Greek diasporas and indigenous Iberians and Celts: Herodotos, Aristotle, Trogus and others on tales of Phokaian colonization (mid-fifth century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Greek diasporas and indigenous Iberians and Celts: Herodotos, Aristotle, Trogus and others on tales of Phokaian colonization (mid-fifth century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 25, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos (mid-fifth century BCE), Inquiries / Histories 4.147-161 (link); Aristotle (fourth century BCE), Civic Organization of the Massalians, as cited by Athenaios, Sophists at Dinner 13.576 (link); Strabo of Amaseia (early first century CE), Geography 4.1.4-5 (link); Pompeius Trogus as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 43.3-5 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: This post continues the series exploring the depiction of indigenous peoples and their relations with Greeks in tales of Greek migration and colonization, turning to Iberians and Celts in connection with Phokaians from Ionia (in what is now western Turkey). The various stories below told by several Greek authors and one Celtic-Roman one show the variety of relations that were imagined to have taken place centuries earlier in the process of colonization.

Herodotos (who has nothing at all to say about the colony of Massalia) relates friendly relations between a Tartessian king (in southern Spain) and the Phokaians, as well as violent relations that occurred between Phokaians and both Tyrrhenians and Carthaginians when Phokaians settled on the island of Corsica after fleeing the Persian invasion under Cyrus (a more contemporary case of colonization, unlike the other cases below).

On the colony of Massalia, Aristotle reports on a tale about an intermarriage between a Phokaian emigrant and the daughter of the local (Celtic) king, which Trogus also picks up in a slightly different form from some source. However, relations return to tension on more than one occasion, even if inter-ethnic love once again is portrayed as mitigating problems. Still, the Phokaians are pictured attacking their neighbours in an ongoing way. It is noteworthy that Trogus himself had Celtic origins as a Vocontian. Nonetheless, Trogus, like Strabo, suggests that the Phokaian colonization did have a civilizing influence on the Gauls or Celts. Strabo takes this much further since the civilizing influences of Greeks and Romans on so called “barbarians” is one of his favourite themes.

Greek colonization and indigenous populations series:

  • Cyrene in Libya (link)
  • Massalia (Marseille) in Celtic-Ligurian territory (link)

Works consulted: C. Calame, Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, trans. D.W. Berman (Princeton, NJ: PUP, 2003); C. Dougherty, The Poetics of Colonization: From City to Text in Archaic Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25); H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932); J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), all public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland. Aristotle / Athenaios translation by Harland.


Herodotos, Inquiries

[Phokaian colonies in Iberia and the Tartessian king’s invitation]

(1.163-168) Phokaia (or: Phocaea) was the first Ionian town that Harpagos [Persian king Cyrus’ general] attacked. These Phokaians were the earliest of the Greeks to make long sea-voyages. They discovered the Adriatic sea, Tyrrhenia [Etruscan region], Iberia [modern Spain], and Tartessos [southwestern Spain],​ not sailing in round freight-ships but in fifty-oared vessels. When they came to Tartessos they made friends with the king of the Tartessians, whose name was Arganthonios. He ruled Tartessos for eighty years and lived to the age of one hundred and twenty.​ The Phokaians so won this man’s friendship that he first entreated them to leave Ionia and settle in his country wherever they wanted to. Then, when he could not persuade them to do that and when he learned from them how the Median power was increasing, he gave them money to build a wall around their city immediately. Without holding back he supplied for the wall, because the circuit of the wall is many stadium-lengths around, and all this is made of great stones well-fitted together.

[Persian attack on Phokaia as reason for a migration]

That is how the Phokaian’s wall was finished. Harpagos marched against the city and besieged it [ca. 545 BCE], but he made overtures, and said that it would suffice him if the Phokaians would demolish one bastion of the wall and dedicate one house. But the Phokaians, furious at the thought of slavery, said they desired to take counsel for one day, and then they would answer. Now while they were consulting, Harpagos said he must withdraw his army from the walls. Harpagos said that he knew well what they planned to do, but that nevertheless he would allow them to consult one another. So while Harpagos withdrew his army from the walls, the Phokaians launched their fifty-oared ships, placed in them their children and women and all movable goods, as well as the statues from the temples and all things dedicated in the temples except bronze or stonework or painting. Then they themselves embarked and set sail for Chios. The Persians then took Phokaia as it was left uninhabited.

