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Roman exploration of the New World

Jan 1, 2003

Just as we were finally getting used to the idea that Leif Ericsson had established the first European settlement in America at L'Anse aux Meadows - long before Columbus set out on his voyage - we discover that even the tenacious Norsemen may have been beaten in their westward quest for a new-found land by citizens of Rome.

That remarkable suggestion comes from Romeo H. Hristrov, an anthropologist formerly with Methodist University in Dallas, who studied a small bust of a bearded Roman seaman discovered at a burial site some forty miles west of Mexico City in 1994. Hristrov had samples of the bust material dated to about A.D. 200, and experts have identified the object as unquestionably of Roman origin. The head sports a hat resembling a knitted woolen cap called a pylos, popular with Greek sailors. In fact, it looks surprisingly like a modern sailor's watch cap!

But is it possible the Romans could have sailed to America? By about 600 B.C., Phoenician sailors had explored most of the Mediterranean and had even made a coastal circumnavigation of Africa. These voyages prompted Hanno, a 5th-century B.C. navigator from Carthage, in North Africa, to sail through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) to explore southward along the Atlantic coast of Africa and to establish settlements as far south as Senegal. When the Romans, under consul Caius Duilius, destroyed the Carthaginian fleet in 260 B.C., they would surely have gained valuable knowledge from captured Carthaginian navigators concerning the greater world lying beyond Gibraltar.

It would not tax a modern sailor's mind too much to imagine a Roman vessel, its large square sail filled by north-east trade winds, cruising downwind to the north coast of South America. And if only one literate captain had perused the works of Roman geographer Sebosus, the voyage would seem to be quite possible. Sebosus described the land of "Hesperides," the "most westerly land of the world where the weather is always mild." Furthermore, Sebosus also advised that Hesperides landfall could be made after only "forty days' sail" westward from Cape Verde Islands, just off the coast of Senegal. A typical Roman merchant ship of the time might have been a sturdy enough vessel for such a trip. The Roman corbita was a stoutly built craft, often as large as 500 tons. With a brave, adventurous crew, it might easily have made the downwind voyage from the Cape Verdes to the new world, arriving off Venezuela in South America in the time suggested by Sebosus. It is intriguing to imagine a Roman standard bearer (700 to 800 years before Leif Ericsson's voyage to Newfoundland) trudging ashore behind his captain onto some South American beach to claim this new world for the Senate and people of Rome (S.P.Q.R); then thrusting his staff, topped with Rome's Imperial Eagle, into the sand. But wait! Betty Meggers of Washington's National Museum of Natural History announced recently that ancient pottery found in excavations in Ecuador looks suspiciously like pottery made in Japan. Might it not be entirely possible that sea-roving Homo sapiens have been "discovering" the Americas, on a more or less regular basis, for at least the last 9,000 years?