All  

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ Mobile

Ancient Greek temple in Magna Graecia, modern day Segesta, Sicily.	Source: Ludvig14/CC BY-SA 4.0

Magna Graecia's Legacy: The Stories of Italy’s Ancient Greek Colonies

Print

Long before the Roman Empire came along, the Ancient Greeks controlled much of southern Italy. From the 8th to the 5th centuries BC, intrepid Greek settlers transformed this region into a mosaic of independent city-states, fostering a unique blend of Hellenic and indigenous Italian influences. Amidst the fertile landscapes, colonies like Syracuse and Taranto thrived, becoming hubs of trade and innovation. Over time this series of colonies became known as Magna Graecia. This isn’t to say Magna Graecia was as idyllic. When the Greeks weren’t innovating, they were either fighting amongst themselves or battling outside threats. Over time Magna Graecia’s glory waned and eventually, it fell to a new power, the Roman Empire. Today these Greek colonies are often forgotten, but their legacy can still be felt in the region’s cultural landscape.

The Greeks Discover Colonization

When we think of empires establishing colonies, we normally associate it with trade and the spreading of power. Colonies are a fantastic way for nations to project their power from their borders and rule over faraway lands. Greek colonization was a little different, however. While power projection and increased trade were certainly bonuses, something else drove their colonization efforts - necessity.

During the Archaic period (800 to 480 BC) ancient Greece became too successful for its own good. Massive population growth (estimated to be ten-fold, with Greece’s population going from 800,000 to 7-10 million) meant the mainland quickly ran out of the arable land needed to feed so many mouths. The answer to this problem was to take other peoples’ land.

Colonies fixed this overpopulation and food shortage problem in two ways. Firstly, they expanded and strengthened Greece’s trade network. This meant Greece could import more food and feed all those hungry mouths. It also did wonders for the economy. Secondly, sending out settlers displaced some of Greece’s population growth and spread its population a little thinner.

Unlike Roman colonies, Greek ones weren’t dependent on their mother city. Instead, they acted as independent city-states. There were two main types of Greek colonies. The first were permanent settlements that largely acted independently but mostly remained loyal to their Greek heritage. The second, known as  emporia, was more akin to trading outposts. In these, Greeks and non-Greeks lived side by side and the population focused on manufacturing and selling goods to mainland Greece and other colonies. 

The First Colonies

One of the oldest references to Greek colonization comes from the first-century BC historian Strabo. In his Geographica he mentions that the colonization of Magna Graecia had begun by the time of the Trojan War and that it took several centuries. An exact date isn’t given (the detail of a Trojan War is widely considered to be a mythical event) but in his writing, Strabo clearly believes colonization began a long time ago.

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy, Magna Graecia. (Public Domain)

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy, Magna Graecia. (Public Domain)

Thankfully, archaeological evidence from the region narrows things down somewhat. It shows that the Greeks began settling in southern Italy in the eighth century BC. First came the Euboeans (from Greece’s second biggest island, Euboea) who began to colonize the Gulf of Naples. On the island of Ischia, they built Pithecusae, believed to be Italy’s oldest Greek settlement. They then quickly moved to the southern Italian mainland where they settled the first Greek colony of the region, Cumae.

After the Euboeans came the Achaeans of western Greece. Around 720 BC they began colonizing the Ionian coast, building settlements such as the city Metapontion, the village of Poseidonia on the island of Syros, and the colony of Kroton. Not long after, but at an unknown date between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, the Athenians finally began to move in and built the ancient Greek seaside city of Scylletium.

The regions these first Greek colonizers settled in soon began to change under the Greek influence. The Greeks brought their culture with them - their language, religious practices, traditions, and the idea of an independent Greek  polis. A whole original Hellenic civilization developed, separate but similar to that of the Greek mainland. 

Colonial Expansion and Infighting

The Greek colonies spread across southern Italy like wildfire and the main Greek cities of the region rapidly grew in power and influence. By the beginning of the 6th century BC, a problem was beginning to arise in Magna Graecia though. Colonies like Kroton, Sybaris, and Metapontum had grown to the point where they were ready to expand.

As independent cities, however, they had no shared loyalty. This meant that they began waging war on each other, looking to expand their individual territories. Throughout the 6th century BC much of Magna Graecia ran red with blood as the region’s most powerful colonies attacked each other. 

