The Cyclades comprise a chain of mountainous islands in the southern Aegean Sea. They range in size from a few square miles to over 155 square miles. To the ancients, the Cyclades offered a favorable route across the Aegean because land was always in sight. Naxos and Paros are the two largest islands of the Cyclades.
Most of the Cyclades are volcanic and therefore unsuitable for farming. However, mineral resources such as iron ore, copper, silver, lead, and gold were plentiful during ancient times. Marble was another valuable resource in the region.
Permanent settlements sprang up on the Cyclades during the Bronze Age. Later, the Ionians and Dorians colonized the various islands. From around the 700s to the 400s B.C., the Cyclades enjoyed independence under the rule of wealthy clans*. During the Persian Wars, many of the islands sided with the Persians and contributed ships to the Persian fleet. The westernmost Cyclades, however, remained loyal to the Greeks. After the war, the Ionian Cyclades joined the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states* against the Persians. The Dorian Cyclades kept their independence until the Peloponnesian War. After 314 B.C., the Cyclades were caught between the Hellenistic* kingdoms that were competing for control of the Aegean. As a result, control of the islands changed hands several times over the years. The Macedonians, the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Attalids of Pergamum, and the island of Rhodes all ruled the islands at some time. After 133 B.C., the Cyclades fell to the Romans, who administered them as part of the province of Asia. Under the Julian-Claudian emperors, the Cyclades were often used as a place of exile for their political opponents.
The island of Naxos is the most famous of the Cyclades. Its inhabitants developed a style of smooth, white sculpture that came to be known as “Cycladic” statuary, characterized by its elongated, stylized figures. According to Greek myth, Naxos was the birthplace of Dionysus and the place where Ariadne was found after her abandonment by Theseus. The coins of Naxos displayed a wine goblet and grapes in honor of the island’s patron god, Dionysus.
Paros is the second largest island of the Cyclades. According to Greek myth, the island was settled by the Cretan king Minos and his sons. During the Persian Wars, Paros allied itself with Darius I against the Greeks and contributed a ship to his fleet at Marathon. Following the Persian Wars, the islanders of Paros joined the Delian League under Athens’s leadership. As a member of the league, Paros contributed valuable marble for construction and higher tribute* than any other island. During the Hellenistic period, the economy of Paros flourished. Eventually, the island came under the domination of the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Macedonians, and the Romans. (See also Greece.)
* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* 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.
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government