By taking a look at the world map today you would never believe that Greece, which is nothing but a small country, currently known as a beautiful tourist destination in southern Europe, had once dominated and colonized most parts of the then-known world. For those who love history though, Greece is without a doubt one of the most significant and influential nations of all time with amazing contributions to human culture including philosophy, various sciences, architecture, the Olympic Games, and democracy just to name the most prominent few.
The culture and spirit of Greece had once conquered major parts of modern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa through the empires and colonies built by different Greek city-states notably Athens, Miletus, Ionia, Knossos, Corinth, and the kingdom of Macedon (not to be confused with the recently formed Slavic country in the Balkans). Here are 25 ancient Greek cities that occupied an astonishing 19 countries of the modern world.
Nowadays Agrigento is a small city in Sicily that is known for its archaeological legacy, since the city has some of the best ancient ruins and sites in southern Italy thanks to its glorious past. The city, named Akragas, was established around 580 BCE by Greek colonists from Gela, another former Greek colony in what is now southern Italy. The city was one of the most dominant, prominent cities of Magna Graecia which translates as “Great Greece,” and was the term ancient Greeks used to refer to all the colonies and coastal areas of southern Italy during Greece’s golden age. Akragas was for many years a financial and cultural center with an extremely large population and great wealth.
“Nice the Beautiful” is famous around the world as one of France’s most beautiful tourist spots mainly because of its warm climate, amazing coastlines, its picturesque villages, and rare natural beauty. However, Nice has a very rich historical and cultural background as well. It’s believed to have been founded around 350 BCE by the same ancient Greek colonists who founded Massalia. It was named Nikaia after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, way before she gave her name to the most popular brand of sports shoes in the world.
The city of Odessa has been in the world news as of late because of the violence that occurred in the area earlier this year and the clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protestors. Odessa, however, was once a peaceful ancient Greek colony called Odessos, probably after another Greek city with the same name. Many artifacts and ruins discovered during excavation leave no doubt that Greek settlers once inhabited the city.
Eucratideia was an ancient Greek town and part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom that covered vast areas of Central Asia from 250 to 125 BCE. It was founded and named after the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides I, who was a distant descendant of Alexander the Great. Even though we don’t know much information about the city since there aren’t many historical sources from that period that speak of the region, we know that the citizens worshiped Zeus, in many parts of the city they spoke Greek dialects, and considered themselves sons and descendants of Heracles and Alexander the Great.
Dodona was an ancient Greek town located in Epirus, a region that’s still inside the borders of modern Greece and which became particularly famous in antiquity as a cultural and religious spot where many people traveled from around the then-known world to worship Zeus and the goddess Dione, from which the city took its name. The shrine of Dodona was considered to be the oldest Greek oracle, dating to the second millennium BCE according to the Greek historian Herodotus. The ancient theater of Dodona, built in the third century BCE under Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus who was one of the most ferocious adversaries of Rome, had a capacity of 18,000 and was at the time the largest and most impressive theater in the ancient world.
The discovery of the ancient Greek city of Naucratis proved many historians wrong who were claiming that the first time the Greeks visited Egypt was during Alexander’s reign. Around the seventh century BCE, almost four hundred years before the Greek king would conquer the area, some Greek mercenaries from Miletus had already landed in Egypt, and according to Herodotus, with the help of other Greek pirates and explorers from Caria and other places on the Greek mainland, they established the city of Naucratis around 550 BCE, which is considered to be the first and oldest Greek colony in Egypt.
Cumae or Cuma as modern Italians call it today was another ancient Greek city of the many in Magna Graecia. Cumae was named Kumai in antiquity and is considered to be the very first Greek colony on the Italian mainland. Euboean Greeks established the city and brought with them their variant of the Greek alphabet that would later develop into the Latin alphabet, after it was adopted and modified first by the Etruscans and then the Romans.
Istros or Histria was an ancient Greek city near the mouth of the Danube River, which the ancient Greeks called Ister, and is today the European Union’s longest river and the second-longest in all Europe after the Volga. The city was founded by Greek settlers from Miletus who wanted to make trade easier with the natives of Getae, Thracian tribes inhabiting the regions to either side of the Lower Danube, in what is today northern Bulgaria and southern Romania. Even though sources vary greatly about the founding of the city, the date is estimated to be around 630 BCE. A silver drachma from 480 BCE was also found in the area, which is considered to be the earliest documented currency for a Romanian territory.
Unfortunately there are not many significant historical records about this city and for that reason we don’t know all that much about this Hellenistic town’s traditions, ethics, and society. However, the few ancient Greek ruins and remains that were found a few miles outside Homs, Syria, was proof enough for archaeologists and historians to verify the ancient historian and geographer Strabo’s claims that the Greeks had not only visited modern-day Syria in antiquity, but also colonized it and established a few cities there, among them Laodicea ad Libanum.
Smyrna was not only a Greek city, but also one of the oldest cities and ports on the Mediterranean, located at a central strategic point on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. It was established around 3000 BCE and survives today under the name Izmir, in modern-day Turkey. It was continuously inhabited by the Greeks for nearly five thousand years, from antiquity until the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, when large parts of the city burned, mostly the Greek and Armenian sections, and the population became largely Turkish following the Treaty of Lausanne.
Heraclea Lyncestis was a strategically important Greek city during the Hellenistic period and was established in the fourth century BCE by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, who ruled the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon at the time. The city was named after the mythological hero Heracles, from whom both Philip II and Alexander believed they were descended. Today, only a few ruins and monuments exist near the present-day town of Bitola, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Soviet excavations in the Taman Peninsula back in the late 1950s revealed amazing ancient finds, including a marble statue of a Greek goddess later named the Aphrodite of Taman. The conclusion of the excavations was that the ancient Greeks had colonized modern-day Russia as well and a Greek city named Kepoi in antiquity was the best proof of this. The research showed that Greek explorers from Miletus established the colony around the sixth century BCE and during the Hellenistic period the area saw times of great wealth and prosperity.
