Although small in size compared to some, Samos has played a significant role in Greek history.

The name Samos, probably given by the Phoenecians, means “a place somewhere high.” This refers to the Kerketeus mountain range that covers much of the island which is a continuation of Mount Mycale on the Turkish mainland. Other names for the island have included Parthenia, Imrasia, Anthemis, Doryssa and Phyllas.

The earliest archeological findings on Samos are at the Hill of Castro and provide evidence of human occupation as far back as the late Neolithic period (fourth millennium BC).

The first known inhabitants were the pre-Greek Pelasgic tribes of Asia Minor, who spread the worship of the Goddess Hera. Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus, was of immeasurable importance to Samos. Her sacred bird, the peacock, often appeared on Samian currency.

The next main influx of colonists were the Myceneans, including the mythical king Angaeus, one of the Argonauts and regarded in ancient times as the founder of the city of Samos where modern day Pythagorio now stands.

During the seventh century BC Samos established colonies as far afield as southern Spain, Italy and Egypt.

Samos reached its zenith of power under the rule of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos from 540 to 522BC. He seized power with his two brothers but established himself as sole ruler by murdering one and expelling the other. Polycrates was an effective and popular ruler, fortifying the city of Samos with a wall, protecting the port with a mole still in existence and having Eupalinus, the celebrated architect and engineer, construct a tunnel containing an aqueduct through Mount Ambelos to bring water to the ancient capital. Polycrates also commissioned the architects Rhoikos and Theodorus to build the great Hera temple (the Heraion), which brought so much wealth to Samos. Samos was a major naval power under Polycrates, with a fleet of one hundred ships of a new kind, the obtuse-bowed bireme Samaina.

Not all of the Samian inhabitants agreed with Polycrates rule. Certain aristocrats were exiled to prevent possible conspiracies. Another exile, self imposed, was Pythagoras, the philospher, mathematician and musician most famous for the theorem of the right angled triangle.

Polycrates forged an alliance with Egypt, but reneged to support Persia – most probably under Spartan influence. The Persian governor lured him to the mainland and murdered him. The most popular legend is he killed him by impalement and crucified his remains with his body facing towards Samos.[/one_half]

Many other people of genius flourished on Samos including:

  • the astronomer Aristarchus, with his heliocentric theory of the planets centuries before Copernicus
  • Agatharchus, a great painter who was the first to deal with scenography and perspective
  • Theodorus and Rhoikos, eminent artists and architects who, as mentioned above, designed the famous temple of Hera
  • Aesop, possibly a slave of African descent, responsible for the famous fables
  • Damo, daughter of Pythagoras and keeper of his secrets
  • Callistatus, founder of the 24-letter alphabet
  • and Kolaeus, the first to travel to the Atlantic.

Samos became less powerful after 440BC following an unsuccessful revolt against Athens, being forced to pay yearly tributes. Greece itself became a Roman Province in the second century BC with Samos valued for its healthy climate during winter, becoming a resort for officials and a treasure chest to be ransacked for Rome. Anthony and Cleopatra built a palace on Samos, Tiberius proclaimed the temple of Hera a sanctuary and the infamous Caligula planned to renovate the palace of Polycrates.

Samos then came under Byzantine rule and thus, remained Greek and Christian but the population declined over the centuries as the inhabitants abandoned the island, attacked by Germans, Syrians, Venetians and Turks amongst many others!

During Turkish rule, starting from the fifteenth century, Samos was so depopulated that new settlers had to be brought in, largely from Albania. The Turks allowed Samos to remain mainly autonomous and the population slowly increased.

Being so close to Turkey, Samos was very active in the Greek War of Independence. A major leader was Lykourgos Logothetis. Despite seeming to gain freedom under his leadership, Samos was not recognised within the limits of Greece and remained under Turkish rule when the Greek state was recognised in 1830.

Britain, France and Russia decided to declare Samos as an autonomous hegemony, obviously advantageous to the island. A long line of Turkish appointed Greek governors followed. Finally, in 1912, Samos became fully Greek once more, following a brief bombardment by two Italian warships during the revolution of Themistoklis Sofoulis.

The second world war brought two new occupations; the Italians from 1941 and then the Germans (following a brief period of freedom from September to November 1943). The aftermath of the following Greek civil war led to mass emigration, popular destinations being Australia, Canada, USA, South America and New Zealand. The recovery of the island’s economy since then has depended heavily on western European tourism.