Sailing was important for trade and warfare in Ancient Greek times. However, in very early times, sailors did not have compasses or reliable maps. They had to use coastlines to help them find their way across the seas. Landforms gave them a guide to follow, and also meant that they could find their way to safety in case of storms. By the 2nd millennium BCE ancient people had learnt to use their knowledge of stars and constellations to help with navigation. As their knowledge of astronomy advanced, navigation became much easier. Sailors could easily work out latitude by measuring the angle of the North Star above the horizon. This angle, in degrees, would tell them the latitude of the ship. But there was still much ground (or sea) to cover. Sailors continued to develop new ways of navigating and mapping the seas throughout Ancient Greek times. 


One simple instrument that was used to help with navigation was the use of sounding weights. These were used by sailors to work out the depth of the water in different places, by lowering the weights from their boat. This helped sailors to work out how far their ships were from land, since shallower water could suggest that land was nearby. 


A more complicated invention by Ancient Greek navigators was called the Antikythera mechanism, which was discovered near the island of Antikythera. This was a mechanical tool with gears and wheels, which is believed to have been used to help sailors navigate during the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. It was probably used to predict eclipses and the positions of the stars at different times in the year, as the stars were one of the main guides for Ancient Greek navigators. 


Another key invention used by Ancient Greek navigators was called the Astrolabe. The name of the device comes from the Greek astrolabos, meaning ‘star-taker’, since it was used to measure the positions of stars in the sky. The Astrolabe appeared during the 3rd century BCE, during the Hellenistic period. It is believed to have been invented by a man named Hipparchus, who was an astronomer and mathematician. 

Jason & the Argonaut's Journey

This map shows the meandering journey made by Jason and his Argonauts. Jason and the Argonauts faced and defeated all kinds of enemies on the way to fetch the Golden Fleece. Harpies, giants and a king who was a little too into boxing- they all fell before the mighty Argonauts. 

The tale of Jason and the Argonauts is one of the oldest examples of the 'heroes quest' which has become one of the most widely used and easily recognised story-lines which continue to be used in books, games and films  to this day.


In classical Greece, maps were made using both mathematics and information found by explorers. The first ancient Greek who is believed to have made a map of the world is Anaximander of Miletus, who lived in the 7th century BCE. He believed that the earth was a cylinder, which stayed still in space. According to his map, humans lived on the top of the cylinder, which was in the form of a big circle. Sadly, Anaximander’s map has not survived, and we rely on copies that were made later for information about this first map. One copy was made by Hecataeus of Miletus during the 6th century BCE, which follows the idea from Homer’s poems that the earth was a circle, surrounded by an ocean (like a moat). In this vision, Greece was literally thought to be the centre of the world. 


Pythagoras of Samos (6th-5th century BCE) correctly suggested that the earth was a sphere, but other theories persisted: Anaximenes of Miletus from the 6th century BCE even believed that the earth was a rectangle!


An important stage in the Greeks’ understanding of geography was brought about by Herodotus, a historian who lived during the 5th century BCE. Herodotus did a lot of travelling and collected information as he went along. He recorded his findings in his Histories, in which he expands the number of continents to three (including Europe, Asia and Africa), where previous mapmakers thought there were only two (Europe and Asia). But Herodotus still made mistakes. He was convinced that Greece was at the centre of the earth and that the barbarians lived on the edges of the earth. 


It was Aristotle (4th century BCE) who finally confirmed the theory that the earth was a sphere. He used three main observations to prove this: the lunar eclipse is always circular, ships seem to sink as they move away from view, and some stars can be seen only from certain points on earth. 


Meanwhile, Dicaearchus, a geographer, was the first to start including coordinates on maps. This made it easier to find locations. Timosthenes later introduced the idea of using winds to indicate directions, which would help sailors on their sea voyages.


These advancements later helped Claudius Ptolemy (2nd Century CE) to write a textbook called 'Geographia' or ‘Geography’, which included thousands of accurate maps of the world. 

© Hellenic Museum Argonauts Club