A map of the political structure of Greece in the Archaic Age (ca. 750 – 490 BC). / Photo by Megistias, Wikimedia Commons
The Aegean Sea contains over 2,000 islands which were settled by the ancient Greeks.
By Dr. Joshua J. Mark / 04.28.2011
Professor of Philosophy
The Aegean Sea lies between the coast of Greece and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It contains over 2,000 islands which were settled by the ancient Greeks; the largest among them being Crete (Kriti) and the best known and most often photographed, Santorini (Thera or Thira). Both of these islands have strong associations with ancient Greek history and myth in that Crete features significantly in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur while the destruction of Santorini by a volcano eruption has long been considered a probable source for Plato’s description of Atlantis in his dialogues of the Critias and Timaeus.
In ancient times there were various explanations for the name Aegean. It was said to have been named after the Greek town of Aegae, or after Aegea, a queen of the Amazons who died in the sea, or Aigaion, the “sea goat”, another name of Briareus, one of the archaic Hecatonchires, or, especially among the Athenians, Aegeus, the father of Theseus, who drowned himself in the sea when he thought his son had died on his famous expedition to Crete to defeat the Minotaur. A possible etymology is a derivation from the Greek word αἶγες – aiges = “waves” (Hesychius of Alexandria; metaphorical use of αἴξ (aix) “goat”), hence “wavy sea”, cf. also αἰγιαλός (aigialos) “coast”.
The early inhabitants of Greece, the Mycenaens, relied heavily on the Aegean for trade and, it seems, traveled as far as Spain and Egypt. Commercial sea trading became their main source of income and, in time, they colonized the various islands of the Aegean archipelago and produced various commodities such as figs, grapes, wine, raisins, honey, wheat, assorted vegetables, and herbs. Marble, especially, became an important export in trade. This produce, along with that of the mainland, went to make the merchants of ancient Greece wealthy but the same waters on which they relied for their wealth and livelihood became the avenue for their downfall.
The Fisherman Fresco from Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera (Santorini). The male may actually be a youth offering fish as part of a religious ceremony rather than a fisherman. From Room 5 of the West House, c. 17th century BCE. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens) / Marcus Cyron, Wikimedia Commons
In about 1200 BCE the Mycenaean civilization collapsed and, while no one cause is universally agreed upon, it is considered very likely that they succumbed to the same mysterious invaders who ravaged Egypt and Anatolia: The Sea Peoples. Whoever the Sea Peoples were, they are documented as harrassing the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians (Canaanites) until finally settling along the coast of Canaan and acquiring the name Philistines. There is no doubt among scholars, based upon primary sources, that the Sea Peoples came to Greece from the south on the Aegean Sea and ravaged the coastline, making incursions on to the mainland and seizing islands. Shortly after their arrival, the Dorians descended from the north of Greece and the Mycenaean civilization was over (though some scholars have speculated that Mycenaen culture was kept alive through those Greeks who would eventually found Athens while Sparta proudly claimed Doric ancestry). Greek civilization as recognized today grew out of the aftermath of the Dorian invasion. It is interesting to note, if one believes that the Mycenaean culture survived through Athens, that the Greek colonies of Asia Minor were largely settled by Athenians. The poet Homer is said to have come from one of these Greek colonies and the famous heroes of his Iliad, arguably the most popular and influential work of its time, are all Mycenaeans.
The Aegean Sea features prominently in many of the most famous Greek myths (Icarus and Daedelus, Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Argonauts, The Odyssey, among others) and Plato made ample use of the islands in his dialogues. In his Euthyphro, for example, Plato purposefully has the young man who claims to know everything come from the island of Naxos which was known be the most prosperous and the residents quite wealthy and condescending. According to Herodotus, the island of Naxos was the most prosperous in trade c. 500 BCE and was easily able to pay tribute to Athens in the form of gold rather than military aid after the islands’ failed attempt to leave the Delian League in 476 BCE. In the Golden Age of Greece and beyond, the Aegean Sea continued to serve an important function in trade and in war, helping the Greek culture and civilization to flourish until the Romans, like the Sea Peoples before them, employed the waterways for conquest and subdued Greece.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.