Did the Romans Discover America?


Norsemen beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas by almost 500 years. If the Vikings could do it, maybe earlier European cultures could, as well. For instance, did the Romans discover America?

There’s no concrete evidence that Romans or any other Eurasian civilization crossed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas before the late 11th century A.D. Claims that the Roman Empire discovered the Americas are based on archeological discoveries of dubious providence. 

The Romans likely lacked the technology needed to sail across the open ocean. However, this article will explore whether the Roman Empire discovered the Americas and why some people believe they did.

Also see Did the Romans Steal the Greek Gods? to learn more.

America map
What did the Romans know about the Americas? See below

Why Do Some People Believe the Roman Empire Discovered America?

Some people believe the Roman empire discovered America because a small number of archeological finds in the Americas suggest an ancient Roman presence. These fall under the aegis of “out of place artifacts.” Most of these artifacts have been revealed to be fabrications.

In 2015, the British newspaper “Express” reported that the shipwreck of a Roman galley had been discovered in the waters near Oak Island, Novae Scotia, Canada. [1] The article highlighted the discovery of a “100% Roman ceremonial sword,” Roman coins, suspicious grave mounds “dating back to the Roman Era,” and linguistic terms in a local First Nations language that appear to be copied from the imperial era Latin slang. 

The shipwreck’s discovery was covered on the long-running History television series “The Curse of Oak Island.”

The discovery of this shipwreck appears to have been faked for the TV series. Artifacts discovered at the site haven’t been turned over to experts for proper analysis. The “Roman ceremonial sword” is reportedly similar to one sold on eBay shortly before the episode in question was filmed. [2] The patina on the sword is also inconsistent with genuine Roman artifacts.

Another archeological find that purports to support the idea that the Roman Empire reached the Americas is in Guanabara Bay near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

In 1982, the New York Times reported the discovery of “a large number of Roman amphora” at a site 15 miles (24.14 km) from the famous resort city. [3] The NYT article credited the discovery to the former marine and scuba diving pioneer Robert F. Marx (1936-2019).

In 1985, the New York Times reported that the Brazilian government banned archeological exploration in the “Bay of Jars.” [4] Marx argued that the ban was implemented to preserve historical orthodoxy that the Portuguese were the first to discover and settle Brazil. 

The Brazilian government responded by banning Marx from the country for attempting to smuggle “artifacts of historical interest” out of the country.

The discovery of the “Roman amphora” has been largely discredited as a hoax, possibly by Marx himself. Pottery shards discovered by Marx and earlier lobster fishermen were determined to have been artificially aged.

There have been several other archeological finds claimed to support the idea that the Roman Empire reached the Americas. Most of them have been discounted as forgeries, while others have been ignored.

Also see Did the Romans Keep Records of Crucifixions? to learn more.

old United States map
How far West did the Romans explore? See below

What Did the Romans Know About the Americas?

The Romans knew nothing of the American continents, or if they did, they never wrote it down. However, through the Greeks, who Rome conquered in the third and second centuries BCE, the Romans knew the size of the Earth to within a negligible percent of the actual figure.

The Greek polymath Eratosthenes, circa 500 B.C., used the length of the shadow of metal rods of known length to calculate the circumference of the Earth 252,000 stadia around 39,060-40,320 km (24,270.76-25,053. 69 miles). That is between -2.4% and +0.8% of the actual figure. Humans had known the Earth was round for thousands of years before that.

At its height, the Roman Empire spanned from the Firth of Forth in the north to the border of modern Egypt and Sudan in the south, and modern Morocco in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. The Empire covered 5 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles) and included as many as 120 million people. Before the rise of the Mongols, the Roman Empire was the largest land empire in human history.

Despite knowing the size of the Earth, the Roman Empire didn’t know that the American continents existed.

Also see Did the Romans Have Coffee? to learn more.

North America
Did the Norse beat the Romans to the Americas? See below

How far West did the Romans Explore?

The furthest west the Romans are known to have explored or traded is the Canary Islands, a Spanish autonomous territory off the coast of Morocco in northwest Africa. They may have reached the Azores, but there’s no conclusive proof.

The farthest west Roman provinces were Mauretania (modern Algeria and Morocco) and Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal). Both of these territories were taken from the Carthaginians late in the Roman Republic. 

The farthest western location known to the Romans was the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, referenced in the works of the Roman naturalist and naval commander Pliny the Elder. The Canary Islands were at the extreme western end of Mediterranean trade routes dating back to the end of the Greek Dark Ages (9th century BCE). The Romans referred to them as the “Fortunate Isles.” [5]

There’s a chance the Romans could have sailed as far west as the Azores, an archipelago about 1600 km (994.19 miles) west of Portugal. This idea is based purely on conjecture and literary interpretations rather than archeological discoveries.

The reality is that despite knowing the size of the round Earth, ancient Mediterranean civilizations didn’t know that the Americas existed. They believed there was nothing but an open ocean to the west as far as China.

The first people from the Eastern Hemisphere to reach the Americas were Norse, around 1000 A.D. But Norse settlements in modern Greenland and Canada were ultimately abandoned due to deteriorating climate conditions and trade disruptions with the rest of the Norse world. 

The Norse did report the existence of a “country at the end of the world” to the Catholic Church, but the significance of the existence of that land was ignored.

It wasn’t until an Italian sailor employed by the Spanish Crown who believed that the Earth was shaped like a pear stumbled upon Jamaica that Eurasian civilization would become aware of North and South America. [6]

Conclusion

The Roman Empire didn’t discover the Americas. Claims they made are based on forgeries and sensationalism.

Also see Did the Romans Know About America? to learn more.

References:
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