Davis senatum consuluit a.d. III Idus Octobris apud aedem Patreontis; de colonis Graecis et Punicis verba fecit…1
This week we’re taking a brief look, by ACOUP Senate request, at Greek and Phoenician colonization in the ancient Mediterranean. In particular, the focus requested was on the relationship of these colonies with both the locals and their home cities, as well as the reasons why they were sent and how such expeditions were organized. The is both a very big topic – the Greeks and Phoenicians established a lot of colonies, primarily during the Archaic period (c. 800-480 B.C.) – and each colony is naturally its own creature. It is also a topic with frustrating lacunae, occurring just early enough that we mostly do not have first-hand accounts of the foundation of these colonies, which are often already shrouded in myth and legend by the time we hear about them. And we have even less information about Phoenician colonies and colonization than that, leading to significant debates as to what kind of settlements they were and what they were for.
So this will be a fairly surface level primer of a large, complicated and in some respects significantly uncertain topic! This is a topic that sits largely outside of my period and so I can’t claim to set out a full bibliography for it, but a few points for further reading: A.J. Graham’s chapter in the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 3.3 (second edition) on “The colonial expansion of Greece,” originally published in 1982, remains a pretty useful one-stop-shop overview of what we know of Greek colonization, though individual sites vary substantially. For more detail, J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (1964, 4th ed. 1999) has been the older standard reference, now largely supplanted by G.R. Tsetskhladze, Greek colonisation: an account of Greek colonies and other settlements overseas, 2 vols (2006 and 2008). I also leaned on quite a few of the chapters in The Phoenicians in Spain: An Archaeological Review of the Eighth-Sixth Centuries B.C.E. (2002), ed. and trans. M.R. Bierling and S. Gitin. On Carthage in particular, D. Hoyos, The Carthaginians (2010) is an excellent starting point. Likewise M.E. Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West, trans. M. Turton (2001). I do not doubt I am already out of date here to some degree when it comes to the Phoenicians and Phoenician colonization, which has been a swift-moving field for some time, but hopefully this overview has not erred overmuch.
As always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; members at the Patres et Matres Conscripti level get to vote on the topics for post-series like this one! If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live. I am also on Bluesky (@bretdevereaux.bsky.social) and (less frequently) Mastodon (@email@example.com).
Who is Sending Out Colonies in the Ancient Mediterranean?
We should start with a basic understanding of who we are talking about here, where they are coming from and the areas they are settling in. First we have our Greeks, who I am sure that most of our readers are generally familiar with. They don’t call themselves Greeks – it is the Romans who do (Latin: graeci); by the classical period they call themselves Hellenes (Έλληνες), a term that appears in the Iliad but once (Homer prefers Ἀχαιοί and Δαναοί, ‘Achaeans’ and ‘Danaans’). That’s relevant because a lot of the apparent awareness of the Greeks (or more correctly, the Hellenes) as a distinct group, united by language and culture against other groups, belongs to late Archaic and early Classical and the phenomenon we’re going to look at begins during the Greek Dark Age (1100-800) and crests in the Archaic (800-480).
Greek settlement in the late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1100) was focused on the Greek mainland, though we have Greek (‘Mycenean’) settlements on the Aegean islands (and Crete) and footholds on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Over the Dark Age – a period where our evidence is very poor indeed, so we cannot see very clearly – the area of Greek-speaking settlement in the Aegean expands and Greek settlements along that West coast of Asia Minor expand dramatically. Our ancient sources preserve legends about how these Greeks (particularly the Ionians, inhabiting the central part of that coastal strip) got there, having been supposedly expelled from Achaia on the northern side of the Peloponnese, but it’s unclear how seriously we should take those legends. But the key point here is that the outward motion of Greeks from mainland Greece proper begins quite early (c. 1100) and is initially local and probably not as organized as the subsequent second phase beginning in the 8th century, which is going to be our focus here.
Our other group are the Phoenicians. They did not call themselves that either; it derives from the Greeks who called them Phoinices (φοίνικες), which like the Roman Poeni may have had its roots in Egyptian fnḫw or perhaps Israelite Ponim.2 In any case, the word is old, as it appears in Linear B tablets dating to the Mycenean period (that 1500-1100 period). The Phoenicians themselves, if asked to call themselves something, would more likely have said Canaans, Kn’nm, though much like the Greeks tended to be Athenians, Spartans, Thebans and so on first, the Phoenicians tended to be Sidonians, Tyrians and so on first. They spoke a Semitic language which we call Phoenician (closely related to Biblical Hebrew) and they invented the alphabet to represent it; this alphabet was copied by the Greeks to represent their language, who were in turn copied by the Romans to represent their language, whose alphabet in turn was adopted by subsequent Europeans to represent their languages – which is the alphabet which I am writing with to you now.
