The government under which the Massaliotes live is aristocratic, and of all aristocracies theirs is the best ordered…
(Strabo, Geography, 1st cent. BCE/1st cent. CE)
From ‘East Greece’ we move to the West, the Golden West as it came enviously to be seen by many in Old Greece, stretching from Sicily through the straits of Messina to south Italy (Magna Graecia, ‘Great Greece’, in Latin) and on to the south of France and the east coast of Spain. Along this route what some know as the Midi, others as the coast of Provence (from Latin provincia, since this was the Roman Empire’s province of Gallia Narbonensis named for the chief place Narbo, today’s Narbonne), seemed to the ancient Greek sailors, traders, and would-be settlers of the later seventh century BCE to be virgin land ripe for exploitation. Actually, Phoenicians from Lebanon (Tyre and Sidon principally) had passed by here hundreds of years earlier and left their mark in various ways, including—as we shall soon see—nomenclature. Other visitors included Etruscans from today’s Tuscany. But for some reason neither had chosen to establish permanent settlements here, and in the case of the Phoenicians had proceeded on to Spain, to found such cities as Malaga and Cadiz, as they founded a string of settlements on the western Mediterranean’s southern shore, chiefly Utica and Carthage, which were in direct and regular contact with their cluster of permanent outposts (such as Motya and Panormus, later Palermo) at the western end of the island of Sicily.
Several cities and settlements of coastal Provence betray their Greek origin in their very name—Antibes started out as Antipolis, the ‘city opposite’, and Nice was Nikaia from the Greek goddess of Victory (Nikê). But the greatest and most fascinating of them all, then as now, was Marseilles, whose original name, Massalia, was not Greek but Phoenician, meaning prosaically ‘settlement’. In about 600 BCE, just about when Thales was flourishing in Miletus, a party of Greeks from Phocaea in that same Ionia of which Miletus was then the most distinguished place decided to drop anchor for good. The history of Marseilles begins with that decision, and partly for chauvinistic reasons (it was a Massaliote, Pytheas, among the half-dozen really great explorers of the globe, who first put Britain on the map in about 300 BCE), and partly for good historiographical ones, I have chosen Massalia as one of two cities to represent the ‘Western Greeks’—the other being Syracuse.
Much later literary sources tell a colourful tale of mixed marriage involving Greeks from Phocaea (modern Foça in western Turkey) and the local Ligurian Celts, spearheaded by the foundational union of the oecist (founder) Protis (or Euxenus) with the Ligurian princess Gyptis (or Petta), daughter of King Nannus. This tale—like the foundation myth of Megara Hyblaea in Sicily, for instance—was a myth told to exemplify the sunny, happy face of Greek colonization, a story of fruitful and willing co-operation between respectful Greek incomers and a receptive local population. As opposed to the dark side, exemplified messily at Taras (Taranto), where the Greek settlers coming originally from Sparta in about 700 had to fight the native Iapygians for their new home, and fight them again and again, at the cost of considerable bloodshed and lasting resentments. But how far Massalia’s foundation myth was true—even the oecist’s name was recorded variously, as noted, and the romantic element of the diplomatic dynastic marriage is surely a later embellishment—is another, unanswerable question.
Archaeology, combined with some suggestive passages of Herodotus, does, however, confirm that the founders of Massalia were indeed from Ionian Phocaea. Phocaeans, Herodotus tells us, traded in the West, not in purpose-built merchantmen, roundships driven by sailpower, but in a modified version of the then standard ship-of-the-line, the longship known as a penteconter (literally a ‘fifty-oared’), powered by two parallel rows of 20–25 oarsmen-trader-warriors. Such a large size of crew reduced their profits absolutely for each completed voyage (there were far more to share them than the crew of a sailing ship); but the form of ship increased their overall profitability on average, since it afforded them some security against not only freebooting pirates but their aggressive Phoenician and Etruscan (from Tuscany) trading rivals too.
The foundation of Massalia was just one piece in a complicated jigsaw. From about 800 BCE onwards adventurous Greeks from the Aegean basin had begun sailing far and wide in the Mediterranean for various reasons: to trade, especially in metals and slaves; to obtain new land to settle, and new luxuries to import; to fight as mercenaries; or/and for the sheer fun of it. At the eastern end of the Mediterranean by way of Cyprus they encountered the Phoenicians of Lebanon, and it was from them that they learned to write again after centuries of illiteracy following the demise of Mycenaean Linear B. But, typically, the Greeks did not just borrow Phoenician letters, they created a wholly original fully phonetic alphabetic script. One of the earliest alphabetic texts was scratched in Euboeanstyle letters on a Rhodian vase buried in about 730 in a Greek grave on Ischia (ancient Pithecusae) in the bay of Naples. To the north-east, as we have seen in the Miletus chapter, these adventurous Greek emigrants passed through the Hellespont and Bosporus straits and settled all round the Black Sea. Westwards, as we shall explore further in this chapter and one other (Syracuse), they penetrated as far ultimately as south-east Spain via south Italy and Sicily, then either north Africa or southern France.
The hundreds of permanent settlements that emerged around the Mediterranean and Black Sea from 750 on, mostly coastal, ‘like frogs around a pond’ (as Plato amusingly put it), are wrongly called ‘colonies’; actually, they were new independent Greek cities, or became so if they had begun as trading emporia or staging-posts. Various local, individual factors lay behind different foundations, but two goals were constant, regardless of destination—a quest for raw materials, and a search for land to settle and farm. And in almost all cases the settlers had to contend somehow with natives, whether they lived actually on the sites the Greeks wished to settle or nearby along the coast or in the immediate hinterland.
