Trade, Colonization, and Travel

views updated

Trade, Colonization, and Travel



Seafarers . The Greeks seem to have been a natural seafaring people whose lives were closely linked with the sea and ships. There are many metaphors and expressions in Greek literature that stem from the sea and sailing, and artistic motifs such as octopi, shells, and dolphins are found on coins, painted pottery, and colorful wall frescoes.

Mediterranean World . Seventy-two percent of the land that makes up Greece is within twenty-five miles of the sea, and there is evidence for travel and trade by sea in Greece as early as 7000 b.c.e. The Mediterranean has many islands, and the sailing seasons and winds are largely predictable (fierce storms are frequent during the winter months, however, so ships were usually laid up from early November to late March). Expertise in seafaring had political ramifications for the Greeks as well, both overseas and closer to home: their aptitude for sailing meant distant colonies could be established, and naval supremacy in the area of well-designed ships allowed Athens to dominate Greece for much of the fifth century b.c.e. In addition, many parts of Greece are poor in natural resources, which forced dependence on trade with more fortunate areas (timber and silver, for instance, were never abundant in southern Greece); and since import and export was done by water transport, city-states that achieved wealth and importance were usually seaports.

Sailing . Ship design under the Greeks reached a high level of competence and success. The earliest seagoing vessels in the ancient world were probably very small rafts or boats, but larger vessels were soon developed because of a need for greater capacity and security. By the end of the second millennium b.c.e. ships equipped with oars and a square sail were found all over the Mediterranean.

Trade . Much of Greek trading both within Greece and to distant ports was meant to secure food, timber, and metals, but there was also a smaller trade in luxuries: fine wine, pottery and art, olive oil (which was valuable because of its varied uses as food, fuel, cleansing agent, and a base for perfume). Some trade was conducted over land, but this was slow and expensive, and sea travel was the preferred method. Traders mainly went from port to port, connecting different parts of Greece, Italy and Sicily, Ionia, the Hellespont, and Egypt: procuring grain from southern Russia, olive oil from Athens, timber from Palestine, and fine woolen fabrics from Miletus. Long voyages over the open sea were avoided whenever possible, and ships hugged the coastline or islands. Greek trading ships were deep, rounded vessels, with a short square sail and damp sand in the hold for ballast. Merchant ships were constructed for capacity and safety, not speed.

Evidence . When did long-distance seaborne commerce between Greece and other countries begin? The earliest literary mention of trade is in the poetry of Homer (when Odysseus is accused of looking like a scruffy merchant skipper), but contact with foreign countries and peoples may also be identified through archeological evidence such as pottery finds. Greek artifacts turn up in foreign countries for a variety of reasons: for the use of the Greeks in overseas colonies; indicating perhaps an export market in Greek pottery; or representing pieces that merely traveled down from trading posts or colonies. Contact with foreign countries influenced Greece as well: art historians have detected Near Eastern patterns and motifs influences in Greek painted pottery after 750 b.c.e. or so, which implies early interaction with countries such as Persia.


A system of Persian dispatch riders was established by the Persian king Cyrus (ruled from 550 to 530 b.c.e.) who posted stations every fifteen miles or so along the road from Susa to Sardis. This system provided the fastest means of long-distance communication in antiquity, greatly admired by the Greeks. Herodotus wrote:

There is no mortal man who can accomplish a journey faster than these Persian messengers. The idea was invented by the Persians. For it is reported that as many days as there are for the entire trip, so many are the horses and men posted, a horse and a man for each day’s journey. Not snow, not rain, not heat, not night hinder these men from covering the stage assigned to them as quickly as possible. The first rider passes the dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on...

Source: John Humphrey, John P, Oleson, and Andrew Sherwood, eds., Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook (London & New York: Rout-ledge, 1998).

Colonies . The period 750-550 b.c.e. marked a great burst of intensive foreign settlement on the part of the Greeks. A decision by a polis to establish a colony overseas (at a site chosen on the advice of traders or travelers) usually stemmed from practical reasons such as famine or land shortage, and such a decision was formed by the ruling body of the city-state, not by any one individual. The polis selected a wealthy oikistes (aristocratic founder) who would lead the expedition and draw up plans for the new city, and for his efforts receive heroic honors after his death. Once established, the colony was bound to the mother-state only by ties of kinship, religion, and sentiment. It could call on its mother-state (or vice versa) in times of trouble, but a colony was just as self-sufficient a city-state as the founding polis, and was under no obligation to serve the economic interests of its mother city. During this period, Greek city-states established colonies in Italy and Sicily, at Naucratis in Egypt, in southern France and Spain, to the east along the coast of

modern Turkey, in Libya, and in the northeast along the Black Sea, which spread Greek culture throughout the regions of the Mediterranean and into Asia Minor.

Travelers . Apart from traders and colonists, there were other ancient Greek travelers. Many people traveled to the great religious and athletic festivals held in different parts of Greece: the Olympic games (held every four years); the Pythian games (held every eight years); and the Nemean and Isthmian games (held every other year). Another reason for travel was illness: the sick or infirm journeyed to sanctuaries of Aesclepius (the Greek god of healing) for cures and relief. Some travelers were seekers of the Greek oracles (prophetic deities) at Dodona or Delphi. There were some Greeks who traveled simply as tourists (who would, for example, journey to Egypt to see the sights), but travel for its own sake required leisure and money, and there were few people with both in Greek society.

Highwaymen and Pirates . In addition, taking a trip in the ancient world was not easy, another obstacle to travel for its own sake. Journeys by land were slow and strenuous. Most roads were not well built or well maintained and tended to be narrow, rocky, shadeless, and peopled by highwaymen and other robbers. Inns and taverns did dot the roads, but the upper-class Greek would stay at the homes of his friends along the way, since roadside inns tended to be dirty, bug ridden, and rife with crime. To go on foot was the easiest (although most tiring), since not all roads were built for wheeled traffic, and some were nearly impassable by a cart or wagon. Travelers would carry their clothing, provisions for the journey, even their bedding with them, as well as a hefty supply of ready money. There were no banks or savings accounts in antiquity, and robbers could be fairly certain that travelers had well-filled purses. On the seas, although travel by water was quicker and less exhausting, one ran the risk of pirates or shipwreck.

Limited Worldview . For the typical Greek, then, life was mostly lived out in his home terrain, on his farm, or in the town. Few were traders or tourists, and because travel was difficult and expensive, the average Greek did not journey extensively. Maps and detailed geography were the province of the wealthy and educated class.


John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (London: Penguin, 1964).

Lionel Casson, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times (London: British Museum Press, 1994).

Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

John Humphrey, John P. Oleson, and Andrew Sherwood, eds., Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook (London & New York: Routledge, 1998).