Since at least the late bronze age, they lived in a series of city states on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean in Phoenicia in the Levant in what today would mostly be Lebanon. During the late bronze age, this was the great field of contested influence between the Hittite, (Middle) Assyrian and (New Kingdom) Egyptian Empires. The Late Bronze Age Collapse removed those external influences, leading to a quick recovery from the collapse and then efflorescence in the region. They had many cities, but the most important by this point are Sidon and Tyre; by the 9th century, Tyre emerged as chief over Sidon and may at times have controlled it directly, but this was short lived as the whole region came under the control of the (Neo)Assyrian Empire in 858. The Assyrians demanded heavy tribute (which may contribute to colonization, discussed below) but only vassalized rather than annexed Tyre, Byblos and Sidon, the three largest Phoenician cities.
Both the Greeks and the Phoenicians have one thing in common at the start, which is that these are societies oriented towards the sea. Their initial area of settlement is coastal and both groups were significant sea-faring societies even during the late Bronze Age and remained so by the Archaic period. Both regions, while not resource poor (Phoenicia was famous for its timber, Lebanese cedar), are not resource rich either, particularly in agricultural resources. Compared to the fertility of Mesopotamia, Egypt or even Italy, these were drier, more marginal places, which may go some distance to explaining why both societies ended up oriented towards the sea: it was there and they could use the opportunities.
Why Send Out Colonies?
That brings us to the factors which might lead communities, be they Greek of Phoenician, into sending out colonial expeditions. Here, as with most of the discussion, our evidence is primarily Greek because we have relatively little – not none, but little – in the way of written evidence from the Phoenicians in this period. Consequently, a lot of the study of Phoenician colonies involves taking the mental models suggested by written Greek sources (sometimes describing Greek colonies, sometimes Phoenician ones) and looking at the archaeological evidence for Phoenician settlement to try to see which of these models it fits and how well. That is an admittedly imperfect approach, but all the evidence really permits.
In practice, we can divide ancient colonial settlements into two rough groups by cause and purpose, though it is worth noting that the separation is imperfect and a colonial settlement of one kind might well end up morphing into the other over time. In practice we have trade posts and larger agricultural settlements motivated by land scarcity. We sometimes distinguish the two types by calling the former an emporion (Greek: ἐμπόριον, lit: ‘market’) and the latter an apoikia (Greek: ἀποικία). Both Greeks and Phoenicians found both kinds of settlements, though the Greeks seem to found more apoikia and the Phoenicians more trading settlements, respectively.
Trading post colonies, or emporia, were obviously valuable to facilitate trade and in many cases must have been founded with the permission of the local rulers or population. The most famous Greek example of this sort is the sole Greek colony in Egypt, Naucratis, but there were others, some of which, like modern Empúries, Spain literally named Emporion in their own day. In some cases, these settlements seem to have been, as one might expect, the collection point for trade, much like later European ‘factories,’ though these trading posts as with later European ‘factories’ might often be simply the first fingers of a broader imperial venture. In addition, other posts might be founded to provide way-stations and ports for trade; this seems to have been a particular Phoenician strategy we see described by Thucydides in Sicily and evidenced in the archaeology in Spain where the Phoenicians would plant small settlements on promontories or small islands just off the coast.
Thucydides’ description (6.2.6) of the pattern of Phoenician settlement on Sicily is of particular interest, “There were also Phoenicians all around Sicily, occupying promontories upon the sea and little adjacent islands for trade with the [native] Sicels. However, when many Greeks arrived by sea, they [the Phoenicians] abandoned most of these and settled in Motye, Soleis and Panormus, near the Elymi, trusting in the alliance with the Elymi and because they make the smallest sea-voyage between Carthage and Sicily.” Here we see what begins as a series of trading posts eventually converts to large-scale settlement, which Thucydides attributes to security pressure provided by Greek settlement in the eastern part of the island, though in any case much of the western part of the island ends up under Phoenician (read: Carthaginian) control, leaving the Sicels mostly penned up in the uplands of the interior.
