In his many and vitriolic comments in response to my interview with him yesterday, Harry Hubbard (alias Horatio Rybnikar—and “alias” is his own term) made an interesting assertion about the literary evidence for pre-Columbian voyages by ancient Mediterranean peoples to America. I think it’s worth devoting a few paragraphs to this assertion, which I will discuss from the text of an online article Hubbard directed me and other readers to review for his “evidence.”
In describing the ancient warrants for assuming that Mediterranean peoples traveled to America, Hubbard first complains that fellow fringe writers such as Cyclone Covey are ignorant of classical sources, and he also asserts that classical scholars like Felix Jacoby, the compiler of the Fragments of the Greek Historians, are also ignorant of classical sources. He accuses Jacoby of poor scholarship in his commentaries on “secondhand” sources, apparently choosing to misunderstand the purpose of the Fragments, which was to collect references in classical sources to lost authors and their works.
He prefers, instead, to work with classical sources in English translation, and he takes as his foundation for believing in trans-Atlantic crossings a passage by Diodorus, whom he asserts scholars call “THE Master of Mediterranean History.” Most scholars believe Diodorus to have been a largely uncritical compiler of others’ work, which is why his work is of such value for the material from older sources he preserved. Indeed, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Diodorus’ primary value is precisely his preservation of lost works, either explicitly in quotation or through the underlying support they provide for his narrative.
Anyway, Hubbard claims that Diodorus preserves an account of “Happyland,” his term for the lands where Cleopatra VII’s son Alexander Helios allegedly fled across the Atlantis. The passage comes at the start of Diodorus’ section on islands found beyond the Pillars of Heracles and was meant to represent, by Diodorus’ account, the first islands one discovers after leaving the Pillars. Hubbard uses the Loeb translation, but since I’ve already proofread and adapted G. Booth’s 1814 translation for my book of ancient texts used by fringe historians, I’ll use that translation of Library of History 5.19-20 here, but the Loeb edition is also online:
19. Since we have gone through the islands lying eastward, on this side within the pillars of Heracles, we shall now launch into the main ocean to those that lie beyond them; for over against Libya, lies a very great island in the vast ocean, of many days’ sail from Libya, westward. The soil here is very fruitful, a great part whereof is mountainous, but much likewise of level plains, which is the most sweet and pleasant part of all the rest; for it is watered with several navigable rivers, beautified with many gardens of pleasure, planted with divers sorts of trees, and abundance of orchards, interlaced with currents of sweet water. The towns are adorned with stately buildings, and banqueting-houses up and down, pleasantly situated in their gardens and orchards. And here they recreate themselves in summertime, as in places accommodated for pleasure and delight.
Rather than go into deep detail, just note that the very first words of the passage make plain that this island is located near “Libya,” the Greek term for Africa, and is only many days’ sail from the African coast—not weeks or months. It took Columbus two months to travel from Spain to the Americas, and in the 1700s, travel times were routinely longer than 50 days.
But Diodorus is not the originator of this claim. He is merely adding legendary details to a story that was already about three centuries old. Our oldest surviving account comes from a text once believed to have been written by Aristotle but now thought to be by one of his students. The passage in question can be found in De mirabilis auscultationibus 84:
In the sea outside the Pillars of Hercules they say that an island was discovered by the Carthaginians, desolate, having wood of every kind, and navigable rivers, and admirable for its fruits besides, but distant several days’ voyage from them. But, when the Carthaginians often came to this island because of its fertility, and some even dwelt there, the magistrates of the Carthaginians gave notice that they would punish with death those who should sail to it, and destroyed all the inhabitants, lest they should spread a report about it, or a large number might gather together to the island in their time, get possession of the authority, and destroy the prosperity of the Carthaginians. (trans. Launcelot D. Dowdall)
Pseudo-Aristotle, if nothing else, places the island even closer to Carthage than Diodorus would.
Hubbard, however, does not notice this and instead equates Diodorus’ and Pseudo-Aristotle’s Punic island with the Islands of the Blessed and the Fortunate Islands, from whose names he derives his rather déclassé “Happyland.”
Hubbard then asserts that he is the first “modern” person to notice that Diodorus was describing North America: “Can you believe, after writing this over 2000 years ago, I would be the first contemporary to exploit it as obviously meaning the North American Continent[?] The historians have guessed every island in the Atlantic but never North America.”
Francisco López de Gómara, the Spanish historian, made a very similar connection in chapter 220 of Historia general de las Indias (1552). There Gómara equated Pseudo-Aristotle’s island with Atlantis and identified both as portions of the Americas: “As well may it be, that Cuba or Haiti, or any other island of the Indies, should be those which the Carthaginians found and forbade their citizens to make any voyages thither or to inhabit the same as Aristotle and Theophrastus do rehearse where they write of the marvelous and unknown works of nature.” However, Gómara prefers to see the Punic island as a Caribbean island and Atlantis as North America, so technically he is not identifying the Carthaginian island with North America. But given that North America is many times the size of the largest island known to the ancients, it is similarly difficult for historians—Gómara included—to see how anyone could mistake a continent covering so much of the earth for a small island; hence, the wild claims that America was Atlantis.
At any rate, Diodorus did not consider these to be the Fortunate Islands or the Islands of the Blessed (the former term is Hesiod’s and the latter Homer’s for the same place) since Diodorus discusses the Islands of the Blessed in the same book (5.82.2) as a name for some islands near Crete. But this doesn’t matter because Pliny the Elder, the other authority cited by Hubbard, asserts in his Natural History (6.37) that the Fortunate Isles are 250 miles from Mauretania (Morocco), on the authority of Sebosus, or 650 miles from the Purple Islands, on the authority of Juba II, the Numidian and Mauretanian king who reestablished control over the islands. The Iles Purpuraires (Purple Islands) were a known Phoenician settlement off the Moroccan coast. For those of you keeping track, North America is (a) not an island and (b) enormously farther than 650 miles from Morocco. We know from evidence provided by Pliny himself as well as Ptolemy (the geographer) and the Christian writer Arnobius (Adversus Nationes 6.5.2) that these were the Canary Islands. Pliny actually calls them Insulae Canariae. Pomponius Mela (3.102) also places these same Fortunate Islands directly off the “sandy part” of the African coast.
Hubbard would like us to believe that Juba had discovered America, all while also serving as the most loyal client king of Rome and writing a universal geography and history.
But the texts, as written, make plain that the authors were discussing known islands close to Africa and therefore not America. To make them America, one must first assert that parts of the texts are in error, which of course negates efforts to interpret them literally.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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