Greek Colonization

Starting in the eigth century b.c.e. the Greek city-states planted colonies throughout the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas for the purpose of trade, acquisition of resources, and relief from population growth, famine, and drought.

In the 700s b.c.e. the Greeks established colonies in Sicily, southern Italy, Egypt, and the Middle East. The colonies in Egypt and the Middle East extended trade routes to the major civilizations in those areas.

In 700–600 b.c.e. Greece continued to found colonies in Sicily and Italy but also expanded into Thrace, the Hellespont, and Bosporus along the Black Sea, and North Africa. During the 600s b.c.e. the Greeks moved farther into the western Mediterranean.

One of the primary causes for Greek colonization was food. As the population of a polis (city) grew, the polis experienced trouble growing enough food for the population because of a lack of land.

The lack of food led to a willingness of the people to leave the city in search of land. In times of famine or drought people were also willing to leave the polis. The polis would also found colonies in areas where the colonist could trade for items that the polis needed.

The mother polis would provide items such as pots, oil, tools, or weapons that the locals wanted, while the locals would provide wood, metals, and food in exchange. Colonists were also, at times, exiles from their polis. The majority of the colonists were males.

Initially, a Greek colony was made up of people from a single polis. Their loyalty and ties to the polis they came from were not necessarily very strong. Instead, the colonists had a stronger loyalty to the man who had led them to the site of the new colony.

The leader was called the oikist. The oikist was responsible for bringing fire from the original polis’s hearth to the colony to show its connection to the founding polis.

Upon founding of the colony, the oikist would be the leader of the city until his death. Before an expedition could set out for the chosen site, the oikist would visit the oracle at Delphi to see if the god Apollo approved of the new colony or not.

There were several criteria used to determine what would be a good site for the colony. The site needed to have fertile land that the colonist could use to grow food. The colony also needed a good anchorage and needed to be defensible. The area chosen for the colony might be uninhabited.

However, if there was a local population, the colony might choose to cohabitate with the local population or conquer them by force. Once the colonists arrived at the site, they would make a sacrifice to the gods and say prayers over the site.

A plan would then be created for distribution of land to the colonists and to determine the layout of the city. The plan also made provisions for future growth on the new polis. The new colony normally carried over the traditions, religion, and laws of its founding polis, and the two cities normally favored each other in trading.

The earliest colony has been dated at approximately 775 b.c.e. and was founded on the island of Pithecusae, which is about six miles off the Bay of Naples. It was founded to facilitate trade with the Etruscans. In the 730s b.c.e. the Greeks started colonizing Sicily, including founding the city of Syracuse (by Corinth) in 734 b.c.e.

At this time the Greeks were also busy colonizing the coast of southern Italy. This area, Sicily, and southern Italy would come to be called Magna Graecia (Big Greece). Among the colonies in this area was the only one founded by Sparta, Taras (later known as Tarentum) in 706 b.c.e.

Toward the end of the 700s and into the 600s b.c.e. the Greeks colonized the northern coast of the Aegean Sea in Thrace. This area offered timber, gold, silver, grain, and slaves for trade back to the Greek polis.

During the 600s b.c.e. the Greeks colonized the Hellespont and Bosporus area, including the colony of Byzantium (later to be known as Constantinople and Istanbul), which was founded c. 667 b.c.e. From here the Greeks began colonizing the Black Sea from the mid-seventh to the sixth century b.c.e.

The Greek colonies tended to be on the west and north coasts of the Black Sea. These coasts provided a sheltered port for the colonies because of the rivers that emptied into the Black Sea. Among the colonies founded here was Odessus (modern-day Odessa in the Ukraine).

In Africa the Greek colony of Cyrene was founded in c. 630 b.c.e. The colony exported ox hides, grain, woolens, and the plant silphium. The Greeks founded colonies in the western Mediterranean, the first of which was Massalia (modern-day Marseille in southern France) in 600 b.c.e.

Tin was a major export, as were iron, spices, slaves, and wheat. This was followed by several other poleis in southern France and eastern Spain during the 500s b.c.e. The Greeks built a trading post, named Al Mina, in Syria that they used to acquire copper and iron.

They also established a trading post in Egypt, and Naucratis, during the seventh century b.c.e. The commodity they were most interested in was cereal, but they were also interested in papyrus, linen, and ivory. The Persians captured Naucratis in 525 b.c.e.