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The Aegean in Antiquity

      Το Αιγαίο κατά την Αρχαιότητα (5/3/2006 v.1) The Aegean in Antiquity (5/4/2006 v.1)

Author(s) : Kaponis Antonios , Ferla Kleopatra (12/12/2005)
Translation : Koutras Nikolaos (12/19/2006)

For citation: Kaponis Antonios, Ferla Kleopatra, "The Aegean in Antiquity", 2006,
Cultural Portal of the Aegean Archipelago

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1. Introduction

In Antiquity, the islands of the Aegean Archipelago did not constitute a unified whole either politically, each island being affected by the relations it formed with mainland units of Asia Minor or Greece, or geophysically, as each island has its distinctive features. There is, however, a distinct Aegean character on the islands, connected with their “insularity”, as well as with their role as intermediate links in the communication chain between East and West, North and South.

2. Historical framework

After the end of the Mycenaean Period, the Aegean becomes once more the epicentre of historical developments, which give new vitality to life on the islands. The tribal movements from Greece to the East (the so-called 1st Colonization, 1100-950 BC) affected the islands in terms of population as well as economically. Among the significant events of this period is the contact of the people of the Aegean with the Phoenicians, a contact which, among else, led to an important cultural development: the creation of the phonetic alphabet which forms the basis of all modern European alphabets.

The settling of the Greek tribes did not occur randomly: the Aeolians settled mainly in the north Aegean area (Lesvos and Tenedos), the Ionians in central Aegean (Samos, Chios, Cyclades) and the Dorians on the southwest (Rhodes, Kos, Milos, Thera, Symi, Nisyros, Kalymnos), and in the corresponding areas of the coast of Asia Minor. The newcomers brought with them their ways and customs, and this largely explains the differences that were observed on the various islands. The belief in a common origin is evident from the Leagues that were formed: the Ionian League (or Panionion), with a membership of 12 cities whose inhabitants called themselves Ionians, and the amphictyony of the Dorian Hexapolis with the temple of the Triopian Apollo as their centre, participated by cities founded by the Dorians.

The increase in population and financial growth led to renewed colonizing activities (2nd Colonisation, 8th-6th cent. BC). A concurrent development was the emergence of the institution of the city-state, accompanied by important political developments (among which the establishment of the Panionion) which gradually led to the establishment of democratic institutions. Contact with different peoples and civilisations as well as the economical prosperity of the period laid the foundations for the flourishing of the arts and letters. Epic and lyric poetry, the first stirrings of philosophy, and the formation of the Ionic and Doric Orders in architecture are but a few of the fundamental changes that originate in the Aegean region.

The late 6th century BC is characterized by the inception of the hostilities between Greeks and Persians. Several Aegean islands partake in the Ionian Revolt (499-494 BC), and following their victory at the sea battle at Lade (494 BC), the Persians subjugate part of the Cyclades and Naxos. During the Persian Wars, the cities that had remained independent fought on the side of the Greeks. With the Greek victory over Persia, the islands participate in the political developments guided by the two great adversaries, Athens and Sparta. Thus, the islands alternate between participation to the 1st (Delian, 478/7 BC) and the 2nd (378/7) Athenian League, revolt against Athens (the rebellion of the Melians is well-known) and alliance with Sparta, sometimes managing to maintain their autonomy. This state of affairs affected the internal political landscape of the cities: political parties alternated in power, on occasion even causing civil conflict. Always within the geopolitical context of the era, there were some clashes or alliances with the Persians and other satraps that ruled over Asia Minor. The defeat of Athens in the Social War (a.k.a. the War of the Allies, 357-355 BC), during which many of the Aegean islands rose against the Athenians with the help of Mausolus, proved of great significance. The Classical Period concluded with the subjection of all the Aegean cities to Phillip of Macedon at the Conference of Corinth (336 BC).

During the campaign of Alexander the Great in Asia, the Rhodian general Memnon attempted to form anti anti-Macedonian front; leading the Persian Navy which reached the Aegean in 335 BC, he captured Chios and Lesvos. His successor Pharnabazus captured Tenedos, thus securing Persian domination over the rest of the Aegean. Antipater was ordered by Alexander to lead the recapture effort, which was completed in 331 BC.

The period which followed the death of Alexander the Great enveloped the Aegean islands in the tumult of the conflicts between his successors. In 314 BC, Antigonus I of Macedon managed to overpower his rivals by organising the Islanders’ League. His supremacy did not last long and the Aegean islands were incorporated in one or the other Hellenistic kingdom, depending on the outcome of military conflicts and political aspirations. This state of affairs reached its climax with the siege of Rhodes, an island which remained neutral and powerful throughout the wars between the Hellenistic states. The Peace of Apameia (188 BC) ostensibly did not impinge on the majority of the Aegean islands, which, together with other cities of Asia Minor, apparently remained independent.

