Colonies, Ancient

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Colonies, Ancient


settlements founded by ancient peoples in foreign lands.

At the root of colonization lay the necessity to restrict the population of the city-states because of the insufficient level of development of productive forces. Class struggle intensified the process. Colonization stemmed from two sources, the first being the state itself, which advanced colonization with the aim of smoothing over social contradictions, and the second being formed by those defeated in political struggles who left their native city (the métropole) and settled abroad. In both instances the colonies were separate communities with their own distinct state structures. The colonies differed economically from one another: some were agricultural, others commercial.

At the end of the third millennium B.C., Assyrian merchants from the city of Ashur founded a number of commercial colonies in the country of the Hittites (in Cappadocia, Asia Minor). The most important of these was Kanesh. The Assyrian colonies enjoyed self-government but were subject to the supreme authority of Ashur. Merchants from Akkad arrived in Asia Minor at the same time as the Assyrians. The Assyrian colonies had mixed populations and highly individual cultures. In about the 16th century B.C., the Phoenicians began their colonizing activity. Phoenician colonies were founded on islands and in coastal regions of the Mediterranean at the intersection of trade routes. Sidon and Tyre were major centers of colonization. The inhabitants of Sidon moved primarily into the eastern Mediterranean, setting up colonies on Cyprus and Rhodes and in southern Asia Minor; the inhabitants of Tyre held the western Mediterranean, founding a number of colonies in Sicily, Sardinia, Spain (Gades), and Africa (Carthage, Tingis, Celis).

The eighth to sixth centuries B.C. are called the great age of Greek colonization, the time when the polis structure was formed. The Greek colonies, or apoikia (literally, “settlements far from home”), had an agricultural or trade-agricultural character. The creation of trading stations often preceded the founding of colonies. Usually the organization of a colony was headed by leaders elected or appointed in the métropole; these oikists supervised the distribution and settlement of land and took part in the determination of the form of administration in the colony. Although the colonies were sovereign city-states, they were bound to the métropole by cultural, religious, and commercial relations. Greek colonization went in three directions: toward the northeast (Potidaea, Abdera, Byzantium, Cyzicus, Sinope, Trebizond, and the ancient cities of the northern Black Sea littoral), the south (Naucratis, Cyrene), and the west (the Ionian colonies of Kume, Neapolis, Elea, Naxos, Leontini, Catana, and Zancle; the Achaean colonies of Sybaris, Poseidonia, Crotón, and Metapontum; and the Doric colonies of Tarentum, Locri [both in Italy], Syracuse, Gela, and Selinunte). Miletus, Chaléis in Euboea, Corinth, Megara, and Phocaea all engaged in intensive colonization. Greek colonization of the eighth to sixth centuries B.C. facilitated the development of productive forces and the spread of class relations and Hellenistic culture beyond the frontiers of Greece itself. Besides the apoikia colonies, Athenians founded cleruchies after the sixth century B.C. on lands they conquered or on allied territory: these were military and agricultural settlements whose inhabitants remained citizens of Athens.

Colonization was also a widespread phenomenon in Italy. In the seventh century B.C., the Etruscans of Tuscany established colonies in northern Italy (apart from or together with the Umbrians) and in Campania. The Etruscan cities of Volaterrra, Clusium, Perusia, and Caere engaged in colonization. According to tradition, Rome already began to colonize in the royal period, but this process can be dated reliably only from the fifth century B.C. According to statute, the colonies were considered either as Roman, with inhabitants enjoying all the rights of Roman citizenship (Ostia, Minturnae, Sinuessa), or as Latin, with inhabitants enjoying Latin, that is, restricted, rights (Luceria, Ariminum, Beneventum). At first the Romans established colonies only in Italy, but from the time of the Gracchi they also colonized areas outside Italy (Junonia on the site of Carthage, Narbo Martius in southern Gaul). Roman colonies were military and agricultural outposts in conquered regions. Initially the poorest citizens were settled in the colonies, but beginning in the first century B.C. veteran political followers of figures like Sulla, Caesar, and Augustus lived there.

After the formation of the Roman Empire and before the edict of the emperor Caracalla in 212 A.D. abolishing the practice, the status of colony was conferred as a special privilege on some provincial cities, which meant the grant of Roman citizenship to their populations.


Kolobova, K. M. “K istorii voprosa o grecheskoi kolonizatsii.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1949, no. 2.
Maiak, I. L. “Kharakter i rol’ ’Colonia Romana’ v rasprostranenii rimskoi vlasti na Apenninskom poluostrove.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1956, no. 2.
Bérard, J. L ’expansion et la colonisation grecques jusqu ’aux guerres mediques. Paris, 1960.
Salmon, E. T. “Roman Colonisation.” Journal of Roman Studies, [1936] vol. 36.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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