Wandering the wine-dark sea

Greek migration and dialects

The ancient Greeks were, like all people, highly mobile, and they founded a large number of settlements beyond the Aegean basin. What are some of the characteristics of Greek migration, and did these settlers bring their dialects and customs with them?

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Earlier this year, someone on Reddit’s AskHistorians asked: “Did the Greeks of the colonies speak noticeably different dialects of Greek from the mainland Greeks? Did they change their customs much at all?” The user in question wondered if Greeks outside the “Greek mainland” spoke the same language, and whether settlements overseas were linked culturally or linguistically to the mainland.

It is customary to refer to Greek migration beyond the Aegean basin as “colonization”, but this is increasingly criticized in academic circles, as the Greek settlements founded elsewhere (apoikia) maintained only loose ties to the original mother city. I would also add that the term “colony” suggests an attempt to project power abroad, but this wasn’t usually the case with the Greek settlements in question: there are some examples from Magna Graecia that were attempts at imperialism.

In his Wandering Greeks (2014), Robert Garland summarizes the criticism neatly in a note on p. 34:

I have taken to heart Robin Osborne’s observation (1998, 269): “A proper understanding of archaic Greek history can only come when chapters on ‘Colonization’ are eradicated from books on early Greece.” See, too, Purcell (1990, 56), who complains of “the ethnic presumptuousness and false sense of purporse in the term” that had no bearing on the phenomenon. It was [Moses] Finley (1976, 174), who first drew attention to the inappropriateness of the term “colony” as a description of early Greek settlements.

It’s now more common to speak of Greek migration, a more neutral term. In answering a more recent question, someone asked if “migration” was the correct term, as they imagined that as a large-scale movement of people. My reply was that no, migration doesn’t imply anything regarding scale. If you move from one house to another, you’re migrating.

While there are exceptions from later history (most notably when it comes to Athens), there were no concerted efforts on the part of Greek cities to found settlements elsewhere that operated as an extension of themselves. Greek settlements founded beyond the Aegean basin during the Archaic period (ca. 800 to 500 BC) were all independent settlements (apoikia) in their own right, who only maintained the loosest of ties to the cities from which the founders came.

Sometimes, inhabitants from these new settlements set off themselves to create secondary foundations, especially in Sicily and Southern Italy (Garland 2014, p. 35-36, provides a brief overview). In all cases, all of these settlements were independent, maintaining only loose – i.e. “symbolic” – ties with the cities where they founders had originally lived.

Ancient Greek dialects

As far as ancient Greek dialects are concerned, there were many different groups in ancient Greece. The Greeks themselves – which to a large extent means writers in Athens – distinguish between four main groups: Athenians (who spoke Attic), Ionians, Dorians, and Aeolians. Modern scholarship makes a few more distinctions within these broad groups, especially when it comes to dialects that the ancient Greek (again, mostly Athenian!) writers lumped together as “Doric”, adding Northwest Greek, Cypro-Arcadian (or Arcadocypriot). A useful, concise overview of the Greek language can be found in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (for the fourth edition, pp. 632ff).

Very briefly, Attic and Ionic are closely related, and the Athenians themselves believed that they were autochthonous, lit. “of the earth”, that is: native to where they lived, indigenous. Their dialect is sometimes referred to as Attic-Ionic to make the connection between the two more clear. The Ionians, who spoke with an Ionic dialect, lived on the west coast of Asia Minor, with Aeolic-speaking Greeks to the north of them, and Doric-speaking Greeks to the south. Ionian was also spoken by Euboeans.

The Aeolic dialect also includes Thessaly and Boeotia on the mainland. Doric was also spoken in the Peloponnese (Messenia, Laconia, Argolid) and Crete. “Northwest Greek” is closely related to Doric and is spoken in Epirus and other places. The people of Arcadia (the mountainous interior of the Peloponnese) and Cyprus spoke Cypro-Arcadian, and it’s thought by some that this was closely related to the dialect used by the Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age (but note my comments in the section on migrations, below).

The user who asked this question on AskHistorians refers to “mainland Greece”. Most would assume that “mainland Greece” refers to northern, central, and southern Greece, so from Macedonia in the north – sometimes ridiculed as not-Greek by Athenians in the fourth century BC, when they were fearful of Macedonian encroachment under Philip II – to the Peloponnese in the south. On the islands, different dialects were spoken (Ionic, Doric), and then you have Asia Minor (Aeolic, Ionic, Doric). Outside of the Aegean basin, the dialect in Greek settlements depended on what was spoken by the original group who founded the settlement. So cities founded by Greeks from the island of Euboea would speak Ionian.

The differences between the Greek dialects weren’t too great, so that Greeks from one place could still make out what another person from a different place was saying, kind of like how e.g. the accent of a Texan differs from that of a Bostonian, or how someone from London’s East End speaks differently when compared to someone from Oxford. In reality, some people with thick accents may have been difficult to make out! For example, in his comedy Lysistrata, the playwright Aristophanes features Spartans who all speak with a thick Dorian accent, and they are presented as rough and uncultured.

