Greek Colonies in the East

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The Black Sea littoral, initially called by the Greeks "inhospitable," was colonized intensively by them. Ancient written sources number these colonies between seventy-five and ninety. According to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, Miletus, the most prosperous city of Ionia (ancient East Greece, the western part of modern-day Turkey), was known to many. Its fame was due mainly to the large number of its colonies, since the whole of Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea), Propontis (Sea of Marmora), and many other places had been settled by Milesians.

The reasons for Ionian colonization have been argued for many decades as one aspect of the general debate about why the Greeks established so many colonies. Nowadays, most scholars agree that colonization was enforced migration. Ionian cities were situated in favorable geographical locations and possessed large tracts of fertile land. Miletus, called "the pearl of Ionia," was in the Archaic period the center of Greek culture. At the end of the eighth century, Ionians began advancing deeply into the hinterland: Miletus, for example, pushed its frontiers twenty to thirty miles up the river valley. This expansion led to conflict between Lydians and Ionians, with Lydian kings seeking to push the Ionians back toward the coast. The principal outcome was to diminish the amount of cultivable land available to the Ionians. This was the chief reason why from the mid-seventh century, Miletus, which had never undertaken colonization, became the last Greek city to do so.

The struggles between Lydia and Ionia came to an end at the beginning of the sixth century, when Miletus was obliged to accept a treaty reducing its territorial possessions. This, in turn, provoked an internal crisis in Miletus, whose resolution prompted large-scale migration and the establishment of new colonies on the Black Sea. New and hitherto unparalleled difficulties arose in the middle of the sixth century as the expanding Persian empire conquered Ionian cities. Ancient written sources state directly that the Ionians faced a stark choice: death and enslavement or flight. In these circumstances migration was the obvious course, leading to the foundation of more new colonies. This did not mark the end of forced migration: in 499 b.c. an Ionian uprising against Persian rule was crushed, and in 494 Miletus was sacked and burned. In consequence, a final wave of Ionian colonies was established on the Black Sea at the beginning of the fifth century.

Archaeology provides the principal evidence for Greek colonies on the Black Sea. There are a few written sources on the establishment of Pontic Greek cities, but they are contradictory, giving different dates of foundation and mixing myths with other explanations of the colonization process. The first colonies appeared in the last third of the seventh century, and by the end of it Berezan, Histria, Sinope, possibly Amisus and Trapezus, Apollonia Pontica, and the Taganrog settlement on the Sea of Azov had been founded. All were very small, situated on peninsulas. The next wave of colonization dates to the beginning of the sixth century and witnessed the establishment of Olbia, Panticapaeum, Nymphaeum, Theodosia, Myrmekion, Kepoi, Patraeus, Tomis, and others. Hermonassa, on the

Taman Peninsula (South Russia), was a joint foundation of Miletus and Mytilene in the second quarter of the sixth century.

From the middle of the sixth century, other Ionian Greek cities were in the business of establishing colonies: Teos founded Phanagoria (Taman Peninsula), and the (non-Ionian) Megarians and Boeotians founded Heraclea, on the southern shores of the Pontus c. 556 b.c. The latter colony developed as a major trading center for the whole Pontus and in turn established its own colonies: Chersonesus in the Crimea was founded in the last quarter of the fifth century (where a small Ionian settlement had existed from the end of the sixth century) and, later, Callatis on the western coast. The mid-sixth century also was the period when Miletus established three colonies on the eastern Black Sea (in the ancient country of Colchis)—Phasis, Gyenos, and Dioscurias. The final Ionian colonizers arrived at the end of the sixth/beginning of the fifth century b.c., establishing new colonies (Mesambria, Kerkinitis, and others) and settling in existing ones. In newly established colonies, Apollo was the major deity, as he was in Miletus.

For their first sixty to eighty years of existence, the colonies looked quite "un-Greek." There was virtually no stone architecture; instead there were pit houses. Nor was there regular town planning. The only colony with fortification walls was Histria. A complete change of appearance took place at the end of the sixth/first half of the fifth century. Pit houses gave way to typical Greek stone dwellings. It is possible to identify clearly standard features of Greek urbanization, such as the agora, temenos, acropolis, and craftsmen's quarter, among others. Temples were built in the Ionic and Doric orders. As the result of a change in the local political situation, cities began to construct stone fortification walls. The exception is the region of the eastern Black Sea, where, thanks to natural conditions (wetlands and marshes, for example), temples and fortification walls as well as dwellings were constructed of wood.

Every Greek city became a center of craft production. In Histria and Nymphaeum pottery kilns were found dating from the mid-sixth century b.c.; in Panticapaeum from the end of the century; and in Chersonesus, Gorgippia, Histria, Phanagoria, and Sinope from the fifth to the second centuries. They produced such things as terra-cotta figurines, lamps, loom weights, and tableware; in Heraclea, Sinope, and Chersonesus, amphorae were made as well. Through the migration of Sinopean potters, the Greek cities of Colchis began to produce their own amphorae from the second half of the fourth century b.c. From the fourth century, tiles and architectural terra-cotta were manufactured in Apollonia Pontica, Chersonesus, Olbia, Tyras, and the Bosporan cities (on the Kerch and Taman Peninsulas). The Bosporan cities and Histria produced simple painted pottery, which imitated the shapes of East Greek and Attic pottery.

