Patterns and Practices of Transportation

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Patterns and Practices of Transportation






Upheaval . Following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization around 1200 b.c.e., Greece entered a period known as the “Dark Ages.” All the great achievements of mainland Greek civilization vanished: the art of writing was lost; centralized government broke down; population declined drastically; and settlements devolved into isolated farming communities. Although some archaeologists are finding evidence for more prosperity, social complexity, and organization than they had previously expected, there is no disputing that this was a time of drastic reorganization of political and economic life in Greece. For one thing, the upheaval at the end of the Bronze Age (3000-1100 b.c.e.) disrupted the networks of exchange from which the Mycenaeans had profited, and Greece became more isolated from the outside world. At the same time, there occurred in this period the first recorded large-scale migrations of people from and within the mainland of Greece. Within the first two centuries following the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, many Greeks fled the upheaval on the mainland and sought new homes in overseas locations. It is at this time that the coastal region of western Anatolia became heavily populated with Greeks, and the island of Cyprus also received an influx of immigrants, laying the basis for the Greek-speaking community that remains the largest ethnic group on that island to the present day. These movements of peoples were symptoms of decline, rather than prosperity, but they set the stage for later expansion that would mark the Greeks’ return to full participation in the Mediterranean trade economy.

Recovery . By 800 b.c.e., Greek fortunes had begun to recover, and in the century between 800 and 700 the pace of change was extraordinarily rapid. The Greeks regained the art of writing by inventing a new script, the familiar Greek alphabet, which they based on the writing system of the Phoenicians or one of their neighbors in the Levant. Agricultural productivity increased, perhaps in part because the introduction of iron tools and implements made farming more efficient, and as a result the population began to boom. The Greeks also started to rebuild their political organization. Villages within distinct geographical areas joined together, either willingly or by force on the part of the stronger communities, and established a common government and market for local goods. This development is the origin of the independent Greek city-states such as Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, which were to be hereafter the basis for political organization in Greece.


According to Herodotus, in preparing for their colonization of Cyrene, the Therans took a scout named Corobius to the island of Platea off the coast of Libya and left him there to reconnoiter. When the Therans failed to return for him, he was aided by some Samian merchants, who then went on to have their own adventure.

They reached Platea and put Corobius ashore with enough supplies for a stated number of months, and then made sail again with all speed for home, to bring the news about the island. They had agreed with Corobius to be away a definite length of time; this period, however, was exceeded and Corobius was in distress from lack of supplies, until a Samian vessel bound for Egypt, under the command of a man called Colaeus, was forced by the weather to run for Platea. The Samians listened to Corobius’ story, left him enough food to last a year, and resumed their voyage to Egypt, which they were anxious to reach. Easterly winds, however, prevented them from getting there, and continued so long that they were driven away to the westward right through the Pillars of Heracles [the Straits of Gibraltar] until, by a piece of more than human luck, they succeeded in making Tartessus. This trading port had not at that period been exploited, and the consequence was that the Samian merchants, on their return home, made a greater profit on their cargo than any of the Greeks of whom we have precise knowledge, with the exception of Sostratus of Aegina, the son of Laodamas—with him, nobody can compare.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selmcourt (Harmondsworth, U.K. & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954).

Borders . The boundaries of the Greek city-states were generally those provided by nature: the limits of the territory were defined by the nearest mountain ranges and seacoasts. This situation is unlike the one in the Bronze Age

when a single Mycenaean palace could have authority over an area far beyond the local region in which the palace was situated. The smaller scale of the city-states was a limiting factor in the development of roads and other facilities for overland transportation.

Tensions . Along with these positive developments, some negative ones occurred as well. The growth in population began to strain the resources of the Greek city-states and exacerbate class divisions within the population. Farmland, always in short supply in Greece, became more valuable and a source of conflict. Various contemporary documents surviving from 700 b.c.e. were written in the new Greek alphabet, so the events of this era, called the “Archaic Period” (700-480 b.c.e.), are known with somewhat more certainty than those of the preceding periods. Amongst the earliest events recorded in this era were the first major wars between city-states, and generally the issue in these conflicts was control of agricultural land. Heightened prosperity and population brought heightened tension in Greece.