We see a similar network of Phoenician trading posts in southern Spain.3 The most obvious thing to trade for in Spain was metals, particularly silver, and we know that the Phoenicians were doing this in some quantity, probably employing local laborers in the mining of silver and other metals and then exporting them. That said, these footholds too become tools of conquest in the late third century when Carthage, having lost Sicily, seeks (under the Barcids) to establish a territorial empire in Spain. But more on Carthage’s unique position in a moment.
At the same time, some Phoenician settlement was clearly of the land-control and mass resettlement variety and here the most obvious case is what the Romans call ‘Africa’ which today is Tunisia, Libya and parts of Algeria, particularly along the coast. Carthage ends up as the largest of these settlements, but hardly the only one. Dexter Hoyos4 lists Hadrumentum, Hippacra, Lepcis Magna, Lixus and Utica in North Africa, Gades, Malaca, Sexi and Abdera in Spain, plus further larger settlements on Sardinia and the already mentioned colonies on Sicily, plus “probably Panormus and Solous.” Staggeringly, Tyre seems to have been the origin point or ‘parent city’ for basically all of these foundations (though note below).
The reasons to send out such settlements varied a bit. Land scarcity was a major factor – the population of Greece was expanding from lows in the Greek Dark Age as we reach the Archaic and its clear this put a lot of pressure on some emerging poleis; one way to relieve that pressure was to ‘export’ the landless poor. At the same time, political pressures could lead to colonization too: the weaker or losing party in polis stasis might opt, instead of sticking around to get crushed, to bail out to a new colonial foundation overseas (or be exiled to one). At the same time, it seems notable that while Greece is urbanizing in this period, Greek farmland isn’t particularly good – the rivers aren’t large enough to do large scale Near Eastern style irrigation agriculture and the rainfall is fairly low, even compared to much of the rest of the Mediterranean. So in many cases, the new colonies will have boasted much better opportunities than their home cities, especially the most marginal lands in the latter. This is certainly the case with new poleis on the Black Sea or on Sicily (like Syracuse) sitting on some of the best farmland available at the time. Whatever the cause, most Greek apoikia were founded as an official act of the parent city (though ‘private’ expeditions were not unknown).
We’re less well informed about the impetus for Phoenician settlement, though we might imagine similar driving forces: recovery from the Late Bronze Age Collapse producing a population boom, the expanding empires of the iron age (especially Assyria) leaving the Phoenicians penned in and looking for less well defended resources (and eventually needing to find sources of wealth for tribute).
In either case, it’s clear that these sorts of colonial foundations were intentional and organized enterprises. Once again, we have more evidence in the Greek case, where it is clear that sites were selected in advance (with oracles traditionally sought to approve the site). Volunteers were solicited from the parent city and in some cases other poleis in Greece on the promise that participants in the first wave would receive citizen status and land in the new colony; subsequent waves of ‘reinforcements’ might be drawn in with promises of citizenship and smaller but still significant plots of land. In an environment where social mobility was extremely low and opportunities to accumulate that kind of wealth few, the deal would have been an attractive one for many.
Forming a Greek Colony
Its worth briefly describing the whole notional process for founding an ancient Greek colony; I wish I could do the same with the Phoenician colonies, but what sources we have are mostly relating legends that give us little to go on in terms of practical details. By contrast, the Greeks are still sending out colonies as they are writing their histories, so we get some fairly reliable narratives of the process.
Most Greek colonies began as public acts by an existing polis, either one in mainland Greece or an earlier colony overseas. That initial city might vote on a decree laying out the terms of the new colony, like the choice of oikistes (we’ll talk about him in a second), the recruitment of colonists and the status of colonists in both the old city and the new. The decree might then by solemnized with oath-taking.
The next crucial step was the selection of the leader of the expedition, called the oikistes (‘founder,’ but note that oik– root from oikos). Oikistes seem often to have been high-status and notable people in the parent-city. Their first job was to obtain divine approval, usually through beseeching oracles; the Oracle at Delphi was the common choice. This was effectively a mandatory step, at least by the classical period. The oracle might be consulted both in terms of if a venture should be launched, but also if a specific site was suitable.
The next step was to recruit settlers and here there seems rarely to have been much problem in finding volunteers, though in some cases conscription was required. That said, initial colonial expeditions seem in the sources to have been fairly small, a few hundred or perhaps a thousand individuals. Once colonies were established, they expanded rapidly, however and that makes a lot of sense – the initial foundation was the hard part, but once that was done, you could imagine many Greeks responding to calls for further settlers with the promise of land to a colony that was already up and running successfully. Debate as to where the women for these colonies would come from remains substantial; we have some references to colonies where intermarriage with the locals – either peaceful or violent – occurred, but also quite a bit of reason to think this did not happen in all cases. My understanding is that the archaeological evidence varies, site-to-site, in terms of how much integration between local population appears to have occurred.