Cyrene was an ancient Greek colony in North Africa near the modern city of Shahhat in Libya. It was founded in 630 BCE by Greek colonists from Thera (modern-day Santorini) and got its name from the source of the spring of wisdom that was dedicated to the god Apollo. Quickly developed and evolved into a center of Greek culture in North Africa, it was also a large shopping center. In the third century BCE, Aristippus, a student of Socrates, founded a philosophical school there. It was the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the area and the local scholars called the city the “Athens of Africa.”
Aigosthena was an ancient Greek fortified port city in Attica under the rule of one of the most historic and advanced Greek city-states, Megara. The town was known for its impressive city walls that remained impenetrable for many years and its strategic position that made Megara one of the biggest threats to Athens for many years. Interestingly, the area is quite a popular tourist attraction because there are still ruins of some of the tallest surviving towers and buildings from antiquity.
Earlier this year most of us learned about the Crimean Peninsula (also known as Crimea) because of the territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine. However, the ancient Greeks had explored and colonized the region many centuries before the Russians or the Ukrainians ever lived there. Originally settled by Milesian Greeks in the sixth century BCE, the city, located on the shore of the Cimmerian Bosporus, soon became the richest in the region. In the following years and under Greek influence the city flourished on many levels and was known for producing high-quality wine.
Baalbek is a town located in Lebanon with a rich history. It has some of the best-preserved Greco-Roman monuments in the country and it once existed as a Greek city-state under Alexander the Great. After the Greek general conquered the Near East in 334 BCE, the extant yet uninhabited place was named Heliopolis from the Greek helios, which means “sun” and “polis which means city.” The city retained its Greek character during Roman rule and even more temples were constructed dedicated to Zeus and other Greek gods. The temple of Zeus is a major tourist attraction today and is considered one of the best conserved temples in the Middle East.
Bouthroton, also known as Buthrotum, might today be an archaeological site in the recently independent state of Albania but in antiquity it was an ancient Greek city flowing with life and human activity and part of the united Greek kingdom of Epirus. Even though it was believed to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, Bouthroton was probably established as an official city-state by Corinthian colonists sometime between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, since excavation of the area revealed Proto-Corinthian pottery from the seventh century and Corinthian and Attic pottery from the sixth century.
However, the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that Aeneas, the famed Trojan hero, visited Bouthroton after he fled the destruction of Troy, but such facts haven’t been verified yet and Aeneas’s status remains that of a mythological figure. The present archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today Hippos (hippos in Greek translates to “horse”) is an archaeological site in Israel with a great view of the Sea of Galilee that attracts many tourists but in antiquity was a Greco-Roman city and part of the “Decapolis,” a region of ten cities that covered large areas of modern Jordan, Syria, and Israel and was culturally influenced by and connected with Greece and Rome. Hippos itself was probably found by Seleucid colonists, during the second century BCE, and many excavations in recent times have shown that Hippos had exactly the same structure and organization of a Greek polis (city-state) including a temple dedicated to the Greek gods and a central agora (marketplace) among other public structures.
Alexandria on the Caucasus was another city named after the great Greek king Alexander the Great, who conquered the area and founded the city. At its peak and under the rule of the Graeco-Bactrian king Demetrius, who invaded India early in the second century BCE, the city would become one of the capitals of the vast Graeco-Indian kingdom that covered parts of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwest India. Coins and other ancient Greek ruins that were found during archaeological research reveal that the local population worshiped Zeus as their god.
Sybaris was a Greek colony in what is now southern Italy and was founded around 720 BCE by Achaean and Troezenian settlers. The city was famous for its remarkable strategic position on the Gulf of Taranto and at some point Sybaris became synonymous with luxury and immense wealth. At its peak the population exceeded three hundred thousand.
The citizens became known throughout the ancient world for their excessive wealth and luxurious lifestyle, and slaves did all the manual work and labor in the city. Sybaris was also known for its diverse cuisine and innovative culinary arts because the local cooks and bakers invented many new dishes and desserts that were ahead of their time.
The town that is known today by the Catalan name Empúries was originally founded in 575 BCE by Greek explorers and colonists from Phocaea (modern-day Foça in Turkey) who named it Emporion, which means “trading place” in Greek, and from the translation one can easily understand for what purpose the Greeks used the town. Later, the town would be occupied by the Romans and during the Middle Ages it would be abandoned because its location made it an easy prey for passing pirates and corsairs. The ruins, however, that have been found in recent years remind the locals and tourists of the once glorious Greek past of the ancient city of Emporion.
Massalia is today called Marseille and it is the second-biggest city in France after Paris and one of the biggest commercial ports not just in the country but also in all Europe. Despite the fact that humans have inhabited the area for at least thirty thousand years, it became an official city with an advanced civilized social and trading system only after ancient Greek explorers from Phocaea colonized it and named it Massalia. It became famous for producing one of the best soaps in antiquity and in its prime it was one of the busiest trading ports of the ancient world.
Alexandria was one of the greatest Hellenistic cultural centers in antiquity. It was founded and named in 331 BCE by one of the most influential Greeks ever, Alexander the Great, and would remain the capital of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt for over a thousand years until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641. During the Hellenistic period and Greek reign of the city some of the greatest architectural masterpieces in human history were erected there including the Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as Pharos of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the Royal Library of Alexandria, which was the largest and most famous library in antiquity.