This week saw a most important date in the Scottish cultural calendar: January 25, the birthday of the National bard, Rabbie Burns. The same date, albeit some 1700 years earlier, saw the Roman emperorship thrust on a reluctant Claudius, the mad Caligula having been assassinated on the previous day.
Claudius is, of course, well-known to generations of English school pupils (less so, apparently, to their Scottish counterparts) as the man who ordered the Roman invasion of Britain (AD 43). By the time of his death in AD 54, the Romans were claiming the Severn and Trent as the bounds of their empire, while northern England had promised compliance; the area of modern-day Wales, however, remained bandit territory, and the land of Burns remained firmly terra incognita.
Or did it? Writing during the reign of Claudius, the geographer Pomponius Mela claimed that Triginta sunt Orcades, angustis inter se ductae spatiis * ("There are 30 Orkneys, with narrow straits between them"). How did he know? It is interesting to note that, later in his reign, Claudius claimed (on an inscribed triumphal arch) to have received the submission of 11 British kings. Was there a king of the Orkneys amongst them? Of course, by AD 83, a Roman fleet had circumnavigated Britain, and it became a commonplace for ancient authors to mention Thule (thought to be the Shetland Islands). But had Roman explorers already visited these lands thirty years before?
Perhaps long before, in fact. For, around 325 B.C., the Greek voyager Pytheas had already sailed the northern seas. Pytheas's own writings have not survived, but his feat is recorded by the elder Pliny, who famously died observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: quod fieri in insula Thyle Pytheas Massiliensis scribit, sex dierum navigatione in septentrionem a Britannia distante * ("Pytheas of Marseilles writes that this is the case for the island of Thule, which is six days' voyage north of Britain").
It seems that the ancients were not as ignorant, nor as primitive, as we sometimes think.