Ancient History & Civilisation


The Greeks’ Settlements

On these conditions an agreement was sworn by those who stayed (on Thera) and by those who sailed to found the colony (in Libya) and they invoked curses against those who would not abide by it… They made images of wax and burned them, calling down this curse, everyone assembled together, men, women, boys and girls: ‘Whoever does not abide by this oath but transgresses it shall melt away and dissolve like these images, himself, his descendants and his property. But those who abide by the oath, those sailing to Libya and those staying on Thera, shall have good things in abundance, both themselves and their descendants.’

Oath of the settlers who founded Cyrene,
c. 630 BC (as reinscribed, c. 350 BC)

In Homer’s poems, the main social context for the heroes in their Greek homelands is their palaces. In Homer’s lifetime, if we date him after c. 760 BC, no such palaces were to be found in Greece. The last buildings of such epic splendour had been the palaces of the distant ‘Mycenaean’ age which had come to an abrupt end c. 1180 BC.

There are hints, however, of a different social context, especially in the Odyssey: what we now call the polis or the ‘city-’ or ‘citizen-state’. Exactly how and when the polis had arisen remains highly disputed for lack of evidence, except from such archaeology as we so far have. Some modern scholars would see it as the direct heir of the fortified strongholds of the Mycenaean age, round which (on this view) survivors regrouped and formed a new type of community. Others would see it as a later initiative, a part of a wider recovery in levels of population, riches and organization in the ninth century BC. Others would delay it even later, proposing that the very first poleis were founded in a new phase of settlement overseas: faced with a new start, these settlers invented a new type of social organization, the ‘city-state’, beginning in Sicily in the 730s BC.

Its definition is also rather fluid, varying between a ‘settlement’ or a ‘community’, usages which are both well attested in Greek. The distinctive sense of polis is, in my view, a ‘citizen-state’. The leader of the most recent research group to have specialized in it defines it as ‘a small, highly institutionalized and self-governing community of citizens, living with their wives and children in an urban centre and its hinterland, together with two other types of people: free foreigners (often called “metics”) and slaves…’1Correctly, this definition reminds us that a polis was not a ‘city’ (it could be very small) and that it was not simply a town: its population was distributed over a rural territory which might include many villages (the Athenians’ territory had about a hundred and forty such villages by c. 500 BC). It also emphasizes people, the ‘citizens’, rather than their territory. Impressively, a polis could persist in this sense while outside its original territory: for some forty years in the fourth century BC, the men of Samos were exiled from their home island, but they still represented themselves as ‘the Samians’. Or so the men did: women lived in poleis, and their descent from citizen-families was often important, but they were not full citizens with political rights.

If we stress the sense of the word polis as a community, we can follow the changing political rights of its male population: a ‘citizen’ in the ninth century BC certainly did not have the same rights as many enjoyed in the classical fifth century BC. The themes of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ play an important part in these changes. Essentially, the polis was a community of warriors, males who would necessarily fight for it. Again, there were changes in who fought most, and in what style: ‘polis-males’ were not only warriors, nor often very war-like, but most of them did have to face the probability of a battle or two for their polis’s sake. In their changing styles of fighting, ‘luxury’ at times played a role.

In my view, poleis ‘rose’ at different times in different parts of

Greece, but they certainly arose before the 730s BC and are most likely to have formed c. 900–750 BC. By the time of Hadrian, a thousand years later, ‘city-states’ of the polis type have been estimated to have contained about 30 million people, about half of the estimated population of the Roman Empire. The combination of a main town, a country-territory and villages remained typical, although the political rights of these elements varied over time and place. If Hadrian had ever counted, he would probably have reckoned up about 1,500 poleis, of which about half were in what is now Greece and Cyprus and on the western coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey). These 750 or so were mostly city-states of the Greeks’ earlier classical age. The others had been settled in lands ranging from Spain as far (with Alexander) as north-west India.

During the ninth and eighth centuries BC Greeks in Greece and the Aegean islands settled many more villages in the territories of what were increasingly identifiable poleis. This process was one of local settlement, not long-range migration. Then several of thesepolis centres began, from c. 750 BC onwards, to send settlers to yet more poleis overseas. Settlement overseas was an enduring aspect of Greek civilization: by Hadrian’s time, as now, more Greeks lived outside poor, sparse Greece than lived in it. In the age of the Mycenaean palaces, too, Greeks had already travelled to Sicily, south Italy, Egypt and the coast of Asia, settling even on the site of Miletus.2 Afterwards, c. 1170 BC, emigrants from the ending of the palace-states had gone east and settled especially on Cyprus. Later, perhaps c. 1100–950 BC, yet more migrants from the eastern coastline of Greece had crossed the Aegean, stopped on some of the intervening islands and then settled on the western coast of Asia Minor. These east Greeks had become resident on sites which would later be world-famous poleis, such as Ephesus or Miletus. Archaeology shows that one such site, Smyrna, had walls and the signs of being a polis, in my view, by c. 800 BC.

