Greek Colonies in the West

views updated


followed by feature essay on:

Vix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205

Between 750 and 550 b.c. a number of Greek cities, both in modern Greece and on the west coast of modern Turkey, established daughter cities along the shores of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Black Seas. This process has become known as "Greek colonization." In contrast to colonizing actions of modern nation-states, however, this expansion of individual Greek city-states was not centrally directed, and there was no single purpose. Among the reasons for the establishment of particular towns were overpopulation in the mother cities, need for larger supplies of grain than were available in Greece, and improvement of trade relations with different peoples on and beyond the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Both Greek historical sources and archaeological investigation provide information about the founding and growth of the new towns and about relations between them and other peoples.


The most important Greek town established in the western Mediterranean was Massalia, on the site of modern-day Marseille, France's second-largest city. Archaeological evidence from the lands around the mouth of the Rhône River show that, during the second half of the seventh century b.c., merchants from abroad were trading with the indigenous peoples. Pottery, ceramic amphorae that had carried wine, and bronze vessels from Greek and Etruscan workshops appear on settlements and in burials after about 630 b.c., indicating that this region was being opened to seaborne trade by the Mediterranean urban civilizations. It is not known precisely who these early merchants were—probably the peoples called Etruscans and Greeks. They traveled in relatively small ships along the Mediterranean coasts, trading in wine, ceramics, and other luxury goods. Numerous shipwrecks in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean coasts provide underwater archaeologists with rich information about boat technology and about the character of their cargoes.

Around 600 b.c. Greeks from the city of Phocaea, a community in Ionian Greece, now located on the west coast of Turkey, founded Massalia, the first permanent Greek settlement known in the region. The settlers were attracted by the excellent natural harbor, with its entrance protected from Mediterranean storms; the hill to the north that provided ideal settlement land; and the proximity to the mouth of the Rhône River, the principal waterway that linked interior regions of Europe with the western Mediterranean. The site was close enough to the river's mouth to provide easy access and allow control of the river but far enough away to avoid the

problem of its harbor silting up with riverborne sediments.

Excavations in modern Marseille have yielded abundant evidence of the Greek town, though archaeologists are limited in their investigations by the modern city that overlies the ancient Greek one. For well over a century archaeologists have noted large quantities of ancient architectural remains, pottery from Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world, coins, and other materials from the early settlement. Since the 1960s archaeologists have been able to carry out systematic excavations in parts of the harbor and in places under construction within the ancient town itself. In the harbor they have discovered at least nine ships from the first century of the port's existence as well as warehouses and docks that formed parts of the harbor's infrastructure. Study of archaeological remains within the city of Marseille indicates that this Greek town of the sixth century b.c. covered some 40 hectares of the hilly land around the harbor and that the town was protected on its northern edge by a massive stone and brick wall.

massalia's region and daughter towns

Massalia grew in size and influence and became the principal center along the southern coast of France, from Barcelona to Nice. It dominated an extensive landscape on both sides of the lower Rhône and had an important impact far inland, north and east of the headwaters of the Rhône in the interior of the Continent. French archaeologists have investigated many settlement and cemetery sites in the lower Rhône region northwest of Marseille and found extensive evidence of interaction with the Greek town. Particularly abundant are sherds of ceramic amphorae that had been used to transport wine. Some of the vessels had been manufactured at Massalia; others were imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin. Fine pottery, some made at Massalia and some from as far away as Athens, also circulated from the trade center to communities throughout the lower Rhône Valley. Especially common among the fine ceramics are pitchers, small bowls, and cups—all vessels used in the consumption of wine. The lands around the town of Massalia produced wine, and wine was imported from other regions of the Mediterranean. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, the rocky soils around Massalia would allow the successful cultivation of wine grapes and olives but not grain.

