The ancient Greeks spread their influence and culture through much of their known world by establishing colonies in other lands.
During two great periods of colonization, the Greeks founded settlements in Sicily, Italy, North Africa, and western Asia. Modeled on Greek cities, with Greek-style temples, public buildings, and houses, these colonies brought Greek architecture, art, customs, and language to many regions.
The First Wave. The first wave of colonization lasted from the 750s to the 580s B.C. It was not a unified Greek enterprise, however. Instead, a number of city-states* established colonies at different times for various purposes. The first to do so were Eretria, Chalkis, and Kyme, city-states on Euboea, an island off the eastern coast of the Greek mainland. The Euboean cities joined together to found two colonies to exploit the region west of Greece that was rich in metals such as iron and tin. One colony, Cumae, was established on the western coast of Italy. The other colony, Ischia, was located on a small island north of the Bay of Naples. These colonies served as centers for trade and mining.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Soon the Greeks realized that colonies could be more than just trading outposts or isolated mining settlements. Colonies offered a solution to a serious problem—the shortage of land in Greece. As the Greek population had grown, many farms had been divided and subdivided among sons until the plots that remained were too small to support families. Aristocrats possessed all the best land around the cities, and discontent rose among the landless poor. If people were willing to settle overseas, however, they could obtain land. Driven by this hunger for land, as well as the desire to trade and to exploit new resources, many Greek city-states founded dozens of colonies.
Chalkis was a leading colonizer, establishing settlements in southern Italy and on the island of Sicily. Eretria placed settlers on Corfu, an island off the western coast of Greece. Corinth founded Syracuse, an important harbor city in eastern Sicily. Greeks from the region known as Achaeacolonized most of the southern coast of Italy with settlements, such as Sybaris, that became great cities by Greek standards. Sparta founded its only colony, Taras (modern Taranto), at a location that offered the best port in southern Italy. Phocaea, a Greek city on the coast of western Asia, protected its western Mediterranean trade routes by setting up colonies as far west as southern France and northern Spain. One of them, Massalia, was the ancestor of the French city of Marseilles.
With colonies established in the west, the Greeks looked to expand in other directions. In the east, Miletus, which was itself thought to be a colony of Athens, founded many colonies on the coast of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey and in the fertile, grain-producing regions around the Black Sea. Greeks from the island of Thera established the colony of Cyrene, in northern Africa, which flourished until about 440 B.C.
Some of the colonies founded colonies of their own, called daughter colonies or daughter foundations. The Achaean colony of Sybaris, for example, founded Poseidonia and other colonies on the west coast of Italy. Over time, the colonies and daughter colonies developed new relationships with their founding cities. Some colonies remained tightly controlled by their founders, while others enjoyed almost complete independence.
The Second Wave. The second period of colonization began in the 330s B.C. under Alexander the Great. Eager to spread Greek civilization throughout the lands he conquered, Alexander founded numerous settlements. According to the historian Plutarch, Alexander established 70 cities, many of them named Alexandria, throughout the Middle East and as far east as modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Most of the colonies established by Alexander the Great began as military encampments rather than cities, but Alexandria in Egypt was an exception. Alexander planned the city to be a great capital, and it became one. A leading commercial and trading center, Alexandria was also the most important intellectual center of the Hellenistic* period.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid dynasty* ruled his conquests in Asia, establishing new cities and creating Greek-style buildings and institutions in older cities. Greek cultural heritage, which in the first wave of colonization had traveled to the western Mediterranean, had now taken root in Egypt and in western Asia. A far-flung web of Greek colonies and influences reached from Spain to India, ensuring that, even after Greece’s political power faded, its cultural importance would still be felt across much of the world. (See also Greece, History of; Migrations, Early Greek.)
* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group