This was a period defined by massive battles. Around 580 BC the cities of Locri Epizefiri and Kroton fought the particularly nasty Battle of the Sagra. The heavy casualties suffered by Kroton led to its eventual decline while Locri’s victory spurred it on to target other nearby cities. Around the same time, the city of Siris was almost completely destroyed by a united Sybaris and Metapontum.

While this infighting never completely disappeared over time it slowed and the Greek colonies began to focus on expanding away from each other, rather than into each other. Settlers from the first Greek cities in Magna Graecia began to spread out, founding new cities. Within a relatively brief time, they had expanded Greek civilization across the entirety of what we call Magna Graecia today.

Of course, this isn’t to say the infighting stopped completely. The most aggressive expansion was carried out by the Greek city of Syracuse while under the rule of Dionysius I of Syracuse (432- 367 BC). Dionysius was a ruthless tyrant, and his rule was marked by near-constant warfare. From 397-392 BC he battled the Carthaginians, wanting to expel them from Sicily completely and take their land.

He then turned his sights on his fellow Greek colonists, attacking the Italiote League (a group of Achaean Greek settlements) in 387 BC. He devastated Croton (one of the earliest Greek settlements) and after a long siege took Rhegium, selling the colonists who lived there into slavery. 

Remains of the ancient Greek city of Rhegium (now Reggio Calabria) along the seafront of Reggio Calabria. (Public Domain)

Remains of the ancient Greek city of Rhegium (now Reggio Calabria) along the seafront of Reggio Calabria. (Public Domain)

In fact, Dionysius pretty much reshaped the political landscape of the Adriatic coast of the period. After so much expensive warfare he needed to bolster Syracuse’s trade and did so by establishing the major settlements Ancona, Adria, and Issa, turning the Adriatic into a sea of Syracuse. Once settled, Issa then began to spread, leading to the founding of Tragurium, Corcyra Melaina, and Epetium.

Other Greek colonies followed suit. This period saw too much expansion to be detailed here but major settlements like Rhegium spread out and founded the likes of Pyxus and Locri. Kroton, after recovering from Dionysius, founded Terinia and helped settle Caulonia.

Roman Takeover of Magna Graecia

In 327 BC the Romans took the Greek city of Neapolis. It was a sign of things to come. By the beginning of the third century BC the Romans found themselves in the same position the Greeks had a few centuries before: their massive success and growing population meant they needed to expand. Where better than Magna Graecia?

For a while, the Greeks allying with the powerful Samnites (Rome’s old enemies) kept them safe, but it couldn’t last. As Rome’s need for more and more land grew the Romans decided to try their luck. It began toward the end of the 4th century BC when several southern Greek cities were attacked by Bruttians and Lucanians, old Italic tribes who wanted the Greek-held lands of southern Italy back. These Greek cities asked Rome for help and the Romans responded in the 280s by sending their military garrisons there to exploit the weakness.

Greek king Pyrrhus and his elephants. (Public Domain)

Greek king Pyrrhus and his elephants. (Public Domain)

Around this same time, the Pyrrhic War broke out between the Roman Republic and the Greek king of Epirus, Pyrrhus. The Romans had attacked Taras (Taranto, Italy today), a Greek colony, and Taras had gone to Pyrrhus for help. It was a messy war that saw many of the other Greek cities of Magna Graecia drawn into the conflict. The war ended in 275 BC with a Roman victory. 

Three years later the Republic took Taras and renamed it Tarentum. After this, the majority of Greek cities in the region found themselves forcibly linked to Rome by treaties known as  foedera. While still technically independent these treaties made it clear that in reality, they were under indirect Roman control. The days of independent city-states in the region were coming to an end.

There was yet more bloodshed to come. In 264 BC the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage broke out. During the fighting, the Romans took control of Sicily. The only major Greek settlement left was Syracuse, which managed to claim independence until 212 BC. This was because its king, Hiero II, was a bit of a sycophant and was dedicated to supporting the Romans. His grandson, however, didn’t agree. After taking over following Hiero’s death in 215 BC he allied the city with Hannibal of Carthage. The Romans responded by besieging Syracuse, taking control in 212 BC.

Roman legions during the First Punic War. (Public Domain)

Roman legions during the First Punic War. (Public Domain)

The Second Punic War began in 218 BC and ended in 201 BC. During it, many of the Greek cities of Magna Graecia broke their treaties and defected to Carthage. An annoyed Rome decided the best answer to this was to annex them to the Roman Republic, a process that began in 205 BC. 

