Although never controlling the peninsular, the Greeks made an important mark on the land we now know as Spain.
Some time around 800 BC, Greeks began to leave their peninsular and establish colonies around the Black Sea and some of the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Greek sailors needed overnight ports, but they also planned to establish small Greek-like city states so aristocrats could use them to diffuse social unrest by sending people from overpopulated cities.
Independent Greek colonies
Greek colonists in the new cities were tied to the motherland by culture and emotion rather than colonial control, so there was a sense of independence about them. Where Greeks settled, they transformed the land into something resembling home. That includes their foods and their gods, helping to leave a Greek mark.
As they moved west, southern Italy and southern France before their arrival in Spain around the year 650 BC. It is said this happened by accident, when a ship bound for Egypt was blown off-course. The Greek captain was well received by the local King. They exchanged gifts, included silver, which was largely unknown in Greece at the time.
The largest Greek colony in Spain was Emporion/Empúries, located north of Barcelona near the Pyrenees and founded in 575 BC. It was a great location for trade as it provided a halfway house between the great trading post of Marseille and southern Spain. Greeks quickly came to escape the Persian wars in the east and the population boomed and the city prospered.
Greek innovations and influence in Spain
Modern excavations revealed the early Greek city by the sea with an acropolis, decorated pottery, and grave excavations all painting a rich picture of how Greeks lived alongside the native Iberian population. The Greeks influence in Spain extends far beyond here thanks fo their innovations brought from their homeland.
It was the Greeks that introduced coins to Spain to replace the barter system perfected by the Phoenician traders. The Greeks used silver, which allowed them to make lots of coins, decorated with both Greek gods and goods, such as grapes of fish. Coins help to give archaeologists a picture of the movement of people, and what people valued based on what images they struck on to the coins.
Acres of olive trees were domesticated thousands of years ago somewhere between Turkey and Syria. The trees that provided food and oil spread rapidly, and both Greek and Phoenician colonist brought olive trees to plant. As it can take olive trees many years to bear fruit, this showed a long-term commitment to the land. The Romans continued this trend.
A legacy through writing
Greek historians and writers helped to shape the history of the peninsular for subsequent travellers. One Greek historian wrote about the silver mines of the south in the 5th-century, eventually causing the Romans to come with soldiers and engineers.
The word ‘Iberian’ probably comes from the Ibro river, close to the Greek colonies of the north. Once the Greeks had named the peninsular in writing, they also named the people Iberians, and the Celt colonists the Celt-Iberians. Greek writers also included Iberia into their mythology.
The myth of Hercules
Hercules was an illegitimate son of Zeus, and the god’s wife Hera hated the young Hercules. A paragon of strength, ingenuity and masculinity, Hercules was driven mad by Hera to the point where he killed his children. To pay for this crime, he was made to perform twelve crimes, the tenth of which took him to Cádiz where he had to kill a monster with three bodies set on two legs.
According to the myth, Hercules used his great strength to smash open the straight that allowed the waters of the Mediterranean to flow into the Atlantic. Hercules killed the monster and claimed his cattle. Based on this myth, ancient sailors called the straight the Pillars of Hercules.