Cassiterides, meaning "Tin Islands", (from the Greek word for tin: Κασσίτερος/Kassiteros) are in ancient geography the name of islands regarded as being situated somewhere near the west coasts of Europe. Herodotus (430 BC) had dimly heard of them. Later writers, Posidonius, Diodorus, Strabo and others, call them smallish islands off (Strabo says, some way off) the north-west coast of Spain, which contained tin mines, or, as Strabo says, tin and lead mines though a passage in Diodorus derives the name rather from their nearness to the tin districts of north-west Spain. Also Ptolemy and Dionysios Periegetes have mentioned them, the former as 10 small islands in northwest Spain far off the coast arranged symbolically as a ring, the later one in connection with the Hesperides.

At a time when geographical knowledge of the west was still scanty and the secrets of the tin-trade were still successfully guarded by the seamen of Gades and others who dealt in the metal, the Greeks knew only that tin came to them by sea from the far west, and the idea of tin-producing islands easily arose. Later, when the west was better explored, it was found that tin actually came from two regions, north-west Spain and Cornwall. Neither of these could be called small islands or described as off the north-west coast of Spain, and so the Greek and Roman geographers did not identify either as the Cassiterides. Instead, they became a third, ill-understood source of tin, conceived of as distinct from Spain or Britain. Modern writers have perpetuated the error that the Cassiterides were definite spots, and have made many attempts to identify them. Small islands off the coast of north-west Spain, the headlands of that same coast, the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, the British Isles as a whole, have all in turn been suggested. But none suits the conditions. Neither the Spanish islands nor the Isles of Scilly contain tin, at least in serious quantities. It seems most probable, therefore, that the name Cassiterides represents the first vague knowledge of the Greeks that tin was found overseas somewhere in or off western Europe.


Primary sources

* Herodotus, "Histories" [ 3.115]
* Diodorus Siculus, "Historical Library" V. 21, 22, 38
* Strabo, "Geography" [*.html#5.15 2.5.15] , [*.html#2.9 3.2.9] , [*.html#5.11 3.5.11]
* Pliny the Elder, "Natural History" iv. 119, Vii. 197, xxxiv. 156-158

econdary sources

* T. R. Holmes, "Ancient Britain" (1907), appendix, identifies the Cassiterides with the British Isles.

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