Cultures > Greek Colonization

Greek Colonization


Throughout the ancient world the Greeks were responsible for colonizing parts of nearly the entire Mediterranean Basin as well as the Black Sea which allowed them to spread their culture and influence, build extensive trading networks as well as come into contact with many cultures that would later have their history written down as a result of these interactions. Greek colonization and migration in the ancient world occurred in primarily three separate waves, each with distinct political, social and economic reasons. The first wave of Greek colonization occurring during the Iron Age amidst much upheaval and turmoil of the Late Bronze Age Collapse while the second wave largely saw a solidification of those settlements who in turn also created new colonies of their own.

The third wave of Greek colonization occurred during the Hellenistic Period as a result of the conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire by the young Macedonian king named Alexander the Great and saw Greek culture spread throughout the ancient world from the Indus Valley to Egypt and beyond. It would be during this time that the Greek model of the polis or city-state would become the dominant political, economic and social structure in the ancient world. Overall, the establishment of Greek colonies is instrumental in understand how Greek culture interacted and spread throughout the known world as well as allowed for cultural diffusion to occur between many other cultures.

First Phase of Greek Colonization

This first wave of Greek colonization occurred between the 11th and 9th centuries BC and was largely driven by the socio-political developments that occurred during the Greek Dark Ages in the wake of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Due to the limited geographic area of Greece, coupled with the massive migrations, population movements, constant warfare or natural disasters that affected the Late Bronze Age, this may have forced many of the original inhabitants to flee to Anatolia and other areas throughout the Mediterranean.

According to ancient accounts such as Herodotus, during this time following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, four major groups of Greeks known as the Dorians, the Ionians, Aeolians and Achaeans spread throughout the Mediterranean region. (White, 1961) These first colonies are not very well documented by ancient sources and likely involve mythical or semi-mythical characters that appear in Greek mythology. What we are lacking from the historical records however, can be garnered from examining the known archaeological evidence. Two major geographic areas of Greek colonization during this first phase were on Magna Graecia and Ionia.

Colonization of Magna Graecia

Based on the historical account by Strabo, the Greeks had been colonizing the southern portion of the Italian Peninsula as well as the island of Sicily known as Magna Graecia since the time of the mythical Trojan War. (Strabo, Geographica) Here the Greeks founded many famous colonies such as the Achaean settlements of Croton, Sybaris, Cumae, and Neopolis as well as built some of the largest Greek style temples in the entire world. In fact, due to their proximity to the Romans, who are also believed to have settled this region during the Trojan War according to some ancient accounts the Greeks exerted a tremendous influence on both the Etruscans and later Roman Republic as they developed throughout the Hellenistic Period. (Astour, 1985)

Some of the major facets of Greek civilization transmitted to these cultures were the idea of a polis or city-state as well as the Greek language which would eventually be adopted by the Romans and Etruscans and morph into the Latin alphabet, which would later go on to influence most of the modern European languages spoken today such as Spanish, Portuguese, English, and more. Eventually more settlements such as Syracuse would arise and within time, the colonies on Magna Graecia would come to have as many Greeks as mainland Greece itself and eventually came to be conquered by the Roman Empire following the Punic Wars.

Colonization of Ionia

The Ionian tribe originally from the northern Peloponnese would be the most prolific colonizers of Anatolia which was left in a stage of desolation following the collapse of the Hittite Empire during the Bronze Age Collapse. It is believed that the Ionians were pushed out of mainland Greece by the invading Dorians and due to the over-crowding and would be during this time that the twelve major cities which formed the loose confederation of the Ionian League were founded. Eventually they developed into many unique autonomous territories on Anatolia including Caria, Lydia, Lycia, Phrygia and more. (Smith, 1857)

However, despite this seemingly unified alliance, each Ionian city-state practiced complete autonomy and many would later join the Achaemenid Persian Empire as satrapies following the defeat of the Lydian king Croesus by Cyrus II the Great and many Greeks from Ionia would serve in the Persian armies as mercenaries even during the Greco-Persian Wars. The ruler Mausolus who constructed the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was one of these Greek leaders who pledged allegiance to the Persian Empire along with his heir Artemisia I. (Smith, 1857)

Second Phase of Greek Colonization

During the transition between the Greek Dark Ages and the Greek Archaic Period between the 8th and 6th centuries BC there was a rapid expansion of Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea region. Known as the second phase of Greek colonization, these endeavors were much more organized and strategic than the previous wave and involved complex relationships between the mother city that sponsored its founding known as a metropolis and the colony. (White, 1961) In fact many of the colonies that were formed during this second wave were launched from the previous colonies created during the first wave which had become autonomous city-states within their own right.

