In the first half of the first millennium BC, the ancient Greek city-states, many of which were naval powers, began to search for lands and resources beyond Greece, establishing colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Trade contacts for ancient Greek colonies were usually the first step in the colonization process, and later, when local populations were subjugated or integrated into the colony, cities were established. These cities had varying degrees of contact with their metropolises, but most became fully independent city-states, sometimes strongly Greek in character and at other times culturally closer to the indigenous peoples with whom they lived and included in the bodies of their citizens.

One of the most important consequences of this process, in general, was that the circulation of goods, people, art, and ideas during this period, widely spread the Greek way of life in Spain, France, Italy, the Adriatic, the Black Sea, and North Africa. In total, the Greeks established about 500 colonies, which lived up to 60,000 Greek colonists and by 500 BC, these new territories would represent 40% of the Greek world. It is not a secret that the word Barbarian came out at that period, as the Greeks were having problems understanding the language of native tribes, so they keep saying, what they say? “VA VA VA’.

Map of
Greek and Phoenician colonization

Trade and resources of ancient Greek colonies

The Greeks were great seafarers and traveled throughout the Mediterranean, zealously seeking new lands and new opportunities. Even Greek mythology contains stories of exploration, such as that of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece and that of the greatest traveler hero, Odysseus. The islands around Greece were first colonized – for example, the first colony in the Adriatic was Corfu (Corfu), founded by Corinth in 733 BC. – and then the explorers looked further. The first colonists in the broadest sense were the merchants and those small groups who sought to exploit new resources and start a new life away from the growing competition and overpopulation of the homeland.

Trade centers and free markets were the forerunners of the colonies themselves. From the middle of the 8th to the middle of the 6th c. BC, Greek cities – states and individual groups, began to expand outside Greece, more deliberately and in the long run. However, the process of colonization was probably more gradual and organic than the ancient sources claim.

Still, it is difficult to determine the exact degree of colonization and integration of local populations. In some areas of the Mediterranean, Greek cities were immediately established, while in others there were only trading posts, with temporary residents, such as merchants and sailors.

The very term “colonization” implies the domination of the indigenous peoples, a sense of cultural superiority of the colonists, and a special cultural homeland that controls and leads the whole process. This did not necessarily happen in the ancient Greek world and therefore, in this sense, Greek colonization was a very different process from, for example, the policies of some European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is, therefore, a process that is best described as’ cultural contact.

Map of Italy and Adriatic sea

The establishment of ancient Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean allowed the export of many goods, such as vintage Greek pottery, wine, oil, metalwork, and textiles, as well as the production of wealth from the land – for example, timber, metals, and agricultural products (especially cereals). , dried fish, and hides) – and often became lucrative trading hubs and a source of slavery.

A metropolis could establish a colony in order to establish a military presence in an area and thus protect lucrative sea lanes. Colonies were also a vital bridge for domestic trade opportunities. Some colonies even managed to compete with their metropolises. Syracuse, for example, gradually became the largest city in the entire Greek world. Finally, it is important to note that the Greeks did not have the field free. Rival civilizations also formed colonies, especially the Etruscans and the Phoenicians, and sometimes, inevitably, war broke out between these great powers.

Magna Grecia

Greek cities soon became interested in the fertile land, natural resources, and good ports of the “New World” – southern Italy and Sicily. Eventually, the Greek settlers conquered the local population and sealed their identity in the area to such an extent that they named it “Greater Greece”. It would become the most “Greek” of all the colonized lands, both in terms of culture and in terms of the urban landscape, with the Doric temples being the most impressive symbol of Hellenism. Some of the most important cities in Italy were:

Kymi (the first Italian colony, founded in 740 BC from Chalkida and Kymi)
Naxos (734 BC, Chalkida)
Syvaris (BC 720 BC, Eliki / Troizina)
Kroton (p. 710, Achaeans)
Taras (706 BC Sparta)
Regio (BC 720 BC Chalkida)
Elea (540 BC, Phocaea)
Thurians (443 BC, Athens)
Heraklion Lefkaniki (433 BC, Taras
In Sicily, the main colonies included the cities:

Syracuse (733 BC, founded by Corinth)
Gela (688 BC, Rhodes / Crete)
Selinus (c. 630 BC)
Imera (c. 630 BC, Messina)
Akragas (c. 580 BC, Gela)

Magna Grecia

The geographical location of these new colonies in the center of the Mediterranean meant that they could prosper as commercial centers among the great civilizations of the time: Greeks, Etruscans, and Phoenicians. And indeed, they prospered so much that the writers recounted the enormous wealth and sophisticated way of life of their inhabitants.

Empedocles, for example, describes the well-educated inhabitants and beautiful temples of Akraganda in Sicily as follows: “The Akragandians live as if they were going to die tomorrow and build as if they were going to live forever” houses are not built as always in time experienced). The ancient Greek colonies also established their own colonies and trading posts and in this way, further expanded Greek influence, including the northern coasts of Italy in the Adriatic. Colonies were even established in North Africa, with Kyrenia from Thera notable in 630 BC. and so it became clear that the Greek colonists would not be limited to Greater Greece.


The Greeks created settlements on the coasts of Ionia (Asia Minor) in the Aegean, from the 8th c. e.g. Important colonies included Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna, and Bodrum. Traditionally, Athens claimed the title of the first colonizer of the region, for which both the Lydians and the Persians were particularly interested. The region became the core of cultural developments, especially in science, mathematics, and philosophy, and home to some of the greatest Greek thinkers. Still, artistic and architectural currents, assimilated from the east, began to influence the motherland: elements such as capitals with spirals, sphinxes, and expressive “oriental” ceramic decoration, would inspire Greek artists and architects to explore new artists.