The ‘Greek world’, therefore, had been changing in scope quite considerably, even before Homer’s lifetime. In the eighth century BC there was no country simply called ‘Greece’, let alone one with Greece’s modern national boundaries: in Homer, the modern name of Greece, ‘Hellas’, refers only to one area of Thessaly. However, there was a common widely spoken Greek language which divided into only a few dialects (three are the most significant: Aeolic, Ionic and Doric): communication between differing Greek dialect-speakers was not a significant problem. Underlying each Greek polis there were also similar groupings, the phulai, which we misleadingly translate as ‘tribes’. Again, their uniformity is more striking than their diversity: three particular ‘tribes’ existed in Doric Greek communities, four particular ones in Ionian ones. When Greeks emigrated across to settle on the coast of Asia from c. 1100 BC onwards it is striking that they took the precise dialect of Greek which prevailed in their former area of ‘Greece’ and also replicated the same ‘tribes’. Modern scholars, among the ethnic confusions of our age, like to pose the question of whether a ‘Greek identity’ existed, and if so, when. Back in the ‘dark ages’ before Homer, Greeks did share similar gods and goddesses and speak a broadly similar language. Faced with our modern post-nationalist question, ‘Are you Greek?’, they might have hesitated, because they had probably never formulated it in such sharp terms. But fundamentally, they would say that they were, because they were aware of such common cultural features as their language and religion. Back in the Mycenaean age, eastern kingdoms did already write about ‘Ahhijawa’ from across the seas, surely the ‘Achaeans’ of a Greek world.3 In Homer’s epic, they are already ‘Pan-Achaeans’; ‘Greekness’ is not a late, post-Homeric invention.

Between c. 900 and 780 BC, however, actual settlement by Greeks overseas is no longer evident to us. What continued was travel by Greeks, exactly what Homer describes for his hero Odysseus and his companions. In their case, they are travelling home by sea from Troy, but it is striking that they never try to establish a settlement on their way (though many Greek poleis in the West later claimed, quite wrongly, to be the site of one or other ‘fairytale’ place on their journey). Odysseus’ voyage was ‘pre-colonial’. Thanks to archaeology, we now know more about the real ‘pre-colonial’ travellers who moved around in and before Homer’s lifetime. They came especially from Greek islands in the east Aegean which were temptingly close to the more civilized kingdoms of the Near East. In the ninth and eighth centuries BC, Crete, Rhodes and the Greek settlements on Cyprus were important starting points, but, to judge from the Greek pottery which accompanied these travellers, the most prominent were settlements on the island of Euboea, just off the eastern coast of Greece. The range of these Euboeans’ Asian travels was forgotten by the Greeks’ own later historians, and archaeologists have only recovered much of it by brilliant studies in the past forty-five years. We can now trace these Euboeans to stopping-off points along the coast of Cyprus and on the coast of the Levant, including the great city of Tyre (already by c. 920 BC): a Euboean cup has even been found in Israel, near the Sea of Galilee, in a context which probably dates to c. 900 BC.

These travels led on, once again, to actual settlements. By c. 780 BC, we can trace Euboean Greeks among the first occupants of a small seaside settlement, Al Mina in north Syria. Soon afterwards, Euboeans turn up at the other end of the Greek Mediterranean, as visitors to the east coast of Sicily and as settlers on the island of Ischia, just beyond the Bay of Naples. On Ischia, highly skilled excavation has made their settlement a focal point of modern study, but arguably, it was preceded by Euboean staging-posts on the Straits of Otranto between south-east Italy and modern Albania. Euboeans also settled on the coast of north Africa, as ancient place-names for some of the islands off modern Tunisia attest for us. Metals, especially the copper and tin which make bronze, were one magnet for these Euboean Greeks’ travels both to the East and the West. In return, they brought their decorated pottery (cups, jars and plates, though not, on present evidence, any plates to the West). Perhaps they also made a profit by carrying goods from other less enterprising Greek settlements. They may also have brought wine with them, perhaps transporting it in skins. Certainly, in the fifth century BC Greek wine was imported in quantity into the Levant: in the nineteenth century AD Greek wine from Euboea, from the town of Koumi (ancient Cumae), was imported in vast quantities into Istanbul.

