Greek Colonization in the Archaic Period

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Identify and Discuss the Main Elements Stimulating the Spread of Greek Colonies During the Archaic Period


Between around 800 and 500[1] the Greek states embarked upon a widespread colonisation movement; by the 6th century Greek colonies were scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea. It was as a direct result of this colonisation movement that Greek culture was disseminated to Africa, Asia and Southern Europe, it was a movement that changed the economic and cultural history of the whole region (Bradley, 1988, 20).

Motivation for Colonisation

It is often assumed, based upon the original claim of Thucydides, and recently exemplified by Sealey (1976, 31), that colonisation was a direct result of land hunger[2] caused by overpopulation of the mother city and a lack of local resources to feed burgeoning numbers. He claims support for this idea can be found in the foundation of Cyrene (Herodotus 4.150-158). The colonists were sent out by Thera after a period of famine, but this does not at all support the idea that colonists were sent out by overpopulated cities, but that some colonies wee the result of natural disaster.

The theory of exploding population as a direct cause for much of the colonisation movement can easily be defeated; the assumption of increasing numbers comes from the archaeological evidence for greater numbers of graves in places like Attica and the Argolid (Cawkwell, 1992, 57). Athens, however, sent out no colonies before the end of the 7th century and Argos none at all. The archaeological evidence also suggests that the number of burials declined in the 7th century implying a population decrease, if the logic is followed through, during the period when Athens sent out here colony. It would be unsafe to assume one without the other. What the archaeology is most likely giving us evidence of is a change in fashion through the archaic period.

Alleviating pressure on the available lad was almost certainly one motivation, but this would have been as a result of some natural disaster, such as the drought on Thera mentioned above (Herodotus 4.150-158; cf. Sealey, 1976, 31).

Towards the beginning of the last century, it was believed that at most sites in the west, notably in Sicily, Greek pottery had been imported by natives before the colonists arrived. From this it was reasonable to infer that trade was an important and perhaps decisive factor in the colonising movement (Bury & Meiggs, 1994, 70): this assumption has long been disputed, however. The current balance of archaeological opinion is that there is no certain evidence of trade with Sicily before the colonists arrived (Bury & Meiggs, 1994, 70). There is little doubt, however, that trade was a very significant factor in the colonisation of the Mediterranean, as exemplified by the foundation of Naucratis in Egypt (Herodotus 2.178); it was traders who knew of the most advantageous places to settle and trading links were maintained with the mother city (Sealey, 1976, 31; cf. Murray, 1980, 107).

Who were the colonists?

As noted above, traders often formed part of the population of many of the colonies, or at the very least colonists would have been relying heavily on information supplied by traders (Murray, 1980, 107). It should further be noted that the two earliest known colonies, Al Mina and Pithecusae,[3] were both established as trading posts (Bury & Meiggs, 1994, 70). Murray argues (Murray, 1980, 108), however, that in general terms trade tended to be a consequence of colonial activity and not its main driving force and thus the main constituents of a colony were almost always farmers and craftsmen looking for what can only be described as a better like. The colonies always were intended to be self sufficient and so members of a colonising expedition were made up of all classis and trades (Hammond, 1959, 114). In the larger colonies, settlers tended to come in several waves, the latter settlers tending to be of lower status in the colony and being known as epoikoi (Hammond, 1959, 114).

Which cities colonised?

Many Greek city states and islands participated in the colonising movement, including Chalcis in Euboea, Corinth (for colonisation of Corcyra, Strabo 6.2.4), Megara, Rhodes, Crete most of whom founded colonies in Sicily. Southern Italy was colonised largely by the Achaen states of the northern Peloponnese such as Sybaris and Croton (Sealey, 1976, 32). In the Northen Aegean area, the three pronged peninsula that became known as the Chalcidide was so called because of the many foundations from Chalcis, some in that region were also from Andros. The Bosphorus area was colonised by Megara and many colonies in the Black Sea came from the Ionian Greek states such as Miletus (Sealey, 1976, 33).

