Does Herodotus offer adequate explanations for Greek colonisation in the archaic period? Herodotus gives all ancient historians invaluable insights into colonisation in the archaic period, despite having his well known limitations. We must overall regard his work ‘The Histories’ as an equal to archaeological evidence and Thucydides’ work when it comes to studying colonisation in this period. Before I begin this essay, however, I must first quickly define two crucial terms.
The term ‘colonisation’ (as we mean it during the during the archaic period) has for some reason been debated at great length by ancient historians, who seem determined to remove it as far away from the imperial meaning of the word as possible. I don’t see why, as both have glaring similarities and only minute differences. They both involve one kind of people moving in significant numbers to a new place (where either a different kind of people or no people were present) and establishing their way of life in said location.
The only real differences being the literal translation of the word in Greek meaning ‘home away from home’ or ‘trading place’ and the imperial meaning of the word leaning more towards the subjugation of the local inhabitants rather than the replacement of them (which was more common in archaic Greece). The second term is ‘Archaic Period’ which in this essay will be defined as the period from 800 to 478BC.
To examine in detail Herodotus’ explanations for colonisation during this period I will examine to what extent he informs us on: land-hunger, trading considerations, droughtand I will also comment on his references to the Delphic oracle. I have picked these areas to judge Herodotus on, because they are the most regularly agreed upon reasons for colonisation occurring and therefore his comments on these areas have the potential to be most informative to us, as A.
Graham eloquently sums up with ‘though a very large number of extant authors provide some piece of information relevant to the history of Greek colonisation only a few are of overriding influence… their [Herodotus and Thucydides] importance lies in their relatively early date, although they belong to a period after the Archaic colonising movement, they are nearer to it than our other substantial sources’. It is for this paramount reason that Herodotus’ comments on these subjects are so crucial to our study of colonisation.
In scrutinizing Herodotus’ comments in this field I will look some of the examples that he uses, namely: Chalkedon, Sigeion, Egypt, Olbia and of course Cyrene. So through looking at the four main reasons for colonisation and cross-referencing it with the examples stated I will fully evaluate whether or not Herodotus is an adequate source to look to regarding the archaic colonisation period. It must also be mentioned at this point that ‘political factors’ would have also been a strong factor to consider, however, would take up the word count fully all by itself, so will be left for a another time.
Land–hunger refers to one of the push factors that are widely believed to have caused many Greeks to leave their original homes in search of more land and in particular, more fertile land. We see this especially in the case of mainland Greece and the Peloponnese where there were less fertile plains and more arid and mountainous terrain Although Herodotus never explicitly tells us that this was a major cause for colonisation, we can infer from some of his writing that this would have been a factor.
Herodotus enlightens us to the existence of a colony on the coast of the black seathat ‘have sanctuaries dedicated to the Greek gods and … whose language is a mixture of Scythian and Greek’. Now this alone does not specifically tell us that the Greeks moved to this area because it was particularly fertile or that their home region was lacking in enough land, but when you continue to read on and see that it was the Megarians who colonised Chalkedon and Byzantium (located either side of the Bosphorus) then one can easily see the extent to which a Peloponnesian city-state would go to find new lands.
This is a weak argument on its own, however, twinned with some basic knowledge of Antiquity it grows in strength. For instance anyone with knowledge of mainland Greek states will know that the Megarians were indeed very restricted with regards to land. They were squashed between the Peloponnesian League members such as Corinth, to the south, and Attica (ruled by Athens), to the north and east. The fact that they set up at least three colonies: Megara Hyblaea, Chalkedon and Byzantium, clearly indicates land-hunger, just as their geography would suggest.
On top of this, anyone with a basic knowledge of antiquity would also be aware of the huge agricultural resources available around the black sea, proved by Athens’ later dependency on grain imports from this region during the Peloponnesian wars. The way in which Herodotus describes Cyrene as having a ‘hole in the sky’ (i. e. it rains more making the ground more fertile) can also be taken as a heavy hint as to why Cyrene was set up.
My point being, when reading Herodotus, sometimes he must be used in conjunction with elementary knowledge to support or disprove points. In this case he has supported the idea that land-hunger was an adequate explanation for Greek colonisation though not explicitly telling us. One has to admit though that over the course of the whole work, Herodotus does fail to fully support this factor. Unless you are a primitivist, trading advantages had to be a substantial pull factor for your city to advocate colonisation.
I will develop this argument assuming that the Greeks were an enterprising race because this is the argument that will prove to be entirely accepted in due course. The finest example of Herodotus explaining colonisation, in regards to trading motives, is his account of the settlement set up at the mouth of the River Nile called Naukratis. He declares ‘Naukratis was the only trading-station and there was no other in Egypt’ and goes on remark on the religious temples set up in honour of Zeus, Hera and Apollo naming Aeginetans, Samians and Milesians all present in the city.
