Greek diasporas and indigenous Libyans: Herodotos on tales of colonization (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Greek diasporas and indigenous Libyans: Herodotos on tales of colonization (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 4, 2024,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Inquiries / Histories 4.147-161 (link)

Comments: Greek tales about colonial manoeuvres of the past provide another window into representations of ethnic relations between Greeks and indigenous peoples (very long after the incidents), as well as Greek self-definitions, of course. There are clear repeated patterns in many stories of Greek dispersians or migrations, including consultation of Apollo’s oracle, and we should not be looking for actual information about happenings long ago in these predictable plots, often written hundreds of years later (see Dougherty 1993 and Clame 2003, for instance). But these circulating tales could continue to have an impact on mutual perceptions between different ethnic groups as they were retold on the ground nonetheless. It is noteworthy that such tales of colonization do not necessarily give much attention to the circumstances and experiences of local populations where Greeks migrated: Greeks place themselves on centre stage here and tend to neglect others in the stories. Yet those other populations are not always completely absent from the story, as we will see in a series on Greek diasporas and indigenous populations.

In Herodotos’ narratives (ca. 420 BCE) about Greek colonization in Libya presented below (pictured as taking place in the seventh century BCE), he claims to represent three different Greek perspectives: the Spartans’, the Theraians’, and the Cyrenaians’ viewpoints. In the Spartan and Theraian stories that seem to overlap, there is talk of the ejection of local inhabitants (though not in Libya) along with the migrations. But most of the supposed reports about Libyan experiences come in those legends ostensibly told by Cyrenaians themselves. Libyans are portrayed as deceptive towards the new Greek arrivals in trying to divert them away from the better locations, for instance. And Libyans are pictured being ejected from their own lands, even if ultimately some of the dispossessed Libyans are imagined to be incorporated into one of the three tribes of the later Cyrenaian society. There are reports of shifting allegiances, however, as at times Libyans ally themselves with Egyptians against the Cyrenaians and at other times particular Greeks ally themselves with Libyans. Often things don’t turn out for indigenous populations in the wake of Greek colonization, even in Greek depictions. However, there is very little attention to the violence that would be entailed in ejecting entire populations from their lands. Generally lacking are stories from the dispossessed.

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).


[Spartan and Theraian tales]

[Context of king Theras’ plans for a colony and background on Thera island]

(4.147) Now about this same time Theras (who was a descendant of Polynikes, through Thersander, Tisamenos, and Autesion) was preparing to lead out a colony (apoikia) from Lakedaimon [Sparta]. This Theras was of the lineage of Kadmos and an uncle on the mother’s side of Aristodemos’ sons Eurysthenes and Prokles. While these boys were still children he held the royal power of Sparta as king. However, when his nephews grew up and became kings, Theras could not stand to be a subject when he had had a taste of supreme power. He said he would no longer stay in Lakedaimon but sail away to his relatives.

[Earlier Phoenician settlers on Thera]

There were on the island now called Thera [modern Santorini] – then known as Kalliste – descendants of Membliaros the son of Poikiles, a Phoenician. In his search for Europa, Kadmos son of Agenor had landed at the place now called Thera. After landing because the land pleased him or because for some other reason he desired so to do, he left on this island his own relative Membliaros, among other Phoenicians. They lived in the island Kalliste for eight generations before Theras came from Lakedaimon.

[Theras’ and the Minyans’ migrations and ejection of other peoples]

(148) It was these [Phoenicians] whom Theras was preparing to join, taking with him a company of people from the tribes (phylai). He planned to settle among those on Kalliste – not to drive them out but to claim them genuinely as his own. So when the Minyans (Minyai) escaped out of prison and encamped on Taygeton, and the Lakedaimonians were taking counsel to put them to death, Theras entreated for their lives so that there would be no killing, promising himself to lead them out of the country. After the Lakedaimonians consented to this, Theras sailed with three fifty-oared ships to join the descendants of Membliaros [the Phonecians on Thera]. He did not take all the Minyans with him, but only a few, because the majority of them made their way to the lands of the Paroreatians and Kaukonians. Driving the latter out the country they divided themselves into six companies and founded in the land they had won the cities of Lepreon, Makistos, Phrixai, Pyrgos, Epion, Noudion. Most of these settlements were in my time taken and sacked by the Eleans. After being called the island Kalliste, it was named Thera after its founder (oikistēs).

