There has always been an underlying independence and self-sufficiency to Samos , giving rise to a history which has tended to follow a different course from that of the other islands nearby, seeing moments of greatness while others languished, and languishing when others were ac tive. Even in earliest times, it is strange that an island with such richness of natural resources—water, timber, pasture and proximity to the mainland of Asia Minor—has yielded little of significance before the 1st millennium bc. Finds from the Late Neolithic period (4th millennium bc) have been made at Pythagoreio, and there is evidence of a Bronze Age (Mycenaean) presence at, and around, the site of the later Heraion: but nothing that presages the extraordinary flourishing of 6th century bc Samos .
The island was settled by Ionian colonists, led by Pro cles from Epidaurus, around 1000 bc. It soon developed its own grain-supplying peraea (territory on the main land opposite), which brought it repeatedly into dispute over boundaries with the cities of Priene and Miletus. The island founded colonies to the north in both the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea; to the west, on Amorgos; to the east, on the coast of Cilicia; and to the south, it par ticipated in the colonies at Cyrene and Naucratis in North Africa. Already by the 8th century the island was acquiring dominance in the trade-routes across the Eastern Mediterranean. Around 638 bc Colaios of Samos had sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and beyond, returning safely to Samos with a wealth that soon became prover bial: his journey was symbolic of the marine prowess of the islanders. The prestige of the Sanctuary of Hera in creased pari passu with Samos ’s expansion, attracting lav ish dedications from overseas; and along the commercial trade routes linking Samos with the Caucasus, Egypt and Mesopotamia, came also an important cultural and intel lectual stimulus.
After the overthrow of the tyrant Demoteles in the ear ly 6th century, control of the city remained in the hands of an elite of landed aristocracy (the Geomoroi), until the emergence of one important family, of more popular origins: this was the family of Aeaces, and his sons Pantagnotus, Polycrates and Syloson. By killing the first and exiling the last, Polycrates made himself sole tyrant of the island around 535 bc. Herodotus has left a vivid account of Polycrates and his times, and a picture of the greatness to which he took Samos in naval power and architectural magnificence. Polycrates appears to have been possessed of that classic combination of charisma, energy and vision, combined with capricious ruthlessness and a bullying— sometimes piratic—visitation of military might on any who got in his way. He courted the king of Egypt, Amasis (XXVIth Dynasty), who at moments appears to have been alarmed by this boisterous new ally; he attracted brilliant people to his court—Anacreon, the lyric poet; Theodorus, the sculptor and metalworker; and Eupalinos, the brilliant engineer of his greatest projects—but he alienated others, most famously the island’s greatest thinker, Pythagoras. At the height of his power, he was lured on false pretences to the Asian mainland by the Persian satrap, Oroetes, and was crucified on the slopes of Mt. Mycale, looking across to Samos in 522 bc.
After Polycrates’s death, the island languished and lost direction, under the rule of his brother, Syloson, who re turned from exile to Samos with Persian support. The Persian influence was resented by the islanders, and Samos participated in the Ionian revolt of 499 bc; it then defected back again to Persia at the Battle of Lade in 494 bc, fought for Persia at the Battle of Salamis (480 bc), and then reverted once again to the Greek cause at the decisive Battle of Mycale, in its own vicinity, in 479 bc. For almost 40 years after, Samos was a member of the Athenian League, paying its tribute in ships. The disruption caused by a territorial dispute with Miletus led to the island’s revolt against Athenian dominance in 440–439 bc, which was with difficulty suppressed by Pericles of Athens after a nine month siege. The terms of the armistice demanded that the walls of Samos be dismantled, its fleet handed over, and the city put under direct Athenian sovereignty: in 365 bc the local population was expelled and replaced by Athenian cleruchs—colonists with particular and privileged status. This state of affairs was only reversed when the Samians returned from exile in 321 bc as a result of Alexander the Great’s decree regarding exiles, put into effect after his death by his regent, Perdiccas. With the re turn of its islanders, Samos saw a new period of growth and stability, especially under the Antigonid rulers: probably at the instigation of Demetrius Poliorcetes, the city’s walls were rebuilt and the gymnasia complex begun.
