Trading Posts

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Trading Posts


Emporiums. Although trade and commerce were not the principal motives for planting colonies, they were still important activities in the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.). Once they came into existence the colonies no doubt gave a certain impetus to the international exchange of goods. However, more trade was carried on at the emporiums or trading posts.

Al Mina. An early trading post was Al Mina on the northern Levantine coast of Syria. It was founded around 800 b.c.e.; its Greek name has not survived. Al Mina shares a feature with most emporiums of the early Archaic Period, its great distance from the homeland. Ampurias was on the distant northeastern coast of Spain, and other trading posts were planted in similarly remote places: on the northwest coast of Sicily, on the Sea of Azov in south Russia, and in the Nile delta. Naucratis, an emporium in Egypt, was founded at the end of the seventh century; like the earlier Al Mina it was not a state-sponsored colony, but simply a place where Greek traders, most of them from the island of Aegina and from Asia Minor, lived and worked along with the native Egyptians. The traders depended on the good will of the pharaoh, who exercised strict control over the Greek section of Naucratis, which was separated from the Egyptian. The Greeks needed permission from the pharaoh to build temples to their gods; intermarriage between Greeks and Egyptians was

prohibited. Yet, as at Al Mina, the Greeks at Naucratis lived peacefully with their non-Greek neighbors; at any rate there is no evidence of conflict between the Greek settlers and the local population.

Facilitation of Trade. Another sign of peaceful commercial interaction between the Greeks and their neighbors living along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea was the creation of a true alphabet. The Greeks derived their letters from the Phoenician, adapting some of the consonants in the Phoenician model to fit the vowels of the Greek language. Although there is no absolute proof for it, it is virtually certain that the alphabet was invented in order to keep records of goods bought and sold. There is likewise little doubt that traders from the island of Euboea devised and imported the alphabet into Greece from Al Mina at some time before 750 b.c.e. The new literacy followed the trade routes, reaching Euboea at an early date and spreading from there to Athens and other Greek regions. It can hardly be a coincidence that Euboean pottery of about 800 b.c.e. is among the earliest artifacts found at Al Mina and that some luxury objects from the east reached Euboea about that time, probably via Al Mina.

Bronze Town. There was a third type of colony besides the agricultural settlements and the trading posts. Some colonies were sent out neither in search of good land nor to establish trading posts, but to find raw materials. This task may well have been the reason behind the settlement at Al Mina. The settlers there came from the Euboean town of Chalkis or “Bronze Town,” which was known for its metal-work, and it is quite likely that the Euboeans were looking for metal when they arrived at Al Mina. The metal was not shipped back to Euboea, but worked into marketable objects in the settlement. This practice occurred in other places as well. Early Euboeans settled at Cumae on the Bay of Naples in order to trade in metals with the Etruscans to the north; they also settled the nearby island of Ischia, which had metal deposits of its own. The excavations at Pithecussae, the main town of Ischia, have revealed that the settlers smelted the local ore in their foundry; the iron thus produced was worked into objects on the same spot by a smith, whose workshop was found right next to the foundry. The finished objects were then exported. The same arrangement of a smelter with a blacksmith’s forge next to it was found at Motya in Sicily and in the remote mountains of Arcadia at Bassae. Not only metal objects, but, as we will see, objects of stone, too, were manufactured at the places where the raw material was readily available. The archaeological findings thus tend to disprove the unanimous view of earlier modern economic historians that ancient Greek cities, like modern industrial states, lived from the export of goods manufactured in them.

Fuel. There was another consideration besides the presence of iron ore or stone in selecting remote places for the production of objects: easy access to the necessary fuel. By the end of the Bronze Age people had been using wood in construction, manufacture, and above all as fuel for more than a millennium, causing considerable deforestation throughout Greece and in some other parts of the ancient world as well. The Bronze Age may in fact have come to an end when the supply of wood for fuel in copper-producing regions such as Cyprus began to run out. The shortage of fuel for smelting and forging made it necessary to search for metallic ores in wooded regions affording accessible fuel; when iron ore was discovered in such places, that metal began to supplant copper. Remote places such as Ischia and Bassae were still wooded in the Archaic Period, making fuel easily available.


M.M. Austin and P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction, translated by Austin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

B.F. Cook, Greek Inscriptions (Berkeley: University of California Press/London: British Museum, 1987).

J. Perlin and Borimir Jordan, “Running Out: 4,200 Years of Wood Shortages,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 37 (1983): 18-25.

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