(149) But as Theras’ son would not sail with him, his father therefore said that he would leave him behind as a sheep among wolves. From this saying the young man got the nickname of Oiolykos (Sheep-wolf),​ and it ended up that this became his usual name. He had a son born to him, Aigeus,​ from whom the Aigidians, a great Spartan tribe (phylē), take their name. The men of this tribe, finding that none of their children lived, set up a temple of the avenging spirits of Laios and Oedipus according to the instruction of an oracle. Afterwards the children lived. This is also what happened with the children of the Aigidians at Thera.

[Theraian tales]

[Theraians’ involvement via Grinnos and Battos and consultation of the god Apollo at Delphi]

(150) So far in my story the Lakedaimonian and Theraian records agree. For the rest of this we only have the word of the Theraians. Grinnos son of Aisanios, the king of Thera, a descendant of this same Theras, came to Delphi bringing one hundred oxen for sacrifice (hecatomb) from his city. Battos son of Polymnestos, a descendant of Euphemos of the Minyan descent group (genos), came with Grinnos to Delphi, among others from his people. When Grinnos king of Thera inquired of the oracle concerning other matters, the priestess’ answer was that he should found a city in Libya. “No, Lord,” answered Grinnos, “I am too old and heavy to move. Do you lay this command on one of these younger men?” He said this as he pointed to Battos. No more was then said. But when they had departed, they neglected to obey the oracle, because they did not know where Libya was, and were afraid to send a colony out to an uncertain location.

[Exploration of Platea island off Libya]

(151) Then for seven years after this there was no rain on Thera island. All their trees on the island except one were withered. The Theraians inquired again at Delphi, and the priestess made mention of the colony they should send to Libya. So since there was no remedy for their problems, they sent messengers to Crete to seek out any Cretan or sojourner there who had travelled to Libya. These messengers came to the town of Itanos during their journeys around the island. There they met a trader in purple called Korobios, who told them that he had once been driven off course by winds to Libya, to an island there called Platea [now Bomba, Libya].​ They hired this man to come with them to Thera island. From Thera, just a few men were first sent on a ship to spy out the land. Being guided by Korobios to the island Platea mentioned above, they left him there with supplies for a number of months. They themselves sailed back quickly to Thera to bring news about the island.

[Samians’ involvement and addition of colonization in Iberia to the story]

(152) But when they had been away for longer than the agreed time, and Korobios had no supplies left, a ship from the island of Samos sailing for Egypt – of which the captain was Kolaios – was driven off course to the island of Platea. There the Samians heard the whole story from Korobios and left him supplies for a year. They then put out to sea from the island and would have voyaged to Egypt. However, an easterly wind drove them off course. The wind would not stop until they had passed through the Pillars of Herakles and came (by the god’s leading) to Tartessos [southwestern coast of Iberia / Spain]. Now this was at that time a brand new port. For this reason, the Samians brought back more profit from their goods than any Greeks ever did of whom we have any exact knowledge, except only Sostratos of Aigina, son of Laodamas. No one else could compete with him. The Samians took six talents, the tenth part of their profit, and made a bronze vessel with this, like an Argolic cauldron, with griffins’ heads projecting from the rim all around. They set up this cauldron in their sanctuary of Hera, supporting it with three colossal kneeling figures of bronze, each seven forearm lengths high. These actions of the Samians were the beginning of a close friendship between them and the men of Cyrene and Thera.

