Founding of Syracuse Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of Syracuse by the Greek city-state of Corinth on the island of Sicily established one of the major political and cultural centers of the Greek world in the western Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

Greece has sparse natural resources. Its deposits of minerals are not extensive, and the soil is thin and stony. Much of the terrain is covered by mountains, limiting its arable land to only one-quarter of its surface. At the dawn of Greek history, the poet Homer wrote that Hellas (Greece) was married to poverty. As time passed and the population of Greece grew, many city-states found themselves unable to support their citizens. The acute need for more land could be satisfied only by emigration overseas. As a result, Greek city-states began a program of colonization around 750 b.c.e. that continued for nearly five centuries. Archias

One of the first states to establish overseas colonies was Corinth, even though it possessed notable wealth by Greek standards. Corinth’s position on the isthmus placed it at an important crossroads, where the land route between the Peloponnesus and central Greece intersected the short overland connection between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf. The city-state charged tolls on both routes, but the revenue received was insufficient to pay for much-needed imported food. As a result, Corinth decided to dispatch two expeditions overseas sometime around 733 b.c.e. Archias, a member of the noble family of the Bacchiadae, was selected to be the founder of the colony that settled on the east coast of the fertile island of Sicily. It is possible that the Corinthians consulted the god Apollo at Delphi to receive his sanction for the venture and to seek useful advice.

Virtually nothing is known of the story of the voyage to Sicily or of the early years of the new colony. Scholars believe that the risks faced by the Corinthians were similar to those encountered by European settlers who colonized North and South America in the seventeenth century c.e. Although the Atlantic Ocean was more dangerous than the Mediterranean Sea, such dangers were mitigated by the larger and stronger ships used by seventeenth century colonists, as well as the compasses they used and their superior knowledge of celestial navigation. These later colonists also had firearms and armor to defend themselves in encounters with the original inhabitants of the lands they claimed, whereas the Greeks had essentially the same weapons as the people they dispossessed. Archias and his Corinthian force succeeded in establishing their colony, and within a generation or two, Syracuse became a large and flourishing state.

As a colony, Syracuse was not governed by Corinth, but was fully autonomous. Corinth and Syracuse enjoyed the typically friendly relationship that developed between most Greek city-states and their offshoots; war between a colony and its mother city was considered to be a particularly shameful occurrence. There were exceptions, however, as in the case of Corcyra (now Corfu), another colony founded by Corinth around 733 b.c.e. Historians are aware of two wars fought between Corcyra and Corinth before the end of the fifth century b.c.e., and there are indications that there were other conflicts as well.

Syracuse became so powerful and populous that it was forced to establish its own colonies in other parts of Sicily; these daughter states also came to play an important role in the life and history of Sicily. Under the rule of the tyrant Dionysius at the beginning of the fourth century b.c.e., Syracuse temporarily imposed its hegemony on all of Sicily and much of southern Italy. The city became a brilliant center of Greek learning and culture and served as a conduit for transmitting elements of Hellenic culture from the Greek mainland and from Hellenized Alexandria to later Roman civilization.

After 650 b.c.e., a second motive for colonization supplemented the drive for agricultural expansion: Many colonies were founded for commercial gain. For example, the colony of Naucratis was established in Egypt shortly before 600 b.c.e. by Miletus, Aegina, Samos, and some smaller city-states as a depot for exporting much-needed grain from Egypt to Greece. In the west, Massilia (modern Marseilles, France) founded the city of Emporium, whose name may be translated from the Greek as “trading station,” thus indicating the intention of its founders. Massilia also propagated Greek civilization up the valley of the Rhone River into southern Gaul.


Corinth was not the only city to colonize extensively. Other important colonizers included Eretria, located on the island of Euboea, which settled many colonies on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, and Miletus (now in Turkey), an Ionian city with numerous colonies along the coast of the Black Sea. This colonizing activity was of great significance not only because it furnished the city-states with the necessary food supplies and goods for prosperity and continued growth but also because the Black Sea, virtually all of Sicily, and the coastal regions of southern Italy were Hellenized by descendants of the original settlers of the western Mediterranean.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Shlomo. Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy. Stuttgart, Germany: Steiner, 1992. A survey of the social and political institutions of Magna Grecia, or western Greece (Sicily and southern Italy), before and after the Roman conquest. Berger places special emphasis on the study of Syracuse and the impact of Greek tyranny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernabo Brea, Luigi. Sicily Before the Greeks. Translated by C. M. Preston and L. Guido. Rev. ed. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1966. An important summary of Sicilian material culture that existed before Greek colonization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade. 4th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999. One of the more concise works on Greek colonization, with pertinent information concerning Sicily and southern Italy as well as areas in other parts of the Mediterranean and near the Black Sea.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunbabin, Thomas James. The Western Greeks. 2d ed. Chicago: Ares, 1979. The fundamental study of Magna Grecia, surveying political history, natural philosophy, art, architecture, and other important subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finley, M. I. Ancient Sicily. Rev. ed. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979. A comprehensive historical survey of Sicily until Byzantine times. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischer-Hansen, Tobias, ed. Ancient Sicily. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1995. A collection of papers from a seminar held in May, 1993, on the history of Sicily and its antiquities. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malkin, Irad. Religion and Colonization in Ancient Greece. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987. This volume surveys the religious aspects of Greek colonization in the Mediterranean and near the Black Sea. It also focuses on syncretism between Greek religious customs and those of the local inhabitants.

Categories: History