It is perhaps more notable as to which states did not participate in the colonisation movement In any significant way, Sparta only founded one colony at Tarentum (Sealey, 1976, 32-3). in Southern Italy, and Athens likewise only founded o single colony whilst Argos founded none at all. A comprehensive list of all Greek foundations in the Archaic period can be found in Hammond, 1959, 657-660.

Which areas were colonised?

The first wave of Greek colonisation was felt most strongly in Sicily (Thucydides 6.1ff) and slightly later, southern Italy. After this initial burst of activity, the islands and promontories of the northern Aegean and along the coast of Macedon and Thrace were settled. The entrance to the Black Sea was colonised in the early 7th century and the Black Sea region probably at some point after that, although the dating for this is far from certain. North Africa seems to have been the focus of settlement activity in the mid 7th century with Cyrene being founded around 630. Around 600 the Phoenicians established a number of colonies in southern France,[4] and in Spain[5] (Murray, 1980, 104). The colonisation movement essentially ended in 580, geographically the best sites had all been occupies by then and the only significant remaining area in the Adriatic was had a barren and inhospitable coastline (Murray, 1980, 104).

What was the relationship to the mother city?

When the primary colony of a city state itself founded a subsidiary colony, it was common to invite a citizen from the mother state as oikistes and transplanted the same institutions: for example, the Corcyreans founded Epidamnus under the leadership of a Corinthian. We also know that Sparta’s foundation, Taras, had a college of ephors; and Euesperides, a colony of Cyrene, both ephors and a gerousia (Hammond, 1959, 112). The sense of kinship with the founding colony was, therefore, exceptionally strong. The attachment was no doubt because of a sense of debt and gratitude felt by the colonists towards the mother city for organising the settlers in the first place. As noted above, however, colonies were intended to by self sufficient and once they were firmly established the cord was cut. It was a symbol of the independence of the colony that it worshipped not its founding city, but its oikistes, even if he was of alien origin as at Epidamnus (Hammond, 1959, 112). Some privileges were occasionally extended to the foundress, such as a request to arbitrate a dispute, but they were also frequently offered to other cities also. The relationship between founder and colony did not always remain friendly after the colony essentially became independent, the best possible example of this being the complex dispute between Corinth, Corcyra and Epidamnus that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Rhodes, 2006, 82ff).


The Greek colonisation movement had no single individual cause, it was partly the result of land hunger caused by natural disaster in some city states, almost certainly the result of expansion in some states, the result of a desire for trade revenues by some. Colonies were always intended to be independent and not simply an extension of the home city so the motivation of colonisation is hard to fathom unless we realise that it was usually not the city that was the driving force behind the desire to settle abroad but probably the main driving force came from citizens rather than it states. Individual citizens largely drove colonisation no doubt seeking a tract of land for themselves and their children, something they may never have been able to achieve in their home state.

Most city states took part in the colonisation movement, but a number of the most powerful, Athens, Sparta and Argos, did not; so we can reasonably assume that colonisation did not add greatly, if at all, to the military or economic strength, or perhaps even prestige of the founding city again supporting the view that the movement was largely from citizens rather than states.


P. Bradley, Ancient Greece: Using Evidence (London 1988)

J. B. Bury & R. Meiggs, A History of Greece (London 1994)

G. Cawkwell, Early Colonisation, CQ 1992

N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 BC (Oxford, 1959)

O. Murray, Early Greece (Glasgow 1980)

P. J. Rhodes, A History of the Classical Greek World, 478-323BC (Oxford 2006)

R. Sealey, A History of the Greek City States: 700-338 BC (London 1976)



[1] All dates are BC unless otherwise stated.

[2] Argument of Thucydides in Bury & Meiggs, 1994, 70.

[3] Both established before 750.

[4] e.g. Massalia.

[5] e.g. Emporion.

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