Shortly after they established Massalia around 600 b.c., Phocaean Greeks also founded a new town called Emporion, located on the northeastern coast of Spain, where modern Ampurias is situated. Emporion did not grow as large as Massalia, but around that town, too, is abundant archaeological evidence for interaction with indigenous peoples. Within a century of its establishment, Massalia began founding other daughter towns in the south of France.

massalia and west-central europe

In addition to their activities in and around Massalia and along the northern coasts of the western Mediterranean, the merchants based at the Greek port engaged in significant interactions with peoples of interior regions of continental Europe, especially in the region known as west-central Europe, which now is made up of eastern France, southwestern Germany, and northern and western Switzerland. The significance of these interactions between the prehistoric, Early Iron Age peoples of temperate Europe and merchants from the literate civilization of the Greek Mediterranean has been much discussed, and they certainly were of fundamental importance to cultural development within Europe. They also were significant to the Greek world, especially with respect to the trade products that Massalia and its commercial partners acquired through the interactions and in regard to the forming of Greek attitudes toward the non-Greek peoples who lived in the interior of the Continent. The principal concern here is with the effects of these interactions on the peoples of west-central Europe.

Archaeological Evidence for Interactions. The archaeological evidence for interactions between communities in west-central Europe and the Greek establishment at and around Massalia consists largely of objects manufactured in the Greek world that are recovered by archaeologists on settlements and in graves in west-central Europe. The most studied imports are pottery from Athens, pottery from Massalia and from workshops in its region, transport amphorae (some manufactured at Massalia and others brought in from abroad), and bronze vessels (some from Greek workshops and some from Etruscan Italy). Other objects, discussed later, also have significance. All of the imported objects are luxury goods, and all were consumed by the elite groups of Early Iron Age west-central Europe. The great majority of the objects are associated directly with the transportation, serving, and consumption of wine.

The most thoroughly investigated assemblage of Greek imports is from the Heuneburg on the Upper Danube River in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. At Mont Lassois on the upper Seine River in eastern France, even larger quantities of Greek pottery have been identified, and the Vix grave just below the fortified hilltop settlement contained numerous important objects. Between the Heuneburg and Mont Lassois, in the valleys of the Upper Rhine, the Doubs, and the upper Rhône Rivers, Greek imports have been recovered at many other settlements and graves. The Heuneburg and Mont Lassois stand out in being especially well studied and in providing important evidence for both settlement and burial contexts.

A number of different categories of imported Greek pottery have been identified at the Heuneburg, Mont Lassois, and the other sites, including pottery made in and around Massalia, pottery from eastern Greek workshops, and pottery from the center of Attica, Athens. Small numbers of Greek imports are apparent before the middle of the sixth century b.c., but the quantities increased greatly during the second half of that century. The imported Attic pottery has attracted special attention, because it can be dated very precisely and because archaeologists know a great deal about how it was produced and used in its land of origin. To date fifty-eight sherds of Attic pottery have been identified from the materials excavated at the Heuneburg

and more than three hundred at Mont Lassois. The vessel forms represented are part of the Greek wine-serving set—kraters for mixing wine and water (standard Greek practice), jugs for serving wine, and cups for drinking it (fig. 1). Most Attic pottery at these sites dates to the second half of the sixth century b.c., especially to the final quarter (525–500 b.c.). Amphorae used to transport wine from the Mediterranean coast into temperate Europe also are well represented, with fifty-five sherds from thirty-seven amphorae recorded from the Heuneburg, the majority of them dating to the same period as the Attic pottery. Early in the fifth century b.c. the quantities of Greek imports that were arriving into west-central Europe declined, for reasons that are not well understood. The cause of the decline may have lain principally in political and economic circumstances in west-central Europe or in the economic fortunes of Massalia or in a combination of factors.

Bronze vessels are an important category of Greek imports in west-central Europe, but they are much less abundant than fine pottery and amphorae. While the imported pottery and amphorae are represented mainly by sherds on settlement sites (though a few complete vessels do appear in graves, such as the two wine cups in the Vix burial), the bronze vessels are found principally in graves. The most spectacular is the Vix krater. Others include the cauldron in the Hochdorf burial; fragmentary sets of tripods and cauldrons from Sainte-Colombe near Vix in France and from Grafenbühl near Hochdorf in Germany; a hydria (water jug) from Grächwil in Switzerland; and relatively plain jugs from Ihringen, Kappel, and Vilsingen in the Upper Rhine Valley region.

