Ancient and modern

The ‘start-up cities’ of Ancient Greece

Honduras is trying a new idea that worked very well 2,500 years ago

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

Honduras wants to establish start-up cities to experiment with alternative economic, regulatory, and legal systems. Could this concept help stop mass migration into Europe?

Ancient Greeks, living in a time and place when poverty was endemic, were adventurers and readily took to the seas to establish their start-ups abroad, all around the coasts of the Mediterranean. These apoikiai (‘homes from home’), far from being ‘colonies’, were in fact new, wholly independent Greek cities. They were variously motivated by e.g. the search for fertile farming land and profitable raw materials, trade in slaves, metals and luxury goods, proximity to and therefore business with non-Greeks, and so on. They spread around the Med ‘like frogs around a pond’ (Plato).

Take, for example Massalia (‘settlement’, modern Marseilles). Greeks there did business not in the usual sailing ships but in 50-oared penteconters, giving them advantage over Etruscan and Phoenician trading rivals and security against pirates. Ruled by a council of the rich, they were soon setting up foundations in Spain to hunt for metals, and trading with inland natives: a magnificent Greek bronze mixing-bowl (c. 500 bc), over 5ft high, holding nearly 2,000 pints, was found 300 miles inland in Vix (central France). This was no coincidence, since Greeks had also introduced the vine — and possibly the olive too — to the Provence region in about 600 bc, and Massalia was soon exporting its latest product far and wide. The result was that Massalia boomed: witness its superb marble ‘treasury’ at Delphi, dedicated to Apollo and filled with homemade luxury goods.

Honduras needs this ancient Greek start-up spirit, but at home, and so do failing countries like Somalia, where emigration is rife, giving the inhabitants reasons to stay. It would be in the West’s interests to support such ambition — even more if the Chinese got there first. That said, the start-up country Liberia (1847) is not an encouraging model.

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