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In the period from the 8th to the 6th century B.C. a great number of new cities were founded along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. These new cities were part of a colonization movement sponsored by city-states in Greece and Phoenicia. The Greek colonies (apoikiai) were established in a sophisticated and elaborate process of transplanting people and customs from the motherland to a new overseas site. Although the newly formed poleis (city-states; colonies) were institutionally and politically independent of their mother cities (metropoleis) these colonies oriented themselves toward and modeled themselves after their founders. Although the relationship was sometimes cooperative and other times competitive, both colony and mother-city cultivated the relationship in numerous ways, politically as well as culturally. As a consequence of this activity, the Greek world expanded significantly; moreover, the network of political, religious, and personal loyalties and identities between the various Greek cities was strengthened.

There were various reasons for the colonization movement in the archaic period (750 -490 BC). The lack of natural resources in Greece, especially the lack of metals (tin, copper), timber and food (cereals and fish) led many maritime states to search for such items throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The search for such materials also provided the Greek states with information about favorable places for agriculture and settlement. More importantly in the long run were demographic pressures in the cities of the homeland. Competition for the control of the best sites led to destructive conflicts between the Greek cities themselves and between the Greeks and Phoenicians and Etruscans. Finally, domestic strife (stasis) in the mother city and foreign pressure (e.g., the expansion of the Persian Empire) forced many communities to seek salvation through the foundation of a colony.

Typically the mother city resolved to found a new colony and organized the effort; but sometimes single persons or groups within the polis were responsible. The founder of the colony (oikistes) first had to be identified; so too did the settlers themselves. The motives of the colonists varied and not all migrated voluntarily to the new world. Even settlers from other city-states could join the new colony. The oracle of Delphi was usually consulted before the move. Indeed Delphi not only lent religious authority to what was clearly a difficult decision, but also provided important information on possible sites and may also have attempted to define spheres of influence. Planning was important: The selected site was carefully surveyed and the new cities were laid out on a geometrical pattern. The original colonists received roughly equal shares of urban and agricultural land (klaroi).

The relationship between the colonists and indigenous peoples evolved in different ways. Sometimes a symbiotic relationship developed that allowed for peaceful trading and set in motion a process of Hellenization. Sometimes the colonies asserted themselves militarily and expanded their territory aggressively. For a variety of reasons, including internal strife, local resistance and unfavorable location, some colonies failed miserably. Colonization in the West came to an end in 540 BC when a coalition of Etruscans and Carthaginians defeated a Greek fleet in the sea battle of Alalia (off the coast of Corsica), and in the East as the Persians solidified their control of the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Colonization was characterized by intense competition between individual Greek states (among many conflicts, for example, Croton utterly destroyed its Greek neighbor Sybaris) and between the Greeks and the Phoenicians / Carthaginians. At stake was not only access to resources (grain, fish, metals, etc.), but also opportunities to ease the demographic pressures in the homeland. To judge by the archaeological evidence, colonization contributed to the urbanization of the Mediterranean generally, raised standards of living, and facilitated the spread of Greek culture and ideas.

This module is developed in four sections:

  • In Section 1, we examine the broader pattern of colonization across the Mediterranean.
  • In Section 2, we consider the natural resources or lack thereof that encouraged exploration and colonization.
  • In Section 3, we look more closely at the two areas where colonization was most dense.

In the Section 4, we consider two examples of how colonies became in turn the mother city to yet more colonies.