Contacts . A reestablishment of Greek contacts with the outside world accompanied all these domestic developments and played a role in accelerating them. Probably through the activities of the Phoenicians, the Greeks were reintroduced to the Mediterranean trading networks. Recent archaeological excavations at Greek communities have yielded goods from overseas which demonstrate foreign influences in art and other aspects of culture. Greeks began to return to the widespread cultivation of the olive and the grape, and started taking advantage again of their value as export commodities.

Iron . A major impetus toward getting involved in trade again was probably the need for iron. As was true in the case of copper and tin, there were no plentiful sources of iron ore on the Greek mainland, and as demand for this useful metal increased, supplies of it had to be sought overseas. One of the major sources for it was the island of Elba, off the western coast of Italy. Initially, it was probably non-Greek merchants, chiefly Phoenicians, who acted as agents in bringing iron and other commodities to Greece and taking away Greek goods in exchange, but it was only a matter of time before the Greeks took an active role in overseas trade themselves.

Colonization . One of the earliest and most important manifestations of Greek mobility in the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.) was the move toward colonization. In this area the Greeks once again were following the lead of the Phoenicians, who had established their own colonies in the Mediterranean, the most famous example being the city of Carthage on the coast of North Africa (in what is now Tunisia), around 750 b.c.e. At about the same time, Greeks from the city-states of Chalcis and Eretria set up a trading post on the island of Pithecussae off the western coast of Italy. This settlement was followed soon afterward by a full-fledged colony at the site of Cumae, near modern Naples. Much of the earliest Greek colonizing activity was directed toward the West. In around 734 b.c.e. the Corinthians established a colony on the island of Corcyra, off the northwest coast of Greece and astride the shipping lanes between Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, they also founded the colony of Syracuse in Sicily. Throughout the latter 700s and on into the 600s other Greek city-states followed the lead of the Chalcidians, Eretrians, and Corinthians in planting colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, to the extent that these regions became dominated by Greek-speaking communities and would eventually come to be referred to as Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece.” As available land in this area filled up, other colonizing states turned elsewhere: to the northern coast of Africa; to the coasts of what is now France and Spain; to the northern coast of the Aegean (populated at that time by non-Greek tribes of Macedonians and Thracians); and to the Black Sea.

Byzantium . In about 660 b.c.e., the city of Megara founded the colony of Byzantium on the Bosporus, the more easterly of the two crucial straits that connect the Black Sea to the Aegean. Subsequently, Greek colonies were set up all along the coast of the Black Sea in what are now Turkey and the Ukraine. By the end of the Archaic Period in 480 b.c.e., Greek cities had been established from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, and it is likely that more Greeks were living in the colonies than in the mainland of Greece itself.

Means to an End . The establishment of a Greek presence in all of these places ensured that Greeks would take over the dominant role in Mediterranean trade from the Phoenicians. Unlike the colonization undertaken by European powers in the modern era, however, the main reasons for Greek colonization do not seem to have been economic ones, such as control of trade routes, access to foreign goods, or exploitation of native labor. Instead, the Greeks seemed to have viewed colonization mainly as a means to reduce tension at home. To counter the strife that could be caused by rising populations and the lack of adequate crop lands, the Greeks took to colonization as a safety valve. Excess population, and in particular disgruntled and divisive elements of the citizenry, could be shifted off to foreign lands where they could make a new life for themselves without draining the resources of the mother city. That the colonies were not founded primarily for economic reasons is also confirmed by the fact that when they were established they generally became independent city-states in their own right, with little or no political control exerted by the mother city, and with no obligation to grant her special economic concessions, as was required, for instance, of the American colonies by Britain in the days before the American Revolution.


In this passage from Herodotus, Dorieus, the son of one of the Spartan kings, cannot stand the thought of staying in Sparta and seeing his unworthy half brother Cleomenes take over the throne. He therefore leaves Sparta and establishes a new colony on the African coast. This passage illustrates how colonization could be used to avoid political trouble at home, and how it was not always undertaken as a result of sober strategic and economic calculation. Note the emphasis on the observance of religious formalities (or lack thereof). This excerpt also suggests that by the time Dorieus set out on his ill-fated expeditions (circa 520 b.c.e.), the number of places one could lay claim to in the Mediterranean without serious opposition were exceedingly rare.

