Understanding the Plight of Greek Refugees


By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Refugees in ancient Greece had a tough time transitioning into another life in an alien place; uprooted from their motherland, they were not a serious enough subject for historians to address. Walk through the journey of those refugees who had to confront endless hardships to resettle their lives.

Map shows North and south wall protecting the city of Athens during Peloponnesian war.
The Greek refugee crisis was completely ignored even though the refugees had to go through numerous hardships and pain. (Image: U.S. Army Cartographer/Public domain)

Ignored Greek Refugees

The fact that historians ignored the Greek refugees is due largely to the fact that they were ignored in antiquity. The refugee crisis brought about by the Peloponnesian War never made the headlines because no one cared.

Statue of famous historian Thucydides, who was an authority writer on Peloponnesian war.
Historian Thucydides provided a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War. (Image: sianstock/Shutterstock)

As refugees in the Greek world, they weren’t even a statistic. Thucydides, the author of the authoritative account of the Peloponnesian War, did at times take note of population movements consequent upon that war, but only in brief remarks, and that too, when he was himself exiled from Athens for many years. From his perspective and the perspective of all Greek and Roman historians, humanitarian crises weren’t worth writing about. No educated Greek was interested in the sufferings of the masses.

Life Since Neolithic Revolution

Daily life in the ancient world, since the Neolithic Revolution, was fairly settled, and bar accidents, epidemics, famine, and wars had a fairly regular pattern. Often overlooked, there was a very large percentage of the population who for one reason or the other became uprooted, like exiles, fugitives from justice, runaway slaves, bandits, and, above all, in largest numbers, refugees.

Arrival of Greeks in Greece

Although Greek historians gave little attention to refugees, memory of the Greek people acknowledged their prevalence. They even believed that Greece was largely settled by a migratory wave of people, who swept into Greece from the north. It is not known when those people, called the Greeks, first arrived in the land of Greece, but by the 15th century B.C., Greek was spoken on the mainland, and Greek speakers entered in fairly large numbers.

Dorian Invasion

Map shows the various dialects spoken in Greece after the Dorian invasion.
During their invasion, Dorians entered through northern Greece to settle in the Peloponnese and other places, bringing along several dialects with them. (Image: Fut.Perf./Public domain)

The earliest event in ‘Greek history’ according to the Greeks was the Dorian Invasion. The Dorians were the people who swept through northern Greece and settled in the Peloponnese and elsewhere.

As so often in history, what an invasion meant in this case was an influx of refugees, even though no one knew what had motivated them to leave their former homeland. Greek history is peppered with allusions to population movements, even though they never made the headlines.

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

Refugee Movement

There were moments in Greek history when the population movements reached a peak. One such peak was in the late 8th to 6th centuries B.C., called the colonization movement or the refugee movement. It’s a period of Greek history that has been well-studied, but it’s generally looked at from the point of view of Greek expansion across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea region, and not as a human dilemma.

From the late 8th century onwards, Greece was no longer able to support its population due to famine and demographic growth. Additionally, it had always been a poor country agriculturally. Even in Mycenaean times, it was unable to support its population. As a result of both famine and demographic growth, the Greek city-states sent out small expeditions to find new settlements throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.

Learn more about the origins of slavery in ancient Greece.

Decision to Migrate

The beginning of famine started taking its toll on each city-state, with a shortfall of food for two-three years leading to exhaustion of all the supplies. A meeting of the citizen body was held where a vote was called and the majority decision was that some of the population had to emigrate. Due to starvation, there was no alternative.

Volunteers were called, and if enough people didn’t step forward, then others were conscripted. The fear of starvation and the prospect of a better life induced many to enlist. According to inscriptions, the settlers went out, ‘on equal and fair terms’, meaning that all social distinctions were abolished once they set forth from their homeland.

Selection Criteria to Migrate

The likely candidates for the enterprise were poor, who were affected the most and volunteered in the largest number. However they were not the ones who were selected in the largest numbers because they needed to be physically fit and in their prime. Men, especially single, were more likely to be mentally resilient in such an enterprise. So unmarried men and widowers formed the majority.

Women and children did not participate, at least not in the initial shipload, which was a contingent of about 200 men on average. Once a settlement was successfully established, subsequent shiploads would set out from the mother-city. There is no record whether the eligible young women followed the pioneers or did the pioneers chiefly marry the local women.

Oikistês: The Decision Maker

The decision whom to take as pioneers rested with the leader of the expedition, called an oikistês. Oikistês was derived from the Greek word for a family or a home, oikos or oikia, because the purpose was to find a new home. The oikistés was an aristocrat because only those were thought worthy of leadership in such an enterprise. There were a fair number of aristocrats who signed up, including younger sons who didn’t stand to inherit much, or others who simply had a taste for adventure.

Learn more about the harrowing colonization process from the point of view of the refugees.

Common Questions about Greek Refugees

Q: What was the refugee crisis in Greece?

From the late eighth century onwards, Greece was no longer able to support its population due to famine and demographic growth. As a result, the Greek city-states sent out small expeditions to find new settlements throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.

Q: What were the Dorians known for?

The Dorians were the people who swept down through northern Greece and settled in the Peloponnese and elsewhere. The earliest event in Greek history according to the Greeks was the Dorian Invasion.

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