In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Colonization

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Studies
  • Collections of Papers
  • Bronze Age Antecedents and the Mediterranean Setting
  • Recent Approaches: Identity, Ethnicity, and Hybridity
  • Network Theory
  • Colonization and Postcolonial Theory
  • Greek Colonization and Poetics
  • DNA Studies

Classics Greek Colonization
Jeremy McInerney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0307


For much of the 20th century, the topic of colonization reflected—sometimes unwittingly, but sometimes explicitly—the profound connection between classical scholarship and the 19th-century context that shaped the discipline. The modern phenomenon of colonization by the British, French, and Dutch, and to a lesser extent the Italians and Germans, provided the initial lens through which the dispersal of the Greeks around the Mediterranean and Black Seas was viewed. The legacy of this perspective was a set of questions and assumptions that have remained at the heart of modern studies of the phenomenon. These include the assumption that this was a state-sponsored activity; that land hunger and trade were the primary (but often conflicting) motivations; that conditions in the mother cities, such as poverty, famine, and civil stasis, fed the process; and that the Greeks brought their culture with them, which they then imposed on generally passive and inferior indigenous populations. According to this view (oversimplified to be sure, but fundamental to the study of Greek colonies well into the second half of the 20th century), the Greeks—like forerunners of the British and, to a lesser extent, the other European powers—had dispatched colonies, which, like spores born on the wind, carried Greek culture to all quarters of the Mediterranean and Black Sea littoral. In the postcolonial era, many of these assumptions have been questioned, and most of the original lines of inquiry have been reframed. Land and trade are no longer seen as antithetical; poetic and semi-mythical traditions that emphasize poverty or civil conflict in the home cities are now often interpreted as retrojections that draw on well-established poetic topoi; the fundamental role of the state as an organizing power is downplayed; and relations with indigenous populations are seen as more complicated, with entanglement, hybridity, and the “middle ground” often deployed hermeneutically as a way of understanding the colonial encounter. Instead, the episodic, opportunistic quality of the colonial phenomenon is emphasized, while even the applicability of terms such as “colonization” is questioned. Many now prefer “migration” or “diaspora,” with their emphasis on the contingent character of the dispersion of Greeks across the Mediterranean. Network theory has emerged as a major interpretive model, with its emphasis on the actions that connect the nodes (colonies, mother cities, and the Panhellenic sanctuaries that authorized colonies), in practice and by repetition, thereby creating networks whose connectivity fostered the formation of group identities—civic, ethnic, and finally Greek.

Foundational Studies

Earlier studies of colonization, up until the middle of the 20th century, tended to focus on accounts of the foundation of colonies reported in the ancient literary sources. Thucydides offers a series of foundation dates for the Sicilian colonies, and these were investigated for plausibility and coherence. Bilabel 1920 is a good example of this text-focused approach. Dunbabin 1948 and Boardman 1999 (first published in 1964) represent pioneering studies that brought archaeological evidence to bear on the question of colonization, investigating issues of land hunger, overpopulation, and the role of trade. Morel 1984 is important for bringing more nuance to the study of Greek-indigenous relations and questioning many of the colonialist assumptions inherited from the 19th-century experience of European colonization. Since research has followed many different interpretive vectors, the classification of studies in this bibliography into categories before and after 2000 is a convenience that loosely corresponds to a perceptible shift in scholarship, although Graham 1983 remains the starting point for all research.

  • Bilabel, Friedrich. 1920. Die ionische Kolonisation: Untersuchungen über die Gründungen der Ionier, deren staatliche und kultliche Organization und Beziehung zu den Mutterstädten. Philologos Supplement 14.1. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

    Bilabel’s study is largely a catalogue of the institutional similarities between major metropoleis such as Miletos and Chalkis and their colonies, as demonstrated by calendars, coinage, and cults. The evidence is primarily literary and epigraphical.