Dorieus was the finest young man of his generation and confident that his merits would assure his succession. As a result of this he was naturally indignant when, on the death of Anaxandrides, the Spartans followed their usual custom and put the eldest son, Cleomenes, on the throne. Unable to bear the prospect of being ruled by Cleomenes, he asked the Spartans for a body of men and took them off to found a settlement elsewhere, without previously consulting the Delphic oracle on a suitable site, or observing any of the usual formalities: he just went off, in a fit of temper, to Libya, with some men from Thera to act as guides. Arrived there, he settled by the river Cinyps, on a piece of excellent land belonging to the Libyans. Within three years, however, he was driven out by the Macae (a Libyan tribe) and the Carthaginians, and returned to the Peloponnese. Here he was advised by a certain Antichares of Eleon, on the strength of the oracles given to Laius, to found the city of Heraclea in Sicily; for, according to this person, all the country of Eryx in Western Sicily belonged to the Heraclids, as Heracles himself was its original conqueror [the Spartan royal families claimed to be descendants of Heracles]. Dorieus, accordingly, went to Delphi to consult the oracle on his chance of acquiring the land which he was after, and was told by the Priestess that it would certainly be his, whereupon he fetched the band of settlers whom he had taken to Libya and sailed with them along the Italian coast. . . . They reached Sicily, but were defeated and killed, with all the men under their command, in a battle with the Phoenicians and the people of Egesta. The only one to escape was Euryleon, who collected the few survivors of the army and captured Minoa, a colony of Selinus, and helped the people of Selinus to free themselves from their ruler Peithagoras.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Harmondsworth, U.K. & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954).

Breadbasket . Nevertheless, when colonists departed from their homeland, they naturally chose places to settle that would provide them with the best economic opportunities. It is no accident, therefore, that the earliest Greek colonies were located along the western coast of Italy near good sources of iron. Likewise, colonies planted on the coasts of Africa and Asia Minor (on the Black Sea) were perfectly situated to become intermediaries in the exchange of goods between the Greeks and the people of those regions. Greek colonists, remembering the lessons of the difficult life they led in the mother country, avoided replicating the experience by seeking out localities where the crop lands were fertile and plentiful. Sicily, northern Africa, and the Ukrainian plains near the Black Sea beckoned with acre upon acre of rich, unoccupied land. Eventually these regions become the breadbasket of Greece. Population in the old Greek city-states continued to grow and, in many places, outstripped the capacity of the land to support it, so grain for everyday consumption became one of the top imports. The colonists gladly shared their surpluses, at a price, with their cousins in Greece and became wealthy in the process. So while the original reasons for Greek colonization might not have been to control trade routes, cut out the middlemen in their access to raw materials, and open new markets for Greek goods, these were certainly some of the most important effects. With much of the Mediterranean becoming a Greek lake, large amounts of materials were being transported back and forth from the colonies to the motherland and vice versa.

Greek Traders . Colonization and the presence of imported objects in the archaeological record of the Greek cities do not in themselves show that the Greeks were taking a more active role in trade. After all, there is no reason why the Phoenicians or other non-Greek traders could not have been the ones who were bringing foreign goods to Greek lands and carrying away Greek products in exchange. More significant in demonstrating the activities of the Greeks themselves is their establishment or participation in various emporia (trading posts) across the Mediterranean seaboard. These places were not colonies, in the sense of permanent independent communities with their own governments and laws. The Greeks and others came there not to settle but to trade.


The following inscription in stone purports to record the actual text of an agreement the people of Thera (modern Santorini) swore to when they were sending off a colony to Cyrene in Libya, circa 600 b.c.e. (The stone was not inscribed with this text until the fourth century b.c.e., and some scholars doubt that it reproduces the text of the colonists’ oath accurately.) The Therans claim that they decided to send the colony not because they needed land or raw materials but because the god Apollo told them to through an oracle. Participation in the expedition was not necessarily voluntary. Members were drafted from every family, and those who refused to go were liable to execution.