Other imported luxury items from the Greek world that probably arrived by way of the port of Massalia are small ornaments and lavishly decorated furniture. In the Grafenbühl grave (looted in antiquity) were a small sphinx figure carved from bone and with an amber face. In the same grave and in a grave nearby at Römerhügel were carved amber, bone, and ivory pieces from furniture, perhaps couches. Coral from the Mediterranean Sea was imported in quantity for use as inlay in bronze jewelry. At the Heuneburg a partly worked coral branch indicates that the material was processed in a workshop on the site. Dyes for coloring textiles, evident at Hochdorf, were imported from the Mediterranean region. Even new foods were introduced to the Early Iron Age centers from the Mediterranean world at this time, including chickens and figs.

Nature of the Interactions. Much debate surrounds the nature of the interactions that brought the imports from the Greek world of the Mediterranean to the communities in west-central Europe. Most often the interactions are referred to simply as "trade," but that term oversimplifies the situation and may not be accurate, if in using that word one thinks of modern trade.

An important factor in attempts to understand why and how Greek luxury imports reached west-central Europe is the concentration of such imports at a few major centers dating to the latter part of the Early Iron Age (550–480 b.c.). The Heuneburg, Mont Lassois, the Hohenasperg (north of Stuttgart in Southwest Germany), Bragny-sur-Saône in eastern France, Châtillon-sur-Glâne in Switzerland, and other sites include hilltop settlements enclosed by fortification walls. Below them are unusually large burial mounds that cover elaborate wooden burial chambers housing rich graves containing Greek imports, gold ornaments, wagons, feasting equipment, and in the case of men's graves, weapons. Thus there is a clear association between high status in Early Iron Age society and the Greek imports. Greek fine pottery, wine amphorae, and bronze vessels are rarely found on typical agricultural settlements or in modestly outfitted graves.

Written Greek sources tell of slightly later times that Greek cities sought to obtain a variety of raw materials through trade. These materials included grain to feed their urban populations, meat and fish, metals (iron for tools and weapons; copper and tin to make bronze for ornaments, statuary, and vessels; and gold and silver for ornaments), timber for building ships and other purposes, salt, pitch and tar, honey, leather, hides and fur, textiles, and perhaps slaves. In some other regions of the greater Mediterranean basin, such as on the north coasts of the Black Sea, appear patterns similar to those at Massalia and west-central Europe, with the establishment of Greek ports and the transmission of Greek pottery and other goods inland to special fortified settlements. One set of interpretations views the Greek imports in west-central Europe as representative of one side of trade relations between elites at the Early Iron Age centers and merchant groups at Massalia. Centers such as the Heuneburg and Mont Lassois can be thought of as collection sites for the accumulation of materials sought by Greek merchants—raw materials, such as honey and furs from the forests, and partly made goods, such as wool textiles from the farming communities. The situation of all of the Early Iron Age centers on major rivers would support this model of economic trade in commodities from west-central Europe in exchange for finished luxury goods from the Greek world. According to this view, the elites at the centers controlled the trade, and thus they acquired and consumed the great majority of the luxury imports. They distributed some imports to the smaller communities that supplied the trade goods; coral inlay on bronze jewelry is well represented not only at the major centers but at many smaller communities as well.

This model is too simplistic, however, and anachronistic. It assumes that trade in the sixth century b.c. operated through exchange principles similar to those of more modern times. Some archaeologists have advocated a prestige-goods model for the exchange. In this view, rather than a barter trade of raw materials for Greek luxury goods, overseen and controlled by local elites, the key factor is the circulation of particular objects that bore high status and prestige in society—the Greek luxuries in Early Iron Age communities. According to this interpretation, the key element was the circulation and display of prestige goods. This model downplays the relationships between the elites at the centers and the smaller communities that produced goods for trade and emphasizes instead the interactions between groups of elites in their competition for status and power at the centers.

Several objects provide important information about the nature of the interrelations between the centers of west-central Europe and the Greek world. The Vix krater has been interpreted as a diplomatic gift from a Greek community to a potentate on the upper Seine, presented in order to seal a treaty or to create a useful relationship. That unique object is much more precious than any other Greek imports in Europe, and it requires a different explanation from the fine pottery, the wine amphorae, and the other bronze vessels. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing around the middle of the fifth century b.c., described a similar vessel that was made to present to a king of a non-Greek people in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It seems likely that the Vix krater also was made and presented for a particular purpose that went far beyond what would be considered "economic" trade and lay rather in the realm of diplomatic and political relationships.

