach a point where Thule could be seen in the distance. This was not a sight-seeing excursion. The emphatic position of the verb shows that it was more than a glimpse or sighting. If Thule was visible, it was accessible to Agricola's fleet. Ogilvie was also correct in his view that the fleet must have sailed on to the Shetlands, but his comment that their orders only went as far as viewing introduces a restriction which simply doesn't exist in the Latin. Why does every translator have to introduce words such as only or no more? Mattingly and Aujac produce a series of co-ordinate sentences and omit, as do Rivet/Smith130, to translate quia. A causal clause is crucial here because it explains why Thule was closely examined. Andresen's observation that quia tells us that the island was not approached, but only sighted from a distance 131 contradicts both Latin and logic, and stems from the failure to understand dispecta est. Where did the distance come from? If we strip away the gratuitous restrictive terms we have a simple translation:
Agricola's instructions were clear enough: Sail on to Thule and examine it closely. I maintain that the strategic objective, like that of Volusenus, was to make a survey of the Shetland coast and confirm the location of the same harbour which Pytheas had used four hundred years earlier. Agricola had plans for possible future involvement. Cunliffe's observation132 , it seems they sailed as far as Orkney, is superficial and dismissive and does not respect the Latin and its implications.
It is tempting to reflect on the possibility that Agricola's expedition to Shetland may have taken its origin from his earlier years, when c. AD59, as a young student at university in Massilia (Massalia)133 , the home town of Pytheas, he would have imbibed not only traditional philosophy, but also the seafaring aura of the town, the four hundred years of Pytheas' legacy and the works of Pytheas, the Massaliot philosopher134 . Even today, as Cunliffe135 noted, the city of Marseille has a statue of Pytheas in its stock exchange, staring out across the harbour. There is no reason why a similar statue didn't occupy an equally important niche in Massilia during the principate of Nero. More detailed documentation of Pytheas' travels in the Ocean, not originally designed for general consumption in order to protect Massilian commercial interests in the 4th century 136, may have been accessible in Massilian records once the 'the statute of limitations' had lapsed and Oceanic charts were general knowledge137 . Agricola's virtually immediate transfer from a studentship in Massilia to a senatorial tribunate in Britain would have sharpened his curiosity to find out for himself, as well as from books and maps, what lay in the far north of the island and beyond. The young man was inquisitive, so noscere provinciam138 . On this basis Agricola would know exactly where Thule was and where to find a suitable harbour, since he would be following a tradition of which he had first-hand knowledge and he would have had over twenty years to put his plans into operation. Consequently the expedition to Shetland would be based on sound planning and sound bearings, not on chance. Pytheas, the path-finder, had made it easy for Agricola. One is almost tempted to accuse Tacitus of suppressing the true facts (he lied about the Orkney Islands being undiscovered and overstated the circumnavigation of Britain) in order to exaggerate the voyage into the unknown (successful propaganda, to judge by Silius Italicus' ignotam Thylen139 ) and to credit Agricola with a daring enterprise under false pretences. Dion 140 noticed the tendency in Polybius and Strabo to devalue the role of Pytheas in the interests of Roman patriotism. But whatever motives we ascribe to Tacitus, the fleet deserved fuller treatment. Perhaps Lund's attribution of initiatives141 to Agricola needs re-examination. One thing is certain; Agricola would never have commissioned his fleet commander to risk his ships in uncharted waters out of sight of the coast. Tacitus, Marinus, Ptolemy, Strabo and Pliny were correct in locating Thule within secure sailing range of the Scottish mainland and Orkney. What a singular honour for his alma mater that Agricola could be as closely associated with Thule as Pytheas!
The comment made by Tacitus, et hiems appetebat sed mare pigrum...perhibent, is distinctly odd. The approach of winter cannot be a reason for the reconnaissance of Shetland. Yet this is the implication of the texts currently on offer. De Saint-Denis142, following Furneaux143, with some logic placed a colon directly after iussum, and both Wex144 and Urlichs145 saw that sed was misplaced. No one has provided a reasonable explanation for why sed should begin the next sentence. It is, as Heubner146 (contra Forni147 ) noted, adversative. Guarnieri's transcription (e) repeats et hiems in successive lines, & hiems appetebat & hiems sed mare (a curiosity which Till and subsequent commentators have ignored), reflecting, perhaps, variant doublets in the archetype rather than his own carelessness. There appears to be a problem here; the sense requires a reversal of et and sed, i.e. sed hiems appetebat, et mare...perhibent148. This part of the codex is only Guarnieri's transcription of the missing section and it is quite possible that the reversal of the conjunctions is correct. It is ironic that Vaticanus 4498 (B, generally ignored through its glaring inaccuracies) reads sed hiems appetebat et mare, (a reading perceptively adopted by Schulz149). In any event it should have appeared among Ogilvie's variants, since a contrast in sentences and sense is quite apparent 150 . De Saint-Denis was correct to acknowledge B's reading. The conjunction may have arisen from a misinterpretation of (hiem)set(mare)151. It is more apt to link the approach of winter with sailing conditions in the next sentence where there is an attempt to define the North Atlantic Drift Current (Gulf Stream). Roman ships, approaching the main island, would have to negotiate the formidable Sumburgh Röst152.
The scenario, as I see it, is that the Roman fleet was instructed to return to winter anchorage at the end of the military campaigning season153 , sailing, I suggest, from a bay in Caithness to a base somewhere on the Clyde (Dumbarton ?) . It would be no problem to overrun the Orkneys 154 . The opportunity to follow in the wake of Pytheas and to reconnoitre Shetland was too good to be missed and might never occur again. It would require no great time to cover the distance from Scapa Flow to Mainland, Shetland, to make a detailed report of the coastline, to instil fear in the natives by its very presence in a major harbour and then sail back to its winter base on the Clyde with the claim that it had been the first time that any Romans had reached, let alone 'sighted', Thule.
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INTRODUCTION | PART ONE: Shetland: The Classical Geographical Context
Copyright © 2002 by Stan Wolfson. All rights reserved.