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Corinth

Legends and History: The Basics

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Corinthian Capital from the Agora at Athens.

Corinthian Capital from the Agora at Athens.

CC Photo Flickr User Eustaquio Santimano
Corinth.jpg

The town and isthmus of Corinth from the Acropolis, Greece, 1887.

(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Corinth.jpg

Corinthian columns at the Temple of Octavia in the ancient city of Corinth, Greece, November 1961.

(Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Corinth is the name of an ancient Greek polis (city-state) and nearby isthmus that lent its name to a a set of Panhellenic games, a war, and a style of architecture. In works attributed to Homer, you may find Corinth referred to as Ephyre.

Corinth in the Middle of Greece

That it is called 'isthmus' means it is a neck of land, but the Isthmus of Corinth serves as more of an Hellenic waist separating the upper, mainland part of Greece and the lower Peloponnesian parts. The city of Corinth was a rich, important, cosmopolitan, commercial area, having one harbor that allowed trade with Asia, and another that led to Italy. From the 6th century B.C., the Diolkos, a paved route up to six meters wide designed for fast passage, led from the Gulf of Corinth on the west to the Saronic Gulf on the east.

"Corinth is called 'wealthy' because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbours, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other."
Strabo Geography 8.6

Passage from the Mainland to the Peloponnese

The land route from Attica into the Peloponnese passed through Corinth. A nine-kilometer section of rocks (the Sceironian rocks) along the land route from Athens made it treacherous -- especially when brigands took advantage of the landscape -- but there was also a sea route from the Piraeus past Salamis.

Corinth in Greek Mythology

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus, a grandfather of Bellerophon -- the Greek hero who rode Pegasus the winged horse -- founded Corinth. [This may be a story invented by Eumelos (fl. 760 B.C.), a poet of the Bacchiadae family.] This makes the city not one of the Dorian cities -- like those in the Peloponnese -- founded by the Heracleidae, but Aiolian (Aeolian). The Corinthians, however, claimed descent from Aletes, who was a descendant of Hercules from the Dorian invasion. Pausanias explains that at the time when the Heracleidae invaded the Peloponnese, Corinth was ruled by descendants of Sisyphus named Doeidas and Hyanthidas, who abdicated in favor of Aletes whose family kept the throne for five generations until the first of the Bacchiads, Bacchis., gained control

Theseus, Sinis and Sisyphus are among the names from mythology associated with Corinth, as the second century A.D. geographer Pausanias says:

"[2.1.3] In the Corinthian territory is also the place called Cromyon from Cromus the son of Poseidon. Here they say that Phaea was bred; overcoming this sow was one of the traditional achievements of Theseus. Farther on the pine still grew by the shore at the time of my visit, and there was an altar of Melicertes. At this place, they say, the boy was brought ashore by a dolphin; Sisyphus found him lying and gave him burial on the Isthmus, establishing the Isthmian games in his honor."

...

"[2.1.4] At the beginning of the Isthmus is the place where the brigand Sinis used to take hold of pine trees and draw them down. All those whom he overcame in fight he used to tie to the trees, and then allow them to swing up again. Thereupon each of the pines used to drag to itself the bound man, and as the bond gave way in neither direction but was stretched equally in both, he was torn in two. This was the way in which Sinis himself was slain by Theseus."
Pausanias Description of Greece, translated by W.H.S. Jones; 1918

Pre-Historic and Legendary Corinth

Archaeological finds show that Corinth was inhabited in the neolithic and early Helladic periods. Australian classicist and archaeologist Thomas James Dunbabin (1911-1955) says the nu-theta (nth) in the name Corinth shows it is a pre-Greek name. The oldest preserved building survives from the 6th century B.C. It is a temple, probably to Apollo. The earliest ruler's name is Bakkhis, who may have ruled in the ninth century. Cypselus overthrew Bakkhis' successors, the Bacchiads, c.657 B.C., after which Periander became tyrant. He is credited with having created the Diolkos. In c. 585, an oligarchical council of 80 replaced the last tyrant. Corinth colonized Syracuse and Corcyra at about the same time it got rid of its kings.

" And the Bacchiadae, a rich and numerous and illustrious family, became tyrants of Corinth, and held their empire for nearly two hundred years, and without disturbance reaped the fruits of the commerce; and when Cypselus overthrew these, he himself became tyrant, and his house endured for three generations...."
ibid.