With the administrative reform of Octavian (43 BC) the Aegean islands become incorporated into the Province of Asia. The islands ceased to lie the in the geographical epicentre of seafaring routes. Although intellectual life advanced steadily, the islands received political exiles from other areas, but also the scholarly travellers of the Imperial Period.

3. Society

The island societies of the Early Helladic Period were substantially dissimilar to those of the mainland cities. On the islands possessing an extensive hinterland the power of certain families was associated with the increase in agricultural production and the growth of commerce, as well as with the intensification of contacts with the East (8th-7th cent. BC).

Great aristocratic families thus emerged, fewer than those in the mainland towns, but influential within the cities, and occasionally evolving into power groups. The conditions which prevailed after the Persian Wars offered the middle class of the merchants and artisans new opportunities for growth. A large percentage of the population on the islands and the coastal areas engaged in commerce.

During the Hellenistic Period social unrest is reported on the islands of Amorgos, Thera, Kea, Ios, Syros, Naxos, Kimolos and Paros, but this had not always had clear and significant consequences or resulted in an altering of the social map.

In the Imperial Period, there is a clear-cut distinction between the demos and the prominent wealthy citizens who performed public benefactions, many of which managed to receive Roman citizenship. Although their activities diminished the value of the democratic institutions and indicate the waning of the power of the city-states as self-sufficient communities, the demos always expressed gratitude and adoration towards its benefactors. By the 1st cent. AD, however, the Greek bourgeois class was on the rise in the Aegean islands, and its members managed to ascend to the highest public offices, like Achilles Romanus from Delos, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon (physician of Emperor Claudius) from Kos, the Pompii Marci from Mytilene and Lucius Flavius Sulpicianus Dorion Polyknis from Crete. During the ‘century of crisis’, (3rd cent. AD), however, most of the persons occupying high posts originated from the lower social strata and were often freedmen.

4. Politics

4. 1. Organisation of the island city-states

Most of the islands had one or more settlements which the sources characterise as “polis” (=city or city-state). The dominions of leading island city-states, like Paros, Naxos and Samos, sometimes included small neighbouring islands. On several islands there were more than one city-state (these islands were called “dipolis” or “tripolis” etc).

From an early time, tribal confederations of island and mainland cities emerged in the eastern Aegean: the “Dodecapolis” of the Ionians whose centre was the Panionian sanctuary on the bay of Ephesus and the Doric “Hexapolis” with the Triopion near Cnidus as its centre. A similar confederation was the Amphictyony of Delos, to which most of the members of the Delian League participated. Sometimes the cities of one island formed a confederacy (e.g. the cities of Kea and Amorgos), while later, during the Hellenistic Period, most of the cities of the Aegean islands joined the Islanders' League.

For some islands we know that their population was divided into various geographical and ethnic groups, like “tribes, clans, trittyes, places, demes”. The inhabitants of several island cities were divided into the four Ionian (Argadeis, Hopletes, Aegikoreis, Geleontes) or into the three Dorian (Pamphylloi, Hylleis, Dymanes) tribes. Depending on the particular developments in each city more tribes were later added to these, while subdivisions existed as well, like the “demoi” and the “chiliastyes”.

The internal political organisation of the cities on the Aegean islands, Ionic and Doric alike, was apparently similar to that of the Athenian polity. Central instruments of the polity, during the periods of oligarchy and democracy at least, were usually the “boule” and the “demos”/ “ekklesia”, while the names of the holders of the year-long “archon” office were often used as the basis of a dating system. Other important office titles found on these cities are “grammateas” (=secretary), “prostates” (=protector), “hepistates” (=custodian), the “prytaneis” (=doyens) and the “proedroi” (=chairmen), the “strategoi” (=generals), the “polemarch” (=general in chief) and the “agoranomos” (=regulator of the agora, i.e. the marketplace), a.o. In some of the islands under Athenian control (Lemnos, Imbros, Skyros) there was also a “dioiketes” (=commander) or “archon” who commanded the Athenian garrison. Milos and Thera are exceptional in this respect, as they feature the following offices: “plethos” (=literal. multitude), “archai” (=principals), “synedroi” (=discussants) and “ephors” (=magistrates) and “demos”.

4. 2. Polities and their succession

4. 2. 1. From kingship to aristocracy and tyranny

Although information on the Cyclades and the Sporades is scarce, apparently several island states were from an early period ruled by hereditary kings and royal/dynastic families. During the 7th century, especially in the eastern Aegean, most of these families were ousted from power by other aristocratic clans, oligarchies or tyrants. The most important tyrannies were those of Pittacus on Mytilene, Lygdamis on Naxos and Polycrates on Samos. Tyrannies also emerged on Chios and on Kos.