The 3rd century bc saw the island produce two brilliant astronomers, Conon and Aristarchus; the latter appears to have arrived at a heliocentric model to explain the movement of the earth in relation to the sun and fixed stars, over 1,700 years before Copernicus formulated a similar hypothesis in modernity. From 281 bc the island was once again an important naval base, this time under Ptolemaic rule: in 129 bc it became part of the Roman province of Asia.
Under Roman rule, the island saw mixed fortunes: in 82 bc a large number of works of art were taken from the Sanctuary of Hera by Verres—so many, that it provoked the indignation of the Roman people. Cicero championed the island’s cause in his famous prosecution of Verres, and was later honoured in Samos , together with his brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, who was Governor of Asia from 61 to 58 bc. Antony and Cleopatra visited the island in 39 bc, perhaps consciously echoing in their relationship that of Zeus and Hera, who were also supposed to have celebrated their nuptials on the island. Samos seemed to be favoured by the Imperial family of Rome: Augustus wintered on Samos in 20–19 bc, restored some of the sculptures that had been removed and gave the islanders Roman citizen ship; Caligula is said to have contemplated rebuilding the palace of Polycrates; Claudius paid for the reconstruction of the Temple of Dionysos; Nero confirmed the island’s autonomy.
By comparison with many of the islands further south, the Early Christian community on the island appears not to have been particularly large, and the island may have been all but abandoned in the aftermath of 7th century Arab incursions. In the 10th century, Leo VI ‘The Wise’, Emperor of Byzantium, created the administrative ‘Theme of Samos ’, whose seat was at Smyrna; and it was from here that Nikephoros Phokas embarked on his expedition against Crete in 960. The island was allotted to the Latin Emperor after the 4th Crusade of 1204, but within 20 years had reverted to Byzantine government from Nicaea. After 1346 it was under Genoese rule but constant piracy forced the Genoese to move much of the population to their stronghold of Chios over the course of the next century. The Turks captured the severely depopulated island in the 1470s with relative ease.
The need for re-colonisation was met in 1572, when the Turkish admiral KΔ±lΔ±ç Ali Pasha obtained privileges from Suleyman the Magnificent for those (Christian) settlers who would come to the island from mainland Turkey and Greece. The island’s capital was created at Chora. Samos was briefly occupied by the Russians from 1772–24, and played a leading role in the Independence Movement of 1821. Three times the Samian fleet defeated Turkish attempts to land between 1821 and 1824, trouncing a combined Ottoman and Egyptian fleet in August 1824 at the Battle of Gerontas in the Straits of Mycale.
While recognising the independence of Greece, the London Protocol of 1830 excluded Samos from the Greek State; but special privileges and internal autonomy were won by the islanders in 1832, by which Samos paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultanate, but became a self-govern entity, with a Greek prince—the first was Stephanos Vogoridis (1834–50)—and a legislative council of elected islanders, who sat in the new capital at Vathi. Repeated insurrections finally culminated in an acceding to the popular desire for unification with Greece in 1913; the victory was bittersweet because Samos had never before, in all its history, been cut off from its hinterland on the mainland coast opposite; with the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations in 1923, the rift became permanent. During the Second World War, Samos saw occupation first by the Italians and then by the British; it was heavily bombarded and finally seized by German forces, giving rise to a fierce resistance movement by the islanders.
In the late 1960s the island began adapting its economy to large-scale tourism, a change given impetus by the construction of the airport between Pythagoreio and the Heraion. In 2000, devastating fires destroyed almost one third of the area of the island’s forests: fires on a smaller scale, since then, have become an almost yearly phenomenon.
Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.