Ancient Greek City of Corinth

Remains of the Temple of Apollo in Corinth. In the background, one can see the walls of the Acrocorinth on top of the hill. Credit: Angel M. Felicisimo Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

The ancient Greek city of Corinth was founded in the Neolithic Period sometime between 5000 to 3000 BC, but it became a major city-state in the 7th century BC.

According to Pausanias, a myth has it that the city was founded by Corinthos, a descendant of the god Zeus. Alternatively, it was believed to have been founded by the goddess Ephyra, a daughter of the Titan Oceanus, thus the ancient name of the city (Ephyra).

Its strategic location at the intersection of land routes—from the Balkan peninsula of Aimos and mainland Greece on towards the Peloponnese—made it an important trading hub. In addition, its waterways connect the western Mediterranean to its Eastern counterpart and Asia Minor. This meant that from very early on, this instilled in the region enormous potential for communication, growth, and prosperity.

Corinth has been known since the Mycenaean period. Homer refers to it as “prosperous” (αφνειός) (Iliad, Book 2, line 570) because of its especially fertile soil. This produced a great amount of agricultural goods for trade. By the 8th to 7th century BC, Corinthians had begun founding colonies such as Corcyra in the Ionian Sea and Syracuse in Sicily. It thus became an indisputably vital part of the Mediterranean.

The city became known for its rich architecture, especially for the elegant Corinthian column with the fluted shape. It also came to be known for the invention of vase painting, characterized by black figures depicting human and animal figures on a cream or red background.

Remains of the Fountain of Peirene in Corinth. Credit: Carole Raddato Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

The legendary Fountain of Peirene at Corinth

In antiquity, Corinth was famous for the legendary Fountain of Peirene. As is true of all ancient Greek cities, there is a fascinating mythical story related to its landmarks. The fountain, specifically, was initially formed by the great winged horse, the Pegasus, which struck the ground with his hoof, cracking the earth open. The nymph Peirene, the wife of Neptune, filled the cavern that opened with her tears as a result of the death of her son Cenchrias, who was accidentally killed by Artemis, goddess of nature, vegetation, childbirth, and animals. Peirene wept so much she dissolved into the spring, creating an eternal source of water.

Sometime later, Bellerophon, the son of the king of Corinth, was tasked with killing the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster with the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. Knowing he could not defeat this creature without the help of the gods,  Bellerophon decided to sleep in the Temple of Athena, hoping for divine inspiration. That night, the goddess visited him in a dream and brought him a golden bridle, telling him to tame Pegasus. Pegasus had returned to Corinth to drink from the Fountain of Peirene. Bellerophon rode it and defeated the Chimera by flying above it and dropping a great block of iron into the monster’s throat.

To celebrate the legendary origins of the fountain, each successive ruler of Corinth built their own increasingly elaborate enclosure for the fountain.

In 146 BC, the Romans defeated the powerful Corinthians at the Battle of Corinth and soon took control of all of Greece. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar was ordered to rebuild the city and its famous fountain. The Romans decorated the Fountain of Peirene with a six-chambered structure and painted lively frescoes of aquatic life around the walls of the original Greek grotto. An elaborate facade was built by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. It stands to this day.

Early days and apogee of Corinthos

In the 8th century BC, Corinth was ruled by the Bacchiadae kinship. These members belonged to a Doric clan. During their rule (c. 750-650 BC), Corinth became a unified city-state with buildings and temples erected. In 733 BC, Corinth established colonies at Corcyra and Syracuse.

In 657 BC, Cypselus, a polemarch, received an oracle from Delphi. He interpreted this to mean that he should rule the city. He then seized power and sent the Bacchiadae to exile. Cypselus (or Kypselos) was the first tyrant of Corinth. He ruled from 658 to 628 BC, expelling his enemies. He famously built temples to Apollo and Poseidon. Excavations show that, in the 7th century BC, a street plan developed with the addition of roads parallel to the streets of the Geometric Period, channeling traffic from the south and west towards the north.

It was during the 7th to 6th century BC that Corinth attained economic prosperity under the rule of the tyrant Cypselus and later his son Periander. Its grandeur was marked by splendid buildings such as the Temple of Apollo and the popular Isthmian Games—which became the Panhellenic Games—in 584 BC. These were held at the Corinthian sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite at Isthmia. People throughout Greece flocked to the city to enjoy the games, increasing its fame and influence.

By the later 5th and early 4th centuries BC, Corinth was organized and formalized, giving the impression of a thoroughly urban space. In the Fountain of Peirene, draw basins were added. A race course followed the southernmost Archaic road, and the houses which flanked it were replaced by larger complexes. A bath complex was established. Moreover, the race track was realigned, and the South Stoa was constructed.

Corinth: Overshadowed by Athens

By the end of the 6th century BC, the rise of Athens as a great nautical power and its dominance in the production of ceramic vases in Mediterranean trade gradually overshadowed the influence of the Corinthians. This was particularly true following the Persian Wars (490-479 BC) during which, despite their powerful participation, the Corinthians were forced to yield to the primacy of the Athenians.

During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Corinth allied with Sparta against Athens. However, while the Spartans defeated the Athenians, the Corinthians were not properly compensated for their contribution to the war and were dismayed by Sparta’s imperialistic tendencies. In the Corinthian War (395-387 BC) that erupted, Corinth sided with Athens, Thebes, and Argos against Sparta. The coalition, however, failed to halt Sparta’s hegemony in Greece even though it was weakened by the war.

After the war, the city of Corinth did not manage to regain its former force and glory. With the organization of a Panhellenic Conference in Corinth in 337 BC by King Philip II of Macedon, the then growing power in the Greek world, Corinth, temporarily returned to center stage. However, it soon succumbed to the Macedonians, as did the rest of Greece.

In 280 BC, Corinth joined the second Achaean League along with other northern and central Peloponnese cities to rival the Macedonians. In 243 BC, the league, led by Aratus of Sicyon, cast off the Macedonian yoke. About a century later, the Achaean League fought against the Romans, who had begun conquering parts of Greece. The two armies clashed in the crucial Battle of Leukopetra in the region of Isthmia in 146 BC. The Romans crushed the Greek force under the command of General Lucius Mummius.

Greek and Roman historians, including Cicero, Strabo, and Pausanias, wrote that the military defeat was followed by the complete destruction and devastation of Corinth.

In 44 BC, Corinth was re-established and rebuilt as a colony and appointed as the administrative capital of Achaea by Julius Ceasar, who also ordered the construction of an amphitheater. Shortly after, however, he was assassinated. Under the Romans, Corinth became a major city inhabited by Greeks, Romans, and Jews. Today, only the Temple of Apollo remains from the pre-Roman era.

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