Migration was a common practice throughout the ancient history. The colonization in nearby or more distant regions helped develop relations and trade as well as the spread of ideas, cults and artistic styles.


Population movements were common in antiquity. Large-scale migrations are attested all over the eastern Mediterranean already from the end of the Late Bronze Age. According to ancient traditions, it was by that time that Dorian tribes arrived in central Greece, the Peloponnese and the Aegean islands. In the 11th c. BC, started the so-called “first colonization movement”, that is the migration of Ionians and Aeolians to the islands of eastern Aegean and the coasts of Asia Minor. The migration was probably instigated by displacements caused by the aforementioned “Dorian invasion” and had probably an urgent and non-systematic character.

Between the 8th and 6th c. BC, Greeks from the Mainland and the islands migrated in large numbers initially to South Italy and Sicily, and later to areas farther west, as well as to the east and the Black Sea, founding new cities (colonies). This phenomenon, commonly known as Greek Colonization (or “second colonization”) resulted in the dissemination of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. The second colonisation movement was much more organised. It involved specific parts of the population and was supervised by the authorities of each city. After receiving a divination, usually from the Delphi oracle, a member of the aristocratic class was selected to act as the “founder”. The founder was responsible for the organisation of the colony, the distribution of land, the establishment of laws and the erection of temples dedicated to the same deities as those worshipped in the mother-city. Participation in the expedition was not necessarily voluntary and may have included people from other areas too. Women were usually excluded and settlers took spouse from the local population.

The “second colonisation movement” can be divided into two broad phases. In the first one, which lasted from around 775 BC until the early 7th c. BC, it was mainly Euboean cities (and to a lesser extent Megara, Corinth and a few more centres) that sent colonial expeditions to south Italy and Sicily. Some of the most important Greek colonies were founded in that period: Catania, Leontinoi, Zangle, Megara Hyblaea, Syracuse, Sybaris, Croton, Taras, etc.

In the second phase, from the early 7th until the late 6th c. BC, the number of cities participating in the colonization movement increased considerably and destinations became more varied. Greeks from both sides of the Aegean and the islands migrated to the west (as far as the coasts of modern France and Spain) but also to Thrace, the Propontis and the Black Sea, as well as to the North African coast. Sicily and southern Italy continued to host the largest concentration of Greek colonies and the Greek part of the Italian peninsula was soon named “Magna Graecia”.

The causes

The reasons for such an extensive migration movement seem to be rather complex. Social and demographic pressures were certainly of crucial importance. During the later parts of the Geometric period, population in Greece increased considerably and, by the 8th c. BC, the constant split of agricultural lands to the descendants had created shortage of subsistence resources. Large sectors of society lived in poverty and migration looked like a desperate but viable solution (Herodotus reports that the colony of Cyrene, in modern Libya, was founded by the inhabitants of Thera after a famine had struck the island). For that reason, Greek colonies were usually established on previously uninhabited areas, in close proximity to good arable land.

Expansion of trade networks and search for new resources (mainly metals) was clearly another motive. Pithekoussai in Italy, Naukratis in Egypt, Emporion in Spain and several other colonies had exclusively (or mainly) commercial character. The colonists exploited local metal resources both in the West and in the Black Sea (where large deposits of gold and silver were available).

Sometimes, however, it was political problems that led to the founding of a colony. That was certainly the case with Taras in south Italy, which was established by Spartans who had been expelled from the mother-city during the first Messenian War.

The colonies and their culture

What kind of relation was established between the Greek settlers and the indigenous populations is not known, apart from few exceptions. In Sicily, it seems that local inhabitants were rather friendly to Greeks, to judge from the wide adoption of Greek culture in the island. On the other hand, the indigenous tribes of southern Italy were more reluctant to assimilate Greek customs, despite the fact that Etruscan art has been evidently influenced by Greek styles. The fact that many ancient myths place some of the most savage adventures to the west of the Greek world – e.g. in the Odyssey – may reflect the difficulties confronted by the first colonists.

Greek colonies retained close relations with their mother-cities and participated regularly in religious festivals and athletic contests organized in the major panhellenic sanctuaries (in fact, a large number of Olympic victors came from Magna Graecia and Sicily). In terms of political organization, the colonies were structured as city-states. However, power only rarely escaped from the strict control of aristocracy, which commanded economy, trade and legislation, not leaving much space for political claims by other social groups. Another reason for the prolonged persistence of aristocratic regimes was that the middle class – the main agent of political change in Archaic Greece – was very restricted in the colonies. Thus, the only social upheavals were caused by influential individuals, who wished to accumulate power and reign as tyrants. Relations among the new city-states were not always harmonious, and adversities or even military conflicts were not uncommon.

The colonies, especially those in Magna Graecia, supported actively Arts and Letters. Prominent intellectuals such as the philosopher Pythagoras (Croton) and the mathematician Archimedes (Syracuse) lived and worked here. Impressive Doric temples were built in the cities of South Italy and Sicily and exquisite marble or bronze statues were offered to local sanctuaries. Vase-painting followed closely developments in Greece and flourished between the 6th and 4th c. BC. Coinage evolved into an elegant form of art.

Cultural and artistic developments came as the result of the prosperity generated mainly by trade. In the Italic peninsula, however, this would eventually bring Greeks into conflict with other trading powers, such as the Phoenicians, the Carthagenians and finally the Romans. The Roman conquest in the mid-2nd c. BC ended the independence of city-states in south Italy and Sicily. A similar fate awaited the rest of Greek colonies in the following decades, as Romans advanced eastwards, occupying territories that in 31 BC were incorporated into the newborn Roman Empire.

Further Reading

• Παντελεάκη Ν. 1998: Μεγάλη Ελλάδα, Σικελία – Κάτω Ιταλία (Αθήνα)

• Boardman J. 1999: Greeks overseas. Their early colonies and trade (London)

• Koromila M. 2001: The Greeks in the Black Sea. From the Bronze Age to the Early Twentieth Century (London)

• Pugliese-Carratelli G. (ed.) 1996: The Western Greeks (London)

• Stampolidis N.Chr. – Tassoulas Y. (ed.) 2004: Magna Graecia: Athletics and Olympic Spirit on the Periphery of the Hellenic World (Athens)

• Tsetskhladze G. - De Angelis F. (ed.) 1994: The Archaeology of Greek Colonisation. Essays dedicated to Sir John Boardman (Oxford)