Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Ancient Greek Colonization and Trade and their Influence on Greek Art

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Ancient Greek colonization began at an early date, during the so-called Geometric period of about 900 to 700 B.C. (74.51.965), 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.


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 (21.169.1). They cultivated relationships with other affluent centers like Sardis in Lydia (14.30.9), 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.


The ancient Greeks were active seafarers seeking opportunities for trade and founding new independent cities at coastal sites across the Mediterranean Sea.

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Trading stations played an important role as the furthest outposts of Greek culture. Here, Greek goods, such as pottery (2009.529), bronze, 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. 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 (1972.118.142) served as a commercial headquarters for Greek traders in Egypt.

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 River 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 (64.11.1).

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 (06.1021.18), 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. 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 (22.139.56). Many of the colonies in the West minted their own silver coins with distinctive designs and emblems.

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. 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.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art