[Theraians’ colonization of the Libyan island]

(153) As for the Theraians, when they came to Thera after leaving Korobios on the island, they brought word that they had founded a settlement on an island off Libya. The Theraians resolved to send out men from their seven regions, taking by lot one of every pair of brothers, and making Battos leader and king of everyone. Then they prepared two fifty-oared ships and sent them to Platea.

[Cyrenaian tales]

[Alternative stories about Battos: Cretan connection]

(154) That is what the Theraians say. Now there comes the part in which the Theraian and Cyrenaian stories agree, but not until this point, because the Cyrenaians tell a completely different tale of Battos, which is this: There is a town in Crete called Oaxos, where Etearchos became ruler. He had a motherless daughter called Phronime, but he needed to marry another wife as well. When the second wife came into his house, she attempted to be a stepmother to Phronime, mistreating her and devising all kinds of evil against her. Finally, she accused the girl of sexual excess and persuaded her husband that the charge was true.

So Etearchos was over-persuaded by his wife and planned a great offence against his daughter. There was at Oaxos a Theraian trader named Themison. Etearchos made this man his guest and friend, and took an oath from Themison that he would do him whatever service he desired. After doing this, Etearchos gave the Themison his own daughter, instructing him take her away and throw her into the sea. But Themison was very angry at being tricked with the oath like this and renounced his friendship with Etearchos. At this point Themison took the girl and sailed away and, in order to fulfill his oath that he had sworn to Etearchos, he tied her up with ropes when out to sea and let her down into the sea and lifted her up again, and presently came to Thera.

(155) There [at Thera] Polymnestos, a notable Therakan, took Phronime and made her his concubine. After some time, she gave birth to a son for him who was weak and who stuttered. He gave the son the name Battos (Stutterer), as the Theraians and Cyrenaians say. However, in my thinking the boy was given some other name, and changed it to Battos on his coming to Libya, taking on this new name because of the oracle uttered at Delphi and the honourable office which he received. For the Libyan word for king is “battos,” and this, I think, is why the Pythian priestess called him this in her prophecy. She used a Libyan name because she knew that he was to be “king” in Libya. For after he became a man, he went to Delphi to inquire concerning his voice, and the priestess in answer gave him this oracle: “‘Battos,’ you ask a voice; but the King, even Phoibos Apollo / sends you to make yourself a home in Libya, the country of sheepfolds.” However, she said this to him using our word, “‘King,’ you ask a voice.” But he answered: “Lord, I came to you to inquire concerning my speech. But your answer is about other matters, things impossible to perform. You ask me to plant a colony in Libya. Where will I acquire the power or ability for this?” Thus spoke Battos, but the god did not want to give him another oracle and continually answered as before. So he departed while the priestess still spoke, and went away to Thera.

[Alternative colonization story continues]

(156) But afterwards matters went badly for Battos and the rest of the Theraians. Because they did not know the cause of their misfortunes, they sent to Delphi to inquire concerning their present problems. The priestess declared that they would do better if they helped Battos to plant a colony at Cyrene in Libya. Then the Theraians sent Battos with two fifty-oared ships. These ships sailed to Libya. However, not knowing what else to do, they returned back to Thera. There the Theraians shot at them as they came to land and would not allow the ship to land, commanding them sail back. Under the pressure, they did sail back and planted a colony in an island off the Libyan coast called (as I have said already) Platea. This island is said to be as big as the city of Cyrene is now.

(157) They lived on Platea island for two years. But everything went wrong for them. So, leaving behind one of their members, the rest of them voyaged to Delphi. After arriving, they inquired of the oracle. They said that they were living in Libya, but that they were not any better off for doing so. Then the priestess gave them this reply: “I have seen Libya’s pastures: your eyes have never witnessed them. / Know them better than I? Then your wisdom will really be wonderful.”

On hearing this, Battos and his men sailed back again, because the god would not allow them to do anything short of colonizing Libya itself. After arriving at the island and picking up the one whom they had left there, they made a settlement at a place in Libya itself, over against the island which was called Aziris. This is a place enclosed on both sides by the fairest of groves, and a river flows by one side of it.