France and Spain

The main colonial city of southern France was Phocaea, which in turn founded the important colonies of Alalia and Marseilles (600 BC). The city also established colonies or, at the very least, established an extensive trading network in southern Spain. Important cities there were Emporion (a colony of Marseille with a traditional founding date of 575 BC, but really probably several decades later) and Rhodes. The ancient Greek colonies in Spain were not typically Greek in their culture, the competition with the Phoenicians was fierce and according to Greek written sources, the area seems to have been considered distant from the Greeks of the mainland.

Ancient Marseille

The Black Sea or Pontos

The Black Sea (Efxeinos Pontos for the Greeks) was the last area of Greek colonial expansion, where the Ionian cities attempted to exploit the rich fishing fields and fertile lands around the Hellespont and the Pontus. The most important colonial city was Miletus, which was credited in antiquity – perhaps in excess – with 70 colonies. The most important of these were:

Cyzicus (675 BC)

Sinope (c. 831 BC)

Pantikapaion (600 BC)

Olbia (550 BC)

Megara was another great metropolis and founded Chalcedon (685 BC), Byzantium (668 BC) and Heraklion Pontic (560 BC). Eventually, almost the entire Black Sea was encircled by Greek colonies, even though, as elsewhere, wars, compromises, marriages, and diplomacy with indigenous peoples had to be used to ensure their survival. Specifically, at the end of the 6th c. BC, the colonies offered taxes and weapons to the Persian Empire and in return received protection.

After Xerxes’ failure to invade Greece in 480 and 479 BC, the Persians withdrew their interest in the area, which allowed larger cities such as Heraklion and Phenicia to expand their power. , through the conquest of local populations and smaller neighboring cities. The resulting prosperity enabled Heraklion to establish its own colonies in these areas, such as the Hersonissos in the Crimea, in 420 BC.

Map of Black Sea

From the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 BC, Athens showed interest in Pontus, sending colonists and setting up guards. The physical presence of the Athenians was short-lived, but the Athenian influence on culture (especially in sculpture) and trade (especially on the grains of the Black Sea) lasted a long time. With the final withdrawal of Athens, the Greek colonies were left to defend themselves and face alone the threat from neighboring powers, such as the Royal Scythians and finally, the Macedonians and Philip II.
Relations with the homeland.

Most colonies were built on the political model of the Greek city, but the forms of government varied, as in Greece – oligarchy, tyranny, and even democracy – and could differ from those of the founding metropolis. The strong Greek cultural identity was preserved through the adoption of the founding myths and the widespread, essentially Greek characteristics of everyday life, such as language, food, education, religion, sports, high school, and theater, with the unique tragic and comics, art, architecture, philosophy, and science.

So intense that a Greek city in Italy or Ionia could, at least superficially, look and behave like any other city in Greece. Trade greatly facilitated the creation of a common “Greek” way of life. Goods such as wine, olives, timber, and ceramics were exported and imported between cities. Even the artists and architects themselves relocated and created workshops far from their city and thus, temples, sculptures, and ceramics acquired a recognizable Greek character throughout the Mediterranean.

Of course, the colonies developed their own identity, especially since they often included the natives with their own customs and each colony area displayed its own temperaments and variations. In addition, frequent changes in the conditions for the return of citizenship and the forced resettlement of populations meant that the colonies were often multicultural and politically unstable and that civil wars were more frequent than in Greece. Nevertheless, some colonies did extremely well, and eventually, many surpassed the Greek founding superpowers.

The colonies formed alliances with like-minded neighboring cities. On the contrary, there were conflicts between the colonies, in their attempt to establish themselves as strong and completely independent cities, which were not controlled by their metropolis. Syracuse in Sicily is a typical example of a large city that constantly sought to expand its sovereignty and establish its own empire. Colonial cities that established their own colonies and minted their own currency strengthened their cultural and political independence.

Although the ancient Greek colonies could be highly independent, at the same time they were expected to be active members of the wider Greek world. This could be manifested by the provision of soldiers, ships, and money in times of war, such as the Persians and the Peloponnesians, the sending of athletes to major sporting events, such as the Olympic Games and Nemea, the erection of monuments to military victory in Delphi, the guarantee the passage of foreign travelers through their territory or the export and introduction of intellectual and artistic ideas, such as the works of Pythagoras and schools such as Plato’s Academy, which attracted students from all over the Greek world.

In times of turmoil, the colonies received help from the founding cities and their allies, even if this was a pretext for the expansionist ambitions of the larger Greek states. A classic example is the Athenian Sicilian Campaign, in 415 BC, which began to help the colony of Egesta, at least officially. Also, there was a natural movement of travelers in the Greek world, which is confirmed by elements such as literature and drama, tributes left by pilgrims in sacred places such as Epidaurus, and participation in important annual religious festivals, such as the Dionysia of Athens.

The different colonies obviously had different characteristics, but the collective influence of the habits mentioned above, provided in a huge area of the Mediterranean enough common characteristics, to be aptly described as the Greek World. This influence was so long-lasting that even today, one can see that the citizens of southern France, Italy, and Greece share common cultural characteristics.

Parts from Mark Cartwright’s article were used.

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