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Great Greek Colonization

The Great Greek Colonization refers to the extensive settlement of ancient Greeks along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The era of Greek colonization spans the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, a time when the city-state (polis) system was taking shape. In Greece, this process is known as the "Great Greek Colonization."

The Dorians and Ionians spread along the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and later they also reached the Black Sea.

However, the Greeks did not engage in the discovery of new lands but followed the established routes of the Phoenicians, displacing their predecessors. Additionally, they did not explore the new lands extensively, limiting their presence to the coastlines.

The political unity that existed during the Minoan-Mycenaean period in Greece was not restored. Numerous city-states, controlling their own territories, adopted various forms of governance, including tyranny, oligarchy (including timocracy), and democracy.

Map of Greek colonization

Periods of colonization

The Greek colonization can be roughly divided into two major periods: a large-scale migration of tribes during the Dark Ages, prompted by the Trojan War, and the subsequent colonization conducted by established city-states, many of which had formed in the preceding period.

The first state founded during the tribal migrations was Thessaly, established by the Thessalians themselves. In the process, the Aeolians, Dorians, and Boeotians were displaced. The Aeolians and Dorians, in turn, partly moved to central Greece and partly to the Peloponnese, significantly displacing the Achaeans, the successors of the Mycenaean civilization, who had been living there. The Achaeans, having occupied the new territories, displaced the Ionians from there, and the Ionians began to press other tribes, particularly in Attica, forcing them to migrate and colonize the territories in Asia Minor. Additionally, a number of islands in the Aegean Sea were settled. These extensive movements, among other things, led to significant political transformations. In many new city-states, the monarchy was replaced by a republic.

The subsequent colonization took on a less spontaneous character and was usually driven by pragmatic considerations of the inhabitants of now stable city-states. At this stage, the main directions of colonization became evident: to the south, colonizers sought to settle in Italy and Sicily, while in the eastern direction, the coasts of the Black Sea, which was referred to as the Euxine Pontus during that period, held primary interest.

Features of colonization

Colonies were primarily established due to a lack of land in the city-states of mainland Greece. This was associated with both the growing population of the city-state and the existence of laws that prohibited the division of landownership among multiple heirs.

Furthermore, the foundation of a new colony could be undertaken by a group of citizens dissatisfied with the order of their city-state and desiring to establish a new one that aligned with their ideals.

At the same time, changes in the direction of colonization could be linked to hostility between two coalitions of city-states during the Lelantine War. Chalcis and Corinth, by displacing their opponents from the colonization arena in Sicily, contributed to the formation of a new direction in ancient Greek colonization—northeastward, towards the Marble Sea and the Black Sea. It is known that many early colonies in this direction were established precisely by the adversaries of Chalcis and Corinth.

The colonization of new lands occurred gradually. For example, Corinth, before establishing Syracuse in Sicily under tyranny, first founded several colonies along the shores of the Corinthian Gulf and then on the islands of the Ionian Sea. During the period of tyrants' rule in Corinth, colonization policies were determined by strategic considerations. In addition to addressing the traditional Greek issues of land scarcity for cultivation and resources, the Corinthian tyrants aimed to secure strategic dominance in the western direction. The city-state of Sparta was an exception amid the wave of colonization. The Spartans founded only one colony, Tarentum, in southern Italy. However, they subsequently chose to address the problems common to all Greek city-states of that time (land scarcity and overpopulation) through conquests of new lands in the Peloponnese and by changing the structure of their own city-state.

The main directions of Greek colonization were "Magna Graecia" (Southern Italy), Sicily, the coasts of the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean (Cyprus and the southern coast of Asia Minor), Cyrene, the mouth of the Nile in Egypt, and the northwestern part of the Mediterranean. These directions can be grouped into three categories: western (the most active in terms of the number of colonies established), northeastern (second in activity), and southeastern and southern. Sometimes, colonists were unable to establish a colony in their desired location, and they had to change not only the place but also the region of colonization (for example, colonists from Eretria, who failed to establish a colony in Corcyra, founded a colony in Thrace). In the case of conflicts between the city-states acting as metropolises, the weaker city-state could be forced to halt colonization even when conditions were favorable for it (for example, Megara was constrained for a long time to establish only one colony due to opposition from its adversaries, Chalcis and Corinth). During the colonization of the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, city-states that had recently been colonies themselves participated, such as Miletus, which established around 90 colonies on the shores of the Black Sea. Additionally, city-states directly involved in the Great Greek Colonization period also participated in further colonization, such as Acragas founded by Gela and the colonies of Syracuse.

Divine sanction was required for any serious state enterprise, but it was especially necessary when founding a new settlement. The inhabitants of polis, who decided to establish a colony, typically turned to the Delphic Oracle, whose priests traditionally indicated the location for the future colony or gave other (sometimes ambiguous) instructions. Thus, it is possible that the direction of colonization (but not colonization itself) had a centralized character.

The majority of colonists usually consisted of impoverished and landless citizens, younger sons of families, and individuals defeated in the political arena, as well as residents of other polis. Colonists participating in the establishment of a new colony were expected to automatically receive land for cultivation and citizenship in the new polis. The organization of colony establishment was carried out by a chosen individual called an oikist. When founding a colony, the sacred hearth fire and images of local gods were transported from the metropolis. The inhabitants of colonies often maintained close ties with the metropolis and provided assistance when needed. There was also a special type of colony called a cleruchy, which was not an independent polis but rather the possessions of the inhabitants of a polis outside its borders. For example, the Athenian colony on Salamis was such a cleruchy. Despite this, colonies were initially established as independent polis, so when the interests of the metropolis and the colony clashed, both polis could transition from peaceful, friendly, and fraternal relations to open conflicts with each other, as happened between Corinth and Corcyra.

The creation of numerous colonies contributed to the development of trade, to the extent that some colonies were specifically established to ensure the strategic dominance of the metropolis in a particular region. Colonies exported grain (mainly from Magna Graecia and the Black Sea region) and copper (from Cyprus) to continental polis, and to a lesser extent, wine, so primarily, it was raw materials. In turn, iron and iron products, as well as woolen fabrics, ceramics, and other crafted goods, were exported to the colonies. Initially, in intra-Greek colony trade, Aegina took the lead, whose inhabitants were skilled sailors, but soon it was surpassed by Corinth and Chalcis, which had a greater number of colonies compared to Aegina. Only after them did Athens take the lead in maritime trade.

Thanks to the colonies, Greek polis managed to alleviate the overpopulation in mainland Greece, significantly increase the volume of trade, create conditions for the dominance of Greek merchants in the Mediterranean, and expand the sphere of Greek culture. It is estimated that during the period of colonization, several hundred colonies were established, with a total population of 1.5 to 2 million people.

Related topics

Ancient Greece, Athens