Pausanias gives another account of this early, confusing, legendary period of Corinthian history:

"[2.4.4] Aletes himself and his descendants reigned for five generations to Bacchis, the son of Prumnis, and, named after him, the Bacchidae reigned for five more generations to Telestes, the son of Aristodemus. Telestes was killed in hate by Arieus and Perantas, and there were no more kings, but Prytanes (Presidents) taken from the Bacchidae and ruling for one year, until Cypselus, the son of Eetion, became tyrant and expelled the Bacchidae.11 Cypselus was a descendant of Melas, the son of Antasus. Melas from Gonussa above Sicyon joined the Dorians in the expedition against Corinth. When the god expressed disapproval Aletes at first ordered Melas to withdraw to other Greeks, but afterwards, mistaking the oracle, he received him as a settler. Such I found to be the history of the Corinthian kings."
Pausanias, op.cit.

Classical Corinth

In the middle of the sixth century, Corinth allied with Spartan, but later opposed the Spartan King Cleomenes' political interventions in Athens. It was aggressive actions of Corinth against Megara that led to the Peloponnesian War. Although Athens and Corinth were at odds during this war, by the time of the Corinthian War (395 - 386 B.C.), Corinth had joined Argos, Boeotia and Athens against Sparta.

Hellenistic and Roman Era Corinth

After the Greeks lost to Philip of Macedonia at Chaeronea, the Greeks signed terms Philip insisted on so he could turn his attention to Persia. They made oaths not to overthrow Philip or his successors, or one another, in exchange for local autonomy and were joined together in a federation that we today call the League of Corinth. Members of the Corinthian League were responsible for levies of troops (for use by Philip) depending on the size of the city.

Romans besieged Corinth during the second Macedonian War, but the city continued in Macedonian hands until the Romans decreed it independent and part of the Achaean confederacy after Rome defeated the Macedonians an Cynoscephalae. Rome kept a garrison in Corinth's Acrocorinth -- the city's high spot and citadel.

Corinth failed to treat Rome with the respect it demanded. Strabo describes how Corinth provoked Rome:

"The Corinthians, when they were subject to Philip, not only sided with him in his quarrel with the Romans, but individually behaved so contemptuously towards the Romans that certain persons ventured to pour down filth upon the Roman ambassadors when passing by their house. For this and other offences, however, they soon paid the penalty, for a considerable army was sent thither...."

Roman consul Lucius Mummius destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C., looting it, killing the men, selling the children and women, and burning what remained.

" [2.1.2] Corinth is no longer inhabited by any of the old Corinthians, but by colonists sent out by the Romans. This change is due to the Achaean League. The Corinthians, being members of it, joined in the war against the Romans, which Critolaus, when appointed general of the Achaeans, brought about by persuading to revolt both the Achaeans and the majority of the Greeks outside the Peloponnesus. When the Romans won the war, they carried out a general disarmament of the Greeks and dismantled the walls of such cities as were fortified. Corinth was laid waste by Mummius, who at that time commanded the Romans in the field, and it is said that it was afterwards refounded by Caesar, who was the author of the present constitution of Rome. Carthage, too, they say, was refounded in his reign."
Pausanias; op. cit.

By the time of the New Testament's St. Paul (author of Corinthians), Corinth was a booming Roman town, having been made a colony by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. -- Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis. Rome rebuilt the city in Roman fashion, and settled it, mostly with freedmen, who grew prosperous within two generations. In the early 70s A.D., Emperor Vespasian established a second Roman colony at Corinth -- Colonia Iulia Flavia Augusta Corinthiensis. It had an amphitheater, a circus, and other characteristic buildings and monuments. After the Roman conquest, the official language of Corinth was Latin until the time of Emperor Hadrian, when it became Greek.

Located by the Isthmus, Corinth was responsible for the Isthmian Games, second in importance to the Olympics and held every two years in the spring.

 

Also Known As: Ephyra (old name)

Examples:

The highpoint or citadel of Corinth was called the Acrocorinth.

Thucydides 1.13 says Corinth was the first Greek city to build war galleys:

"The Corinthians are said to have been the first that changed the form of shipping into the nearest to that which is now in use, and at Corinth are reported to have been made the first galleys of all Greece."

Take a Quiz on Ancient Corinth

References

  • "Corinth" Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • "A Roman Circus in Corinth," by David Gilman Romano; Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 2005), pp. 585-611.
  • "Greek Diplomatic Tradition and the Corinthian League of Philip of Macedon," by S. Perlman; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 34, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1985), pp. 153-174.
  • "The Corinth That Saint Paul Saw," by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor; The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 47, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), pp. 147-159.
  • "The Early History of Corinth," by T. J. Dunbabin; The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 68, (1948), pp. 59-69.
  • A Geographical and Historical Description of Ancient Greece, by John Anthony Cramer
  • "Corinth (Korinthos)." The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (3 ed.) Edited by M. C. Howatson
Also see "Corinth: Late Roman Horizonsmore," by Guy Sanders, from Hesperia 74 (2005), pp.243-297.

 

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