[Migration to Kyrnos / Corsica island]

The Phokaians would have bought from the Chians the islands called Oinoussai. However, the Chians would not sell them because they feared that the islands would become a trading-centre and so their own island would be cut off from its trade. So the Phokaians prepared to sail to Kyrnos island [Corsica, France],​ where at the command of an oracle they had twenty years before this built a city called Alalia. Arganthonios was by this time dead.

While making ready for their voyage, they first sailed to Phokaia, where they killed the Persian guard to whom Harpagos had entrusted the defence of the city. Accomplishing this, they called down terrible curses on anyone among them who might stay behind when the rest sailed. Not only so, but they sank in the sea a mass of iron, and swore never to return to Phokaia before the iron should again appear. But while they prepared to voyage to Kyrnos, more than half of the citizens were taken with a longing and a piti­ful sorrow for the city and the life of their land, and they broke their oath and sailed back to Phokaia. Those of them who kept the oath set out to sea from the Oinoussai islands.

And when they came to Kyrnos they lived there for five years as one body with those who had first come, and they founded temples there. But they attacked all their neighbours. For this reason, the Tyrrhenians [i.e. Etruscans are likely in mind] and the Karchedonians (Carthaginians) made common cause against the Phokaians and sailed to attack them each with sixty ships. The Phokaians also manned their ships, sixty in number, and met the enemy in the sea called Sardonian [Sea of Sardinia]. They joined battle, and the Phokaians won, yet it was only a “Kadmean victory” [where everyone loses] because they lost forty of their ships and the twenty that remained were useless, their rams being twisted. Then sailing to Alalia they took on board their children and women and all of their possessions that their ships could hold, and leaving Kyrnos they sailed to Rhegion [Reggio Calabria, Italy].

As for the Phokaian crews of the destroyed ships, the Karchedonians and Tyrrhenians drew lots for them. By far the greater share of them went to the Tyrrhenian city of Agylla [Caere]. The Agyllaians led them out and stoned them to death. But after this everything from Agylla – whether sheep or beasts of burden or men, that passed the place where the stoned Phokaians lay – became distorted, crippled and paralyzed. The Agyllaians sent to the Delphic oracle, desiring to recitify their offence, and the Pythian priestess commanded them to do what the people of Agylla continue to perform until today: for they pay great honours to the Phokaians, with sacrifices, competitions, and horse-races. That was the end of this portion of the Phokaians. Those of them who fled to Rhegion set out from there and gained possession of that Oinotrian​ city which is now called Hyele [Velia]. They founded this because they learned from a man of Posidonia that when the Pythian priestess spoke of founding a settlement and of Kyrnos, it was the hero that she signified and not the island. That is what happened to the Phokaians of Ionia.


Aristotle, Civic Organization of the Massalians, as cited by Athenaios

[Intermarriage between a Greek man and a daughter of the indigenous king]

(13.576) Aristotle records a similar thing [to a love story set in Scythia] happening in his work on the Civic Organization of the Massalians, writing as follows: “The Phokaians who are in Ionia, wanting to engage in trade, established Massalia (or: Massalia) [Marseille, France]. Euxenos of Phokaia was a friend of the [local] king, Nannos (this was his name). This Nannos was celebrating his daughter’s marriage when, by chance, Euxenos arrived and went to the feast. Now the marriage was to be done in the following way: After the meal, the girl was to come in and mix a cup and give it to anyone who was present that she wanted. Whoever she gave the cup to was to be the groom. When the girl came in she gave the cup to Euxenos, either accidentally or for some other reason. The girl’s name was Petta. After this happened, the father thought it was right for Euxenos to have her since the father believed that her giving of the cup was effected by a god. So Euxenos took her as his wife and lived with her, after changing her name to Aristoxene. There is a descent group (genos) in Massalia until now which is descended from the woman and called the Protidians. Protis was the son of Euxenos and Aristoxene.”


Pompeius Trogus as summarized by Justin

[Context of Phokaian colonization in Gaul]

(43.3-5) In the time of king Tarquinius [i.e. placed ca. 600 BCE], a company of Phokaians (or: Phocaeans) from Asia, sailing up the Tiber, formed an alliance with the Romans. Proceeding from there to the innermost part of the gulf of Gaul [or: Celtic region], the Phokaians built the city of Massalia (or: Massilia) among the Ligurians and the savage Gallic [Celtic] descent groups (gentes). They achieved great things there, both in defending themselves against the fierce Gauls and in attacking those who had previously harassed them.

