An ancient Greek theatre in Barcelona: Greek towns in Spain and France

A few years ago I made it to Barcelona. During the course of site seeing I came 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 rare condition that disrupts a person’s vision so that they only see Greek things.


The site was closed but I remonstrated with the security guard. “My ancestors built that theatre – I demand to see it!!” This was my childish yet desperate attempt to see the site up close. The security guard was either amused or felt that there would be no harm in a deranged tourist from seeing the site. So I took some pictures and went on my merry way to the local tapas place in search of an elusive Greek salad.

When I made it home to Australia I researched the old Greek theatre of Barcelona. Well lets just say it was old but not ancient. It was built in 1929 in a Greek style, hence the name. As for the so-called 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 (which can also be a rare phenomenon). Had there ever been a Greek presence in places such as Spain and Western Europe? I know for a fact that Hercules had been there.

In previous articles I have talked about the Greeks that I met in Southern Italy – Magna Gracia. Now to find out what lies to the west of Magna Graecia.

There were a number of Greek colonies and settlements in Spain, France, Monaco and Portugal (this last country consisted of a few traders and a visit by Hercules and me). The Greeks did not dominate these regions as they did in Magna Gracia or in the Cyrenaica in Libya for example, they did however have a lasting influence.

One of the first Greeks to make it to the edge of the Mediterranean was a powerful and heroic man, and I’m not talking about me here. It was the great 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 another Greek, Captain Kolaios of Samos and his crew mistakenly sailed past the Pillars of Hercules and landed in the region of Tartessos in southern Spain (near Portugal) in the 7th century BC. The Greeks exchanged goods and whilst working on their tans made a strong friendship with the king. Kolaios and his crew returned to Samos with Iberian (Spanish) silver and minerals and stories of potential new trading lands.

Within decades the Greeks had established a strong trading presence in Iberia and supplemented these activities by establishing settlements. Some scholars debate the size and the existence of a number of the settlements. It is certain that a town existed in the region approaching modern Gibraltar and within the boundaries of Tartessos. The town was called Mainake however not much is known about its history. Another town located in southern Iberia but facing the east was Hemerskopeion. These places ensured that Greek merchants could facilitate their trade with Iberians and had a base that was not controlled by their great rivals the Phoenicians. Many archeological sites in southern Spain have unearthed Greek pottery from the 700’s BC onwards.

Phocaea – a name I can’t pronounce and is a place I have never been to. This was a great city on the coast of Asia Minor towards the Hellespont. It was captured by the Persians in 545BC, however its maritime activities in the 200 years prior to this date led to the establishment of some of the greatest cities in the world.

During the great Greek colonial epoch of antiquity the Phocaeans established the colonies of Emporion and Rhode in northern Spain (above Barcelona). The latter colony was established before the ancient Olympic Games and the former was to become an important centre of commerce. The presence of Greeks in the southern regions of Spain and Portugal was to last until the seventh century AD when Byzantine control was overthrown.

The Phocaeans established the colony of Massalia about 600BC. A local story tells us that Protis from Phocaea was invited to a “coming out” event by a local king for his daughter. Protis was your typical Adonis (or perhaps a Hercules) looking Greek so the girl fell in love with Protis and they were given as dowry the land in what would become Massalia.

Massalia which today is known as Marseille (France) was to develop as a leading city in the Mediterranean and was the first Greek colony in the west to reach a population of over 1000. It was a city that remained independent until 49 BC when it was captured by Julius Caesar after a 6 month siege. The locals resisted as best as they could using all their Herculean reserves in the process. The City was one of the last of the Greek colonies in the far west to retain its Greek character and language, holding on at least until the arrival of the Visigoths in fifth century AD and into the next.

Massalia founded a number of other colonies in the region including Agathe, Olbia, Antipolis and Nicaea. Nicaea was founded by the Massalians in 350BC after a victory over a neighbouring kingdom. The City was named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike and is not to be confused with any sponsorship deals involving Tiger Woods. I have been to both Nice and Marseilles and it is amazing that from such humble, Greek origins they are today large and vibrant French cities.

Another great City that owes its development to the Greeks is that of Monaco. Founded as Monoikos by the Massalians in the sixth century BC it is also known as the Port of Hercules after he stopped off here during his travels. And like Hercules I too stopped here many years ago for a quick drink.

There are other areas of France where the Greeks had small trading settlements or like Alalia in Corsica had established a significant town. Speaking of Corsica, its time to point out that the Byzantine Empire – the medieval Greek empire, held the island of Corsica and all of the Mediterranean islands for a significant period during the sixth and seventh centuries AD (not BC). The Byzantine rule during this epoch also extended to southern Spain and northern Africa. This ensured that towns that were formerly Greek colonies and many of the people living in those locations continued to speak Greek or identify with that culture. However, unlike Byzantine control of Magna Gracia or the Cyrenaica in Libya it would be difficult to say that the Greek speakers were overwhelming dominant in those areas.