  • Boardman, John. 1999. The Greeks overseas: Their early colonies and trade. 4th ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

    A concise but highly influential survey covering the major sites and summarizing the archaeology of Greek colonization. Later editions do not substantially update the first, which appeared in 1964, so that it can no longer be regarded as up-to-date in terms of archaeological data, but many of the questions raised regarding trade and land remain important. Represents the data-driven (as opposed to theoretically informed) approach to colonization dominant in the mid-20th century.

  • Boardman, John. 2001. Aspects of “colonization.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 322:33–42.

    DOI: 10.2307/1357514

    An overview of the colonizing that took place around the Mediterranean in the Iron Age. Boardman argues for good relations between the Greeks and Phoenicians and the presence of each in the other’s settlements. The key period is the second quarter of the 8th century, when the process becomes more intense: Euboeans trading to the east at Al Mina in Syria, and Euboeans and Phoenicians moving westward to Ischia and Carthage (for land, and later for trade).

  • Dunbabin T. J. 1948. The Western Greeks. Oxford: Thames & Hudson.

    Classic early treatment of colonization, primarily in Sicily and southern Italy, drawing on archaeological evidence but also explicitly accepting the narratives and dates supplied by 5th-century historians, especially Thucydides.

  • Forrest, W. G. 1957. Colonisation and the rise of Delphi. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 6.2: 160–175.

    Famous and influential article assessing Delphi’s role in colonization in the period between 750 and 680 BCE, which concluded “it is surely true that colonization was far more responsible for the success of Delphi than Delphi for the success of colonization.”

  • Graham, A. John. 1983. Colony and mother city in ancient Greece. 2d ed. Chicago: Ares.

    Still the basic handbook, dealing primarily with literary accounts of colonization and the epigraphic evidence relevant to the phenomenon. Notably useful is Graham’s treatment of the Oath of the Founders from Cyrene, a 4th-century inscription whose content may go back to Cyrene’s foundation three centuries earlier. Graham argues for a close connection between colonies and their “mother cities,” fostered by shared cults and festivals.

  • Graham, A. John. 2001. Collected papers on Greek colonization. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004351066

    Nineteen articles on a wide variety of topics, arranged geographically and with particular emphasis on Thrace and the Black Sea. A very useful collection that touches on most points at issue. Foundation stories, trade contacts, and the first Greek penetration of the Black Sea are key themes.

  • Morel, J. -P. 1984. Greek colonization in Italy and the West (problems of evidence and interpretation). In Crossroads of the Mediterranean: Papers delivered at the International Conference on the Archaeology of Early Italy, Haffenreffer Museum, Brown University, 8–10 May 1981. Archaeologia Transatlantica II. Edited by Tony Hackens, Nancy D. Holloway, and R. Ross Holloway, 123–162. Providence, RI: Brown Univ., Center for Old World Archaeology and Art.

    An early attempt to address the complexity of the phenomenon of acculturation. Morel deals with the methodological difficulties posed by the interpretation of cultural exchange and social mobility, drawing on a wide range of evidence, from fortifications to goods from mixed Greek-Italic burials. A cogent statement, also, on the assumptions encoded by the language of scholarship that casts the Greek colonizers as active and the indigenous populations as passively colonized.

  • Ridgway, David. 1992. The first Western Greeks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A major study designed to make accessible to English readers the work of Giorgio Buchner at Pithekoussai (Ischia). Offers a detailed picture of the Euboean settlement and emphasizes the broader context of trade in the 8th century, as well as the historical antecedents of Mycenaean presence in the western Mediterranean.

  • Vallet, Georges. 1996. Le monde grec colonial d’Italie du sud et de Sicile. Rome: École Française de Rome.

    A collection of twenty-eight articles by the excavator of Megara Hyblaea published between 1955 and 1993. Vallet’s major interests concerned colonization, ceramics, and urban planning. Megara Hyblaea figures prominently throughout the volume, but other valuable studies include one on Pindar and Sicily and maritime routes in Magna Graecia.

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