The Greeks in Spain

Popular Greek mythology showed an early fascination with the western Mediterranean, its distance endowing it with a semi-mythical quality. It was over the straits of Gibraltar that the Greek hero Hercules raised the famous pillars that bear his name; another hero, Ulysses, was said to have founded a city in the Sierra Morena while the Trojan heroes were rumoured to have landed in the area after the fall of Troy.

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th C BC) provided the first clues about Greek visitors to Spain. According to Herodotus, the first Greek to land in Iberia (as the Greeks called the peninsula) was a sea captain, Kolaios, around the year 640 BC. Kolaios, from the Aegean island of Samos, was ostensibly on his way to Egypt when a storm blew his ship off-course and he landed eventually in Tartessus. Here he and his sailors were well received by the king, whose name --Arganthonius, man of the silver mountain– gives a clue to the mineral wealth of the area.  They exchanged goods and Kolaios returned to Samos with a vast cargo of silver, the like of which had never before been brought back by any Greek ship. What remains uncertain is whether Kolaios was really bound for Egypt or whether some Phoenician rumours of great wealth in the western Mediterranean spurred him to make the journey. It could well be the latter.
These early contacts with the south west of Spain suggest an active commercial contact with the Tartessians, and Greek ceramics dug up around Huelva, Málaga and near Seville seem to confirm those interests.  Still, there is no evidence of Greek settlements, and it is possible that Greek goods found in the area were carried there by other traders dealing in Greek articles. It is also quite possible that Greek interest in Tartessus was checked by the aggressive arrival of the Carthaginians who filled much of the area abandoned by the Phoenicians during the 6th C BC.  In addition, a treaty between the Carthaginians and the Romans towards the end of the 6th C carved up large areas of commercial influence between them. In that treaty, Tartessus was reserved for the Carthaginians and the Greeks were excluded.       

Greek commercial expansion, however, did find an opening along the north eastern coast of the peninsula. As early as 600 BC, Corinthian traders had established a major colony at Massalia (Marseilles) in the south of France, and about 25 years later an offshoot was founded at Emporion (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries, on the coast, north east of Gerona). Although Emporion was never to acquire the status of Massalia, it became the principal commercial settlement for all the north east, and Greece's major town in the peninsula.  A small settlement called Rhodes (Rosas) across the bay from Emporium played a similar trading role.

Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks did not penetrate far inland, but neither did they sail much beyond the straits of Gibraltar, possibly put off by tales the Phoenicians brought back of thick mud, choking weeds and sea monsters. And again, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks did not mingle much with the Iberians who inhabited the Mediterranean coast. On the contrary, the ancient plans of the city of Emporion reveal a wall that divided the Greek district (which extended inland for about 1000 feet) from the native section. Only one gate opened from the wall and this was guarded around the clock.

It’s difficult to calculate the influence that the Greeks had on Iberian culture. From what we know of the Iberians from vases and pieces of pottery, they appear to have enjoyed a sophisticated appreciation of beauty.  But there is some similarity with Greek artefacts so that the line is not always clear. The two most famous pieces that we have of Iberian art are two funerary sculptures, the Dama (Lady) de Elche and the Dama (Lady) de Baza, but both are said to have pronounced Hellenistic features.

It is inevitable, given the years of trading between the Greeks and Iberians, that the Greeks would have left some evidence of their presence. These are mainly in the form of artefacts such as jewellery (earrings, necklaces, combs, rings), other personal effects (glass objects, drinking cups, little clay figures) and household goods (pottery, ceramics, pitchers, vases).  Many of these are found in cemeteries adorning the dead or presumably seen as accompaniments for the deceased in their passage to the next life.

We do not know what the Iberians called themselves and the land they lived in. It is to the Greeks that we owe the name Iberia, which at first seemed to refer to the east coast and later to the whole peninsula; hence Iberian peninsula.  Some argue that the name “Iberia” derives from a possible Iberian word “iber” meaning “river”; others say it is related to the Basque word “ibar” meaning “valley.”  Just to complicate matters, the Greeks also gave the name ‘Iberia” to an area east of the Black Sea, roughly modern Georgia. Again, the origin of the name is disputed.


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