Trade and other mechanisms of cultural interaction, including colonization, were fundamental to developments in art, craft production, language, and much else in ancient Greece. The Mediterranean Sea, a large body of water bordered by Europe, Africa, and Asia, facilitated movement and communication between myriad cultures and peoples, as well as their cultural products. Evidence for trade in ancient Greece comes partly from archaeological discoveries of foreign goods in Greece and of Greek goods in foreign lands.
Our discussion of trade in ancient Greece begins in the Late Bronze Age (1,600-1,100 B.C.E.), when the Mycenaean culture of mainland Greece traded and interacted with the cultures of the Levant. Mycenaean pottery from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E. has been found at the northern Syrian city Ugarit; at ancient Sarepta, located between Tyre and Sidon in the heart of Phoenician territory; and at other locations in the Levant (1). The Uluburun shipwreck, dated to 1,316 B.C.E., provided additional evidence: we do not know where it was headed, but the ship apparently departed from Syria and had likely stopped at the copper-rich island of Cyprus to collect copper ingots, the largest part of the ship's cargo (2). The ship was also carrying Cypriot and Mycenaean Greek pottery, as well as jewelry, seals, tools, a figurine, and other objects and raw materials originating in Egypt, other parts of Egypt, and Canaan (3).
In the 12th century B.C.E., a mysterious group referred to in an Egyptian text as the "Sea Peoples" invaded the Mediterranean region from their unknown homeland; their activities ended the rich Mycenaean civilizations of Greece and greatly affected the islands of the Aegean Sea and the cities of the Levant. Ugarit, a powerful trading city just east of Cyprus on the Levantine mainland, had dominated sea trade in the region but seems to have lost power at this time. The decline of Ugarit opened up direct access for the Phoenicians to Cyprus, which set off a long history of Phoenician trade to the west (4).
Archaeological evidence demonstrates development of Phoenician colonies and presence on Cyprus, Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese, and Crete as early as the 12th to 10th centuries B.C.E. (5). According to Glenn Markoe, "a distinct trade pattern emerges, extending from Cyprus and the Levantine mainland to the western coast of Italy via Rhodes, Crete, and the Peloponnesian coast...[bypassing] the central Greek mainland" (6). The evidence for Phoenicians on mainland Greece is not as clear as it is for the islands of the Aegean Sea.
A burial at Lefkandi in Euboea on the Greek mainland contains many Phoenician imports that are dated sometime before 900 B.C.E. (7). Cypro-Phoenician pottery and other inconclusively Phoenician imports have been found on the Greek island of Aegina, located in the Saronic Gulf southwest of Athens and southeast of Corinth (8). The pottery of Aegina and of Corinth reflects significant adaptation of Eastern motifs during the so-called Orientalizing period in Greece (mid-8th to mid-7th century B.C.E.), although the pottery of Attica does not reflect as direct an adaptation of these themes (9).
Does the presence of Eastern goods at Lefkandi and Aegina and of Eastern themes at Corinth mean that the Phoenicians were shipping goods directly to mainland Greece? Or does it mean that Greek traders were traveling to the islands of Cyprus and Crete and exchanging Greek merchandise there for goods originating in Egypt, the Near East, and the Levant? The presence of Greek imports on Cyprus and Crete suggests the latter as a more likely possibility (10). Archaeologists will, hopefully, find more evidence that can lead to answers to these questions.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- James D. Muhly, "Homer and the Phoenicians: The Relations between Greece and the Near East in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages," Berytus 19 (1970): 21, 34-35.
- "Uluburun Late Bronze Age Shipwreck Excavation," Institute of Nautical Archaeology (https://nauticalarch.org/projects/uluburun-late-bronze-age-shipwreck-exc...), accessed January 30, 2019.
- "Uluburun Late Bronze Age Shipwreck Excavation," Institute of Nautical Archaeology, (https://nauticalarch.org/projects/uluburun-late-bronze-age-shipwreck-exc...), accessed January 30, 2019.
- Glenn E. Markoe, Phoenicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000): 23,26.
- Ora Negbi, "Early Phoenician Presence in the Mediterranean Islands: A Reappraisal," American Journal of Archaeology 96, No. 4 (October 1992): 603-609.
- Glenn E. Markoe, "The Emergence of Orientalizing in Greek Art: Some Observations between Greeks and Phoenicians in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries BCE," Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 301 (1996): 59.
- Markoe, "The Emergence of Orientalizing in Greek Art": 606.
- Glenn E. Markoe, Phoenician Bronze and Silver Bowls from Cyprus and the Mediterranean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985): 125.
- Glenn E. Markoe "The Emergence of Orientalizing in Greek Art": 53, 54, 57.
- A tomb at Teke near Knossos contained Late Protogeometric Attic pottery as well as Cypriot style bowl with a Phoenician inscription. This leads to the possible conclusion that there was a mutual exchange of goods on the island of Crete. There is also evidence on Cyprus for Attic and Euboean exports. John Nicholas Coldstream, "Greeks and Phoenicians In the Aegean," in ed. H. G. Neimeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Die Beiträge des Internationalen Symposiums über die phönizische Expansion im westlichen Mittelmeerraum, in Köln vom 24 bis 27 April 1979 (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 1982): 271.