This was clearly a settlement set up with the aim of extending trade relations with the Egyptians for the benefit of Greeks. In a separate example though, one can again use basic knowledge of Hellenes in antiquity (the basic knowledge being that the Bosphorus was extremely important to trade even in archaic times) combined with Herodotus’ passage on Chalkedon to see that control of the Bosphorus was important enough to trade that colonies were set up here on numerous occasions.
Sigeion, just south of the Bosphorus and situated on the mouth of the river Strymon was (as Herodotus informs us) fought over furiously by Athens and Mytilene, again signifying the importance of trade to the foundation of colonies in the archaic period. So Herodotus then giving us comprehensive proof of trade being an adequate factor in the establishment of colonies in the archaic period. Dillon points to drought as one of the factors that lead directly to colonisation. No better example of this, in ancient literature, exists than the account of Cyrene’s foundation. For the next seven years, however, no rain fell on Thera, and all their trees, with a single exception, withered. ’ Now, following this short passage, we again encounter a common limitation of Herodotus, ‘The islanders consulted the oracle, and the Pythia reminding them that they were supposed to colonise Libya’; that is his continuous permeation of oracles into most of his work. This is not to say that we can disregard ancient historians’ reference’s to all oracle’s all the time, but it is of my own opinion that we take much of Herodotus’ oracular reports with a pinch of salt.
So although Herodotus may have been reported a tale of curses and prophecies regarding Thera’s drought, I would take his account and remedy a notion that what was most likely to have occurred was: that the Therans had some bad luck with the weather for a indeterminate period of time and as a result could not sustain the population they included… so, decided to relieve pressure on the city by sending a portion of its population to a land where they could survive (or perhaps even sustain the original colony? . To clarify my earlier ‘pinch of salt’ phrase it moves me to use the words of M. Giangiulio expressing the idea that ‘cultural memory does not ‘reflect’ historical reality, even if it expresses a form of historical self-awareness’. This is the sense in which I believe we should use Herodotus, using our modern sense of hindsight and sensibility to understand ‘historical reality’ more accurately. For further details on ‘intentional history’ see footnote.
This is the most blatant example I have touched on so far of Herodotus supporting one of the five stated reasons for colonisation and therefore yet again going some way to adequately explaining Greek colonisation in the archaic period. The Delphic Oracle is central to the explaining of why many colonies are set up. Maurizio Giangiulio supports this line of argument by telling us ‘The decisive role played by the Delphic oracle is very strongly emphasized, through various narrative devices’ in this case Herodotus: ‘the oracle declared that he would found a community in Libya’.
It is ion this way that Herodotus is able to properly shed light on a crucial part of explaining the colonising process, making evident that it was foolhardy to go on an expedition without the expressed will of the gods ‘the importance attached to the god’s will is an integral part of a representational strategy [of a colony]’ states Giangiulio, extending this with ‘Cyrene represent themselves- it would seem –as a polies which stood high in Apollo’s favour’. To conclude, there is no denying that Herodotus has his flaws in providing explanations for Greek colonisation.
I am not pushing the argument that Herodotus is an infallible source on every case study he mentions either. What must be clear though after reading this essay is that Herodotus can be used with great effectiveness to inform us on the explanations of Greek colonisation. Simple guidelines can be fitted to reading his work that allow one to see past what modern minds would usually consider fantasy, but which can really help reveal the truth in many of the cases he does use.
He supports three of the four reasons very strongly, and even if he does fall short in regards to land-hunger he more than makes up for it by placing huge emphasis on the importance of oracles and trading which must be considered the principal reason for explaining in the archaic period. Words: 1,961 ———————–  Dillon, Ancient Greece, 2000, Routledge, pp. 1 I have not looked at political consideration only due to my word count being limited to 2000, not through sloth or lack of interest. 2] Boardman, 1982, pp. 85 (Cambridge Ancient History)  Herodotus, 4. 108.  Herodotus, 4. 144  Herodotus, 4. 159  Herodotus, 2. 152-154, 178-181  Herodotus, 4. 144  5. 94-95  4. 151  4. 151  M. Giangiulio, Constructing the past: colonial traditions and the writing of history ‘the case of Cyrene’, in N. Luraghi The Historian’s Craft in the age of Herodotus, 2001, pp. 120  H.
Gehrke, Mythos, Geschicte, Politik-antik und modern, 1994 pp. 239-64  M. Giangiulio, Constructing the past: colonial traditions and the writing of history ‘the case of Cyrene’, in N. Luraghi The Historian’s Craft in the age of Herodotus, 2001, pp. 117  4. 150  M. Giangiulio, Constructing the past: colonial traditions and the writing of history ‘the case of Cyrene’, in N. Luraghi The Historian’s Craft in the age of Herodotus, 2001, pp. 118