Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Cities of the Western Mediterranean:  Greece, Carthage and Etruria

Steve Muhlberger

I have mentioned in previous lectures disturbances around the year 1200 B.C.   These included: All of these are connected to the ill-understood invasions of the "Sea Peoples," as their enemies called them.  Who the Sea Peoples were and what exactly started their migrations is uncertain and may always be so.

The movements of the Sea Peoples tended to overthrow or weaken the established political powers of the Middle East (some of which, like the Hittites, I've barely had time to mention).   This began a long period 1200-800 B.C. in which big powers were out, and smaller countries, like Israel, had some room to breathe -- as we have seen.

This period has sometimes been thought of as a "dark age" because the documentation associated with big empires is lacking in many areas -- most dramatically in the Aegean, where the palace-states of the Minoan and Mycenaean period entirely collapsed, taking literacy and many other specialized skill with them.

Why there was this period of disorganization, is not known.  An overall economic collapse? Nor do we know why, after 400 years, in 800 B.C., however, a new period of high energy began.

People all over W. Asia and the Mediterranean started new projects that, by their very size, reveal confidence, economic capability, or the pressure of challenges that had to be met. One projects was the Assyrian Empire -- very successful in its despicable way. Another was the widespread adoption of iron technology.

One of the biggest of the new movements was the spread of cities throughout the central and western Mediterranean. That is our subject for today. It is the first installment in the story of what is called Classical civilization: the story of the cities of Greece and the city of Rome.

What was the Mediteranean like just before this new burst of dynamism?

We have some easily available material of pre- urban society from one area -- Greece. That material is the poems of Homer, namely his epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is a story of the Trojan War; the Odyssey is the story of the return voyage of one of the warriors, Odysseus or Ulysses, who was king of Ithaca.

Homer's poems seem to contain some really old material that may be memories of Mycenae, but most of his world is nothing like Mycenae. Homer's audience lived in a world of tiny kingdoms that hardly deserved the name. In Dark Age Greece, even the ruling aristocrats lived close to the earth. They did not live far from the smell of manure.

Unlike the people of Knossos and Mycenae, who were intimately connected to the civilized cultures farther east, economically and artistically,  Homer's  audiences knew only a little about other countries.  There was no great trade with the East -- the heroes in the audience would have felt that trade was beneath them. They certainly despised the few traders who came their way. The Greeks were basically self-sufficient -- if at a low level.

This is a quick sketch of Greece before 800 B.C. Now we can't say that the whole uncivilized coast of the Mediterranean was like this. But certainly these uncivilized societies were more like Homer's Greece than most of what we have been studying to date.

The movement of Mediterranean urbanization that began after 800 B.C. did not begin in this static Greek society.  The initial impullse came from  Phoenicia and the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians? They were Canaanites on the coast of what is now Lebanon, those who avoided being conquered by the Philistines who settled farther south and being absorbed into the kingdom of Israel.
Geographically, economically and politically, Phoenicia was the crossroads of the ancient Middle East -- since it was between Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. It was a culturally active area. The alphabet was devised in this area. The cities of the Phoenician coast specialized in commerce.

Phoenicia was hard hit by the Philistines in the twelfth century but  bounced back after 1000 B.C., esp. the cities of Byblos (near Beruit), Tyre and Sidon.

These cities began to explore the Mediterranean. Perhaps motivated to find new sources of tin (still needed for bronze even in the Iron Age), which were located  in southern Spain, in a kingdom or land called Tarshish, or perhaps Tartessus.

The most natural route to Spain for the Phoenicians was the coastal one along North Africa. Since sailors stayed close to shore and landed every night if they had any choice in the matter, trade with Spain necessitated developing a chain of settlements along the African coast and in Sicily.

Trading posts set up around 800 B.C. to expedite this trade became real cities.

The biggest western Phoenician settlement, and a famous one, was Carthage, located not far from modern Tunis in Tunisia. Perhaps because of  Assyrian attacks on Tyre, its mother city,  Carthage grew in importance and by about 600 B.C. was effectively independent, and the leading "Punic" -- the word is Latin for "Phoenician" -- city in the west.   It was the leader of a network of trading settlements in Africa, Spain, Sardinian and Sicily.