As a result of the small size and infertility of their land, the Phokaians were forced to give more attention to the sea than the ground, supporting themselves by fishing, by trading, and mainly by sea-banditry (latrocinium), which in those days was considered an honourable occupation. Venturing out to visit the remotest shores of the ocean, they came into the gulf of Gaul and to the mouth of the river Rhodanus [Rhone]. Charmed by the pleasantness of the country and relating what they had seen on returning home, they tempted others to go to the same regions.

[Local Segobrigians, king Nannos, and intermarriage between the king’s daughter and a Greek]

Simos and Protis were the captains of the fleet who applied to the king of the Segobrigians (Segobrigii), named Nannos. They were anxious to build a city in his territory, so they wanted his friendship. On that day, as it happened, the king was engaged in preparing for the marriage of his daughter Gyptis. Following the custom of that people, the king intended to give her in marriage to a son-in-law to be chosen at the feast. The suitors having been all invited to the wedding, the Greek visitors were also requested to join the festival. The maiden was then introduced, and being desired by her father to give water to him whom she chose for her husband, she overlooked all the rest, and turning to the Greeks, held out water to Protis, who, from the king’s guest becoming his son-in-law, was presented by his father-in-law with the ground for building a city. Massalia was accordingly built near the mouth of the river Rhone, in a remote bay, and as it were in a corner of the sea. The Ligurians, jealous of the growing greatness of the city, harassed the Greeks with continual war. But the Phokaians repelled their attacks and rose to such a degree of strength that they conquered their enemies and planted several colonies in the lands which they captured.

[Supposed civilizing impact of the Greeks]

From the people of Massalia, therefore, the Gauls learned a more civilized way of life, their former barbarity being set aside or lessened. They were taught to cultivate their lands and to enclose their towns with walls. Then they also grew accustomed to live according to laws, and not by violence. Then they learned to prune the vine and plant the olive. This cast such a light over both people and things, that it was not Greece which seemed to have immigrated into Gaul, but Gaul that seemed to have been transplanted into Greece.

[Fears of Massalia’s rise and the Segobrigian king’s plot to overthrow Massalia]

After the death of Nannos, king of the Segobrigians (from whom the land for building the city had been received), and the succession to the throne of his son Komanos, a certain Ligurian told the king that Massalia would one day be the ruin of the neighbouring people. He said that the king should suppress Massalia in its rise in case, when it grew stronger, it would overpower him. To this prediction he added the following fable: A female dog once asked a shepherd, when she was pregnant with young, for a place to have her puppies. After obtaining a place, she requested again that she might be allowed to bring them up in the same place. Finally, when her young were grown up, and she could depend upon their support, she claimed possession of the place as her own. In like manner, he continued, the people of Massalia, who are now regarded as your tenants, will one day become masters of your territory.

Convinced by these points, the king formed a plan to overthrow Massalia. In order to achieve this, he sent into the city several strong and able men, who were admitted as friends, on the day appointed for the Floralia festival [Roman festival of April projected here]. He ordered further men to be transported hidden in wagons, covered over with baskets and boughs of trees. While the king himself hid in the neighbouring hills so that, after the gates had been opened in the night by the men before mentioned, he might come up in time to execute the plot and might attack the city as it was overcome with sleep and the effects of wine.

[Celtic-Ligurian woman in an affair with a Greek foils the plan]

However, a certain woman, a relative of the king, who had an affair with a Greek youth, revealed the plot to him while in his arms through compassion for his youth and beauty. She told him to escape from the danger. However, he reported the matter to the magistrates. As the treachery was made known, all the Ligurians were seized with those who concealed themselves being dragged from among their baskets. When they were all put to death, a plot was formed to surprise the plotter, and seven thousand of the enemy, with the king himself, were killed.

Since that time the Massalians, on festal days, have been accustomed to shut their gates, to keep watch, to place sentinels on the walls, to examine strangers, to take all kinds of precaution, and to guard the city as carefully in time of peace as if they were at war. In this way, what was wisely instituted is still observed, not from the necessity of circumstances but from the habit of acting prudently.

