Greek Colonists Exploited Native Populations In Southern Italy

February 09, 1999

The Greek colonists who established cities in southern Italy around 700 BC owed their wealth to exploiting prosperous native villages. This has been demonstrated by archaeologists from the University of Groningen. The excavations were conducted in the settlement, which had a large necropolis and a monumental sanctuary on a hill called Timpone della Motta in Calabria. The finds from huts, graves and the sanctuary of the original inhabitants, the Enotrians, point to the organized production of bronze cauldrons, decorated pots made on the potter's wheel, olive oil and wine long before the arrival of the Greeks. The project was funded partly by NWO's Council for the Humanities. NWO is the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

The Greeks founded their colony, the subsequently notorious Sybaris, in the broad coastal plain between the hill villages of the indigenous peoples. According to classical historians, it was only with the arrival of the Greeks that civilization reached this part of the world, but it now appears that the hills around Sybaris were permanently inhabited before the Greeks settled there. The native communities had already learnt, probably from the Mycenaeans and Phoenicians, how to make wheel-turned vases, metal objects, olive oil and wine, as is shown by fragments excavated from their huts of Italo-Mycenaean vases, bronze cauldrons and storage jars of the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean type.

Unlike Mycenaean society, Enotrian society was family-based and had neither king nor court. Excavations at the summit of Timpone della Motta show that the Enotrians venerated a local female deity there long before the Greeks dedicated temples to Athena on the same spot. In a thick layer of ash close to the altar, the Dutch archaeologists found many fragments of painted bowls (in the early and middle geometric style) containing animal bones. Around the altar, they found loom weights decorated with labyrinth motifs and jewellery dating from the 9th and 8th centuries BC, before the Greek colonies were founded. This is evidence that Enotrian women were able to weave, and that they considered this source of income important enough to ask the goddess for protection. At other locations nearby, bronze and iron utensils, jewellery and weapons were found which were made by Enotrian smiths. These gifts were dedicated by goddess's male venerators.

The latest finds show once again how unreliable Greek and European historians are on the subject of Greek and Roman colonization. In classical Greek works, the occupied regions are almost always presented as virgin territory and the colonizers as the bearers of civilization. This was a view which, by and large, European historians of a later age were happy to adopt, but the time has now come to explore the vitality of the indigenous cultures more closely.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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