The Mediterranean and Black Sea were the first playing grounds of the Greeks, who settled colonies in Asia Minor, Crimea, Cyprus, Sicily, southern Italy, eastern Spain, south France and even Libya. The ancient Greeks would trade with their original cities and keep strong ties with their international community, including the worship of the same gods and traditions. They even reached the mouth of the river Tagus, the most western point in Europe, where a strong Greek community existed in the city of Olisipo which would become modern Lisbon. Historians debate who founded Lisbon, perhaps either Phoenician or Greek traders. Greeks and Romans believed the city was founded by Ulysses during his travels, but some think Olisipo was a Phoenician-influenced name and that later Greek colonists who arrived at this city misinterpreted the name as part of their mythical traditions. The name of Olisipo was later abbreviated to Lisbon after the Islamic occupation, but its original Greek-Phoenician name is still in use in cultural circles: when buying books you often read on the first page the editorial details as “published in Olisipo”. Lisbon is a city prone to earthquakes and floods from the river and ocean who bath it. It is a city on top of many older cities. The left pic below shows Roman ruins underground in Lisbon.
Even more splendid than the Mediterranean expansion were the Hellenistic kingdoms in Egypt, Persia and India, which followed the expedition of Alexander the Great. However, there were already many Greeks living in Persia before Alexander. Persians brought Greek slaves from their territories in Asia Minor, many of whom worked as artisans and goldsmiths. Often these slaves were forced to live with mutilated bodies, since their masters would cut a body-part such as a nose, hand or limb in order to make their escape more difficult and so that they would be recognized as runaway slaves.
After Alexander’s death Hellenistic kingdoms were founded in Pergamum, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Persia. There were large Greek populations in big cities such as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. However, these three brilliant kingdoms were exhausted in wars against each other and with Rome. By 129 BC Rome had reduced Greece and Pergamum to mere provinces and the Seleucid Empire had lost almost all its territory to the Parthians, being reduced to a few cities in modern Syria. Ptolemaic Egypt ended when Cleopatra and Mark Antony committed suicide in 30 BC after losing the Roman civil war.
All the political and family intrigues of the Seleucids, Ptolemais, Attalids of Pergamum, ancient Macedon and the Greek cities are detailed by the Roman historians. Roman and Greek historians wrote little about the Greco-Bactrian (in Afghanistan) and the Indo-Greek (in Pakistan-North India) kingdoms. These two remote kingdoms were described by Roman historian Justin as “the extremely prosperous Bactrian empire of the thousand cities”, and expanded as far as Uzbekistan and western China. The pics on the sides show a Greek influenced Chinese vase and a wool tapestry representing Greek soldiers from around 220-200 BC found in the Chinese city of Urumqi.
The Greco-Bactrian kingdom initially included the Greek colonies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It lasted from 250 BC to 120 BC, when a central Asian nomad people, the Yuezhi, occupied Afghanistan as they escaped from wars in China. After some internal disputes between Greek generals there was also an independent Indo-Greek kingdom in northern India, which lasted from 190 BC to 20 AD. The Indo-Greeks thrived in cities such as Alexandria on the Caucasus, Alexandria in Arachosia (modern Kandahar), Taxila and Gandhara. Below I show the ruins of Alexandria in Arachosia and a Greek sculpture from Alexandria on the Caucasus.
The capital of Eucratides was Alexandria on the Oxus (the current site of Ai-Khanoum) and its ruins located between the rivers Oxus and Kokcha are very well preserved. This capital founded by some soldiers of Alexander which were perhaps too tired to pursue his Indian campaign had every trace of a great Greek city within its great walls and fortress towers, including classical temples, a palace, a theater, and even a gymnasium, as seen in the pics below.
Menander I (ruled from 155 to 130 BC) became a patron of Buddhism and an important Buddhist work, the Milinda Panha (“Questions of Milinda”) portrays him as a wise man, who knew philosophy and many sciences besides war. Roman historian Plutarch reports that Menander I was so popular that its ashes were divided among several Indian cities, placed under sacred shrines in the same way as the Buddha. In fact the Greeks were extremely important for Buddhism. The first human representations of the Buddha appeared in the Greek cities of India around 130 BC, right after Menander’s death. Before then the Buddha was represented by symbols such as the Dharma wheel or a Palm Tree as in this coin issued by the Indo-Greek king Menander. The other pic shows a 2nd century BC Buddha from the city of Gandhara, where a strong Greek community embraced Buddhism and expressed this religion with Hellenized art forms.
Gandhara was a center of Greek influenced Buddhism until the end of the Roman Empire. Below there are sculptures of Buddhist gods on the left from the 3rd century AD and a Bodhisattva on the right from the 4th century AD, which show a clear influence from Greek-Roman art of the time. Therefore a vibrant Hellenic community lasted in India at least four centuries after Christ.