Ancient Greeks, as well as Romans who loved to appropriate Greek mythology, claimed that the famous hero Heracles (or Hercules) once sent a colony to the island of Sardinia. A group of Heracles’ sons known as the Thespiadae were said to have been the designated leaders of the expedition, and Heracles’ nephew Iolaüs also went with them as an advisor. In the myth, the colonization effort of Heracles’ kinsmen succeeded and colonial cities were established. Yet, despite the existence of this myth, the premise that the Greeks were early or successful settlers of Sardinia is historically untrue. Greeks did, indeed, attempt to plant a colony on Sardinia in the 6th century BCE, but they were defeated by native and Phoenician forces and had to abandon the colonial expedition. Storytellers of Greek and Roman legend and myth, however, were not put off by the lack of Greek cities in Sardinia when they wove their tales of Sardinia’s colonization by Heracles’ kinsmen. Instead, the storytellers postulated that the primordial Greek colonists of Heracles’ day assimilated and evolved away from their Greekness to become the native Sardinians known to Greece and Rome. This tale of conquest and evolution was recorded for posterity by the Greek-Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), who wrote:
“All other Thespiadae and many more who wished to join in the founding of the colony Iolaüs took with him and sailed away to Sardinia. Here he overcame the natives in battle and divided the fairest part of the island into allotments…And a peculiar and astonishing thing came to pass in connection with this colony in Sardinia. For the god had told them in an oracle that all who joined in this colony and their descendants should continually remain free men forevermore, and this event in their case has continued to be in harmony with the oracle even to our own times. For the people of this colony in the long course of time came to be barbarized, since the barbarians who took part in the colony about them outnumbered them, and so they removed into the mountainous part of the island and made their home in the rough and barren regions and there, accustoming themselves to live on milk and mead and raising large flocks and herds, they had no need of grain. They also built themselves underground dwellings, and spending their lives in such dug-out homes they avoided the perils which wars entail” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.29-30).
Such was the way that the Greeks, through their mythology, tried to claim that they had conquered and colonized Sardinia without actually conquering or colonizing it. In actuality, the ancient Sardinian civilization was quite formidable and was known for building basalt rock structures and fortifications. Although the native Sardinians resisted Greek settlement, they did curiously form a partnership with Phoenician traders, who started building trade posts in Sardiania around the 9th or 8th centuries BCE. Sardinia’s ancient civilization, however, was overwhelmed by the military of Carthage around the year 500 BCE, which resulted in the native Sardinian tribes being relegated to mountain strongholds. Sardinia then was seized by the Roman Republic in the 3rd century BCE, during the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. By the time Rome took over Sardinia, the native tribes in the fortified mountains were still holding their own, and they continued to be just as much of a source of unrest and hostility to the Romans as they had been to the Carthaginians. Rome quickly began launching military campaigns in the second half of the 3rd century BCE that aimed to pacify the mountain tribes. Although the island was indeed conquered by the Romans, the Sardinians remained a people prone to uprisings and armed resistance for centuries to follow. No wonder the Greeks and Romans mused about the Sardinians having the blood of Heracles in their veins.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Cagliari, Sardinia, created by Hendrick van Cleve in 1585, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer (1903 edition), republished in The Complete Works of Strabo (Delphi Classics, 2016).