The great age of the expansion of Greece beyond Greece proper and the eastern shores of the Aegean lasted from the middle of the 8th to the early part of the 6th century (All dates in BC) when Greek colonies were scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea. This expansion by means of colonies may be regarded as a continuation of the movement which took Greek settlers in the period of the migrants across the Aegean to the shores of Asia Minor and the adjoining islands.

In this essay I will outline the causes, features and limitations of colonial expansion in Archaic Greece, along with its consequences for the Greek world.

The push/pull causes for the process of colonization in Archaic Greece are to be found;

1. In the adventurous spirit of the Greeks, which we see reflected in such myths as the Argonauts.

2. As a result of people abandoning their lands, which had been ravaged and plundered by a foreign enemy.

3. The incentives for the Greeks to establish trade with foreign people and improve their lot.

4. The aristocratic form of government in many states was harsh and bred discontent, so that the men were encouraged to seek happier conditions elsewhere.

5. The political and social conditions which prevailed at this time in Greek lands, especially in the 6th century. Some nobles controlled the inner core of political life such as Bacchids of Corinth, Penthilids of Mytilene and Alcmaenids of Athens whilst excluding other factions. This in turn forced other noble families to seek other colonies. Colonization was also a direct result of land hunger caused by overpopulation of the mother city and a lack of local resources to feed burgeoning numbers. The area of cultivatable land in Greece was very limited, while the agrarian system was controlled by the great families, who tended to exclude a portion of the inhabitants from a share in the soil. As the population and exclusion from the agricultural land available and its natural resources became unsustainable, those who could not live on the land took to seafaring as a means of subsistence. A tradition never died among the Greek poor that in the ‘good old days’ some founder-king had divided the city’s land fairly, and that, since the division had become very unequal, a new division was due. The situation inspired a revolutionary spirit and many were converted into needy adventurers. [Wikipedia cf. Burn, A.R, 1966, p 88]

The conditions of overpopulation have recently been exemplified by Sealey (1976, 31); who claims support for this idea can be found in the foundation of Cyrene (Herodotus, 4.150-158) and from the archaeological evidence for the greater numbers of graves in places like Attica and the Argolid. Alleviating pressure on the land was almost certainly a motivation, but we must also consider that some colonies were sent out as a result of natural disaster, as at Thera after a period of drought and famine. (Herodotus, 4.150-158]

Further, archaeological evidence in Athens suggests that the number of burials declined in the 7th century implying a population decrease [Sealey, 1976, 31] which perhaps implies the more important role of the other factors mentioned above, during the archaic period.

A way out seems to have been revealed by Greek merchants, who observed favourable sites on their voyages and would recommend them to intending emigrants. As regards the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, the pressure of the powerful peoples of the interior checking the natural course of expansion towards the inner territories favoured overseas migration.

Here and elsewhere no doubt trade assisted: the migrants made a living out of the fact that, in a world still largely bronze using, not only Greece but the Great kingdoms of the east had an insatiable desire for the rare metal, tin. Midas (of the golden touch), King of Phrygia, fought the Assyrians on the eastern frontier, went into an alliance with Agamemnon, King of Cyme, and dedicated a throne at Delphi and a merchant of Cyme, Mediocrities (‘approved of Midas’) was said first to have brought tin from a ‘Tin Island’. This seems to have been a deliberate effort to establish a metal-trade from Asia Minor in competition with the Phoenicians, who had already reached Spain along the coast of North Africa.

This is the context of the epoch-making event, the foundation of the first Greek colony in the west (archaeology confirms a date soon after 750), by Cyme together with Chalcis, the “bronze town” in Euboea, famous for its metal-work; it too was called Cyme (in Greek, Kume), a name more famous in the Latin dress, the Cumae of Virgil. The colonies were in turn a stimulus to Greek trade and industry. The colonists demanded the industrial products of the metropolis and exported in exchange for food and raw materials. The settlements were, at first, private ventures, but were later organized by the states. The emigrants about to found a colony took with them fire from the sacred hearth of their state and the state appointed an official oecist as head of the venture. The Delphic oracle was often consulted on questions of colonial policy. (pictured, below left)

New city-states were founded according to three tribal divisions traditionally seen among the Greeks, each with distinct dialects: the Ionians, the Aeolians and the Dorians. Cumae, planted far afield on the Bay of Naples, seems likely to have been a trading outpost, similar to its Phoenician contemporary, Carthage (New Town’) in Tunisia, but was soon followed by a whole series of new ventures which went less far and seized the best coastal land (though not always the best harbours) from weak native populations in eastern Sicily and south Italy. Chalcis, probably recruiting land hungry men also from other cities, such as Nexos, founded a new Nexos, near Taormina, the first Greek town in Sicily and a base for the conquest of more spacious sites further south (Catana, Leontini). She also founded Rhenium (Reggio-Calabria) and reduced to order an an unofficial pirate settlement of Greeks on the Straits, now Messina.