The clay-brick wall at the Heuneburg similarly provides unique information. The fortification wall surrounding the hilltop settlement at the Heuneburg was built in several phases. In all but one of the phases, the wall consisted of a typical central European earth-and-timber structure. For one phase of construction, however, the wall was built of clay bricks, set on a foundation of cut stone—a technology that was foreign to west-central Europe but at home in the Greek world of the Mediterranean. This wall was about 3 meters thick, and it included 10 rectangular towers on the north side of the site, creating what must have been an impressive view for the inhabitants of the settlement below. The dimensions of the bricks in the Heuneburg wall even match those in contemporaneous walls at Greek cities.

While objects such as Attic pottery and even the Vix krater could have been transmitted to the west-central European centers by indirect trade, without individuals from Massalia and the Early Iron Age centers ever coming directly into contact with one another, the building of the clay-brick wall demonstrates the direct transmission of technical knowledge between individuals of the two societies. Either an architect from the Mediterranean world must have overseen the construction of the wall at the Heuneburg, or someone from west-central Europe must have learned the technique during a visit to a Greek city. Either way, direct interpersonal technology transfer is required to explain the wall.

Transmission of specific technical information from the Mediterranean world to west-central Europe also is indicated by the statue from Hirschlanden, a burial mound near the Hohenasperg hillfort. This life-size statue of a male warrior is sculpted of local sandstone. The modeling of the back and the legs shows familiarity with sculptural traditions current during the sixth century b.c. in the Mediterranean world among Greek and Etruscan sculptors but otherwise absent in west-central Europe at this time. Since objects represented on the statue—hat, dagger, and belt—are of local character and the object is made of local sandstone, its local origin is not in question. As in the case of the Heuneburg brick wall, however, the Hirschlanden figure displays technical knowledge brought one way or another from the Mediterranean world.

effect of the interactions

The role that the interactions between west-central European communities and the Greek world at and around Massalia played in Iron Age Europe also is a greatly debated issue. The principal matter of contention is whether the interactions represented by the Greek luxury goods were an important factor in the emergence of elites in Early Iron Age west-central Europe or whether the emergence of the elites happened as a result of processes internal to European society. Put into simple terms, did the commerce with Massalia "cause" the greater social differentiation that is apparent in the rich graves at the Heuneburg, Mont Lassois, the Hohenasperg, and the other centers? Or did the elites emerge through locally based social changes and participate in trade with the Greeks in order to acquire attractive luxuries?

These questions are difficult to answer. The Greek luxury imports clearly are associated with the elites—the individuals buried in the richest and most elaborate burials. The Early Iron Age centers of west-central Europe rose to importance only during the sixth century b.c., after Massalia had been established and at the time that the first of the imports were arriving. Economic activity flourished at the centers in the final decades of the sixth century b.c., at the same time that the larger numbers of imports were arriving and the rich graves were most lavishly outfitted. Thus it is clear that there was a close connection between the social and political changes in Early Iron Age west-central Europe and the interactions with Greek Massalia. But it is not yet possible to explain exactly how these changes happened.

Some archaeologists argue that these interrelationships can best be understood in terms of core-periphery relations, in which the Greek Mediterranean is viewed as the core and west-central Europe as the periphery. In support of this approach, the archaeological evidence shows similar patterns of importation of Greek pottery, bronze vessels, and other luxury goods at other locations in the greater Mediterranean world, such as Iberia, the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, and the lands north of the Black Sea. These other regions also contain evidence for the same kinds of changes in local societies that are evident in west-central Europe—the appearance of new fortified hilltop settlements, on which Greek imported pottery is found, and increase in differentiation reflected in burial equipment. Thus from the broader perspective of Greek-native interaction all along the north coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the evidence seems to indicate that similar social changes were stimulated (not to say caused) by the establishment of Greek commercial towns eager to acquire commodities in the interior regions of Europe.