[Indigenous Libyans lead the Greeks astray]

(158) They lived there for six years. But in the seventh year, the Libyans [i.e. indigenous populations] persuaded them by entreaty to leave the place, saying that they would lead them to a better place. They [Libyans] brought the Greeks from Aziris and led them westwards. They calculated the hours of daylight so that they would lead the Greeks past the nicest place in their country, called Irasa, when it was nighttime. They did this so that the Greeks would not see that place as they travelled. Then they brought the Greeks to what is called the “Fountain of Apollo,” and said to them: “It is suitable for you to live here, Greeks, since there is a hole in the sky here [i.e. there is lots of rain].”

[Further migration of other Greeks to Cyrene by way of oracle]

(159) Now in the time of Battos the founder of the colony, who ruled for forty years, and of his son Arkesilaos who ruled for seventeen, the inhabitants in Cyrene were no more in number than when they had first gone out to establish the colony. But in the time of the third ruler, the Battos who was called “Fortunate,” the Pythian priestess admonished all Greeks by an oracle to cross the sea and live in Libya with the Cyrenaians, because the Cyrenaians invited them, promising a new division of lands; and this was the oracle: “Whoever comes to beloved Libya / too late for the division of land / will certainly regret it.”

[Further consequences for indigenous Libyans and Libyan alliance with Egyptians against Greeks]

So a large population [of Greeks] gathered together at Cyrene, and divided great tracts of land from the territory of the neighbouring Libyans. When these Libyans with their king, whose name was Adikran, were robbed of their lands, they sent messengers to Egypt and put themselves under the control of Apries, the king of that country [ca. 589-570 BCE]. Apries gathered a large force of Egyptians and sent the force against Cyrene. The Cyrenaians marched out to the place Irasa and the spring Thestes, and there battled with the Egyptians and overcame them. The Egyptians did not yet have knowledge about Greeks, and despised their enemy. The result was the Egyptians were so utterly destroyed that few of them returned to Egypt. Because of this mistake and because they blamed Apries for it, the Egyptians revolted against Apries [perhaps ca. 570 BCE].

[Further Greek foundations in Libya and Greek alliances with Libyans against the Greek Cyrenaians, with intrigues]

(160) This Battos had a son named Arkesilaos. When Arkesilaos first started to reign, he quarrelled with his own brothers until they left him and went away to another place in Libya. There they founded a city for themselves, which was then and is now called Barke [modern al-Marj]. While they were founding it, they persuaded the Libyans to revolt against the Cyrenaians. Then Arkesilaos came with an army into the country of the Libyans who had received his brothers and had also revolted. They fled in fear of him to the eastern Libyans. Arkesilaos followed their flight until he came in his pursuit to Leukon in Libya, where the Libyans resolved to attack him. They joined battle and so completely overcame the Cyrenaians that seven thousand Cyrenaian soldiers were killed there. After this disaster Arkesilaos, being sick and having drunk medicine, was strangled by his brother Haliarchos. Haliarchos was craftily killed by Arkesilaos’ wife Eryxo.

[Demonax from Mantineia organizes the society into three tribes, with some dispossessed Libyans included]

(161) Arkesilaos’ kingship passed to his son Battos [another Battos], who was lame and disabled on his feet. The Cyrenaians, in their affliction, sent to Delphi to inquire what arrangements would allow them to best prosper. The priestess commanded them bring a peacemaker from Mantinea in Arkadia. After the Cyrenaians sent their request, the Mantineans gave them their most esteemed townsman, whose name was Demonax. When this man came to Cyrene and learned everything, he divided the people into three tribes (phylai): The Theraians and dispossessed Libyans were one of these divisions, the Peloponnesians and Cretans were the second, and all the islanders were the third. Moreover he set apart certain domains and priesthoods for their king Battos, but gave all the rest, which had belonged to the kings, to be now held by the people in common. . . [omitted further narration of difficulties with the new arrangements].


Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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