Corinth, (Pictured right) which already had an eye for harbours, founded Syracuse and colonized Corkyra (Corfu Island), a useful half-way house. The Achaeans of the northern Peloponnese, who were not traders but lacked land at home, got the best agricultural sites of all, at Sybaris, Croton and Metaponto in south Italy. Sparta, ‘reconstructing’ after the conquest of Messina, planted out ‘war-babies’ and other dissatisfied elements at Taras (Taranto). Rhodains and Cretans, already accustomed to trade with the Levant, but unable to colonize there in the face of the Assyrian empire, came to Gela on the south coast of Sicily. All this is said to have been done between 735 and 690 (the real dates are perhaps a little later.)

There was a long pause before the expansion to western Sicily. Then Megara, a small colony near Syracuse – founded when its mother city, old Megara, was a vassal of Corinth – sent out men to Selinus (Selinunte), after 630, and Gala to Acragas (Agrigento of the splendid temples) half-way to Selinus, about 580. By this time also the Ancient Greek Ionians of Phocaea, a neighbour of Acolic Cyme, which seems to replace Cyme in the western trade (we do not know why) were colonizing from the Riviera (Nice, Antibes, Monaco) to Spain. Massalia (Marseille), their chief success, was only the greatest among many colonies and their early walls at Ampurias (Emporiae, ‘the Trade Posts’), about 520, are the western most considerable remains surviving of any Greek city.

(Pictured left, Syracuse)

Colonization in other areas was important, but all of it together not so important as the west. Cyrene, founded by the Dorian island of Thera (Santorin), and later reinforced from all over the Aegean, alone could compare with such cities as Sybaris. Founded a few miles inland, and, according to Strabo {c 64-A.D. 19) “The city flourished from the excellence of the soil, which is peculiarly adapted for breeding horses, and the growth of fine crops.”[Geographia]

It also exported the medicinal herb silphium (now extinct), founded daughter cities westward to Euhesperidae (Benghazi) and long preserved the hereditary monarchy (c 630-450).

(Pictured left, Sybaris)

These Greek colonies, mentioned above and below, were normally sovereign states; not politically dependent on the mother city, but the relationship between colony and mother-city remained, as a rule, friendly and intimate. They preserved ties of religion and sentiment and maintained many of the same institutions such as the constitution, calendar, dialect and alphabet etc. The colonies might also be helped or assist the mother city in times of war, but by their very distance they could not be kept under the yoke. When Corinth attempted to maintain her control of the Kerkyra colony the result was a war of independence and lengthy hostility.

Colonization in the north Aegean began later than in the west, surprisingly at first sight; but the large, blond Thracians were a different proposition, as opponents, from the western Sicels. Only perhaps, when Corinth began to monopolize trade with Sicily, did Chalcis and Eretria in Euboea turn to the three tongued peninsula, later known as Chalcidice and Megara, now independent of Corinth and on bad terms with her, to the sea of Marmara. The coast of the Troad and some sites in the Cheronese (Gallipoli Peninsula) had already been occupied by a clockwise spread of settlements from Lesbos and continental Aeolis. Mytilene, the largest of the five cities of Lesbos, kept those in the Troad dependent when she could. Megara looked further, and founded ty famous cities astride the Bosphorus, Chalcedon and, in 657 or later, Byzantium.

Ionian traders had already visited the Black Sea coasts, but the great outpouring of colonists thither seems to have begun only after events in Asia Minor had cut off the cities there from the hope of expanding by land. The Phrygian kingdom was destroyed, about 676, by migrating barbarians, the Cimmerians, driven south by the coming of the horse-archer Scythians, like Goths before the Huns, and its western successor state, Lydia, with its capital at Sardis only a day’s ride from the sea, first drove out the Cimmerians and then pressed Ionia hard, destroying Smyrna (c 600) and attacking Miletus at the mouth of the Maeander valley. However, Gyres (c678-648), founder of the Lydian military dynasty, while he may have cut short Miletus’ territory at home, allowed her to colonize Abydus, on the narrows of the Dardanelles, opposite Sestus. Thereafter Miletus (with recruits we may guess from other cities) directed a remarkable colonizing enterprise; she was said to have founded seventy cities in the Black Sea and its approaches. Among the most important were Sinope, probably c 630, though some Greek estimations (which also grossly antedated Cyrene) made it much earlier; Trapezus (Trebizond), a daughter-colony of Sinope; Olbia (‘Prosperity’), not far from modem Odessa in the Ukraine. Megara also took part in this movement, with several colonies; her largest was Heraclea in Bithvnia, which included many settlers from Boeotia.

