The Western Colonies

Greek literary tradition recounts many tales of the “returns” of the heroic generation that fought at Troy—but few of the plunderers of Priam’s citadel reached home safely, and those who did kept their thrones for only a little while; most were condemned to years of wandering in the far reaches of the known world until finally, in despair of ever again seeing their homes, they settled on distant shores from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. It was as if the return home was blocked—not just by stormy seas, but by upheavals and dislocations that deprived the returnees of shelter in their own land. Following the disasters that afflicted the Greek lands, the last of the heroic generation turned into wanderers and pirates, seeking for living space far from their own ravaged habitations.(1) Strabo, the Roman geographer, thus described the situation that ensued in the wake of Troy’s fall:

For it came about that, on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had at home and what they had acquired by the campaign; and so, after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, but still more the vanquished who survived the war. And indeed, it is said that a great many cities were founded by them along the whole seacoast outside of Greece, and in some parts of the interior also.(2)

Excavations in Sicily over the past one hundred years have revealed evidence of extensive contact with Greece in the Mycenaean Age. As to the people with whom the Mycenaeans traded, their remains attest to a prosperous culture, beginning in the Early Bronze Age and lasting for many centuries; but then, after the latest style of imported Mycenaean ware had run its course,(3) no new pottery, actually no sign of any human presence, appears until the late eighth century. Scholars conclude that Sicilian civilization of the Late Bronze Age “came to an abrupt end about the end of the thirteenth century B.C.” (4) Were the same causes which brought to a close the age of Mycenaean greatness also active on the far-removed island of Sicily? Archaeologists can only speculate about causes; but on one point their verdict is clear—“A real Dark Age set in only to be brought to an end five centuries later with the Greek colonization of Sicily and Southern Italy.” (5) Regarding the new Greek settlements, archaeology and tradition agree that the first ones were established near the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the seventh. The founding of colonies in the western Mediterranean was one of the earliest achievements of the historical Greeks as they emerged out of the ruins of the Mycenaean Age. Syracuse, on the eastern coast of Sicily, was founded, according to the almost universally accepted tradition, ca. 735 B.C.;(6) Thucydides wrote that “Gela was built in the forty-fifth year after Syracuse by Antiphemus, that brought a colony out of Rhodes.” (7) This yields a date of ca. -690 for the founding of Gela on the island’s southern shore.(8) A tradition preserved by Eusebius has Gela founded in the same year as the city of Phaselis in Asia Minor. Eusebius’ date for both cities is -690, closely matching that of Thucydides.(9) These traditions were set forth in greater detail by a Greek historian whose works are no longer extant except for fragments preserved by other ancient writers. In one surviving fragment from his book On the Cities of Asia (10) Philostephanos wrote that Antiphemos, the founder of Sicilian Gela, was a brother of Lacius who founded Phaselis in Asia Minor, both brothers hailing from Rhodes—they had been in the company of Mopsus as he made his way into Cilicia in the years following the Trojan War. In the chronology of Philostephanos, then, Gela was founded in the same generation that saw the fall of Troy, by one of the warriors who took part in that war; and since, as we have seen, the historical date of Gela’s establishment is acknowledged by the best authorities to be ca. 690 B.C., Priam’s city could not have fallen more than two or three decades earlier.(11)

If the Sicilian Late Bronze Age, contemporary with the Mycenaean Age in Greece, ended abruptly about the time of the Trojan War, the stratigraphic sequence yields no evidence about the dark centuries supposedly separating it from the Geometric Age. After only a few decades the Geometric Age was interrupted by the arrival of Greek colonists, bringing their own distinctive culture from Corinth and Rhodes and other places in Greece. Despite the marked changes in the archaeological finds after the cessation of imported Mycenaean ware, many of the old Mycenaean influences continued to flourish both in the native settlements of the late eighth and early seventh centuries and in the Greek colonies—the examples are very numerous.