Those that argue in favor of local changes rather than external commerce as the critical factors point out that the total numbers of Greek imports in west-central Europe are small. The fifty-eight sherds of Attic pottery recovered so far at the Heuneburg, for example, represent only about thirteen vessels. Only thirty-seven wine amphorae have been identified from the sherds at the site. Viewed over some fifty or more years of interaction, these numbers of vessels do not indicate a substantial trade. Other investigators counter that in archaeology researchers always work with fragmentary evidence. Perhaps much or most of the importation of Greek luxury goods was in perishable materials, such as the fine textiles in the grave at Hochdorf and the silk from the Hohmichele burial mound at the Heuneburg. If this was the case, then the Attic pottery, wine amphorae, bronze vessels, and other objects are only the most visible signs of interactions, and archaeologists must reckon with much larger quantities of goods that are not as readily recognizable.

These debates are still flourishing. To an extent, new data from excavated settlements and graves will help provide support for one perspective or the other. Much of the debate depends upon how one thinks economic and social systems in the past operated, and thus agreement may never be achieved. In any case, it is clear that the contacts with the Greek world and the emergence of the economic and social centers with their elites were closely interconnected.

Perhaps the most important effects of the interactions were the more subtle ones involving the sharing and exchange of information, ideas, and practices. With any kind of trade or political interaction between groups, information and ideas are passed, resulting in changes in attitudes, beliefs, and values of all parties concerned. One clear example in the case of west-central Europe and the Greek world is the apparent adoption of the Greek practice of the symposium. This was a ritual wine-drinking party in which particular types of vessels were used for specific purposes, and the event served to express social distinctions between members of the elite groups. The sets of feasting vessels that were placed in rich burials such as Hochdorf and Vix provide all of the functions required for the performance of a feast structured like the Greek symposium—large mixing vessels, jugs, and drinking cups. Some of these vessels were Greek and Etruscan imports, and others, such as the horns in the Hochdorf tomb, were local versions. In Greece at the time revelers reclined on couches; perhaps the Hochdorf couch and those represented by ornaments at Grafenbühl and Römerhügel indicate a local use of this item of furniture. It is on this level of practice and performance, with elements from the Greek world and from Early Iron Age west-central Europe integrated into meaningful practices, that much important and exciting research will be done in the near future.

See alsoStatus and Wealth (vol. 1, part 1); Hochdorf (vol. 1, part 1); Iron Age Feasting (vol. 2, part 6); Vix (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6).


Arnold, Bettina. "'Drinking the Feast': Alcohol and the Legitimation of Power in Celtic Europe." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9, no. 1 (1999): 71–93.

Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Brun, Patrice, and Bruno Chaume, eds. Vix et les éphémères principautés celtiques: Les VIe–Ve siècles avant J.-C. en Europe centre-occidentale. Paris: Éditions Errance, 1997.

Diepeveen-Jansen, Marian. People, Ideas, and Goods: NewPerspectives on "Celtic Barbarians" in Western and Central Europe (500–250b.c.). Translated by Christine Jefferis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2001.

Dietler, Michael. "The Iron Age in Mediterranean France: Colonial Encounters, Entanglements, and Transformations." Journal of World Prehistory 11, no. 3 (1997): 269–358.

——. "Early 'Celtic' Socio-Political Relations: Ideological Representation and Social Competition in Dynamic Comparative Perspective." In Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State: The Evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe. Edited by Bettina Arnold and D. Blair Gibson, pp. 64–71. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kimmig, Wolfgang, ed. Importe und mediterrane Einflüsse auf der Heuneburg. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2000.

Kristiansen, Kristian. Europe before History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Moscati, Sabatino, ed. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Pare, Christopher. "La dimension européenne du commerce grec à la fin de la période archaïque et pendant le début de la période classique." In Vix et les éphémères principautés celtiques: Les VIe–Ve siècles avant J.-C. en Europe centre-occidentale. Edited by Patrice Brun and Bruno Chaume, pp. 261–286. Paris: Éditions Errance, 1997.

Les Princes celtes et la Mediterrannée. Paris: La Documentation Francaise, 1988.

Shefton, Brian. "On the Material in Its Northern Setting." In Importe und mediterrane Einflüsse auf der Heuneburg. Edited by Wolfgang Kimmig, pp. 27–41. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2000.

Wells, Peter S. Culture Contact and Culture Change: EarlyIron Age Central Europe and the Mediterranean World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Peter S. Wells