[Phokaians continued wars with Ligurians, Gauls, Iberians, and Carthagianians]

Subsequently the Phokaians had great wars with the Ligurians and Gauls, which increased the fame of their city and rendered the valour of the Greeks, by their manifold victories, renowned among their neighbours. Furthermore, they often defeated the forces of the Carthaginians in a war which rose between them about the capture of some fishing boats, granting them peace under defeat.

[Phokaian alliances]

The Phokaians made an alliance with the Spaniards. The Phokaians faithfully observed the league with the Romans that had been concluded almost at the foundation of the city, and effectively supported their allies, in all their wars, with auxiliary troops. Such conduct both increased their confidence in their own strength and secured them peace from their enemies.

[Further attempted plots against Massalians]

However, after some time, when Massalia was at the height of distinction for the fame of its exploits as well as the abundance of its wealth and its reputation for strength, the neighbouring people suddenly conspired to destroy the very name of Massalia, as they would have united to put out a fire that threatened them all. Katoumandos, one of their petty princes, was unanimously chosen general, who, when he was besieging the enemy’s city with a vast army of select troops, was frightened in his sleep by the vision of a stern-looking woman, who told him that she was a goddess. He made peace with the Massalians of his own volition. Having then asked permission to enter their city and pay adoration to their gods, and having gone into the temple of Minerva [i.e. Athena], and observed in the portico the statue of the goddess whom he had seen in his sleep, he suddenly exclaimed that it was she who had frightened him in the night and that it was she who had ordered him to raise the siege. Then, congratulating the Massalians that they were under the care of the immortal gods, as he perceived, and offering a necklace of gold to the goddess, he made a league with them forever.

After peace was obtained and security established in this way, some deputies from Massalia, as they were returning from Delphi, where they had been sent to carry presents to Apollo, heard that the city of Rome had been taken and burned by the Gauls [ca. 390 BCE (?)]. This calamity, when the news of it was brought home to them, the Massalians lamented with a public mourning, and contributed gold and silver, both communally and individually, to make up the sum to be given to the Gauls, from whom they knew that peace was bought. For this service an exemption from taxes was decreed them, a place in the theatre assigned them among the senators, and a league made with them upon equal terms.

[Trogus’ self-identification as a Vocontian among Gauls / Celts]

At the end of this book Trogus explains that his ancestors had their origin from the Vocontians (Vocontii); that his grandfather, Trogus Pompeius, received the right of citizenship from Gnaeus Pompeius [i.e. Pompey] in the war against Sertorius; that his uncle led a troop of horsemen under the same Pompeius in the war with Mithridates; and, that his father served under Gaius Caesar, and was in charge of his correspondence, reception of embassies, and his ring.


Strabo, Geography

[Foundation, conquest and civilizing influence on Celts]

(4.1.4-5) Massalia was founded by the Phokaians (or: Phokaians, from Ionia in western Asia Minor / Turkey),​ and it is situated on a rocky place. Its harbour lies at the foot of a theatre-like rock which faces south. Not only is the rock itself well fortified, but also the city as a whole, though it is of considerable size. It is on the headland, however, that the temple of the Ephesian goddess (Epheseion) and also the temple of the Delphinian​ Apollo are situated.

The latter is shared in common by all Ionians, whereas the temple of the Ephesian goddess is dedicated solely to the Ephesian Artemis. It is said that, when the Phokaians were setting sail from their homeland, an oracle was delivered to them indicating that they should use for their voyage a guide received from Ephesian Artemis. Accordingly, some of them landed at Ephesos and inquired in what way they might procure from the goddess what had been enjoined in a dream. Now it is said that the goddess came in a dream and stood beside Aristarcha, one of the women held in very high honour. Artemis commanded her to sail away with the Phokaians, taking with her a certain reproduction​ which was among the sacred images. This done and the colony finally settled, they not only established the temple but also did Aristarcha the exceptional honour of appointing her priestess. Further, in the colonial cities​ the people everywhere do this goddess honours of the first rank, and they preserve the artistic design of the “xoanon”​ [image carved from wood] the same, and all the other usages precisely the same as is customary in the mother-city.