“The strength of ‘Mycenaean’ influence in Sicily [in Late Geometric times] is attested by a tholos tomb at Sant-Angleo Muxaro, north of Agrigento [an ancient port on Sicily’s southern coast]; but it can scarcly be appreciated without knowledge of the Mycenaean royal tombs.” (12) The “large and unusual tholos tombs” (13) at Muxaro “are, in fact, real tholoi, comparable with the Mycenaean ones” (14) even though they are dated “much later than Mycenaean times” (15)—this because of the Geometric pottery found inside. How the Sicilians were able to imitate the dome-shaped tholos tombs half a millennium after such constructions ceased to be made in Greece, and despite being “cut off from contact with the Aegean” during the same period (16) is a puzzling question, especially if we consider that scholars deny that any such tombs were built in Sicily in the five preceding centuries, though they were common in the Late Bronze Age.(17) But let us enter some of the tombs and examine the objects found inside. Little pots with geometric and orientalizing designs indicated a period not earlier than the beginning of the seventh century.(18) Among them the excavators discovered two “splendid gold rings with animal figures incised in their settings.” (19) One of these “shows a cow suckling a calf, the other a strange feline animal, or perhaps a wolf,” (20) depicted in a way clearly descended “from remote Mycenaean traditions.” (21) Not only the rings, but gold bowls found in the same tomb “derive from Mycenaean gold-work.” (22) “Perhaps here again we have a far-distant echo of the Mycenaean world.” (23)

The same puzzling survivals from Mycenaean times appear also at another Sicilian site—at Segesta, in the western part of the island. The founding of Segesta was dated by tradition to the years following the Trojan War, and was ascribed to a Trojan named Aegestes.(24) The eighth and seventh-century Geometric pottery from Segesta displays startling Mycenaean influences. “A good example is the schematized drawing of a bull, moving from the left to the right, with horns butting against an unidentified object. This motif was a common one on Mycenaean and, more generally, Aegean pottery.” Other motifs of Mycenaean derivation include stylized floral patterns and tassels with meandering lines; these motifs “are not paralleled in Geometric pottery.” (25) The examples are many; and they are all the more remarkable since the last Mycenaean pottery on the island is said to have gone out of use some four or five hundred years earlier. These observations caused much amazement among art historians, but brought no viable suggestion as to how the motifs could have been transmitted through the Dark Age to influence the Geometric ware of Segesta half a millennium later. Could the Phoenicians perhaps have preserved the Mycenaean tradition and, on establishing themselves on the island, have imparted them to the native people of Sicily?, wondered one scholar; but he rejected the thought, for the earliest Phoenician settlement in Sicily dates from the seventh century, and what was found there “of course is not Mycenaean.” (26)

Wherever the archaeologists turned they found a blank in the archaeological sequence where five centuries should have left at least a trace. At Gela “there is a gap... between the Bronze Age sites, belonging at the outside to the middle of the second millennium, and the objects from the first Greek occupation in the seventh century B.C.” And the explanation? “This is one confirmation that the native peoples left the coastal regions at the close of the age when, at the dawn of the Greek world, the Mycenaeans and other seafarers who came in their wake brought piracy, violence and looting along with trade.” (27) At Thapsos, in the vicinity of Syracuse, “Mycenaean imports... cease towards the end of Mycenaean IIIB, and this implies that the coastal villages were abandoned by about 1270 B.C... In the late VIII century Thapsos was occupied again for a short time by Greek colonists...” (28) If the coast was abandoned during the Dark Age, did life continue in the interior? At Morgantina in central Sicily, “below the earliest defences put up by the colonists... late Mycenaean XIII century ware and Ausonian pottery of the XII century [was followed] by VII century pottery of Sant’Angelo Muxaro type.” (29) Between the levels, nothing at all was found.

