The most important ancient Greek colonies throughout history

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Silver drachma minted at Massalia (Marseille, France) around 350-220 BC. Credit: Jastrow / Wikimedia Commons

The first ancient Greek colonies were established as early as the 8th century BC, while extensive colonization continued until the 5th century BC.

A number of cities and settlements were established, spreading Hellenism across Europe, Africa and Asia during these centuries, reaching a total of 500 – which involved up to 60,000 Greek citizen settlers.

The founding of the colonies (αποικίαι, singular αποικία) was an organized enterprise of the large city-states, although in many cases it occurred through a collaboration of cities.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

The locations to be colonized were carefully selected in advance, based not only on their potential business benefits, but also to provide security against looters.

However, there were other reasons as well. Some city-states have been forced to colonize due to famines, natural disasters and overcrowding.

By 500 BC, these new territories would ultimately represent an incredible 40 percent of all Greeks in the Hellenic world.

Ancient Greek colonies from the 8th century BC.

Restless and adventurous spirits, the ancient Greeks defied natural hazards and fear of the unknown, and began to seek new places to settle even before the 8th century BC.

The cities of Rhodes, even before 800 BC, founded settlements in Tarsus of Cilicia. They were followed by the towns of Evian to Tarsus and to Al-Mina, a town just across from Cyprus.

The cities of Evian, among the leaders of ancient Greek colonization, also established settlements in Halkidiki, Macedonia in the early 8th century BC.

The first Greek colony established outside present-day Greece was located in the Pithekousai Islands (now Ischia, Italy).

The colony was established by the Chalcidians and Eretrians between 770 and 760 BC. A few years later, the inhabitants of Chalkis and Kymi founded Kymi, facing the Pithekousai Islands, in what is now Campania in mainland Italy.

In the year 734 BC.

At the same time, Greek colonies began to settle in southern Italy, with Taranto, Sybaris and Kroton (Crotone) and Rhegium.

Taranto was among the most important in all of Magna Graecia, becoming a cultural, economic and military power that gave birth to philosophers, strategists, writers and athletes.

Colonies of ancient Greece
Greek colonization in the archaic period. The areas in red show the colonies. Public domain

Southern Mediterranean and Magna Grecia

From 700 BC to 500 BC, Greek colonies in areas of Sicily and present-day mainland Italy multiplied, creating the region known as Magna Graecia.

According to modern historian Mogens Herman Hansen, more than 46 Greek colonies were founded in Sicily and more than 22 in southern Italy.

A sort of “second Greece” was formed in these regions, which represented a population and area just a little smaller than mainland Greece, hence the name Magna Graecia.

The new Greek residents came mostly from Rhodes and Crete as well as the Achaeans from Messinia. However, not all of the Greek colonies in Italy today were established peacefully.

The older settlers of these towns owned large estates cultivated by native slavers; they formed a very insular aristocracy which reacted negatively to the economic and political advancement of the young colonists.

Shortly before 600 BC, the Rhodians founded Parthenope, the precursor of Naples. At the same time, the Greeks of Evia lived on the islands of Pontia and Pandateira (now Capri).

The great Syracuse in ancient Greece

Syracuse, also known as Syracuse, was founded by Corinthian settlers in 733 BC, the second Greek city to be founded on the island after Naxos.

The natives were well disposed towards the Greek colonists, and Syracuse grew rapidly to become the most powerful Greek city-state in Sicily and the Mediterranean.

In 485 BC, Gelon seized power as a tyrant and resettled the inhabitants of Gela, Kamarina and Megara in Syracuse, building the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the city walls.

In 415 BC, Syracuse had 250,000 inhabitants and was of equal size to Athens; the city continued to make expeditions to Corsica and Elba, defeating the powerful Carthaginian Empire at the Battle of Himera and the ancient Etruscanes at the Battle of Cumae.

From 415 to 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, Syracuse along with Spartan forces helped repel the Sicilian expedition of the Athenians.

Sybaris and the Sybarites

Sybaris was another important Greek colony of Magna Graecia. It was located on the Gulf of Taranto, in southern Italy, between two rivers, the Crathis (Crati) and the Sybaris (Coscile).

Sybaris was founded in 720 BC by Achaean and Troezenian settlers. The city had a bustling port and fertile land, and quickly amassed great wealth.