4. 2. 2. Democracy and its abolition

Around the Period of the end of Persian rule on the eastern Aegean democratic polities were installed on the majority of the islands, most of which were influenced by the Athenian democracy. In the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, wider developments and the constant changes in the political scene led to the abolition of democracy on most islands. Democracy was restored in some places in the 4th cent. BC, although defections from the 2nd Athenian League brought the oligarchs to power in Rhodes, Kos and Chios. Nonetheless, the references to the restoration of the ‘patrimonial polity’ on some islands are rather vague and do not allow safe conclusions as to the form of political organisation prior and subsequent to this change. The cities of Lesvos constitute an exception, for tyrannies were temporarily installed there (until 346 BC, but also after the island’s accession to the Corinthian League of 336 BC).

Although the democratic institutions were retained during the Hellenistic Period, the archons acquired a more prominent role. Tyrannical or at least oligarchic, pro-Macedonian regimes were imposed on the Aegean cities only during the period of Antigonus Gonatas' dominance. Their polities remained democratic during the following periods, even if only in name. In the Late Hellenistic Period, power and wealth became concentrated on the hands of the affluent upper-class few who were normally elected to the higher offices.

During the Roman Period, the loss of civic independence meant that the cities lost their character as states and were gradually transformed into peripheral urban settlements. Finally, in the Imperial Period the island societies see the establishment of an aristocracy composed of eminent citizens who maintained friendly relations with Rome, while the aristocratic Areios Pagos became the most important public institution. In many cities, the political system was transmuted into timocracy. With respect to the offices, the islands copied the novelties observed on mainland Greece or Asia Minor (e.g. the dekaprotoi in Amorgos).

4. 3. Relations of the hegemonic states with the island states

From the Archaic Period, expansionist tendencies unfolded in the Aegean, with one or more states seeking to increase their influence over the rest by relying on their naval might. Furthermore, the smaller islands tended to be politically subordinate on the larger ones or on coastal cities of the Greek or Asiatic mainland. Thus, apart from the Lydians and the Persians who prevailed in the eastern Aegean up to the late 6th cent. BC, Naxos, Paros and Samos had attempted during the Archaic Period to gain control over their neighbouring and not-so-neighbouring islands. Following the Persian Wars, the Athenian initiative for the continuation of the struggle against the Persians afforded Athens the opportunity to create and entrench the 1st Athenian or Delian League which acquired the form of an Athenian hegemony over the Aegean region. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was succeeded by Lysander’s Sparta in that role, but soon the Persian Navy managed to prevail in the Aegean waters until the ascendancy of Macedonia (323 BC). The establishment of the 2nd Athenian League (378-356 BC) as well as the partial predominance of the Carian dynasty of the Hekatomnids are two short-lived interlude periods.

Following Alexander’s death, the Hellenistic kingdoms struggled to acquire as many allies (or subjects) as possible among the islanders. Finally, Macedonia and Ptolemaic Egypt prevailed, although on various occasions they fought each other. During the Hellenistic Period, island and mainland states vied for predominance, as in the case of Samos, Kos, Rhodes and finally Delos, while the Attalid kingdom of Pergamus was also influential. Roman rule, especially after Sulla's arrival in this area (86 BC), put an end to local struggles for ascendancy.

5. Economy

Agriculture, especially the cultivation of cereals, was central to the survival and growth of the islands. Although crop-growing was carried out with difficulties, almost always the islands were self-sufficient. The sources single out the islands of Chalke, Lemnos and Milos for their cereal production. Viniculture flourished on Lemnos and Thera, while Rhodes, Samos, Chios and Thasos were famous for the raisins they produced. The raisins and figs of Rhodes and Chios, the pears of Kea and Samos’ olive oil were high-quality exportable produce. In general, all the islands, notwithstanding the need for intensive farming, were self-sufficient in agricultural produce such as fruit, vegetables, walnuts and honey. The dietary needs of the islanders and the Aegean coast-dwellers were also covered with fish, which from the Hellenistic Period became the food of choice of the wealthy. The exploitation of the islands’ trees was also important for the production of timber.

Some islands also possessed considerable mineral resources. The superior quality white marble of Paros was exported for use in buildings and statues. Most islands had marble quarries, and from the Hellenistic times the Aegean became known for its coloured marble. On most islands there were also deposits of exploitable limestone. The growth of Sifnos was rapid due to the island's silver mines, while it appears that Thasos possessed gold mines. Kythnos and Serifos had iron and bronze mines, while Chalkis was also renowned for its bronze production. Finally, Kea produced ochre and Skyros pigmentary substances.

In the context of commerce, the colonizing movements gave impetus to the development of relations between West and East. The chief seafaring routes gradually became fixed, and trading posts were created. Known exportable products of the islands were wine, cheese, tuna, while slaves were also marketed on Delos, mainly during the Hellenistic Period. A variety of products was imported, but some times these were the bare essentials, like grain and oil.

