Himilco: Carthaginian voyager, the first Mediterranean sailor known to have reached the northwestern shores of Europe. He wrote a story about his adventures, which is now lost. It is quoted, however, by two Roman authors, and we are therefore able to reconstruct some of his travels.

Map of Himilco's Voyage
Map of Himilco's Voyage

The name Himilco is Latin; it renders the Phoenician name Chimilkât, which means "my brother is a milkât" - but it is unclear to us what a milkât was.

Pliny on Himilco

The oldest available source on Himilco's voyage is the Natural history by the Roman scientist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). 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.note

These words make Himilco a contemporary of Hanno, a great discoverer who probably lived in the sixth century. 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 upon 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 CE; almost nine centuries after Himilco), quotes Himilco's narrative three 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.

Trade in 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.note 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, which is implied in the plural Oestrumnides; the Scillies are a group of islands, but there were no mines. The most likely candidate is Brittany, which is rich in ore and surrounded by several small islands.

Moreover, 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 were often called Celtic, most famously in the opening lines of Julius Caesar's War in Gaul.note

Whatever the precise location of the Oestrumnidan isles, it is certain that the native Andalusians (the "Tartessians") traded with the inhabitants of Brittany, and beyond - 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 BCE: according to several Greek and Roman 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 precious 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) by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Carthage established itself as the new capital of an informal empire of Phoenician colonies; it is recorded that Cádiz was captured by a Carthaginian army. That a Carthaginian admiral explored the territories beyond newly acquired 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 every foreigner 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 looked more impressive.

Avienus on Himilco

Three times Avienus quotes Himilco.note Although the Roman author claims to have read the Carthaginian account himself,note this is probably not true.

In the first of the three "Himilco blocks", Avienus states that Himilco wrote that it took four months to reach the Oestrumnides.note Even when we assume that these isles were as far away as the Scilly islands, four months is too long. Himilco must have landed at many ports; perhaps he founded colonies - Hanno did the same. Two towns may be mentioned as possible candidates: modern Abul and Alcacer do Sol, not far from Lisbon.

Avienus goes on to say that the sea route was difficult: on large parts of the route, there was no wind.note Elsewhere, seaweed made progress difficult;note 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 and sea monsters.note

Later on, Avienus repeats what he said: he mentions the Ocean's vastness and the absence of wind.note The new element is fog, which Himilco can have encountered everywhere on his voyage to the north. The third Himilco block is again repetition: shallow waters, weeds, and monsters.note

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, which is four months from Cádiz. This was the place where the ancients found amber and it may have been a secondary 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 might help explain why several sixth-century Greek authors start to speculate about a legendary amber river, which they call Eridanus.

This page was created in 2001; last modified on 28 April 2020.