Since Apollo spontaneously told B[at]tos and the Therans to colonize Cyrene, it has been decided by the Therans to send Battos off to Libya, as Archagetes and as King, with the Therans to sail as his Companions. On equal and fair terms shall they sail according to family (?), with one son to be conscripted [a large gap in the inscription occurs here] adults and from the [other] Therans those who are free-born [small gap] shall sail. If they [the .colonists] establish the settlement, kinsmen who sail later to Libya shall be entitled to citizenship and offices and shall be allotted portions of the land which has no owner. But if they do not successfully establish the settlement and the Therans are incapable of giving it assistance, and they are pressed by hardship for five years, from that land shall they depart, without fear, to Thera, to their own property, and they shall be citizens. Any man who, if the city sends him, refuses to sail, will be liable to the death-penalty and his property shall be confiscated. The man harboring him or concealing him, whether he be a father [aiding his] son or a brother his brother, is to suffer the same penalty as the man who refuses to sail. On these conditions a sworn agreement was made by those who stayed there and by those who sailed to found the colony, and they invoked curses against those transgressors who would not abide by it—whether they were those settling in Libya or those who remained. They made waxen images and burnt them, calling down [the following] curse, everyone having assembled together, men, women, boys, girls: “The person who does not abide by this sworn agreement but transgresses it shall melt away and dissolve like the images—himself, his descendants and his property; but those who abide by the sworn agreement—those sailing to Libya and those staying in Thera—shall have an abundance of good things, both themselves [and] their descendants.

Source: Charles W. Fornara, Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Regardless of the motivation behind this colonizing expedition, the colony of Cyrene was destined to become a rich source of grain for Greece. The following inscription from the fourth century b.c.e. records how Cyrene provided critical supplies of grain to various places in Greece during a period of famine:

[The following are] all those to whom the city gave grain, when the grain-shortage took place in Hellas. To the Athenians one hundred thousand [bushels]; to Olympias sixty thousand; to the Argives fifty thousand; to the Larisans fifty thousand; to the Corinthians fifty thousand; to Kleopatra fifty thousand....

The list goes on for several lines. In all the Cyreneans “gave” (or more likely, sold at a bargain rate) 805,000 bushels in this year. That would correspond to the yield of approximately 8,000 acres of field cultivated with modern farming methods and techniques. The actual amount of Cyrenean land needed to produce this much grain must have been far greater.

Source: Phillip Harding, From the End of the Peloponnesian War ta the Battle of Ipsus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Al Mina . A site in present-day Syria, known by the modern name of Al Mina, was one such emporion.

Excavators have uncovered evidence of a port, warehouses, and a large amount of Greek pottery from as early as the 700s b.c.e. The best explanation for the preponderance of Greek artifacts at the site is that Greeks were coming there regularly and bringing their wares to trade with people who had access to the wealthy trade routes of Asia. If traders from other lands were the ones who brought these Greek articles to A1 Mina, one would expect them to have left behind more materials from places besides Greece. This trading post demonstrates that even at this early date, the Greeks were competing with the Phoenicians not only in the Aegean and in the West, but in the Phoenicians’ own backyard.

Naucratis . Something in between an emporion and a colony was the Egyptian town of Naucratis. Situated on the Canopic branch of the Nile Delta, the westernmost of the main branches of the delta, Naucratis was given to Greek traders by the Egyptian pharaoh sometime in the late seventh century b.c.e. This settlement allowed the Greeks to have a foothold in Egypt (the Egyptians were large consumers of Greek olive oil) and a source of grain, ivory, ebony, and Egyptian handicrafts for Greek markets. It was also a means for the Egyptian authorities to control the activity of Greek traders. Merchants who landed anywhere in Egypt other than Naucratis were detained until they swore an oath that they did not do so on purpose. They were then required to proceed to Naucratis, which eventually became more of a city than a trading post. Traders from many different Greek cities erected temples there, and a permanent community developed. Herodotus says that the pharaoh Amasis took as wife a Greek woman from Naucratis.

Trade Items . Greek exports in this period were roughly the same as they were in the Bronze Age, olive oil and wine being the chief articles. Fine pottery also was a trade item in itself. Greek vase painting was always among the best in the Mediterranean, and in this period first Corinthian vase painters, who covered their pots with harmonious bands of stylized animals and decorative patterns, and then the Athenians, who pioneered the representation of humans and narrative scenes on pottery, became highly popular throughout the Mediterranean world. Greek metalwork, including bronze and iron weaponry and bronze artwork, was also in demand. The city of Argos in Greece was particularly well-known for the quality of its metalworkers.