The responsibility for creating the Dark Age of Sicily lies with the erroneous Egyptian timetable. Some of the Mycenaean ware found on the island “is exactly the same pottery as that found in Egypt in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna, the capital of Amenophis [Akhnaton](30) All the indications from Sicilian sites showing direct succession of the Late Bronze Age and Greek colonial periods counted for nothing when the an absolute time scale, introduced from Egypt, demanded the insertion of five empty centuries. As one scholar admitted in another context, “the Aegean prehistorians have no choice but to adapt themselves to the Egyptologists.” (31)


  1. Cf. above, section “A Gap Closed.”

  2. Strabo, Geography

  3. The latest style was Late Helladic III B with a small number of exemplars of Late Helladic III C. See W. Taylour, Mycenaean Pottery in Italy and Adjacent Areas (Cambridge, 1958) p. 74; H.-G. Buchholz, “Agäische Funde und Kultureinflüsse in der Randgebieten des Mittelmeers,” Archäologischer Anzieger 89 (1974) pp. 343, 345, 346, 349-350. Thapsos, near Syracuse and Agrigento, are the two main find spots.

  4. L. B. Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks (New York, 1966) p. 130.

  5. Ibid., loc. cit.; cf. M. Guido, Sicily: An Archaeological Guide (New York, 1967) pp. 133, 196-198.

  6. M. Miller, The Sicilian Colony Dates: Studies in Chronography I (SUNY Press, Albany, 1972) pp. 13, 21, 32, 33, 41, 42, 110, 182.

  7. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War VI.4.

  8. Cf. A. G. Woodhead, The Greeks in the West (London, 1962) pp. 51-52; P. Griffo and L. von Matt, Gela: The Ancient Greeks in Sicily (Greenwich, Conn., 1968).

  9. This tradition is given in the version of Eusebius’ Chronicle preserved by Jerome, Dionysius and Barhebraeus; cf. Miller, The Sicilian Colony Dates, pp. 14, 187.

  10. In Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae VII. 298.

  11. A Cretan named Entimus is said to have assisted Antiphemus in the founding of the city; and traces of Minoan influence at Gela have been noted by E. Langlotz (Ancient Greek Sculpture of South Italy and Sicily [New York, 1965], transl. by A. Hicks, p. 15) and by many others.

  12. Langlotz, Ancient Greek Sculpture, p. 15.

  13. Guido, Sicily, p. 102.

  14. Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks, p. 174.

  15. Guido, Sicily, p. 102; the author dates them “probably from the VIII to the middle of the V” pre-Christian centuries. (p. 129).

  16. T. J. Dunbabin, “Minos and Daidalos in Sicily,” Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. XVI (New series, vol. III [1948]) p. 9: “The complete absence of Protogeometric, and of Geometric older than the second half of the eighth century, makes it clear that the Minoan-Mycenaean contacts were quite broken.”

  17. E.g., at Thapsos, Cozzo del Pantano and Caltagirone; cf. Woodhead, The Greeks in the West, p. 22.

  18. Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks, p. 174; but cf. above, n. 15.

  19. Ibid., p. 175.

  20. G. K. Galinsky, Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome (Princeton, 1969) p. 86.

  21. Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks, p. 175. For photographs of the ring, see E. Sjoqvist, Sicily and the Greeks (Chicago University Press, 1973) fig. 1 on p. 5.

  22. Langlotz, Ancient Greek Sculpture, p. 15.

  23. Guido, quoted in Galinsky, Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome, p. 86.

  24. Strabo, Geography 6.2.5; 6.1.3. Another name for Segesta was Aegesta.

  25. Galinsky, Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome, p. 83.

  26. Ibid., p. 89.

  27. Griffo and von Matt, Gela, p. 56.

  28. Guido, Sicily, pp. 196-198.

  29. Ibid., p. 133. On the excavations at Morgantina, cf. the reports in American Journal of Archaeology, vols 62, 64, 65 and 66.

  30. Brea, Sicily Before the Greeks.

  31. J. Cadogan, “Dating the Aegean Bronze Age Without Radiocarbon” in Archaeometry 20 (1978) p. 212.