The reasons for this second wave of colonization during this period were more planned and methodical, whereas the first wave of colonization was largely motivated by factors such as mass population movements, famine, natural disasters and warfare of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Many of the Greek colonies founded during this period were a result of the population explosion that occurred during the Early Iron Age which had caused over-crowding in many of the Greek cities. Other reasons for colonization during this period included political strife, in which authoritative governments often ostracized their political opponents and drove them into exile. (White, 1961) Each Greek colony could be divided into two distinct types based on its function and level of political autonomy.

The first type of Greek colony was known as an apoika (ἀποικία) which was a formal city-state and often had political independence from the mother colony. The second type of colony called an emporion (ἐμπορίov) was often much smaller and was simply an economic trading colony like the Phoenicians founded. On the other hand, most other colonies formed during the ancient world were usually directly subservient to the mother nation and often served only to economically benefit the mother culture. Most of the colonies established during this period were the result of planned expeditions, and the settlement site was often selected in advance in contrast to the chaotic and arbitrary nature of the first period of colonization. (White, 1961) One of the most prominent examples of previous colonies that in turn created new colonies of their own is the polis of Miletus which sponsored many different colonies around the Black Sea and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Other examples of major settlements that founded colonies during this period were Corinth, Megara and Phocaea who branched out from Ionia and Greece into the Black Sea, North Africa and the territory of the western Mediterranean.

Colonization of the Black Sea

The colonization and presence of the Greeks in the Black Sea was attested from the accounts of Thucydides as well as Isocrates, and may have been possible only due to the developments of the rowed-ore maritime vessel such as the pentekonters which would have allowed the penetration of the powerful current of the Bosporus Strait. (Labaree, 1957) From the settlements of Megara and Miletus, the Greeks would go on to found several major settlements around the Black Sea, including the northern area of modern day Crimea. The first Greek settlement on the Black Sea was Sinope which dates to around 800 BC and was founded by the polis of Miletus.

These Greeks would later become known as the Pontic Greeks and spread considerable influence throughout the northern European region and interact with many local cultures such as the Colchis, Cimmerians, Sarmatians, Scythians and more. In fact, one of the most interesting things to note is the change of the Greek perception and the evolution of the name of the Black Sea as their process of colonization advanced. Initially the Greeks referred to the Black Sea as Pontos Axeinos or the Inhospitable Sea to the Pontos Euxeinos or the Hospitable Sea which reflects the new favorable viewpoint for the region and its potential wealth.

Out of these Greek settlements eventually the independent Bosporean Kingdom developed which ruled around the territory where the Sea of Azov meets the Black Sea and was responsible for supplying the Greek world with essential exports such as grain. (Noonan, 1973) During this time period there exists much evidence of the Greek interaction in the region which has been recovered from the kurgans or burial shaft tombs of the indigenous Indo-European tribes discussed above. Recovered from these burial shafts include gold objects as well as evidence of pottery from Athens and more. (Shceglov, 1991) Additional archaeological evidence that sheds light on the ancient Greek trading networks around the Black Sea comes in the form of well preserved shipwrecks recovered from the oxygen deprived depths.

One famous shipwreck recovered in 2002 dates between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC and contained a multitude of Greek amphoras which based on further investigation revealed evidence of olives, catfish, resin. Some conclusions about this particular ship was that it was bringing a shipment of food to Greek soldiers stationed at some settlement around the Black Sea. (National Geographic, 2003) While the complete picture of Greek settlement and colonization is far from complete due to a lack of western archaeologists being able to investigate the Black Sea region because of the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, through shipwrecks, settlements and burial goods an extensive interaction between Greeks and local inhabitants begins to emerge.

Colonization of Cyrenaica and Egypt

Another unique area that the Greeks colonized during this initial period around the 7th century BC was the territory of Cyrenaica in ancient Libya which was made of five cities known as a pentapolis based around the central capital at Cyrene. The settlement of Cyrene was established by Greek colonists from Thera fleeing famine around 631 BC and were led by Aristoteles who later assumed the name Battos and began the Battaid Dynasty which would rule over the region for the ensuing centuries as dynastic kings (Ring, Trudy et. Al, 1996), (Herodotus, Book IV). Eventually Cyrenaica would become a major center of Greek culture in its own right, producing many great temples and intellectual schools. There was no doubt some influence from the neighboring Egyptians during this period. Much like Ionia, this region would be conquered by the Persians under Cambyses II and later liberated by Alexander the Great during his conquest of the ancient world and passed to the Ptolemaic Kingdom following his untimely death in Babylon in 323 BC.

In the middle of the In the territory of Egypt the settlement of Miletus would establish the trading colony of Naucratis under the protection of the Egyptian king named Psammitecus I. (White, 1961) Another recently discovered settlement named Thonis-Heracleion was discovered in 2000 by underwater archaeologists and points to an interconnected relationship between the Greeks and the Egyptians that allowed for cultural diffusion and the exchange of ideas and goods between these two civilizations. (Goddio, 2000) In addition to cultural diffusion, the Greeks also were employed as mercenaries in the Egyptian armies according to ancient accounts, further lending evidence to the connections between these two civilizations at the time. In fact it is believed that the idea for stone columns came during this period from Egypt and came to define the iconic Pan-Hellenic Temples that are seen today. It is believed that contact with Egypt as well as neighboring Mesopotamia were what helped guide Greece out of the Dark Ages and into the Classical Period.

