Prelude: On the Greek colonization of Italy

Volcanic eruptions brought about massive ecological changes which crippled the great palatial cultures of Crete and mainland Hellas, making them vulnerable to successive population migrations from Eurasia. For a couple hundred years there’s almost no archaeological record and the few items that have come to light are technologically and artistically inferior to what existed before, leading scholars to refer to this period as the Greek Dark Ages. Towards the end of it you see a return to literacy and massive advancements in material culture. This rapid progress results in a swell in population which reaches crisis levels around the tenth and ninth centuries BCE, placing an intolerable strain on the land which was never that great to begin with since much of Hellas is coastal and mountainous. Famine and war do their part to reduce the population bottleneck but there is still terrible civil unrest, particularly among the younger, landless segments of society. Apollon from Delphi begins directing the Greeks to send this surplus humanity out to settle neighboring territories, at first in the islands, the Balkans, Asia Minor and along the Black Sea. Later, from the eighth to fifth centuries BCE, colonists are sent to France, Spain, North Africa and Italy.

Some of the territory they settle in is uninhabited but more often than not the Greeks in Italy are forced to displace populations or contend with (at times, though not always) hostile neighbors. Sometimes these people are indigenous (having sprung up from the soil and lived there always, at least according to their own traditions), usually they are native meaning populations (from Crete, Anatolia, the Near East or other parts of Italy) who had migrated to the area at a much earlier time and established strong ties to the land over the intervening centuries.

The Greeks rose to dominance, establishing a network of colonies all along the south and eastern coast of Italy that came to be known collectively as Megale Hellas or Magna Graecia – Greater Greece in English. There were the usual armed conflicts and massacres that one expects from even a casual perusal of history (though amusingly they seem to have fought more among themselves than with the other populations) but what really allowed them to come out on top was their enterprise and commerce. They were innovative agriculturists who prospered greatly by applying the hardscrabble techniques they’d picked up back in barren Hellas to the much more nutrient-rich volcanic soil of Southern Italy and Sicily. They impressed their neighbors through their wealth of grain and vines and traded in luxury goods imported from Hellas and abroad, which helped establish peaceful relations. Likewise they had evolved civic institutions that were soon adopted by the non-Greek populations and established important centers of learning and the arts which were accessible to all. (Some of the most important Pythagorean philosophers, for instance, weren’t Greeks.) Religion was also an important force for co-existence, with a strong emphasis placed on inclusive syncretism, the veneration of local Goddesses and heroes and an epic mythic tradition that was deeply appealing to their neighbors. (Indeed we find Apulian vases and terracotta representations of the Greek Gods and heroes in locations far removed from the colonies; we even find these figures incorporated into Italian grave goods and temples and symposiac scenes and plastic arts that otherwise betray no trace of Hellenization.) Their religion was as much changed by contact with their neighbors as it changed them – even traditionally Olympian deities take on a pronounced chthonic tone in Italy; there’s also much more concern with daimones and purity – which is why I see it as a distinct tradition in its own right and don’t consider myself a practitioner of Hellenismos proper.

All of which is to say, there’s not just one type of colonization. Any time that two bodies are competing for resources the fitter will triumph. In some instances fit is determined by strength, in others by cleverness, in others still by having a more desirable product or culture. There is, however, a right and a wrong way to subordinate others.

Despite the dominant position they came to hold in Italy the Greeks never let that blind them to the humanity they shared with their neighbors. For instance, the Tarentines sent a golden statue of Opis, king of the Iapygians, to Delphi to commemorate his valor and intelligence since he had distinguished himself as a general in battle against them and later when they were overcome with war-lust after a protracted campaign and humiliated some civilians of the vanquished city of Carbina, they instituted a festival of Zeus honoring the victims so that they would forever remain mindful of their shameful deeds and never repeat them. In one of their numerous territorial disputes with fellow Greek colonists the Tarentines employed Ambrician, Bruttian, Lucanian, Thesprotian, Chaonian and Samnite mercenaries.

They may have killed and even enslaved their neighbors, but what you don’t find are delusions of ethnic superiority, attempts to systematically exterminate other populations, cultural obliteration or assimilation, environmental holocaust and forced religious conversions the way you do with the French, English, Spanish and other European settlers in the Americas.

That comes about only with monotheism and its bastard child secular capitalism. These predatory systems tolerate no diversity or competition and place no check on human ambition. Drained of its inherent divinity they see the land as there simply to be exploited and used up until they can move on to the next place and anyone who is unfortunate enough to stand in their way is fair game. Even if the Greeks had no regard for their neighbors (which they clearly did) reverence for the Gods and spirits of those people, of the land they lived on would have forced them to go about conquest in a more humane and civilized fashion.

Everything must be done within proper bounds in polytheism, especially something as important as war, and with the understanding that we are not at the top of the food-chain. Should we overstep, the Gods and their vengeance is there to smack us down and shame us for our hubris. Over and over again this comes up in the accounts of Magna Graecia – which is why I think this religious tradition is so vitally important, especially for those of us living in a decaying empire built on the rotting corpses of countless multitudes.