The physical attractions of Massalia, lying close to the mouth of a major river system (the Rhône) with good harbours and natural hilly defences, were immense. And the natives, if not necessarily as positively friendly as tradition had it, nevertheless did not pose a major threat to the settlement’s continued, successful existence. We know little about the political system of the new polis of Massalia—we would have known a great deal more, had there survived to our day (it did survive to Strabo’s, only 300 years later—see epigraph) Aristotle’s Constitution of the Massaliotes, one of the 158 he and his pupils at the Lyceum compiled (see Chapter 8). But it seems to have been governed—along lines familiar from the merchant-aristocracies of medieval Italian city-states—by a small self-selecting and self-regulating council of the wealthiest citizens. In surprisingly quick time, at any rate, Massalia was so firmly established and grew to such an extent that it could establish its own daughter-foundations, such as Emporium (Ampurias) in north-eastern Spain. Again, as excavations at Torreparedones near Córdoba have suggested, what the Greeks were after were above all metals, for example those to be extracted from the mountains north of Córdoba. But the voyage of one Euthymenes to West Africac.550 reported the existence of something very different: crocodiles at the mouth of what must be the Senegal river.
Many types of Greek manufactured goods passed from the Aegean Greek world through Massalia to the natives inland. Surely the most impressive single object by far was the so-called Vix Krater, a massive (1.64 m. tall, 208 kg. in weight, capacity 1,100 litres…) wine-mixing bowl of bronze, made possibly in Sparta in about 530 BCE (Plate 8). It was generously decorated, including a frieze of Greek heavy-armed infantrymen processing in relief around the neck, and topped off by a lid-handle in the form of a demurely draped woman. This wondrous artefact was ultimately deposited in the grave of a Celtic princess at the eponymous Vix, near the confluence of the Rhône with the Seine. It represented very likely a combination of economic, social, and political investment—a diplomatic gift from the Greeks to a local native chieftain, perhaps, but at the same time a vessel with a practical function, namely to mix wine with water (or perhaps not mix it…: Greeks at any rate thought it typical of uncultivated ‘barbarians’ to drink their wine neat) for consumption at some gi-normous Celtic carouse.
But where did the wine itself come from? Whether that mixed (or not) in the Vix Krater was locally produced or not, it could have been so—but only because the Greeks of Massalia had introduced the grapevine to the Provence region for the very first time just a couple of generations or so earlier. By 600 viticulture had been an established and fundamental feature of agriculture in the Greek heartlands for over a millennium and a half. Much of the wine produced there, though, was probably nothing special to taste; the addition of water, though a cultural necessity for properly civilized Greeks, doubtless also had a gustatory function. However, during the early historical period certain Greek winegrowing areas—most notably the islands of Chios and Thasos—had developed wines of superior quality that were marketed far and wide in terracotta transport amphoras of distinctive local shapes. In its turn Massalia, once established as a wine-trader, created and exported, as a key element of its more general function as a major entrepôt, its own distinctive Massaliot brand of wine-transport amphora.
Some scholars would go further still and argue that it was also through the Greeks of Massalia that the growing of the olive was first introduced to the south of France. Certainly it was Ionians like the Phocaeans who traded processed olive oil to the newly established settlements of Greeks along the north shore of the Black Sea, since the olive cannot stand the frosty winters there, and their kinsmen colonists in the West would therefore have been utterly familiar with the idea of trading in oil. But even if it was they who carried the first precious olive roots, seedlings, and saplings to Massalia, these could equally and more accessibly have been grown in south Italy; indeed, there is even the possibility that it was not Greeks but Phoenicians or Etruscans (witness the wreck of an Etruscan merchant ship datable c.600 BCE that was ‘excavated’ off the island of Giglio) who had literally planted the seed of southern French oleiculture, using growths brought from their native Lebanon or Tuscany. Nevertheless, though Massalia may not have contributed much in the way of high literary or visual culture to the sum of Hellenic achievement (unlike some other Western Greek cities—Croton and Taras in south Italy, for instance), it should be granted the lion’s share of the credit for disseminating to western Europe at least one liquid cultural artefact that has greatly enhanced the gaiety of many nations ever since.
In about 545 the emergent and insurgent Persian empire delivered its calling card to the Aegean coast (see previous chapter), and Herodotus tells a colourful tale of the siege by and abandonment to the Persians of the Massaliotes’ metropolis Phocaea. Rather than submit to Persian ‘slavery’, the remaining Phocaeans followed their pioneering ancestors to the by then increasingly hellenized West. Indeed, metaphorically though by no means literally they burned their boats; that is, they cast lumps of iron into the sea and swore a terrible oath by the gods not to return to their homeland until the iron floated to the surface of the waves, i.e., in principle, never. In self-imposed exile they lived first on Corsica and then settled at Rhegium in the toe of Italy (Reggio Calabria). But, as the saying goes, never say ‘never’: for in much happier times two to three generations later descendants of these émigrés did indeed return, after the Graeco-Persian Wars of the 480s, and joined up as members of Athens’s anti-Persian naval alliance, assessed to pay annually in ‘tribute’ the relatively small sum of three silver talents (see Chapter 8, below).
All the while, though, every few years at least, they might expect to meet up with their colonial relatives of Massalia, either at Olympia or, perhaps more likely still, at Delphi, where the Massaliotes had spent a good deal of their surplus wealth in conspicuous consumption and self-advertisement through the erection of a fine marble ‘Treasury’ to house expensive dedications of bronze vessels or figurines, gold jewellery and such-like made by their own citizens (see further Appendix).