Sicily, Libya, Cyprus and the Levant were all points of Euboean contact before c. 750 BC, and all of them are famous points of contact for heroes who are travelling in Homer’s epics. On their way west, Euboeans and other Greeks also stopped on the island of Ithaca, home of Homer’s Odysseus. The Greeks’ travels of the ninth to mid-eighth centuries were important, then, for some of the travel-details which Homeric poetry includes. Euboea itself was the scene for another great poetic event, c. 710 BC: the victory of the poet Hesiod (in most scholars’ view, a younger poet than Homer) with a prize-poem which was probably his Theogony or Birth of the Gods. Appropriately for its prize-giving audience, this poem had much to say about legends which Euboeans would have picked up on their travels from peoples they met in the East. For Greeks were not travelling into empty lands in the lifetimes of Homer and Hesiod, nor were they the only travellers on the seas. Levantine people whom Greeks called ‘Phoenicians’ (‘purple people’, from their skill with a purple dye) were also crisscrossing the Mediterranean. By c. 750–720 BC these Phoenicians had gone as far west as the southern coast of Spain and even out beyond the straits of Gibraltar. Precious metals attracted them here too, especially the silver which was mined in the far West. The Phoenicians’ example may even have spurred on Greeks to renewed settlement abroad, rather than just to travelling to and fro. In the mid- to late ninth century BC ‘Phoenicians’ from Tyre and Sidon had already settled two ‘new towns’ abroad, places which they called ‘Qart Hadasht’. One was at the modern Larnaca beside its salt lake on the coast of Cyprus; the other ‘Qart Hadasht’ (which we call ‘Carthage’) was on Cape Bon in modern Tunisia.

Sixty years or so after the settlement of these Phoenician ‘new towns’, Greeks then settled on the western island of Ischia, where Levantines were also present; from there, Greek settlers moved across to the Italian coast opposite and founded Cumae, giving it a name for a polis already known on Euboea. From the mid-730s a spate of Greek settlements then began on the fertile eastern coast of Sicily: it marked a clear, new phase in expatriate Greek history. Meanwhile, the more distant western Mediterranean, including Spain and north Africa, was being settled by Phoenicians: there was probably a developing rivalry between Phoenicians and Greeks and by the sixth century BC, certainly, the western Mediterranean was to be kept ever more jealously as the particular sphere of Phoenicians, especially those who were settled at Carthage. Instead, Greeks settled on the south Italian coast and on the coastline of modern Albania. Back in their own Aegean orbit, they continued to settle on northern shores, on the Macedonian coast and in the Chalcidic peninsula (one of whose prongs is Mount Athos). They also travelled up into the inhospitable Black Sea, some of whose rivers were already known to Hesiod: in due course, these contacts grew into poleis too, probably at first on its southern coast, then up on the northern one too. North Africa and Egypt also attracted renewed Greek interest. By c. 630 BC, a small party of Greeks had established themselves in Libya at the wonderfully fertile site of Cyrene. In Egypt, others had already started to settle on the western arm of the Nile Delta. Within two centuries the Greek map had been transformed, especially when the first Greek settlements in a region went on to found secondary settlements there too. By 550 BC, more than sixty major Greek settlements overseas can be counted, from south-east Spain to the Crimea, almost all of which were to endure as poleis for centuries.

Nobody was writing a memoir or history in these years and so a study of the reasons for these settlements has to turn to much later written sources which tend to add elements of folktale and legend. Too often, they cited ‘drought’, a sign of divine anger, as the cause of emigration. There were also stories of chance adventures, divine intervention or even invitations to Greeks from local rulers. In more general terms, we can presume that reports of good land and easily conquerable neighbours had come back with the earlier Greek raiders and traders who had been touching on Sicily, Italy or the southern coast of the Black Sea since c. 770–740 BC. Back at home, their Greek communities were dominated by small aristocracies who controlled most of the land and benefited from it; indeed they needed it, if they were to graze so many of their all-important horses. In the more outward-looking Greek communities, there was probably also a rise in the population in the mid- to late eighth century. The rise need not have vastly increased the total numbers: as always, Greek families would expect many children to die (half or more of all births, on most modern estimates), whilst the surplus survivors could be exposed in most communities. At best, the exposed ones might be taken and brought up elsewhere as slaves. But there would certainly be an unequal distribution of surviving children between individual families. Less-fertile families could procure a son and heir by adoption, but even so, fertile families might still have a son or two to spare. They would not grow up to be wandering dispossessed sons: Greek families always split their inheritances formally between their sons, but the male heirs were capable of surviving informally on a family property by agreeing to share into the next generation. But a better opportunity elsewhere would certainly seem attractive to brothers in such families. There would also, as always, be a few unpopular boys among the aristocrats and a few potential troublemakers in the lower classes. When news arrived of good land abroad, it was attractive for the ruling class to choose a noble leader, collect or conscript some unwanted settlers and send them away to try their luck. We hear very occasionally of an enterprising priestess who left to help with an overseas settlement, but probably Greek women were usually left behind. In Libya and up on the Black Sea coast, it was remembered how the first Greek settlers took local women. Here, and no doubt elsewhere, the future citizens of the Greek settlements had a very mixed ethnic beginning.