These Black Sea northern colonies were of enormous importance to classical Greece, as sources of foodstuffs and raw materials (grain, fish, timber, leather) and of slaves, but in culture, unlike those of the west, they seem to have remained ‘colonial’ in literature and art, following the mother country. When they produced famous intellectuals, such as Aristotle from Chalcidice, or Diogenes (of the tub) from Sinope, they not only went to study in the old country but tended to stay there.

In the Levant, Woolley’s excavations at Al-Mina have shown that the Greek trading colony was established before 700 on the coast of north Syria; its name was probably Posidium. But, like Greek ventures into Cilicia, it was unable to make good its hold permanently against Assyrian and Phoenician hostility. The easternmost typical Greek colony here (not counting the Mycenaean foundations in Cyprus) was Rhodian Phaselis in Lycia. However, the Levant trade (Greek metals, wine, pottery and other manufactures against spices, purple, oriental metalwork, ivory and apes, and engraved ostrich-eggs – peacocks only later) remained important, despite intermittent warfare. Its impact on the newly expanding culture of Greece was tremendous, as may be seen in the Orientalizing movement in Greek art. [Roberts, J.M, 2004, pp 272-285; cf. Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, 1978, Volume 1 pp 531-533, Volume 3 pp 473-474; N. G. L.Hammond, (3rd Ed ) 1986, pp 109-129; Burn, A.R, 1966, p 88; Wikipedia]

As a result of these various enterprises, the 6th century saw Greek colonies scattered along most of the shores of the Mediterranean and the Euxine, ‘like frogs around a pond’ {Plato. Phaed. 109], not only united under any central control, but at liberty to work out their own destinies with important consequences for the history of civilization. They were the means of extending Greek culture to many peoples; and by their very independence, by their contact with a variety of nations, they developed that culture itself, giving it variety and favouring originality. Particularly stimulating to Greek intelligence was the contact with Egypt, where thousands of Greeks went, ‘both to trade’, says Herodotus, ‘and to see the country’, many of them to serve in the armies of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty.

This is seen in Greek literature, philosophy and art. Under Alexander and his successors Greek colonization took a new form: Alexander himself founded a large number of colonies in the territories he conquered, designed to hold the natives in subjection, to spread Greek civilization and to foster trade. His successors followed this policy. Whence the numerous Alexandriae, Antiochs, Seleucias etc, found in the east. They were for the most part situated in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, but some in more distant regions such as Iran and India. [Fox, R.L, (3rd Ed) 1986, p198; Wikipedia]




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

Burn, A.R, 1966, The Pelican History of Greece, Middlesex, Penguin Books.

Roberts, J.M, 2004, Ancient History, From the First Civilisations to the Renaissance, London, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd.

Everyman Encyclopedia, 1978, Volumes 1 & 3, London, J M Dent & Sons Ltd

N. G. L, Hammond, (3rd Ed) 1986, A History of Greece to 322 BC, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Fox, R. L, (3rd Ed) 1986, Alexander the Great, London, Penguin Books.

Herodotus, The Histories: BK. 4, A.D, Godley (translator), Leob Classical Library, London, 1932.

Strabo, Geographica, Volume 2, H.L, Jones (translator), Leob Classical Library, London, 1930.


24 votes, average: 5.00 out of 524 votes, average: 5.00 out of 524 votes, average: 5.00 out of 524 votes, average: 5.00 out of 524 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (24 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this.
(3295 total tokens earned)


      1. TRUTH(@i-am)

        This is the type of content I see for the future of TRYBE,,,, not sure the rest of the world agrees,,, but I’m hoping its the “GREAT LIBRARY” of the Decentralized Internet. Scrolls of University Level, but easy to understand, DEEP CONCEPTS for the ingesting by the eager to learn public.

  1. miti

    This post is a masterpiece! I live in Apulia, in the south of Italy and a part of my region (Salentine Peninsula) has many greek influences because it is inhabited by the Griko people, an ethnic Greek minority who speak Griko, a variant of Greek.

  2. CryptosDecrypted

    Great piece @sandwichbill. It’s remarkable how far and wide the Greeks roamed and how many of the world’s great cities own their foundation to Greek colonists. I also find myself continually astounded at the intellectual richness of 5–6th century BC Greek culture. Atoms – check / Sophisticated Philosophy – check / Great art – check and on and on.