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Distant islands in Ocean – world through eyes of Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Map of Europe according to Strabo
Map of Europe according to Strabo

Ancient Romans often mentioned in their works the mysterious islands that were located far in the ocean and at the very end of the world. Names like Fortunatae (Canary Islands), Taprobane (Ceylon) and Hibernia (Ireland) appear.

These islands are mentioned more as utopian/fabulous or as a place of revival of values ​​that the Romans lost during their conquests. In the works of writers of the reign of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) – e.g. Virgil or Ovid – there are numerous references to the ends of the world, which are to be open to the Romans.

Civil wars, expansion and numerous loot caused the Romans to lose their basic moral values. The most important feature was virtus (virtue). It meant behaviour worthy of a real man (vir), according to the rules of law and honour, and the ability to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. It is also “setting limits and moderation to your desires”, as Lucylius – a friend of Scipio Aemilianus wrote. The second value was pietas, which meant respect for the motherland and family. Fides was synonymous with mutual trust, loyalty and keeping one’s word. It was these Roman moral values ​​that were the glue that held the people together, proud of their greatness and freedom.

Referring to distant lands, it gave the prospect of seeking rebirth, just as Aeneas (a descendant of Trojan) recreated his homeland in Italy, giving mythical origins to Rome.

Finally, the mysterious island of Thule, which according to Greek sources was to be discovered in the 4th century BCE, should be mentioned. by Piteas of Massalia. Strabo1 claims that Piteas sailed at the head of the expedition 6 days north of Britain and finally reached a place where the night during the summer lasted only 2-3 hours. According to researchers, this corresponds to southern Iceland or central Norway.

  1. Strabo, Geography, II.1.13-17
  • Sharypkin Sergiusz, W sprawie motywów geograficznych w poezji rzymskiej epoki pryncypatu, [w:] Sajkowski Ryszard, Wolny Miron (red.), Grecja, Kartagina, Rzym, Olsztyn 2009

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