The site was chosen by the oikistes, who also named it. Greek colonies tend to pick defensible, coastal locations as do Phoenician colonists: access to the sea, a good defensive position against potentially hostile locals and access to drinking water all seem to have been key factors to site selection. The construction of defensive walls seems to have been a very early project at most colonies and space would also need to be set aside in initial site-planning for religious sanctuaries. Early houses would go up next and where we can see these archaeologically they tend to be pretty simple, square or rectangular single-roomed, single-floored structures. The other thing happening at this stage will have been land division, probably managed by the oikistes, who divided the arable land into allotments (kleroi) for each settler.
The oikistes generally seems to have remained the leader of the community until his death, at which point he became a hero – by which we mean a mortal who receives religious devotion – and was worshiped with rituals and sacrifices as a founding semi-diety who might still look out for his colony.
Relations with the Parent City and the Locals
The notional relationship between the colony and the parent city seems to have differed in concept between the Phoenicians (as much as we can tell) and the Greeks. Of course, in both cases some of the basic factors matter: these colonies are often quite far away from the parent city, making direct control difficult. Unlike later Roman coloniae, they’re not being founded in a geographic context the parent city already controls. They can also become roughly as large (and in the cases of cities like Syracuse and Carthage, much larger) than the parent city. So the odds of the parent city retaining control were never particularly high regardless. That said, this is a case where ideology might matter.
For the Greeks, every new colony was a new polis and in the Greek concept, poleis were independent by nature. A polis ought to have both eleutheria (ἐλευθερία, ‘freedom,’ in this context really meaning having an independent foreign policy) and autonomia (αὐτονομία, ‘their own laws,’ in this context meaning internal self-government). So newly created poleis were, almost definitionally, independent from their parent city straight away. Students of ancient history will recognize this immediately from Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War opens with a dispute that turns into a war between Epidamnos and its parent city Corcyra and its parent city Corinth.
That said, Greek colonies were expected to have a ‘special relationship’ with the parent city. Sometimes there was a permanent right for members of either the colony or the parent city to migrate to the other and obtain citizen rights, for instance. There would also be religious connections between the two cities, with citizens of the parent city enjoying some privileges at religious rituals (such as eating first after a sacrifice). Decrees and diplomatic statements from colonies often stress their kinship with the parent city, the motif of the graves of their ancestors being there (note Thuc. 1.26.3) and colonies seem, when in trouble, to have appealed to the parent city for help first (and parent cities, to go by Thucydides, seem to have been especially annoyed if another polis intervened instead).
By contrast, Phoenician colonies seem to have begun as at least notional dependencies of the parent city, which in nearly all cases was Tyre. But by the time Carthage was founded (between 800 and 750 BC), Tyre – which had come to dominate the Phoenician homeland in what is today Lebanon – was already under pressure from the expanding (Neo)Assyrian Empire. Consequently the 700s and 600s saw Tyrian power decline, while its Phoenician colonies expanded. Carthage, blessed with a particularly fortunate founding site, expanded rapidly, supported old colonies and planted new ones in North Africa. By the 500s, Carthage is exerting control over much of North Africa and eventually imposing tribune on both Phoenician and native Libyan settlements along it. By 510, Carthage is the overlord of the Phoenician settlements on Sardinia and Sicily as well; it’s less clear by what point Carthage controlled the Phoenician settlements in Spain (though surely no later than the third century).
Consequently, while Greek colonies mostly began as and remained independent (at least before most of them end up as part of the Roman Empire much later), Phoenician colonies seem mostly to have begun as dependencies of Tyre, become effectively independent due to Tyre’s decline, and then one by one were subsumed into the growing hegemony of Carthage.
The relationship of these colonies with local populations is much more complex and varied. Of course colonies founded primarily as trading posts might both benefit local populations and would mostly need to keep at least somewhat peaceful relations with them. At the same time, its clear that some colonies began with the subordination or more often violent expulsion of the local population in the region of settlement, while in others the steady inflow of migrants to a new colony created demands for land that in turn ended with violent expansion. On the flipside, Greek colonies at Naucratis and possibly on the northern coast of the Black Sea may have been dependencies of the local powers (Egypt and the Scythians respectively); we know that Carthage actually paid tribute to the Libyans in its early years before its growing power reversed those fortunes in the 500s.
