The economic impact of ancient colonization



Dimitris K. Chronopoulos, Sotiris Kampanelis, Daniel Oto-Peralías, John OS Wilson January 09, 2021

Major Mediterranean cities – including Bologna, Istanbul, Malaga, Marseille, Nice and Varna – were founded by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans in an early example of ancient colonialism (c. 11th to 6th centuries BCE ). Given that these cities are today poles of dynamic economic activity, the link with their colonial origins raises interesting questions. Can this anecdotal evidence be generalized? Is the economic importance of these cities due to their former colonial foundation or to advantageous geographical features? More generally, did ancient colonialism have an impact on the distribution of population and economic activity along the Mediterranean? And if so, how did it go?

These questions relate to several topics that have attracted attention over the past two decades of economists seeking to explore the relative importance of geographic features vis-à-vis historical events on the spatial distribution and economic activity of population (Redding et al. 2011, Nunn and Puga 2012, Allen and Donaldson 2020); the persistence and dynamics of urban networks (Michaels and Rauch 2013 and 2018, Barjamovic et al. 2019); and the economic impact of colonialism (Acemoglu and Robinson 2017a and 2017b, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou 2015). Although there is an abundant and growing literature on the “long shadow” of modern European colonialism on economic development (reviewed recently in Roessler et al. 2020), evidence regarding the legacy of ancient colonialism remains scarce.

Analyze the impact of old colonialism

In a recent study (Chronopoulos et al. 2020), we combine historical sources with modern data on nocturnal light emission and population to study the impact of ancient colonization on economic activity and population density. in the Mediterranean region. Phoenician, Greek and Etruscan societies were urban, sophisticated economies with higher standards of living and more inclusive institutions than most of their Mediterranean neighbors. It is therefore plausible to hypothesize that the colonies established by these civilizations had a positive long-term effect on population density and economic activity. However, testing such claims poses significant challenges given that these settlements were founded in the distant past and their effects may have worn off.

We straddle the territory surrounding the Mediterranean and the Black Sea with a grid made of cells measuring 10x10km. Next, we focus on the coastal areas, comparing them to old settlements with similar counterparts where no colonization has taken place. Figure 1 represents the geographic distribution of the former colonies. We find that areas subject to ancient colonization today have a higher population density and economic activity (night light emissions). According to our baseline results, areas with old colonies have a 180% higher light density level than their non-colony counterparts. Likewise, the areas where the former settlers settled are 99% more densely populated today.

Figure 1 Map of the former colonies of the Mediterranean rim

A key question is whether this relationship is driven by anthropogenic consequences of colonization or by geographic advantages specific to colonized areas. The latter would imply that places with former settlements would have evolved in the same way even if they had not been colonized. To rule out the possibility that the results reflect localization advantages, our analysis checks for a wide range of potential confounders (in addition to using matched samples) to ensure that we are comparing similar areas.

Explain the effect of former colonies

We propose two complementary mechanisms that determine the impact of ancient colonialism on modern economic activity and population density. These include the transmission of institutions and culture from the metropolis to the colonies, and the persistence of urban settlements once they are established. We test the importance of both mechanisms by comparing old colonies with settlements from other cultures from the same period. If urban persistence was the only relevant mechanism, we should not observe any differences between former settlements and other settlements. However, we do observe a number of differences, including the discovery that the ancient settlements had more urban characteristics (in ancient times ranging from 330 BCE to 300 CE) and a stronger commercial orientation (they were more near ancient trade routes measured around 150 BC -200 CE) than settlements of similar age. In addition, the former colonies also exhibit higher levels of economic activity (light density) today than the colonies of the same time. This evidence indicates that the legacy left by old colonialism is not only the consequence of the founding of a colony, but a “special” legacy with traces of an urban style and culture.

In addition, we focus on the idea that the former colonizers distributed a major innovation in the form of urban settlements or cities by analyzing their impact on the origin and development of the urban system in the Mediterranean. Areas with old settlements were more likely to have ancient settlements, Roman towns and roads, and (later) modern towns. Today, cells with old settlements are 30 percentage points more likely to have cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants and 10 percentage points more likely to have large urban centers (compared to average values 19.7% and 5.4%, respectively). Figure 2 illustrates the impact of ancient colonialism on the presence of settlements and cities at different times.

Figure 2 Former settlements and the evolution of the urban system

To note: The graphs represent the effect of having a former settlement in the grid cell on the presence of settlements (top) and towns (bottom).


Our results suggest that a particular human intervention, via the founding of a colony in a foreign country, can have a large and persistent effect, which reinforces the idea that historical shocks play an important role in the structure of regional economies. and local. By geographically expanding urban settlements and advanced civilizations, ancient colonialism had a positive impact on population density and economic activity in the Mediterranean. The Greeks, Phoenicians and Etruscans not only influenced modern Western culture in general, but also left an economic legacy locally.

The references

Acemoglu, D and JA Robinson (2017a), “The Economic Impact of Colonialism”, in S Michalopoulos and E Papaioannou (eds), The long economic and political shadow of history Volume I. A global vision, CEPR Press.

Acemoglu, D and J Robinson (2017b), “The economic impact of colonization»,, January 30.

Allen, T and D Donaldson (2020), “Persistence and Path Dependence in the Spatial Economy”, NBER Working Paper (28059).

Barjamovic G, T Chaney, K Coşar and A Hortaçsu (2019), “Commerce, merchants and the lost cities of the Bronze Age”, Quarterly economic review, 134: 1455–1503.

Chronopoulos, D, S Kampanelis, D Oto-Peralias and JOS Wilson (2020), “Ancient Colonialism and the Economic Geography of the Mediterranean”, Economic geography review, lbaa028.

Michaels G and F Rauch (2013), “Can history leave stricken cities in places with bad location fundamentals?»,, December 08.

Michaels G and F Rauch (2018), “Reinitializing the urban network”, Economic review, 128: 378-412.

Michalopoulos, S and E Papaioannou (2015), “The Long-Term Effects of the ‘Scramble for Africa’,”, December 24.

Nunn, N and D Puga (2012), “Robustness: the blessing of bad geography in Africa”, Review of economics and statistics 94: 20-36.

Redding SJ, DM Sturm and N Wolf (2011), “History and industry location: evidence from German airports”, Review of economics and statistics 93: 814-831.

Roessler, P, Y Pengl, R Marty, KS Titlow and N van de Walle (2020), “Colonial Extractive Economies and the Legacies of Spatial Inequalities: Evidence from Africa»,, December 6.



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