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F - 218 : Trade Routes Make Capitals

Was busy the last three weeks writing the Travel Plan for sailing this summer. You find a Pdf copy under “Travel Plan 2022”. With the planning out of the way, I now return to the blog – the list of subjects I’d like to cover gets longer by the week.

Perinthos (Eregisi today) as seen from the air - the contours of the Greek theatre are visible

History is sometimes like archeology. You find a new piece of evidence and suddenly everything looks different. Happened last week when writing the schedule for August 15, the day we sail from Istanbul to the Dardanelles. Half way - on the Thracian shore - lies the ancient town of Perinthos, a colony of Samos. Excavations in Perinthos started last year. The town was untouched for more than 1’000 years.

Computer Simulation of Greek Perianthos during Alexander the Great


One specific event caught my eye. Philipp II of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father, besieged Perinthos in 340 BC to consolidate his power in Thrace. At the same time he also besieged Byzantion, a colony from Megara near Athens. Not a very smart strategy - he could have concentrated his forces and siege engines. After a few months, he had to withdraw. But he captured 240 grain ships destined for Athens instead. The ships were waiting at the northern entrance of the Bosporus for the hostilities to end. Their capture triggered the war with Athens in which Philipp II was victorious and became Master of Greece.

Replica of the Kyrenia Freighter with 40 tons of cargo and a crew of four sailors


Reading about these 240 grain ships reminded me of the ship wreck found near Kyrenia (Girne) in Cyprus (blog E-180). Built in the 4th century BC, it carried 400 amphorae from Rhodes and Samos and had a total cargo of 40 tons. If Philipp II captured 240 of these ships, he would have seized at least a third of Athens’ annual grain import from the Black Sea. No wonder Athens declared war on the King of Macedonia.

Athens in the 5th century - the painting is from the 19th century though


In the summer 2022 we actually sail along the ancient trade route that once supplied Athens and many other Greek cities with grain. Attica, where Athens is located, lacked water for intensive agriculture. Its population growth outpaced the food supply early. The situation was even more challenging in Athens itself. Its three small rivers barely supplied enough water when still a village. Without aqueducts, the town could not have grown to 200’000 inhabitants by the 5th century BC (Blog E-30). 3’000 years ago, the climate was less arid. Still, some historians estimate that only 20 – 25% of Attica’s 300’000 inhabitants could rely on local food sources. The rest depended on imports. Thus grain for 225’000 people had to be bought abroad. About 1/3 came from the Black Sea, 1/3 from Magna Graecia (where we were last year) and 1/3 from Africa and Anatolia.

The Trade Routes through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus were vital for Athens

Applying the same numbers as I did for the Roman Grain Trade in my blog E+6 (I know they are just estimates), Athens would need to import 83’000 tons of grain per year. Almost 2’000 Kyrenia-size freighters would be required for such a job. In the 4th century BC, there were also some freighters with a cargo capacity of 100 tons (in Roman times the average freighter was even larger and carried 300 tons - some super freighters even 3’000 tons). Bigger freighters would reduce the number of ships to 830 p.a. Still significant!. We have no data on the size of the ships Philipp II captured in 340 BC.. But their total cargo was somewhere between 35– 90% of Athens’ import from the Black Sea. No wonder they went war. The supply of grain was vital for Athens’ survival and could not be compromised.

Athens long Walls linking it to Piraeus


The importance of food safety for Athens also solved one of the puzzles I never got my head around in High School. I always wondered why Piraeus was such a big harbour and why the Athenian Statesman Pericles built the long walls linking Athens to Piraeus. Whilst these walls were palisades mostly made from wood and stamped earth, their construction was a major effort. Nobody undertakes such a project for nothing. Food safety was Athens’ overriding policy goal and its leaders did whatever it took to guarantee it. Be it building a fleet that had no rivals, alliances with as many states as possible as the Delian League , building a big harbor with large warehouses or constructing protective walls from Athens to Piraeus.


We learnt last year where the grain from Magna Graecia came from. It was shipped from ports like Syracuse, Sibari or Taranto. In the Black Sea, the main producer for Athens was the Bosporan Kingdom on and to the west of the Crimea. Originally established in the 7th and 6th century BC as colonies from Miletus (we are going to be in Miletus in week 2), several of these colonies merged into the Bosporan Kingdom to defend themselves against Scythian raids. The lands around the Sea of Azov are fertile but flat. With their raids, the Scythian neighbours extracted large tributes from these Greek agrarian communities. By uniting, the young kingdom could build walls and hire its own cavalry to keep the Scythians at bay. The tactics worked well for several centuries and made the Bosporan community very wealthy. Athens took the extraordinary step to make the Bosporan Kings honorary Athenian citizens – a privilege that was only bestowed on few. The Bosporus Kings were also firm allies to the Roman Empire.

View from the old Acropolis of Panticapaeum (Kerch) - one of the Kingdom's lead towns


The prosperity of the Bosporan Kingdom outlasted Athens’ by several hundred years. When Athens' silver mines depleted by 330 BC, it lost power. But the Macedonian Kings developed new silver mines in the north of Greece and replaced Athens as key customers. In the 2nd century BC Rome stepped into their shoes. The grain trade from the Black Sea thus survived for over 1’000 years. Cities like Perinthos or Byzantion made a living from it. When it came to an end, one vanished – the other got propelled into a different league by becoming Imperial Capital. But neither would have been created without Greece’s hunger for grain.

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