Ancient Greece: Types of Refugees and Struggles of Resettlement


By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Being a refugee means not just leaving your homeland and valuables behind, but also having the fear of uncertainty. From the 8th to the 6th centuries B.C., a large percentage of Greeks were uprooted from their homelands. Read on to get an in-depth understanding of the circumstances the refugees fought with.

A map of ancient Greece.
The refugee crisis in Greece was bigger than what one can imagine. It involved traveling to the unknown for survival, while constantly overcoming the challenges encountered on the way. (Image: Louis Stanislas d’Arcy Delarochette/Public domain)

Consequences of Calling-off the Enrollment

Once the refugees agreed or were conscripted to go on an emigration shipload, there was no going back. An inscription from the island of Santorini in the Cyclades stated, “Anyone who refuses to sail if he is sent out by the city shall be liable to the death penalty and his property will be taken from him.” That left no room for second thoughts. They bid farewell to the family, parents, sisters, and others, with the thought that they may never see any of them ever again.

The refugees sailed off literally into the unknown. Although the mother-city often retained close political links with its settlement, it didn’t attempt to foster close emotional or material ties. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ was the motto.

Blessings of Greek God Apollo

A statue of God Apollo.
Apollo had a strong impact on the refugees who believed that his blessings would help them sail to the right destination. (Image: Gilmanshin/Shutterstock)

Desperation was a powerful incentive for Greeks to go through the emigration process, but more than that, there was something that gave them confidence. That great asset was the god Apollo who took a special interest in the colonizing ventures. For that reason, a representative from the city-state would visit Apollo’s oracular shrine at Delphi to get advice on where to head for, once their city had decided to export some of its population. Without Apollo’s blessing, they were rudderless. However, with his blessings, the boatloads of hopefuls were assured of an ultimate end to their wandering.

Very few enterprises in human history have undergone such circumstances. It required enormous guts and faith to sail off into the unknown. The waters of the Aegean were unpredictable even at the best of times, and squalls occurred in any season.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Landing in the Unknown

The boatload of Greek pioneers used to sail close to the coast and find a sheltered cove to disembark. Once on land, they looked into the undergrowth to see if they could discover whether their landing had attracted the attention of the locals. They spent the first night beside their ship or in a cave. Leaving Greece was the equivalent of leaving the solar system; there was no clue about what forms of alien life existed out there. The Odyssey, with its strange cast of characters, is very much a product of this colonizing era—a product of its fears and uncertainties.

Unexpected Journey Back Home

A boatload of pioneers from the island of Santorini faced the challenge of not finding a suitable place to establish a new home, and so they decided to head back to their own home. Having failed to establish a settlement on the coast of Libya, they sailed back to Santorini, expecting to be welcomed back by their fellow countrymen.

But they weren’t their fellow countrymen anymore, and things had got worse while they were away. Their erstwhile fellow countrymen pelted them with missiles to prevent them from disembarking on the shore. The pioneers had become stateless persons. They had no alternative but to set out for Libya again and give it another go, knowing that was their last chance. They eventually succeeded in establishing a settlement on an island off the coast of Libya.

Wide Spread Colonization Movement

A map showing Greek colonies in Italy.
Greek settlements were found in different parts of the world, including Italy and Greece, during the colonization movement. (Image: Future Perfect at Sunrise/Public domain)

The colonization movement was vast in scale, with at least 139 settlements found between 800 and 500 B.C., with 28,500 people in the first wave. In most cases, once a settlement was established, successive waves were sent out; probably 70,000 left their homeland eventually.

Towards the end, it was estimated that the colonization movement led to a doubling of the number of Greek settlements dotted throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea and elsewhere. There were settlements in Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Italy, Libya, Romania, Russia, Sicily, Spain, and Turkey, as well as new settlements in Greece itself.

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Wartime Refugees

There were many other types of refugees, like the wartime evacuees. In 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War had just broken out between the Athenians and their allies on the one side, and the Spartans and their allies on the other. In Attica, territory surrounding Athens, there was an announcement that the Spartan army was heading toward Athens to ravage the countryside in a few days. The farmers had no choice but to abandon their farm and head toward the safety of the city, taking their family and slaves with them.

According to Thucydides, the rural population of Attica had to leave their homes. It was difficult for them to imagine the Spartans cutting down the olive trees, burning their crops and homes, and even smashing the tombs. They gathered their valuables, like jewelry, embroidered cloth, and all the wood they owned in the form of door and window frames, as well as any other furniture, because wood was valuable.

Game of Getting the Right Spot

There were endless lines of refugees flooding into the city from the northeast. Close to Athens, they discovered that all the gates in the city wall were jammed with tens of thousands passing inside. First one to arrive was able to set up a lean-to shack in a plum location against the inside of the city wall, while arriving late meant taking whatever space was available.

Aristophanes, the comic poet, described the refugees from the countryside living in “barrels, shacks, and garrets”. This led to fights breaking out, both among the refugees for somewhere to live, and between the refugees and the permanent inhabitants of Athens.

Soon every available space was filled. There were refugees squatting alongside the Long Walls; the walls that joined Athens to its port city called the Piraeus, and there were many in the Piraeus as well. Even the space inside the sanctuaries was utilized. Only the Acropolis remained out of bounds. Athens and the Piraeus became one big refugee camp.

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Common Questions about Greek Refugees

Q: What is Greek God Apollo known for?

Greek God Apollo is known for taking special interest in colonizing ventures. For that reason, a representative from the city-state visited Apollo’s oracular shrine at Delphi to get advice about where to head for settlement. With his blessings, the boatloads of hopefuls were assured of an ultimate end to their wandering.

Q: What happened in 500 BC in Greece?

During the colonization movement in Greece, at least 139 settlements were found between 800 and 500 B.C., with as many as 28,500 people in the first wave.

Q: What countries did Greece colonize?

Greece colonized the Mediterranean and Black Sea. There were settlements in Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Italy, Libya, Romania, Russia, Sicily, Spain, and Turkey, as well as new settlements in Greece itself.

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