Even in the 730s these overseas settlements were official ventures. The names of the Greek founders were remembered, not least because they continued to be celebrated in ‘founders’ festivals’. Religious rituals also accompanied the settlers’ departures and arrivals. Before setting out, advice was sought from the Greek gods at one of their oracle-shrines, usually by asking if it was better and preferable to go or not: even if the venture went badly, participants would then know that the alternatives would have been worse. The most important source of advice was the god Apollo at Delphi, although the oracle there was a relatively recent cult in central Greece (no older than c. 800 BC). In Asia Minor, founding cities like Miletus turned to a nearer oracle, Apollo’s shrine at Didyma, for similar encouragement.

Founding poleis left a stamp on their foundations which is often very evident to us. Founders and settlers sometimes retained reciprocal citizenship in their original communities, but even when they did not, we can often infer the origins of the main founding citizenry without any founding-legend to help us. For the personal names chosen by the settlers, the particular calendar which they adopted in their settlement, their social customs, their religious cults all reflected their place of origin. They were not the random travellers and traders of the ‘pre-colonial’ age, and the reasons for formally sending them off abroad were seldom commercial. On arrival, Greek settlers sometimes drove out the nearby local residents, which was hardly the action of would-be traders. We sometimes hear, too, of the formal conscription of settlers in their home city and a ban (inappropriate for traders) on their returning home for several years. In one case, ‘slingers out’ were appointed to wait on the shore back in the founding polis: they had the memorable task of slinging stones at any settlers who tried to return home.4

Essentially, settlement overseas headed off potential trouble at home which might lead to a demand to adjust the unequal distribution of land. In the home polis, a small class of nobles owned much of the available land and received ‘dues’ from owners of the rest of it. In a new colony, some of the humbler Greek settlers could perhaps enjoy a greater measure of freedom and a sense of a juster existence than they ever knew at home. Around a settlement, there were often some poorly defended foreigners who could be subjected and used as forced labour: these locally available slaves may have eased the demands on some of the lower-class Greeks. A new settlement also offered the chance to plan and lay out a site: some of the Greek settlements in south Italy and Sicily are our earliest evidence of Greek town planning. Temples, a regular ‘gathering place’ (agora), a shrine to the goddess Hearth and, in due course, spaces for exercise and athletics were among the hallmarks of a Greek settlement. In most of Sicily, south Italy and Libya, land for farming was definitely the settlers’ aim and attraction. But by the later seventh century ever more Greeks had left to settle outposts on the Black Sea, especially on its hostile northern coast. Here, in un-Greek weather and conditions, they probably had an eye on access to local resources, including the readily exportable grain of the Crimea. Access by rivers to the interior was surely important, too, not least for the Greek settlements on the southern coast of France (c. 600–550 BC), including Massilia (modern Marseilles) which was not far from the mouth of the river Rhône. Further west on the coast of Spain, one new Greek settlement was openly called ‘Trading Place’ (Emporion, whence the modern name Ampurias). In Egypt, some of the visiting Greeks chose to settle in the Nile Delta, in a polis called Naucratis given to them by the reigning Pharaoh, c. 570 BC, who did not want them dispersed through his land. There were other Greeks who went to and fro, exchanging goods for Egypt’s assets, including its grain and the soda used for washing clothes.

Some ‘mother-cities’ like Corinth or Miletus were prolific founders, and it surely did not escape their ruling class that selected areas were best settled with their own people or potential allies, not least so as to ensure local trade-routes and access to the sources of valuable local assets. What is impressive everywhere is the adaptability of the Greek settlers. Unlike the impractical British ‘gentlemen’ who settled at Jamestown on the American coast or the bickering Spaniards left by Columbus on Hispaniola, all Greeks buckled down and made a practical success, commoners and aristocrats together, like Homer’s hero Odysseus and his crew. No settlement is known to have failed through incompetence.