In essence, the Romans started to take the Greek cities and turn them into their own colonies, known as  civium romanorum. Unlike the old independent Greek cities, these colonies were under the tight control of the Republic, avoiding the kind of infighting seen in the 6th century BC. In 194 BC the Romans placed garrisons of 300 Roman veterans all over the region including cities like Volturnum and Buxentum along the Adriatic. That same year they also made Kroton and Tempsa Roman colonies, followed by Copia in 193 BC and Valentia in 192 BC.

By the 1st century BC Magna Graecia was firmly under Roman control and the expected social, linguistic, and administrative changes began to take place (much like they had when the Greeks themselves had first moved in). This being said the takeover wasn’t total. Greek culture stayed strong in the old colonies and was actually cultivated by the new Roman rulers (who had always had a habit of assimilating aspects of those they conquered).

Sicily became the first Roman province in the First Punic War. (romas_ph /Adobe Stock)

Sicily became the first Roman province in the First Punic War. (romas_ph /Adobe Stock)

Culture of Magna Graecia

Throughout antiquity, Magna Graecia was a melting pot of cultural influences, blending Hellenistic Greek traditions with indigenous Italian elements. In terms of art, Magna Graecia inherited the rich legacy of classical Greek artistic achievements. Cities like Syracuse and Taranto became flourishing centers of artistic expression, producing pottery, sculptures, and paintings that reflected the fusion of Greek and local styles. The pottery, in particular, highlighted intricate designs and narrative scenes, often drawing inspiration from mythology.

Head-Kantharos of a Female Faun or Io, red-figure pottery in Magna Graecia. (Public Domain)

Head-Kantharos of a Female Faun or Io, red-figure pottery in Magna Graecia. (Public Domain)

Architecturally, Magna Graecia featured Greek-style temples and structures, with an emphasis on symmetry and proportion. The Doric and Ionic orders, typical of Greek architecture, adorned the landscape. Notable examples include the Temple of Hera at Metapontum and the Doric Temple of Apollo at Syracuse. These architectural marvels served as both religious and civic monuments, underscoring the importance of cultural identity in the region.

Temple of Hera in Metapontum. (de:Benutzer:Benson.by/CC BY-SA 1.0)

Temple of Hera in Metapontum. (de:Benutzer:Benson.by/CC BY-SA 1.0)

Philosophically, Magna Graecia contributed to the broader development of Greek philosophy. Pythagoras, renowned for his contributions to mathematics, was associated with the city of Kroton. His Pythagorean School explored not only mathematical principles but also ethical and metaphysical concepts, influencing the philosophical landscape of Magna Graecia.

While the cultural fabric of Magna Graecia was predominantly Greek, the interaction with indigenous cultures resulted in a unique synthesis, giving rise to a distinctive regional identity. This cultural amalgamation fostered a dynamic environment where artistic, architectural, and philosophical ideas intertwined, leaving an enduring legacy that resonates in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean.

Conclusion

Over time the Romans ultimately fell and were in turn replaced and Magna Graecia once again found itself under the control of new rulers. However, its unique culture never really changed. To this day the towns and cities that once made-up Magna Graecia share a unique mixed identity.

Beyond its historical significance, Magna Graecia leaves an enduring legacy through the synthesis of traditions, shaping a unique cultural tapestry. This often-forgotten chapter in history unfolds as a timeless tale of cultural fusion, resonating through the corridors of time and enriching our understanding of the interconnected and diverse roots of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Top image: Ancient Greek temple in Magna Graecia, modern day Segesta, Sicily. Source: Ludvig14/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Cartwright. M. 2013.  Magna Graecia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Magna_Graecia/#:~:text=Magna%20Graecia%20(Megal%C4%93%20Hellas)%20refers,usually%20included%20in%20this%20area.

Editors. 2024.  Magna Graecia. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Magna-Graecia

Antonaccio, C. 2007.  Colonization: Greece on the Move 900–480. The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece. Cambridge University Press.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

The Pyrrhic War was largely fought between the Roman Republic and Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, who had been asked by the people of the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy to help them in their war against the Romans.

Magna Graecia was the name given by the Romans to the Greek-speaking coastal areas of Southern Italy in the present-day Italian regions of Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily; these regions were extensively populated by Greek settlers starting from the 8th century BC.

The Second Punic War put an end to the independence of the cities of Magna Graecia, which were annexed to the Roman Republic in 205 BC. From the motherland Greece, art, literature and philosophy decisively influenced the life of the colonies.

Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

Next article