That leads to a fairly common assumption that Greek colonization in particular must have been the product of a superior military system, namely the hoplite phalanx, but this assumption runs into immediate problems of dating. Our earliest evidence for hoplite arms comes in the mid-600s (with the Chigi Vase (650-640) and the poetry of Tyrtaeus (also c. 650)) and its not entirely clear if these hoplite-armed men are yet fighting in a phalanx formation.5 But Greek colonization by that point is well underway; indeed the Chigi Vase was found in Etruria (in Italy), almost certainly getting there via trade along the lanes Greek colonization was creating. So this isn’t necessarily a case of the ‘superior hoplite phalanx’ clearing the way for Greek colonies.
Instead, looking at the pattern of colonial settlements, it seems fairly clear both that military force was a major factor (colonies did fail because the locals fought back successfully in some cases) but that the key innovation might actually be the state rather than a specific form of fighting. Greek colonies, as noted, were usually created as part of a state initiative by a public act of a polis; they then appointed a single leader (the oikistes) who takes charge of the effort. There is thus a lot of central direction and organization in each venture. By contrast, the areas where Greek and Phoenician colonization are most successful are regions where the local populace was not (yet) organized into large states, but remained grouped into smaller tribes or clans. At the same time, these areas were clearly a lot less densely populated and urbanized than the regions sending out colonists. That fragmentation, combined with the lower population density, may have been what allowed Greek and Phoenician colonies to form footholds and once they started growing to have the military force, phalanx or no, to push out the local population from the valuable coastal zones.
And one indicator that this may in fact be what is happening is to look where Greek colonization failed. For instance we have Dorieus of Sparta (a Spartan prince no less, d. 510) who may win the award for being the worst oikistes in history (managing not one, but two colonial failures). He first attempts to found a colony on the Cinyps in North Africa near Lepcis; Carthage isn’t having it, allies with the local Libyan people (the Macae) and pushes him out. Later, Dorieus attempts the same trick in western Sicily around 510, and we’re told that an alliance of ‘the Phoenicians and the Segestans’ responded violently, destroying the colony and killing Dorieus. The presence of a stronger, centralized state made prohibiting further colonial settlement possible.
Meanwhile, further north, we have Etruria. Even a casual glance at a map of colonial foundations reveals the oddity: heavy Greek colonization in southern Greece and further Greek foundations north-west of Italy in what is today Provence, but nothing north of Campania but south of the Alps (Naples, then Νεάπολις, ‘New City,’ is about as close as one gets). Why? Well, that region wasn’t full of non-state peoples, but rather Etruscans, living in city-states and more than capable of fighting back effectively. Indeed, we know that in the mid-6th century, a coalition of Etruscans allied with Carthage to defeat a Greek fleet at the Battle of Alalia and force the evacuation of of a Phocaean colony at Alalia on Corsica (Hdt. 1.166). We also hear in the fifth century of fighting between the Etruscans and Syracuse, quieting down as Etruria comes under Roman control.
Meanwhile, it’s also clear that the Samnites, the Italic people living in the uplands of southern Italy, put serious pressure on Greek colonies on the coast beginning in the fifth century, eventually overrunning many of the Greek colonies in Campania (eventually setting the stage for Rome’s three Samnite Wars, 343-290 BC).
The impact of these colonies was long-lasting and significant, however. Even in areas where Greeks and Phoenicians didn’t set up colonies, like Etruria, this period coincides with clear archaeological evidence (in terms of artifacts and artwork) of increased cultural exchange. Colonial foundations also served as key nodes for the trade systems which were in this period increasingly knitting the Mediterranean together, a process of geographic integration which will culminate under the Roman Empire.
- “Davis on October 13, consulted the Senate in the Temple of Patreon; he made words concerning the colonies of the Greeks and Phoenicians.” This is, more or less, how the opening of a senatus consultum would read, although an actual decree of the Senate would also list the consuls of the year (Ollie and Percy are the consuls of every year here) and the senators who drafted the final text of the resolution.
- The former is what I’ve found in dictionary entries for etymologies, the latter is what Dexter Hoyos suggests, Carthaginians (2010), 1. I am not an expert on Semitic languages, linguistics or etymologies, so don’t ask me to decide between them.
- On this use of them, see M.E.A. Semmler, “Phoenician Trade in the West: Balance and Perspectives” in The Phoenicians in Spain, trans. and ed. M.R. Bierling and S. Gitin (2002)
- In The Carthaginians (2010)
- I am just going to leave this here and not get into the argument about the date of the phalanx right now.