The large islands, especially those of the eastern Aegean, had constructed important commercial fleets, while most islands had harbours or coves. Still, the vigour of the independent island commerce began to wane by the imposition of controls by a great political power, because of the incessant military conflicts in the wider Aegean area and by the intensification of piracy. In some cases, like in that of Polycrates of Samos, the islanders’ ships functioned both as pirate and commercial vessels.

6. Culture

6. 1. Poetry, theatre and music

Already from the Geometric Period, poetry flourished in the Aegean region (mainly in the eastern Aegean) more so than in other Hellenic areas. Islands like Ios, Chios and Samos, as well as the coastal cities of Asia Minor are proposed as possible birthplaces of Homer. Pisinus of Lindus and Peisander of Camirus also wrote epic poems on local motifs.

Lyric poetry had its golden age during the 7th and the 6th cent. BC. The patronage of the aristocratic courts of the islands was instrumental in its flourishing. Eminent representatives of this kind of poetry were Sappho and Alcaeus from Lesvos, Anacreon of Teos, Arion of Mythemna, Archilochus of Paros, Simonides of Amorgos and Simonides of Kea. Arion’s contribution was particularly important for the development of music and dance, but he also contributed towards the creation of the conditions necessary for the birth of tragedy. The polymath and tragic poet Ion of Chios was an important figure, while Bitto of Samos, Archinomus of Rhodes and Lysistratus of Chalkidean Gorgippus are known only by name.

Philetas, a philologist and composer of elegies, and Simias of Rhodes were eminent Hellenistic poets. Apollonius of Rhodes composed epic poetry, his greatest achievement being the renowned Argonautica, the story of Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece.

6. 2. Philosophy, historiography and science

The Ionian logographers (this name is given to chroniclers and historians before Herodotus) and philosophers were among the most important writers of prose. Pherecydes of Syros (5th cent. BC) belongs to this tradition, and he was one of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. The name of Antilochus of Lemnos, one of Socrates' rivals, survives as well as that of Menedemus of Pyrrha (Lesvos), a student of Plato’s. After Philetas' lexicographic work, theoretical speculation is continued by Aristotle’s students Theophrastus of Eressus, Diocles of Carystus and Eudemus from Rhodes. Theophrastus takes over as head of his teacher’s school, while Eudemus founded his own philosophical school in Rhodes. The island began to attract Peripatetic philosophers, like Praxiphanes and Hieronymus, and by the 2nd cent. BC it was frequented by the intellectuals of the era. The Hermarchus of Mytilene was head of the Epicurus’ school of philosophy, called “The Garden”. Ariston of Chios and Hekaton of Rhodes devoted themselves to Stoic philosophy. Panaetius, a friend of Scipio, and his student, Poseidonius, were foremost Stoic philosophers from Rhodes.

In the field of the exact sciences the islands produced many thinkers from an early period. The influence of the Ionian natural philosophers is evident. In 6th cent. BC Samos, the tunnel (aqueduct) of Eupalinus was considered one of the greatest achievements of ancient engineering. The figure of the physician Hippocrates of Kos, who also influenced the development of theoretical thinking of the 5th cent. BC, holds a prominent place in the history of Aegean science. Erasistratus of Kea (4th cent.) is considered the father of physiology, while Philinus of Kos played a leading role in the development of an empirical approach to medicine. The great astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (3rd cent. BC) was a forerunner of the heliocentric theory. In the field of theoretical thinking on agriculture the names of Chares from Paros and Apollodorus of Lemnos survive, both contemporaries of Aristotle.

Antigonus of Carystus, Myrsilus of Mythemna and Archemachus of Euboea were important historiographers of Aegean origin.

6. 3. Arts

The Aegean region proved fertile land for cultural exchanges between the Eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia and mainland Greece, in terms of techniques and styles, as well as in terms of artefacts. By the Geometric Period, local potters and possibly goldsmiths were active on Skyros, Naxos and Rhodes. Commercial exchanges with the Phoenicians included the trade of metalworking artefacts but also of rare material like ivory, while it is possible that Phoenician craftsmen had settled on the Aegean islands, influencing the local production (Rhodian goldsmithery).
The pottery production of Naxos stands out in the Archaic Period, as does that of Chios and Samos, influenced by Miletus and other centres of Asia Minor. In sculpture, the Cretan-inspired daedalic statues (Thera, Naxos, Delos) gradually gave way to the figures of the kouroi and the korai and a multitude of local schools emerged, most significant among which were those of Naxos, Paros, Chios and Samos. In the Classical Period the production from Paros was important, with Scopas as its most prominent representative, while during the Hellenistic Period Rhodes and Delos were the most creative centres.




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