The wealth of Sybaris made its citizens famous for their hedonism, their feasts and their excesses, to the point that “sybarite” and “sybarite” became synonymous with opulence, luxury and outrageous pleasure.

However, in 510 BC the city was subjugated by its neighbor Kroton and its population driven out. Sybaris became a dependent ally of Kroton, but Kroton again besieged the city in 476 BC and occupied it.

The Sybarites reoccupied their city and expelled the Krotonians 30 years later with the help of new settlers from Athens and other towns in the Peloponnese.

However, the Sybarites could not coexist with the new settlers and soon found themselves in a new conflict with them.

The Sybarites were last driven from their lands in the summer of 445 BC.

The new settlers then founded the city of Thurii in 443 BC, a new settlement which was partly built on the site of Sybaris. The surviving Sybarites founded another new colony, called “Sybaris on the Traeis”.

Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean

The Phoceans greatly contributed to the establishment of Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean, as the historian Thucydides mentioned.

Due to their commercial activity, the Phocaeans founded many cities in the south of Gaul (present-day France), and also introduced the cult of the goddess Artemis.

The first is Massalia (Marseille), which was colonized by them around 600 BC. From the start, the Greeks made sure to have good relations with the Gauls. Greek goods were then transported inland from Massalia.

On the same coast, the Phoceans also built Olbia and the Massaliotes Nicée and Antipolis. Other Greek colonies like Agde, Nice, Antibes and Monaco were added. The Phocéens also founded establishments on the island of Corsica, as in Alalia.

Along the west coast, in the Iberian Peninsula, from north to south, the Phocaeans founded Emporiae and Rhoda, the latter established by people from Rhodes.

The ruins of Emporiae are still visible in the province of Girona, which belongs to Catalonia; it is the westernmost Greek colony in which archaeological traces still exist.

Ancient Greek colonies in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa

Around 630 BC, Greek settlers founded Cyrene, in present-day Libya. After 570 BC AD, the city enjoyed great prosperity as it reinforced its population with new settlers, including Peloponnesians, Cretans and other islanders.

It was the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities known as “pentapoleis” (meaning “five cities” in Greek), in the region.

After the mid-7th century BC, the Milesians built the Milesian Wall in the Nile Delta. After helping Pharaoh Psamtik I defeat his rival Inaros, he gave them new lands to settle in.

This is how they founded the port city of Naucratis in 615 BC.

The Greeks also built the city of Herakleion, just outside of Alexandria, which became an important port for Greek trade. It was there that they built the famous temple of Heracles.

Ancient Greek colonies of Propontis and the Black Sea

The last area settled by the ancient Greeks was the Black Sea, or Euxina, as they called it. It was the Ionians in this case who were the colonizers; they wanted to take advantage of the fishery resources and the agricultural areas around the Hellespont and Pontos.

The first to establish settlements there where the inhabitants of Miletos, who are said to have founded a total of 70 poles, are found in the fertile land and sea of ​​the region.

The inhabitants of Megara founded the great Chalcedon in 685 BC, Byzantium in 668 BC and Herakleia Pontike in 560 BC.

Important poles such as Kyzikos, founded around 675 BC. BC, Sinope, which was colonized in 631 BC.

The Aeolians founded Sistos after 700 BC. J. – C., the Phocéens founded Lampsaque a little later, while towards 600 av.

Sinope created new settlements in Kytoro, Kerasounta, Kotyora, Kromna, Pterion, Tion and elsewhere.

Eventually, almost the entire Black Sea was closed by Greek colonies by any means necessary – including war, diplomacy, and intermarriages with indigenous peoples in order to ensure the survival of the colonies.

In fact, at the end of the 6th century BC, the Greek colonies provided money and weapons to the Persian Empire and received protection in return.

After Xerxes failed to invade Greece in 480 and 479 BC.

As a result, Herakleia found its own settlements in the 420s BC in areas such as Chersonesos in the Crimea.

From the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, Athens took an interest in the region, sent settlers and established garrisons, but the enterprise was short-lived.

With the eventual withdrawal from Athens, the Greek colonies were left to fend for themselves and faced the threat of neighboring powers such as the Royal Scythians – and, ultimately, Macedonia and Philip II on their own.

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