Carrying Trade . However, Greek traders did not traffic only in Greek wares. The holds of Greek merchant ships were typically full of goods from a variety of sources. Many Greek shipowners made the bulk of their income by acting as middlemen for other people’s transactions and carried little or nothing from their own native cities. Aegina, a small island off the coast of Athens with few natural resources or exportable goods, was apparently full of such entrepreneurs. The merchants of Aegina carried cargoes of oil, wine, iron, and slaves (a new import of growing importance to Greece), and they were active in Egypt, the West, and in the Black Sea area. By some accounts, the Aeginetans produced the first minted coinage in all of Greece, and their weights and measures served as the standard that many other Greek city-states followed. The profits they sent back home made their poor little island a rich one and allowed it to support a population far in excess of what the land of the island could have fed on its own.

Mercenaries, Poets, and Teachers . Historical records and archaeological remains of the Archaic Period also reveal that the Greeks were traveling and moving about for many reasons other than colonization and trade. Many men who found farming difficult went abroad to serve as mercenaries. Through fighting one another the Greeks had become proficient at a type of heavily-armored infantry combat called hoplite warfare and were in high demand as paid soldiers among the kingdoms of the Near East and Egypt. Meanwhile, poets and teachers could find their services in demand from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. The poet Anacreon, for instance, was born in the Anatolian city of Teos but spent much of his career on the island of Samos and late in life moved to Athens at the invitation of that city’s ruler. Sappho of Lesbos, Greece’s most famous woman writer, spent part of her life in Sicily (a result of exile, not popularity). Another poet, Ibycus, was born in southern Italy and came to Samos at the same time that Anacreon was there. An especially interesting case is the poet Arion. Hailing from Methymna on Lesbos, he came to Corinth to be a court poet for the ruler of that city and left of his own volition to seek his fortune, successfully, amongst the Greek communities in Italy and Sicily. We can assume that less talented poets, who had a hard time keeping the same audience entertained for long, had to travel around even more.


This inscription was scrawled by two Greek mercenaries on one of the legs of the great statues of Abu Simbel, in Egypt about 700 miles up the Nile River from the Mediterranean. It is one of many such graffiti that the Greek soldiers left while on an expedition for the Egyptian king around 591 b.c.e.

When King Psammetichos had come to Elephantine, this was written by those who sailed with Psammetichos, son of Theokles, who went as far upstream as they could—above Kerkis. Potasimto led the foreigners and Amasis the Egyptians. This was written by Archon son of Amoibichos and Pelekos son of Eudamos.

One of the earliest Greek poets whose writing survives, Archilochus of Paros (circa 650-600 b.c.e.) composed this pithy poem describing his life as a mercenary:

I depend on my spear for my kneaded bread; I depend on my spear for my wine From Ismaria; I lean on my spear while I drink it.

The following story about the poet Arion illustrates the vulnerability of a lone traveler in this time, although the part about the dolphin is probably an embellishment.

Most of his time Arion had spent with Periander [ruler of Corinth], till he felt a longing to sail to Italy and Sicily. This he did; and after making a great deal of money in those countries, he decided to return to Corinth. He sailed from Tarentum in a Corinthian vessel, because he had more confidence in Corinthians than in anyone else. The crew, however, when the ship was at sea, hatched a plot to throw him overboard and steal his money. He got wind of their intention, and begged them to take his money, but spare his life. To no purpose, however; for the sailors told him either to kill himself if he wanted to be buried ashore, or to jump overboard at once.

Arion, seeing they had made up their minds, as a last resort begged permission to stand on the after-deck, dressed in his singing robes, and give them a song; the song over, he promised to kill himself. Delighted at the prospect of hearing a song from the world’s most famous singer, the sailors all made their way forward from the stern and assembled amidships. Arion put on his full professional costume, took up his lute and, standing on the afterdeck, played and sang a lively tune. Then he leapt into the sea, just as he was, with all his clothes on.

The ship continued her voyage to Corinth, but a dolphin picked up Arion and carried him on its back to Taenarum. Here Arion landed, and made his way in his singing costume to Corinth, where he told the whole story. Periander was not too ready to believe it; so he put Arion under strict supervision, keeping the ship’s crew meanwhile carefully in mind. On their return he sent for them, and asked if they had anything to tell him about Arion. “Oh yes,” they answered, “we left him safe and sound at Tarentum in Italy.” But no sooner were the words out of their mouths than Arion himself appeared, just as he was when he jumped overboard. This was an unpleasant shock for the sailors.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Harrnondsworth, U.K., & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954).


John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade (London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 1980).

Robin Osborne Jr., Greece in the Making, 1200-479 BC (London & New York: Routledge, 1996).

Anthony M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (London: Dent, 1980).

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