What the Romans Saw When They Reached New Parts of the World: Hear First-Hand Accounts by Appian, Pliny, Tacitus & Other Ancient Historians

If you real­ly want to impress your fam­i­ly, friends, and social-media fol­low­ing with your next voy­age abroad, con­sid­er book­ing a trip to Thule. But where, exact­ly, is it? It could be Ice­land or Green­land with­in the Orkney arch­i­pel­ago of north­ern Scot­land; it could be the Eston­ian island of Saare­maa; it could be the Nor­we­gian island of Smøla. To under­stand the loca­tion of the much-mythol­o­gized Thule for your­self — and more so, its mean­ing — you should con­sult not sources nor mod­ern but ancient, or at least medieval. That’s the modus operan­di of the video above from Voic­es of the Past, which spends an hour and 45 min­utes gath­er­ing his­tor­i­cal impres­sions of not just Thule, but every extrem­i­ty of the known world reached by the Roman Empire.

To much of human­i­ty in antiq­ui­ty, “the known world” was more or less a syn­onym for the ter­ri­to­ry of the Roman Empire. It was through the exer­tions of that mighty empire’s adven­tures, traders, and mil­i­tary men that, with time, the world to the north, east, west, and south of Rome itself became ever more “known,” and it is along those four car­di­nal direc­tions that this video orga­nized its tales.

Telling of expe­di­tions “beyond Carthage,” it draws upon the words of ancient his­to­ri­ans Appi­an of Alexan­dria, Poly­bius, and Arri­an of Nico­me­dia; telling of the Roman pur­suit of the trade-route “incense trails,” it brings in the Greek poly­math Stra­bo as well as the King James Bible. Accounts of such even far­ther-flung places as the source of the Nile and the forests of Ger­ma­nia come from Pliny the Elder and the Roman Emper­or Augus­tus.

This is all in keep­ing with the ori­en­ta­tion toward pri­ma­ry sources of Voic­es of the Past, a Youtube chan­nel pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for videos on Niko­la Tes­la’s pre­dic­tions for the world of 2026, Pla­to’s cre­ation of the myth of Atlantis, ancient Japan as described by ancient Japan­ese, and the Roman Empire as described by an ancient Chi­nese his­to­ri­an. How­ev­er you define it, Rome nev­er con­sti­tut­ed the entire world, nor even the entire­ty of the civ­i­lized world. But no pre­vi­ous civ­i­liza­tion had ever made such a con­sis­tent effort to push its bound­aries out­ward, reach­ing — and, if pos­si­ble, mas­ter­ing — dis­tant realms of seem­ing­ly fan­tas­ti­cal beasts, unfath­omable land­scapes, and unin­hab­it­able cli­mates. We might do well to imag­ine that it was just such places (or at least the Roman per­cep­tion of those places) best sym­bol­ized by Thule, though whether you trust Plutarch, Jose­phus, or Tac­i­tus’ descrip­tion of it is up to you.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Most Dis­tant Places Vis­it­ed by the Romans: Africa, Scan­di­navia, Chi­na, India, Ara­bia & Oth­er Far-Flung Lands

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Anthony VanDerlinden says:

    Dear Sir,

    I love ancient his­to­ry, so I found your arti­cle cap­ti­vat­ing to read! By chance,do you sell (or know of anoth­er source) to buy maps of Roman roads of antiq­ui­ty?


    Antho­ny Van­Der­lin­den

  • John Campbell says:

    What a Great Idea!!! So nec­es­sary, as the Past seems to slip away so quick­ly! Of course- does it real­ly go away?? or is this an illu­so­ry per­cep­tion?? Glad to be apart of this!! JCamp­bell

  • Richard Pickel says:

    (In astonishment)“IS IT POSSIBLE that there are peo­ple in the world WHO DO NOT believe in ZEUS???!!!

  • Stephanie (Stefani) Oresteen says:

    My Great (x’s 3) Grand­fa­ther was full blood­ed Sicil­ian from Paler­mo, Sici­ly and since the lands of Sici­ly & Italy 🇮🇹 were first orig­i­nal­ly the Roman Empire, that basi­cal­ly means that I do have Roman blood cours­ing in my veins!!! Amaz­ing & Fas­ci­nat­ing fact about myself along with all of my blood Oresteen family/ rel­a­tives — My life long Pas­sion along with my High Apti­tude for Archae­ol­o­gy has always been a dream & life goal to become an Archae­ol­o­gist!!! 😇🥰🤩🚀💥 Even though ancient Egypt has always been my great­est Spe­cial­i­ty, the ancient Roman Empire comes direct­ly next to that 😇🥰 I def­i­nite­ly plan to and for cer­tain will be out there to make more Incred­i­ble & Great Dis­cov­er­ies of Ancient Rome along with Ancient Egypt 🇪🇬 in a few years from now 😇🥰🤩🎉 So stay tuned to see what I unearth & find 🤩🥰🎉💥

  • Manuel G Garcia says:

    Pry­or to Spain join­ing the EU group and while vis­it­ing my native country,I rent­ed a car and took the fam­i­ly to Gali­cia in the north west part of Spain. The trip by car took well over 10:00 hours as we trav­eled the old high­way sys­tem. The roads were the left over sys­tem that the Roman Empire built many years ago, spe­cial­ly when we reached the west­er part and hills took over the plains of cen­tral Spain. The roads were fol­low­ing strate­gic fea­tures of the land rather than the prac­ti­cal routes like they were look­ing for safe move­ment of troops and tak­ing advan­tage of the geog­ra­phy for the best advan­tage. The end results is that today’s sys­tem of super fast roads, reduced the trav­el time to a mere 3:00 hours. A very spe­cial expe­ri­ence. The old road still being used by the local res­i­dents and is in use in sev­er­al sec­tions.

  • Ehab Altaji says:

    If you look crit­i­cal­ly and deeply into how far the Romans have reached, it won’t be as far as the 1st but espe­cial­ly the 2nd Arab empire: the Abbasid. From south cen­tral France to the wall of Chi­na, and from the Cau­ca­sus to east Africa.
    I think that most west­ern­ers focus on Roman and Greek.…..which blinds them of the oth­er incred­i­ble achieve­ments made by oth­er cul­tures. Liv­ing in the West allows one to see west­ern bias and (frankly) lack of inter­est (except by few his­to­ri­ans) of the rest of the world. This hyper­bol­ic love and deep immer­sion into Greek and Roman (only) has proven an Achilles heal for westerners–because they are miss­ing out on real excit­ing (oth­er) his­to­ry. Get off your bias­es and look at the Abbasid empire, it would swal­low the Romans.

  • Herman monster says:

    Is this all the info you have, and you want mon­ey from me. DREAM ON.

  • Larry Larson says:

    Good evening, com­ing from Dan­ish and Swedish grand­par­ents l have always been inter­est­ed in the Vikings and how far they trav­eled when they went on their raids search­ing for booty. Due to more research and find­ings they did trav­el to North Amer­i­ca and set­tled there for an unknown length of time. In actu­al­ly there should be a Lief Erick­son Day instead of Colum­bus Day here in the USA. I believe in giv­ing cred­it when cred­it is due since the Vikings dis­cov­ered North Amer­i­ca almost 500 years before Christo­pher Colum­bus. Thank you open­cul­ture for hav­ing such infor­ma­tive his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion.

  • Vincent says:

    Not only Roman blood­lines but Greek and Arab.. esp around pler­mo.
    And a smat­ter­ing of Sara­cen Nor­man and of course the orig­i­nal sicil­i­oti
    A mine­strone.. but deli­cious and nutri­tious.. in lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal terms

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