The Greeks were responsible not only for establishing so many prominent colonies and trade but for introducing olive and wine to France. It was the Greeks who introduced these products to France and ensured that wine was made in that region for years to come. Think about it, what would the world be like if French wine was not produced the way we know it?

So 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 some anecdotes about Hercules.


13 Comments Add yours

  1. Athena Khadzynova says:

    Kalimera Giorgo kai Vasili,

    Eimai i Athina apo ti Marioupoli. Me megali efxaristisi diavazo ola ta keimena sas. Bravo sas gia ti douleia pou kanete. Oi anthropoi san esas kratane ton ellinismo zontano kai den afinoun tous allous na ksexnane oti o ellinikos politismos zei se kathe gonia tou kosmou kai mesa stis kardies pollon anthropon pou exoun xasei tin patrida tous prin pollous aiones.

    Oi marioupolites pou gnorisate sas stelnoun thermous xairetismous. Kali sinexeia!


  2. keep up the good posting!!
    ομορφες αναρτησεις, συνεχιστε με αμειωτο ρυθμο…
    απο την πατριδα

  3. Jaydan says:

    Hi I am from Gibraltar, yes the pillars of Hercules mentioned by Homer and others the place was an official shrine to Melkart (Hercules) in which many antient artefacts; stone, bronze and iron age periods have been excavated they have been found in Gorhams cave (visit the Gibraltar museum). Just wanted to say that there were plenty of greek colonies apart of ampuries or Mainake, there was another greek town bordering Cadiz which then Cadiz belonged to the pheonicians, nevertheless in the bay of Gibraltar the Pheonicians had a flourishing trade with the Iberian tartessos civilization from this area to the valley of Guadalquivir (Modern province of Seville). Hear says and mythological rumours spread by the pheonicians for the purpose of discouraging the superstitious greeks to cross the straits proved futile, for trade with the Tartessos Iberians continued for centuries till the Cartheginians subdued the Tartessos after the invasion of Southern and western Iberia in which new Carthage was to become their base in the peninsula (Modern Cartagena). I would like to recommend a visit the Archeological museums of Cadiz which is the oldest city in Western Europe and also the Archeological Museum of Seville which has a few Tartessos remains like the treasures of ‘el carambolo’, not to mention the extensive collection of Roman statues and remains from the area and the Roman remains of Italica birth place of Trajan and Hadrian; the archeological site is only 7 km from the city of Seville.

    1. Christopher Gunstone says:

      Three Corinthian helmets 7th and 6th century BC were dredged up from the sea between Huelva and Cadiz, confirming Herodotus who recorded there were Greeks trading in Tartessos on the Atlantic coast of Spain, the Greek Phocaeans travelled not in the round built merchant ships but used penteconter warships. Marseille in France was founded by Phocaens from Ionia 600 BC en route to get silver from Tartessos. Greek pottery imports to Spain were massive in the 5th BC particularly in Huelva and Malaga. Please see:

  4. Billy Cotsis says:

    Hi Jaydan, many thanx for the information. I think I will go on another visit to the region as there appears to be more to see! So I really appreciate the comment, take care.

  5. John says:

    Hemerskopeion was located in what is now Murcia, Spain. From what I’ve read a Doric colony was located there. In Granada, Andalusia there was another
    Greek colony “Elibyrge”, I’m not sure if it was biggest in all Iberia, but Elibyrge became a city. It was probably the biggest in Iberia next to Emporium.
    Your information is valid, good job. I don’t really know
    for sure wether the Greeks managed to settle in Portugal or not since these people were mainly located on the Mediterranean.

  6. John says:

    Emporion by the way was a big Greek colony
    probably the biggest in Iberia after Massalia.

  7. Basilis says:

    Enjoyed your article immensely and thanks to Jaydan for the input.

    For me, the travel bug to Spain bit when I found a book in a flea market, The Greeks of Iberia.

  8. Tashi says:

    The Greeks were in Portugal.

    Tavira and Vila Real Santo Antonio are two prominent towns of southern Portugal that are worth exploring.

    In my opinion, the Greeks went everywhere 😉

  9. vwulanda says:

    Have you been to Agrigento, Sicily? They have a valley full of ancient Greek ruins (from 5 BC) and one of the temples: Concordia is probably one of the most intact ancient Greek ruins in the world. My husband and I went there in Dec 2010 because we (well.. “I”) love ancient ruins. It was an amazing experience. I got goosebumps.. and started imagining life back then. Anyways, you should plan a trip there. The view is breathtaking too.

    1. Billy Cotsis says:

      Hi VWulanda, I have not been to Agrigento, only to the Greek towns in Calabria and Apulia. You should write something or post about your experience. I love the fact there are many amazing Greek ruins out there. Billy

  10. David Malamud says:

    Can you please post sources you used for the scholarly information. I loved this article and may use it as a source for a paper on the Hellenistic influence on Spain.

  11. Billy Cotsis says:

    Hi David, I would have to go back to what I wrote and its been ages…..

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