Ancient Greece as a Colonial Power
During the 8th century BCE, trade was becoming important in
the Mediterranean. Greek traders began searching for a means of
making a living on the sea, as attested to by Hesiod: "You yourself
wait until the season for sailing is come, and then haul your swift
ship down to the sea... even as your father and mine, foolish
Perses, used to sail on shipboard because he lacked sufficient
livelihood." (Works and Days 630-635.) Greek traders explored the
west, establishing trading posts in Italy, Iberia, and Africa. They
also explored the Black Sea. This generation of explorers was
interested mainly in finding natural resources that were scarce in
Greece, especially metals.
The massive colonization of the 8th and 7th centuries was
spurred by excess population and land hunger, as well as political
changes in Greece. Over two centuries, Greek colonies would be
established all over the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
In the 8th century BCE, as iron tools became more common,
Greece experienced a sort of agricultural revolution. Iron farming
tools allowed more efficient farming, which led to a food surplus
and a population explosion. Eventually there were more people than
there was arable land for them to develop. This led to land hunger
that probably made the confines of the Greek mainland and Ionian
coast seem uncomfortably small. Polis expanded until it contacted
neighboring polis, and unless it conquered land in war it needed to
find another source of farmland for its extra population. Groups of
young men were shipped off to far-off places to try to win a place
for themselves. If they failed, their home city would be rid of
some of its excess population. If the colony was successful, the
mother city was similarly reduced in population, and it had an
instant trading partner and ally. Often colonies were established
in areas rich in grain, metals or timber, allowing the colony and
its home city to grow wealthy through trade.
The political changes of the 8th-7th centuries contributed to
the stream of colonies out of established Greek cities. As Greek
cities developed into poleis, which occurred concurrently with
Greek colonization, political conflict probably occurred which
resulted in some factions losing their political struggle. (Fine,
John. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1983, page 77.) Ousted factions might, either
voluntarily or under compulsion, be sent off en masse to form a new
colony. This may be the real story behind the establishment of
Sparta's only western colony, Taras, in Italy. According to legend,
the men sent off by Sparta were those conceived while their wives'
husbands were away at war and whose legitimacy was therefore in
question. The young men later organized an unsuccessful rebellion
to win power for themselves (ibid., p. 77). Whether or not this
legend is true, it is clear that the young men sent to Taras were
political undesireables who could be expended on a foreign colony.
The population expansion and quickly changing political
situation of the 8th and 7th centuries separated the colonization
effort of that period from that of previous and succeeding periods.
Some pressures would continue to lead to Greek colonization through
later centuries. For instance, Greece would continue to need to import food and resources from other areas. Large city-states like
Athens could not grow enough grain to support their population, and
grain trade with cities in the Black Sea became increasingly
important in the classical period. The mines and forests of Iberia,
Italy, and Chalcidice continued to draw Greek settlers, since
Greece was not rich in these resources. Athens was dispatching
colonies as late as the 430's, when it established Amphipolis in
Chalcidice to monopolize valuable timber resources (ibid., p. 370).
Although colonization did continue through Greek history, its
peak was at the end of the Greek dark age. It was sparked by the
overpopulation and political unsettlement of the period and had a
great influence on later Mediterranean history.