Greeks who migrated abroad naturally brought their dialect with them. They also brought their customs and traditions with them, but the settlements they founded were wholly independent. Since the areas where they founded their settlements were also inhabited by other peoples, changes did occur. And since Greek settlements abroad were usually far removed from their mothercities, changes also occurred over time. Irad Malkin, a leading authority in the field of Greek migration, wrote an interesting book on the topic with a focus on Sparta: Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (1994).

It’s important to stress that Greek settlements weren’t founded in isolation. An instructive example of a Greek settlement abroad is Posidonia, also known as Paestum, in Southern Italy. It was founded in ca. 600 (as Posidonia) by Greeks from the city of Sybaris, which itself located further south, near Taras (Latin Tarantum; modern Taranta). Posidonia was located near the coast and named after the ancient Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. As John Boardman writes (1999, p. 182):

There are many native, perhaps Oenotrian, sites and cemeteries near by. In the twin sites of Palinurus and Molpa on the promontory thirty-five miles south of Posidonia, Greeks and natives may have lived side by side after about 550 BC, to judge from finds in the excavations around the walls and tombs.

Italic peoples may also have lived in Posidonia itself. Indeed, at some point in the fifth century BC, probably towards the end, the city was conquered (or perhaps just taken over) by the native Lucanians, who spoke an Umbrian-Oscan language and who were neighbours of the Samnites. The city was renamed to Paistos and the archaeological finds show a mixture of Greek and Oscan material. Many of the Greek buildings in the city remained in use, and the magnificant tomb paintings show a mixture of “typically Greek” and “native” elements, which I put into quotation marks for a reason. (For more on the site, check out the website of the archaeological site and museum, or my article on Paestum.)

Migration and change

The ancient Greeks themselves believed that cultural change was the result of the movement of people. The distribution of dialects in the Aegean was thus also believed to have been the result of people moving from one place to another, and some groups being displaced altogether.

For example, Dorians were thought to have pushed in from the north, and it was fashionable until not too long ago to argue that the Mycenaeans had been forced to flee to the interior (Arcadia) and to Cyprus as a result of this. But there is zero archaeological evidence for this Dorian migration (Kotsonas and Mokrisova 2020, p. 221-222; see also this Bad Ancient article).

Then there’s the idea of an Ionian migration, with Ionic-speaking Greeks moving from the mainland to Anatolia (and the Aeolic-speaking Greeks must have covered the distance, too). But when did these people move from mainland Greece to Anatolia? There’s evidence that Mycenaeans already lived in e.g. Miletus in the Late Bronze Age (and we cannot be sure that all Mycenaeans spoke the same dialect!).

As Kotsonas and Mokrisova summarize it (p. 222):

Unlike the search for the Dorian migration, the practice of tracing the Ionian and Aeolian migrations in the material culture of western Anatolia continues. As more finds of Mycenaean and Protogeometric (PG) pottery at Miletos, Ephesos, and other settlements have come to light, this material came to be regarded as unequivocal proof of ancient migrations. Based on the information from ancient sources, modern scholars provided a number of possible dates for the migrations. Whereas most scholars had difficulties in precisely dating these phenomena, some argued that they must have taken place sometime between the 14th and the 11th century […], others maintained that they could be dated precisely to the 11th century […], and a few suggested a much later date. Yet already in the 1940s, Jan H. Jongkees, for instance, noticed that most Ionian material culture, which can be identified as “Greek,” dated only to the 9th century and later […]. This debate continues until today […].

Within this context, it’s important to point out that ethnic identities were, for a long time, rather fluid. Again, Kotsonas and Mokrisova note (p. 223):

Moreover, while movement into and within southwestern Anatolia has often been presented in terms of cultural distance between ethnically different communities – Greek versus Anatolian – recent work of both historians and archaeologists has convincingly shown that the concept of tightly circumscribed identities emerged relatively late, during the [Archaic] period […]. Therefore, interaction happened among diverse communities that could not be easily distinguished as Mycenaean and Anatolian in the [Late Bronze Age], and Greek and Anatolian in the [Early Iron Age].

Further discussion regarding ethnicity will move us away from the topic at hand, so I will leave it here. If in the meantime you want to read up on the connection between migration and ethnicity, I recommend Irad Malkin’s other great book, The Returns of Odysseus. Colonization and Ethnicity (1998).

Further reading

Here’s a list of recommended books, which I’ve also referenced in the foregoing. Note that some of the older books here freely refer to Greek “colonies” and “colonization”, rather than using more neutral terms. But still, these titles are worth checking out for further information:

  • John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas. Their Early Colonies and Trade (4th edition, 1999).
  • Robert Garland, Wandering Greeks. The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great (2014).
  • Antonis Kotsonas and Jana Mokrisova, “Mobility, migration, and colonization”, in: Irene S. Lemos and Antonis Kotsonas (eds.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean, vol. 1 (2020), pp. 217-246.
  • Irad Malkin, Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (1994).
  • Irad Malkin, The Returns of Odysseus. Colonization and Ethnicity (1998).

Another useful reference work is the two-volume Greek Colonisation. An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas (2006) edited by Gocha R. Tsetskhladze. It’s published by Brill, so it’s far too expensive to buy, but you can undoubtedly find it in an academic library.

You might be wondering about the difference between “colonies” (yuk!) and “other settlements” in this book’s title; the first refers to apoikia (independent settlements), the second mostly to emporia (singular: emporion), which were trading posts.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.