Colonization of the Western Mediterranean

One lesser known area of the ancient world that was colonized by Greeks was the territory of the western Mediterranean where the Phocaeans established the settlement of Massalia around 600 BC. According to ancient historians such as Strabo and Thucydides the settlement was established as an emporion initially and operated as a simple trading post. (Euzennat, 1980) Based on the account of Herodotus, the Phocaeans were invited there by a local king and given military reinforcement of the fledgling colony. Here the Greeks interacted and traded with the local Celtic tribes, and would later go on to establish many other cities such as Monaco, Nice, and more. From the growing settlement of Massalia the Greeks would also colonize the island of Corscia and establish settlements such as Alalia, as well as in Spain at Rhoda and on Sardinia at Olbia.

In the western Mediterranean the Greeks competed with the Gauls, Ligurians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Etruscans who also had significant influence in this region. In fact according to some the settlement of Massalia developed into an empire of its own right, commanding influence over a network of twelve cities and coming into naval conflicts with the Carthaginians. When the Persians would destroy their home settlement of Phocaea in 545 BC the inhabitants of the city would flee to their colonies which bolstered their populations and ensured their existence even into the Roman era as it was known that the native Gauls were using coins with Greek inscriptions as well as writing documents in the Greek language thus reinforcing the connection between these two cultures. (Dietler, 2010)

Hellenistic Period Colonization

Following the conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, the Greeks established many colonies in the ensuing Hellenistic Period. Throughout the campaign of Alexander he personally founded dozens of cities bearing his name including the famous Alexandria in Egypt, however this is only one of the “Alexandria's” that was founded during his conquests. However, these colonies were unlike previous phases in that they were not centers of trade or autonomous city-states but rather major centers of administration, commercial activity and more. (White, 1961) Due to the collapse of the Achaemenid Dynasty and later the untimely death of Alexander, the previous satrapies of the Persian Empire fell into the hands of his successors and generals. From Macedon to Asia Minor into Egypt and all the way to the Indus Valley the Greeks controlled the levers of civilization and this allowed for unprecedented movement and cultural diffusion to occur.

During this time Greeks spread throughout the region and established many settlements and formed the intellectual and political elite during the Hellenistic Period. However, the Hellenistic golden age was not destined to last forever and in the ensuing Wars of the Diadochi which occurred between the successors the Greek kingdoms weakened each other to the point they were conquered one by one by the fledgling Roman Republic and later Roman Empire in the west along with the Parthian Empire in the east. As each of these successor kingdoms fell their colonies and Greek culture was absorbed by the Romans and Parthians which had a lasting influence on them as well and allowed many of these settlements to develop into major urban cities that we see today.


The spread of Greek colonies throughout the known world at the time was responsible for not only spreading Greek culture but allowing for the diffusion of other cultures into the Greek world. This exchange of ideas, culture, trade goods and more allowed the Greek civilization to emerge from the Greek Dark Ages to once again become an even more powerful regional entity than existed under the Mycenaeans and Minoans. From the Black Sea throughout the entire Mediterranean world, the Greeks and Phoenicians carved pretty much the entire thing up, interacting with the Romans, Etruscans, Egyptians, Gauls, Cimmerians, Scythians, and more. Through interactions with these other cultures, who often did have much written history of their own, the Greeks were able to document the entire history of the region in much more detail than we could have imagined if they had not spread out and colonized. They were also able to establish extensive trading networks throughout the ancient world which allowed for the unprecedented and prolific spread of ideas, goods and culture.


Primary Sources

Herodotus “Histories”

Strabo “Geographica”

Xenophon “Anabasis”

Secondary Sources

Astour, M. (1985) “Ancient Greek Civilization in Southern Italy” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 19, No. 1, Special Issue: Paestum and Classical Culture: Past and Present (Spring, 1985), pp. 23- 37.

Dietler, M (2010) Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France p.157-182.

Euzennat, M. (1980) “Ancient Marseille in the Light of Recent Excavations”. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 133-140.

Goddio, Franck (2000) “Thonis-Heracleion: From Legend to Reality”.

Labaree, B. (1957) “How the Greeks Sailed the Black Sea”. American Journal of Archaeology. Vol 61, No. 1, pp 29-33

Noonan, T (1973) “The Grain Trade of the Northern Black Sea in Antiquity” The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 231-242.

National Geographic (2003) “Ancient Greek Wreck Found in Black Sea” (

Ring, Trudy et al.(1996) "Cyrene (Gebel Akhdar, Libya)" International Dictionary of Historic Places: Volume 4: Middle East and Africa Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago, p. 194, ISBN 1-884964-03-6.