One obvious consequence of these settlements was the spread of the Greek language and Greek literacy. The Greek alphabet actually owed its origin to Greek travel overseas: it was derived from a Greek’s close study of the neighbouring Phoenicians’ script in the Near East, probably c. 800–780 BC. Its inventor was one of the Euboean travellers to Cyprus, Crete or north Syria. This alphabet was then adapted by the non-Greek Phrygians in Asia and by Etruscans in Italy and used to write their own languages. As Greeks travelled with it, the result was a vastly increased spread of reading, writing and speaking Greek around the Mediterranean. Many centuries later, Hadrian was to be its beneficiary on his travels.

There was also a marked increase in known luxuries. The new Greek settlements covered many new landscapes and micro-climates which had special natural assets, richer than those in Greece. Northern Italy’s plains and the steppe lands beyond the Black Sea were found to produce excellent breeds of horse. Beside the Bay of Naples, the wet land around Cumae grew superb flax which could be woven into linen and made into fine hunting-nets.5 In Libya, at Cyrene, the settlers found an exceptionally good site for growing the saffron crocus, a most precious asset of their home island, Santorini, and one which was highly prized for dyes, scents and uses in cooking.6 They also found a valuable plant called silphion which they traded heavily overseas. Silphion was surely related to the forms of fennel, but its exact identity continues to be disputed.7 Conversely, there were local absentees, no silver-mines in Sicily, no olive trees in the northern Black Sea, no salt, either, in the water of the southern Black Sea’s coastline. Local specialities and local deficiencies encouraged trade-links between settlements, not just with their mother-city but also in important networks between one another.

Where there was a rich soil, watered with good rivers, several of the new settlements flourished famously. The luxury of Acragas (modern Agrigento) in south-eastern Sicily became famous and at its height (c. 420 BC) was said to be supported by nearly 200,000 immigrant non-citizens.8 Its Greek residents became celebrated for their ‘luxurious’ fishponds, swans and pet songbirds. Most famous of all was the Greek settlement at Sybaris in southern Italy, founded c. 720 BC and increasingly prosperous until its destructionc.510 BC. The word ‘Sybarite’ is still proverbial for a lover of luxury. Up to 500,000 people have been suggested as a possible population for Sybaris’ fertile site at its peak (c. 550 BC): if so, the place dwarfed Sparta or Attica on which most historians of archaic Greece now concentrate.9 Wonderful stories were later told of its Greek citizens’ refinement, so as to explain their destruction. The Sybarites are said to have banned cockerels because they disturbed their sleep; they invented chamber pots and took them along to their drinking-parties; they gave prizes for cookery; they taught cavalry-horses to dance to the flute (a possible circus-trick); the Greek Sybarites are the people who invented what we call the Turkish bath.

Seen from the locals’ side, the first Greeks had rather less that was novel and desirable to bring to their settlements, except for poetry, painted pottery, athletics and their convenient alphabet. Inevitably, they wanted olives for their diet and so very often they brought olive oil to a region for the first time. They also wanted wine, but quite often it had preceded them. Through the Etruscans’ earlier contact with France’s south coast, the first wine to be drunk in France was ‘Italian’. In the mid-fifth century, however, a Greek at the Cap d’Antibes inscribed two verses on a black stone shaped like a penis: ‘I am Mister Pleaser, the servant of the holy goddess Aphrodite.’10 The first person in France to record himself as a great lover is therefore a Greek.

Meetings with so many non-Greeks, from Spain to the Crimea, can only have helped to sharpen the settlers’ existing sense of their Greekness. They also had a strong sense of kinship with the distant Greek poleis which had founded them. By c. 650 BC we first encounter the word ‘Panhellenes’, ‘all Greeks together’; by c. 570 Greek visitors to Naucratis in the Nile Delta had a special temple, a Greek ‘Hellenion’. Across the Mediterranean, settlement had helped to reinforce the settlers’ underlying Greek identity. Within it, of course, local Greek pride remained very strong. When Hadrian visited the Greek settlement of Cyrene in north Africa, he flattered the citizens by referring to their connection with ancient Sparta and to the oracles from the god Apollo which had guided the first settlers.11 The oracles by then were seven and a half centuries old, and the Spartan connection was supposedly very much older still. But the citizens still prized them: the widened Greek world was patterned with these tales of kinship and affinity, within the sense of Greekness which the settlers and their parent poleis shared.

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