In the meantime, Phoenician activity had had a considerable effect on the Greeks. Homer's heroes looked down on the "greedy" Phoenicians, but Greeks learned from them anyway (the alphabet).   Before  750 B.C., Greeks had left the safe haven of their home waters and begun to sail more confidently into both eastern and western seas.


One of the earliest overseas settlements, more a factory than a true colony, was at Al Mina in Syria, near the later city of Antioch. The purpose of this settlement was to get in on the lucrative trade of the civilized heartland.

Similar settlements were soon planted in Italy, to gain access to the important trade in metals from Etruria and Campania.

A flood of colonists followed:  

This Greek movement was more robust than the corresponding Phoenician one. Greek colonies were complete Greek communities, poleis (the plural of polis), sent out not just to engage in commerce, but to farm, and herd, and produce cloth, pots and other industrial goods. The search for new land, land which could be taken away from weaker and less populous western peoples, was very important to Greek colonists.

These new poleis also had the vigor of independent communities forced to stand on their own feet.
Despite important sentimental ties,  the  Greek mother cities were not in any position to dominate the colonies, certainly not in the early days. This is because these mother-cities hardly deserved the name of "city" in the eighth century. They were not very urban, nor very powerful.

The economic vitality and urban growth of Greece was a result of the overseas connections that made trade easier and profitable. Colonization preceded the trade that preceded  urbanization in the Greek homeland..

So far we have Phoenicians in Sicily, North Africa and Spain; and Greeks in Sicily, Africa, Italy and the Black Sea. A third urban culture arose simultaneously with the other two, in central Italy. This is the culture of the Etruscans.

A bit of a mysterious group:  like the Sumerians, the Etruscans spoke a language not like that of any of their neighbors (and with no close relatives anywhere).  We have little of their writing left, which means that the language is only partly deciphered. In any case we have no extensive literature to tell us what they thought. Yet the Etruscans went from being barbaric nobodies off the edge of the world into a significant economic and military power. The Etruscans developed an urban culture as early as the post-Homeric Greeks did (beginning in the 8th century B.C., 800-700).

This seems to be a result of the mineral riches of their homeland, Etruria. Copper, lead, and iron were available in quantity. The Etruscans also became master metalworkers, and exported bronze work all over the Mediterranean.  It was the route to Etruria that attracted the Greeks to Sicily and Italy in the earliest stages of colonization.

Most of what we have of Etruscan civilization is art, and the art shows a vigorous culture interested in the outside world and able to come to terms with it. They took both Middle Eastern and (later) Greek influences and made an art of their own. What we have of Etruscan art is interesting, and charming and gives me at least a good impression of the people who created it.

Like Greece in the same period, Etruria did not have a single state. By tradition, Etruria had twelve independent peoples or city-states, that like the Greeks or early Sumerians had close religious and cultural ties. No doubt this did not stop them from fighting each other. The Etruscans were the dominant people in Italy between 700 and 500, colonizing to the north and the south, building fleets, and settling in Corsica.

Rome, which according to tradition was founded in 753 B.C., was under Etruscan domination until the Roman kings were thrown out and replaced by the Republic. Some of the basic elements of early Roman culture were originally Etruscan.

The Etruscan cities were an important part of the balance of power in the western Mediterranean between 700 and 500. This was a period of competition for trade and trade routes between the pioneering Phoenicians and the Greeks who quickly threatened to surpass them. The Etruscans, who became alienated by Greek piracy in the years after 580 B.C., threw in their lot with Carthage to contain the pushy Greeks. This competition climaxed with a Greek victory in 480 B.C., about the time of the Persian War.

This preview of the later Punic wars between Rome and Carthage, did not permanently harm Carthage and its colonial empire. It may have helped finish off Etruscan domination. The birth of the Roman Republic, in 509 B.C., was one small incident indicating Etruscan decline. Eventually this little town would displace its old masters as the dominant Italian power, and conquer both of the other two great cultures of this early pioneering period of west Mediterranean urbanization.

All three of these cultures are interesting.

The rather dramatic growth of all three simultaneously is the most interesting point of all. Here we have a period of expansion and experimentation comparable, perhaps, to the little-known days of early Sumer, Sumer without kings, when huge and vital urban communities burst into existence. In this case, however, we have lots of information.


H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (NU)
Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans (NU)
Gilbert Charles Picard and Colette Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage
Peter Levi, Atlas of the Greek World
B.H. Warmington, Carthage
The Oxford History of the Classical World (NU)
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.