One can imagine building a new settlement near your own city, yet the mind goes into overdrive when you think about what the ancient Greeks achieved. Taking members of the polis, engineers, farmers, scholars and planting them thousands of miles from their place of birth is an incredible achievement. Can you imagine the feeling of being homesick? There was no Facebook back then to connect you with home. You would be lucky to return just once in your lifetime. I estimate over 400 were created from the very first one to the Byzantine efforts. This figure includes villages and small settlements across the Black Sea.

The Mediterranean colonies had the most prominence, with their power and independence declining by the period of Alexander and the rise of Rome.

You may be familiar with my travels to Magna Græcia, better known as Greater Greece, which was once a vast area of Southern Italy that was dominated by ancient Greek colonies.

Today, most descendants live in Calabria and Apulia, where I have a group of Greko mates eagerly awaiting my next return.

A few years ago, I made it to Barcelona, coming across the ruins of Teatre Grec (Greek Theatre). To say I was astonished would be an understatement. To say that I am ‘Greek blind’ is also an understatement—a condition that disrupts a person’s vision so that they only see Greek things. The site was closed. I remonstrated with the security guard. “My ancestors built that theatre—I demand to see it!” This was my desperate attempt to see the site up close. The security guard felt that there would be no harm in a deranged Greek blind tourist from visiting the site. I took a few pictures and went on my merry way to the local tapas place in search of an elusive Greek salad.

Well, ok let me just say it was not ancient. It was built in 1929 in a Greek style, hence the name. As for the ruins I came across—it was in renovation phase! Despite my disappointment at not finding an ancient site in Barcelona it did however get me thinking about the Greek presence in places such as Western Europe.

There were several Greek colonies in Spain, France and Portugal – Portugal consisted of a few traders and a visit by Hercules and myself.

Temple of Heracles, an ancient Greek temple of Magna Graecia in the ancient city of Akragas, located in the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, Italy. Photo: Supplied

One of the first Greeks to make it to the edge of the Mediterranean was a powerful and heroic man, and I am not talking about me here. It was Hercules who built the Pillars of Hercules on either side of the Gibraltar straits to signify the supposed geographical limit of the known world.

Herodotus tells us that Captain Kolaios of Samos mistakenly sailed past the Pillars, landing in the region of Tartessos in southern Spain in the Seventh Century. I seem to have made that mistake on occasion as I leave the confines of Sydney every few months…. The town was called Mainake. Another town located in southern Iberia was Hemerskopeion. These places ensured that Greek merchants could facilitate their trade with Iberians.

Phocaeans established the colonies of Emporion and Rhode in northern Spain. The latter colony was apparently established before the Olympic Games and the former was to become an important centre of commerce. The presence of Greeks in southern regions of Spain and Portugal was to last until the Sixth Century AD when Byzantine control ended.

The Phocaeans established Massalia around 600 BC. A local story tells us that Protis from Phocaea was invited to a “coming out” gala, similar to a Bar Mitzvah, event by a local king for his daughter. Protis was your typical Adonis/Hercules looking Greek; the girl fell in love with Protis and they were given as dowry the land in what would become Massalia.

Lucky guy . . ..

Massalia (Marseille) was the first colony in the west to reach a population of a thousand, remaining independent until 49 BC when it was captured by Caesar.

Massalia founded colonies including Agathe, Olbia, Antipolis and Nicaea. Nicaea was founded by in 350BC after a victory over a neighbouring kingdom. The City was named after the Goddess of Victory, Nike and is not to be confused with any sports sponsorship deals. Another City that owes its development to the Greeks is that of Monoikos by the Massalians in the Sixth Century. It is also known as the Port of Hercules after he stopped by here during his travels. Like Hercules, I too stopped here many years ago for a quick drink.

Whenever I sit with my French buddies, I remind them that Hellenes introduced olives and wine to France. Think about it, what would the world be like if French wine was not produced the way we know it today?

Rome grew in strength during the Hellenistic Era when the successors of Alexander fought for the control of his empire. Rome had a significant population and a powerful economy. They expanded across the entire Italy, taking Magna Græcia by 260BC.

Statue Hercules and Nessus in Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy. Photo: Depositphotos

Sicily had Greek colonies since 735. Some of the famous names include Aeschylus, the poet Stesichorus, Gorgias the philosopher, the writer Theocritus and Empedocles.

The most important of all these cities was arguably Syracuse. By 400 it was the most populous Greek city in the world, boasting over a quarter of a million people. The city at times ruled Sicily and was in constant competition with the power of Carthage, Rome and other Greek cities.

One of their most famous citizens was mathematician Archimedes. His many inventions included various military engines including the claw of Archimedes.

When Syracuse was taken by Rome, Archimedes was deep in concentration working on a new formula. A soldier barged in, not knowing who he was. Failing to notice the soldier, the brilliant mathematician was slain for ignoring him. The story goes that the commanders had issued orders that he was not to be harmed, the soldier was subsequently put to death as punishment.

In 215, Hieronymus felt that Roman power was on the wane after a defeat by the brilliant Hannibal in Italy and the two became allies. Rome responded with a siege that lasted until 212. Their downfall came about due to a focus on festivities for the God Artemis. The city felt it was more important to party! Rome took advantage of a smaller defence force and drunken Hellenes. Ancient Greek control over Sicily was at an end, almost. In 139BC, Eunus the slave led a revolt as fifteen thousand rose to the challenge of freeing Sicily from Rome. They were defeated seven years later in their stronghold near Enna, a first I assume!

Anyway, the moral of my story is, next time you think you have come across an ancient Greek theatre, please make sure it is. Otherwise you might just find a series of Greek colonies and anecdotes about Hercules.

*Billy Cotsis is the author of Aegean Seven Take Back The Stolen Marbles