The Hellenes: Ancient Greek Trade and Colonization of the Mediterranean


This is a photograph of Greek writing carved on a gate in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus located along the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey. The city of Ephesus was a Greek colony established by the Greeks in the 10th century BCE.

Trading stations played an important role as the furthest outposts of Ancient Greek culture.


By Dr. Seán Hemingway
John A. and Carole O. Moran Curator in Charge
Department of Greek and Roman Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Dr. Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar


Terracotta krater with lid surmounted by a small hydria (c.750–740 BCE), Attributed to the Cesnola Painter. During the eighth century B.C., the Geometric style that had originated in Athens spread throughout the Greek-speaking world. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Ancient Greek colonization began at an early date, during the so-called Geometric period of about 900 to 700 B.C., when many seminal elements of ancient Greek society were also established, such as city-states, major sanctuaries, and the Panhellenic festivals. The Greek alphabet, inspired by the writing of the Phoenician sea traders, was developed and spread at this time.

Terracotta sarcophagus rim (last quarter of the 6th century BCE) A significant number of terracotta sarcophagi with a decorated upper rim have been found at Klazomenai and at Old Smyrna, East Greek sites on the west coast of Asia Minor; given their size and weight, it is assumed that they were manufactured locally. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Greece is a country surrounded by water, and the sea has always played an important role in its history. The ancient Greeks were active seafarers seeking opportunities for trade and founding new independent cities at coastal sites across the Mediterranean Sea. By the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., Greek colonies and settlements stretched all the way from western Asia Minor to southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa , and even to the coasts of southern France and Spain. Regional schools of artists exhibited a rich variety of styles and preferences at this time. The major Ionian cities along the coast of Asia Minor prospered.

Terracotta jug with an oversize spout (mid-6th century BCE). This vase is decorated with a marbleizing technique often found on Lydian pottery, but the inspiration for the shape comes from Phrygia, a region to the east of Lydia. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

They cultivated relationships with other affluent centers like Sardis in Lydia, which was ruled by the legendary King Croesus in the sixth century B.C. Indeed, by this time, the eastern Greeks controlled much of the Aegean Sea and had established independent cities to the north along the Black Sea. This region, in particular, opened up further trade connections to the north that gave access to valuable raw materials, such as gold.

Terracotta vase in the form of a ketos (sea monster, 2nd half of the 7th century BCE). This spirited sculptural vase is among the earliest extant representations of a Greek ketos, or sea monster. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Trading stations played an important role as the furthest outposts of Greek culture. Here, Greek goods, such as pottery, bronzes, silver and gold vessels, olive oil, wine, and textiles, were exchanged for luxury items and exotic raw materials that were in turn worked by Greek craftsmen.

Faience aryballos (perfume vase) in the form of two heads (4th quarter of the 6th century BCE). This perfume vase formed of two heads with Egyptianizing wiglike hair was probably made at Naukratis, a Greek trading station in the Nile Delta. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

The Greeks established trading enclaves within existing local communities in the Levant, such as at Al-Mina. In the Nile Delta, the port town of Naukratis served as a commercial headquarters for Greek traders in Egypt.

Terracotta hydria (water jar, c.520–510 BCE). This jar belongs to a small group of distinctive hydriae found in Etruria that are believed to have been produced by East Greek craftsmen who had emigrated to Caere, an Etruscan city on the Italian coast, north of Rome. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Likewise, well-established maritime trade routes around the Mediterranean basin enabled foreigners to travel to Greece. In the seventh century B.C., contacts with itinerant eastern craftsmen, notably on Crete and Cyprus , inspired Greek artists to work in techniques as diverse as gem cutting , ivory carving, jewelry making, and metalworking. After the unprecedented military campaign of Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.), more extensive trade routes were opened across Asia, extending as far as Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. These new trade routes introduced Greek art to cultures in the East, and also exposed Greek artists to a host of artistic styles and techniques, as well as precious stones. Garnets, emeralds, rubies, and amethysts were incorporated into new types of Hellenistic jewelry , more stunning than ever before. In the ensuing centuries, the Greeks continued to live in these eastern regions, but always maintained contact with the Greek mainland. East Greek artists also emigrated to Etruria , where they settled at Caere, an Etruscan city on the Italian coast.

Terracotta neck-amphora (storage jar, c.620–590 BCE). Corinthian potters and painters invented a technique of silhouetted forms that would evolve into the black figures of Athenian vase painting. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

On the other hand, the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, a region known as Magna Graecia, comprised politically independent entities that maintained religious ties and trade links with their mother cities. Up until the mid-sixth century B.C., Corinth dominated trade in the West. For the most part, it exported Corinthian vases, which were often filled with olive oil, in return for grain. Some city-states, such as Syracuse and Selinus in Sicily, erected major temples that rivaled those in the eastern part of Greece.

Terracotta antefix (roof tile, c.625–600 BCE). This antefix in the form of a female head comes from the ancient city of Matauros, a Lokrian colony in southern Italy. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Unlike the Aegean islands and mainland Greece, where marble was plentiful, Sicily and southern Italy had few local sources of high-quality marble. Thus, the artists in Magna Graecia established a strong tradition of working with terracotta and limestone. Many of the colonies in the West minted their own silver coins with distinctive designs and emblems.

Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl, c.400–390 BCE). The representation shows a stage structure at the far right and the characters of a phlyax play, a type of farce favored in Southern Italy. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

As a predominant naval force in the latter part of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Athens exerted its influence over sea trade. Athenian pottery was widely exported, especially to Etruria and to the colonies in southern Italy, where it inspired local imitations. In the Hellenistic period , Syracuse dominated much of Sicily, and local artistic styles flourished. Particularly ornate sculptural and painted vases were produced at Centuripe.

Limestone funerary relief (c.325–300 BCE). Tarentum (modern Taranto) was a wealthy Greek colony on the southeast coast of Italy, a pivotal location along the trade routes between Greece and Italy. During the fourth century B.C., ostentatious grave monuments in the form of small temple-like buildings decorated with painted sculpture filled the city cemetery. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By this time, Syracuse as a cosmopolitan city rivaled any other in the Greek world. It boasted major temples, as well as civic buildings and monuments. In fact, the theater at Syracuse—one of the largest ever built in antiquity—continues to be a celebrated destination for dramatic performances. In 272 B.C., the Romans conquered Magna Graecia, and Sicily came under Roman rule when Syracuse fell to Rome in 212 B.C. As a result, the newly conquered western Greek colonies played an important role as the transmitters of Greek culture to the Romans and the rest of the Italian peninsula.


Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, July 2007, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.

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