Nearly every Greek city has left traces of metalworking. In Panticapaeum, for example, workshops were found in two areas. The workshops, which produced iron, bronze, and lead objects (including weapons), contained numerous moulds, iron ore, and slags in the remains of furnaces. In Phanagoria, pottery and metal workshops were situated at the edge of the city. One produced life-size bronze statues. Metalworking in the Pontic Greek cities was based mainly on the use of ingots specially produced for them, for example, in wooden-steppe Scythia for the northern Black Sea cities. The same situation most probably obtained in the other parts of the Black Sea.

Agriculture was the main economic activity. Greek cities established their agricultural territories, called chorai, almost immediately. Their size varied over time; initially they were small but grew larger with the appearance of new colonists and the expansion of the cities. In the fourth century b.c. the chorai of Olbia and Chersonesus and of the cities of the Bosporan Kingdom each covered an area of about 150,000 hectares and contained several hundred settlements. These rural settlements were sources of agricultural produce for the inhabitants of the cities. There were several settlements specializing entirely in craft production. The wonderfully preserved chora of Chersonesus in the Crimea is unique, as is Metapontum in Italy. Chersonesus was situated in the Heraclean Peninsula, approximately 11,000 hectares of which was divided c. 350 b.c. into four hundred lots, each with six subdivisions, to make 2,400 small allotments. They were used mainly for viticulture and growing fruit trees. About 4,000 hectares along the north coast were the basis of the earliest allotments. There was a second chora of Chersonesus in the northwestern Crimea, entirely for grain production.

Trade was one of the principal economic activities of Greek cities. The main sources for the study of trade relations are pottery and amphorae. In the seventh and early sixth centuries b.c. pottery from southern Ionia was common throughout the Pontic region; later it was displaced by pottery from northern Ionia. Goods transported in amphorae came from Chios, Lesbos, and Clazomenae. The small quantities of Corinthian and Naucratite goods probably were brought by Ionian merchants, who also were responsible, with Aeginetans, for the appearance of the first Archaic Athenian pottery in the region. In the Classical period Athenian pottery predominates, on evidence from excavation of the Pontic Greek cities. This pottery probably reflects direct links between them and Athens.

Trade between the Pontic Greek cities and the local peoples is an extremely important but complex question. All discussion is based on the finds of Greek pottery made in local settlements, some as far as 500–600 kilometers inland from the Black Sea. Overall, about 10 percent of known and excavated local sites, especially for the Classical period, yield examples, but usually they are few in number (as is the case, for example, in both the Thracian and Colchian hinterlands). At the same time, local elite tombs each provide several examples of Athenian painted pottery. Thus, a simple explanation of the very close trade relationship between Greeks and locals is no longer tenable.

There are other ways in which pottery could have reached local settlements, and the small quantity cannot support the argument that the more examples, the closer and more intense the links. Painted pottery from elite tombs cannot be viewed only from the perspective of trade relationships: it is not known how the locals interpreted the scenes depicted on the painted pottery, which could have been a gift from the Greeks and not traded. Furthermore, the tombs contained jewelry and metal vessels, on which the local elite was much keener, in far greater quantities than pottery.

Over time the composition of imports and exports changed. The best account is found in the Histories of the Greek historian Polybius (book 4):

As regards necessities, it is an undisputed fact that the most plentiful supplies and best qualities of cattle and slaves reach us from the countries lying around the Pontus, while among luxuries, the same countries furnish us with an abundance of honey, wax and preserved fish; from the surplus of our countries they take olive-oil and every kind of wine. As for grain, there is give and take—with them sometimes supplying us when we require it and sometimes importing it from us.

From the start, the history of the colonies is inseparable from that of the local population. Many ethnic groups lived around the Black Sea, among whom the most prominent were the Thracians, Getae, Scythians, Tauri, Maeotians, Colchians, Mariandyni, and Chalybes. From the earliest days of the colonies, locals formed part of their population. For the Archaic period not much is known about the relationship between Greeks and local peoples, although it was most probably peaceful until the end of the sixth century/beginning of the fifth century b.c. Thereafter, local kingdoms grew up, such as the Thracian (Odrysian), Colchian, and Scythian. Relations between these kingdoms and the Greek colonies were at times peaceful and at others hostile. In about 480 b.c. a phenomenon unique for the whole Greek world in the Classical period took place: the Greek cities situated on the Kerch and Taman Peninsulas united, to withstand Scythian pressure, in a single state, known as the Bosporan Kingdom (whose capital was Panticapaeum). The rulers of this state were tyrants. Its final consolidation was completed by the middle of the fourth century b.c. In character it was akin to the kingdoms that mushroomed in the Hellenistic period.

See alsoScythians (vol. 2, part 7).


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Greaves, Alan M. Miletos: A History. London: Routledge, 2002.

Tsetskhladze, Gocha R. "Greek Penetration of the Black Sea." In The Archaeology of Greek Colonisation: Essays Dedicated to Sir John Boardman. Edited by G. R. Tsetskhladze and F. De Angelis, pp. 111–136. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1994.

——, ed. The Greek Colonisation of the Black Sea Area:Historical Interpretation of Archaeology. Historia Einzelschriften 121. Stuttgart, Germany: Steiner, 1998.

Tsetskhladze, Gocha R., and J. G. de Boer, eds. The BlackSea Region in the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Periods. Talanta 32/33. Amsterdam: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, 2002.

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Gocha R. Tsetskhladze