How Colonialism Works

Colonialism in Ancient History

Alexander the Great, Babylon Alexander the Great, Babylon
This 18th century painting shows the city of Babylon (now in modern-day Iraq) surrendering to Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Colonialism's history dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who may have been the first people to establish colonies when they created settlements in southern Palestine 6,000 years ago. Though those were probably were more like trading posts than what we think today of as colonies.

The settlers peddled Egyptian manufactured products such as pottery to the indigenous population, and acquired raw materials such as copper, oil and asphalt that they sent back to Egypt. Archaeologists have found artifacts such as Egyptian seals for documents, heraldic symbols of the Egyptian monarchy and other items used by Egyptian elites, which indicates that the colonies were ruled by an Egyptian administration and were considered part of Egypt [source: Aubet].

Other ancient civilizations established similar outposts. Around 1200 B.C.E. the seafaring Phoenician civilization, which was based in what is now Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel, began building a network of trading posts along the shores of the Mediterranean, as far away as Spain. Many of those trading posts eventually evolved into cities. One of them, Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa, eventually developed into an imperial power in its own right, until it was conquered and destroyed by the Romans — who later rebuilt it and turned it into one of their colonies [sources: Cartwright, Mark].

Between 1000 and 500 B.C.E., the Greek city-states also began setting up colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, Spain and along the coasts of the Adriatic and Black seas — basically, wherever they could find a good harbor, fertile land and a local population that provided a market for Greek products such as pottery, metalwork and textiles. Eventually, the Greeks overpowered the locals and became their rulers, and turned the outposts into cities such as Syracuse in Sicily. More colonists moved in to extract natural resources such as timber and minerals, so that by 500 B.C.E., the colonies had 60,000 Greek citizens living in 500 colonies — about 40 percent of all the Greeks in the ancient world [source: Cartwright].

Unlike later European colonial empires, the Greeks didn't try to wipe out the cultures of the local people they dominated, or treat them as inferiors. But they did share their philosophical ideas, architecture and technology, so that Greek civilization spread throughout the ancient world.

The Romans had colonies too, but they utilized them more to protect their empire's borders and solidify their control of conquered territories. The colonies often were filled with veteran soldiers, who were given land in reward for their service. The Latin word for these settlements was colonia, from which the modern word colony is derived [source: Smith].