IONIA: THE FIRST PHYSICISTS

“It all started with the mass migration of Greeks early in the first millennium B.C., when they left their homeland in mainland Greece and migrated eastward across the Aegean, settling on the coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands. Three Greek tribes e involved in this migration –the Aeolians to the north, the Ionians in the center, and the Dorians in the south- and together they produced the first flowering of Greek culture. The Aeolians gave birth to the lyric poet Sappho; the Ionians to Homer and the natural philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes; and the Dorians to Herodotus, the “Father of History.”

The Ionians ended up with the best location in Asia Minor and the Ionian colonies soon organized themselves into a confederation called the Dodecapolis.

Miletus greatly surpassed all of the other Ionian cities in its maritime ventures and commerce, founding its first colonies in the eighth century B.C. on the shores on the Black Sea. During the next two centuries Miletus was far more active in colonization than any other city-state in the Greek world, founding a total of thirty cities around the Black Sea. Miletus also had a trading station at Naucratis, the Greek emporium on the Nile delta founded circa 650 B.C. Meanwhile other Greek cities had established colonies around the western shores of the Mediterranean, the densest region of settlement being in southern Italy and Sicily, which became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.

The far-ranging maritime activities of the Milesians brought them into contact with older and more advanced civilizations in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, from which the Greeks returned with ideas as well as goods. Herodotus writes that “the Egyptians by their study of astronomy discovered the solar year and were the first to divide it into twelve parts –and in my opinion their method of calculation is better than the Greek.

The trade routes of the Milesians also took them to Mesopotamia where they probably acquired the knowledge of astronomy they needed for celestial navigation and timekeeping. They obtained the gnomon, or shadow maker, in Mesopotamia, according to Herodotus, who says that knowledge of the sundial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day came into Greece from Babylon.

The Ionian Greeks soon progressed far beyond their predecessors intellectually, particularly in Miletus, which in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. gave birth to the first three philosophers of nature. Aristotle referred to them physikoi, or phyicists, from the Greek physis, meaning “nature” in its widest sense, contrasting them with earlier theologi, or theologians, for they were the first who tried to explain phenomena on natural rather than supernatural grounds.”

Excerpt from Aladdin’s Lamp by John Freely

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