The administration of the Massalians is aristocratic, and of all aristocracies theirs is the best ordered,​ since they have established an assembly of six hundred men, who hold the honour of that office for life. These they call the “honoured ones” (timouchoi). ​Over the assembly are set fifteen of its number, and to these fifteen it is given to carry on the administration. In turn, three, holding the chief power, preside over the fifteen.​ However, an “honoured one” cannot become one of these three unless he has children or is a descendant of persons who have been citizens for three generations. Their laws are Ionian, and are published to the people. They possess a country which, although planted with olive-trees and vines, is too poor for grain due to its ruggedness. The result is that they trusted the sea rather than the land and preferred their natural fitness for a seafaring life.

Later, however, their courage enabled them to take in some of the surrounding plains, thanks to the same military strength by which they founded their cities, I mean their stronghold-cities, namely, first, those which they founded in Iberia as strongholds against the Iberians​. (They also taught the Iberians the sacred rites of the Ephesian Artemis, as practised in the homeland, so that they sacrifice by the Greek ritual). Secondly, they founded Rhoe Agathe [Agde] as a stronghold against the barbarians who live around the river Rhodanos [Rhone]. Thirdly, they founded Tauroentium, Olbia, Antipolis, and Nikaia as strongholds against the tribe of the Sallyians and against those Ligurians who live in the Alps.

There are also dry-docks and an armoury among the Massalians. In earlier times they had a good supply of ships, as well as of arms and instruments that are useful for the purposes of navigation and for sieges. Thanks to these they not only held out against the barbarians, but also acquired the Romans as friends. Many times they not only rendered useful service to the Romans, but also were aided by the Romans in their own expansion. At any rate, Sextius [Gaius Sextius Calvinus], who defeated the Sallyians [ca. 122 BCE], after founding not very far from Massalia a city which bears his own name [i.e. Sextia, now Aix-en-Provence] and that of the “hot waters”​ (some of which, they say, have changed to cold waters). Sextius not only settled a garrison of Romans there, but also drove back the barbarians out of the seaboard which leads from Massalia into Italy, since the Massalians could not entirely keep them back. Yet not even Sextius could effect more than merely this: that at those parts of the coast where there were good harbours the barbarians retired for a distance of only twelve stadia, and at the rugged parts, only eight. The country thus abandoned by them he has given over to the Massalians.

In the Massalians’ citadel are set up great quantities of the first fruits of their victories, which they captured by defeating in naval battles those who from time to time unjustly disputed their claim to the mastery of the sea. In earlier times, then, they were exceptionally fortunate, not only in everything else, but also in their friendship with the Romans, of which one may detect many signs. What is more, the “xoanon”​ of that Artemis which is on the Aventine Hill was constructed by the Romans on the same artistic design as the “xoanon” which the Massalians have. But at the time of Pompey’s sedition against Caesar they joined the conquered party and as a result threw away the greater part of their prosperity. Nevertheless traces of their ancient enthusiasm are still left among the people, especially in regard to the making of instruments and to the equipment of ships. But since, on account of the overmastery of the Romans, the barbarians who are situated beyond the Massalians became more and more subdued as time went on. Instead of carrying on war, these barbarians have already turned to civic life and farming. So it may also be the case that the Massalians themselves no longer occupy themselves so earnestly with the pursuits mentioned above.

Their present state of life makes this clear. For all the men of culture turn to the art of speaking and the study of philosophy, so that the city, although a short time ago it was given over as merely a training-school for the barbarians and was schooling the Galatians to be fond enough of the Greeks to write even their contracts in Greek, at the present time has attracted also the most notable of the Romans, if eager for knowledge, to go to school there instead of making their foreign sojourn at Athens. Seeing these men and at the same time living at peace, the Galatians are glad to adapt their leisure to such modes of life, not only as individuals, but also in a public way. At any rate, they welcome sophists,​ hiring some at private expense, but others in common as cities, just as they do physicians.

The following might be put forward as a significant proof of the simplicity of the modes of life and the self-restraint of the Massalians: the maximum dowry among them is a hundred gold pieces, and five for dress, and five for golden ornaments. But more than this is not permitted. Both Caesar and the commanders who succeeded him, mindful of the former friendship, acted in moderation with reference to the wrongs done in the war, and preserved to the city the autonomy which it had had from the beginning. So that neither Massalia nor its subjects are subject to the praetors who are sent to the province.​ So much for Massalia. . . [geographical descriptions omitted].


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