1902 Encyclopedia > Corinth


CORINTH (now corrupted into Gortho) was originally called Ephyre, but the name _____ is as old as Homer. This most populous and thriving of Greek cities was situated at the southern end of the isthmus which connects Peloponnesus with the mainland of Hellas. The citadel, Acrocorinthus, occupied the summit of a precipitous rock, 1886 feet in height, which is in fact an offshoot from the Oneion, a mountain range skirting the northern shore of Achaia, but which appears, especially when viewed from the north, to be detached. From this height the view includes the Geraneian range at the opposite end of the isthmus, and the higher mountains of Northern Greece be-hind it, while in the foreground lies to the left the Corinthian Gulf stretching westward, and the Saronic Gulf to the east, together with the strip of flat land which divides the one of these from the other. Another narrow plain stretches along the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf in the direction of S icy on, and was proverbial in ancient times for the value of its agricultural produce. The city of Corinth lay not at the foot of the hill on which the citadel stood, but on a ledge or shelf of that hill at a height of about 200 English feet. A lofty wall—according to Strabo, 85 stadia (about ten miles) in length—inclosed both city and citadel, and two walls, each 12 stadia in length, inclosed the road to the harbour of Lechaaum on the Corinthian Gulf; Schcenus and Cenchrese, the two harbours belong-ing to the city on the Saronic Gulf, lay at a greater distance.
From its position Corinth enjoyed in prehistoric times two advantages especially important in the infancy of navi-gation. On the long gulf which stretched from Corinth westwards, called in early times after Crissa, the port of Delphi, and later after Corinth itself, vessels could sail for above ] 00 miles without losing sight of land and between fertile shores. And secondly, the natives of Corinth were skilful in dragging vessels of all kinds across from sea to sea, thus saving them the dangers of the perilous voyage round the Peloponnesus. That the Phoenicians did not overlook these advantages we know from the many traces of
Phoenician occupation remaining in later times, especially the worship of the Phoenician Athene, Aphrodite Urania (the Sidonian Astarte), and Melicertes (the Tyrian Melkarth).
The important cultus, at the isthmus, of Poseidon, the great divinity of the Ionians, proves the earliest Greek inhabitants of Corinth to have been Ionian, but Thucydides states that it was under iEolian princes. The earliest of these of whom we hear is Sisyphus, according to one legend lover of Medea, according to another grandfather of Bellerophon, the great local hero who tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and slew the monstrous Chimaera. The character of mingled greed and cunning, ascribed to Sisyphus, is doubtless intended to embody the qualities which distinguished the people of the commercial city from their rural neighbours. This was in the age preceding the Trojan War. On the return of the Heraclidae the Dorian invaders, after subduing the rest of Peloponnesus, attacked Corinth, and having mastered it proceeded against Megara and Athens. Corinth fell into the hands of a descendant of Hercules, named Aletes (the wanderer), and was recon-stituted on Dorian principles, but not, it would appear, with the same rigidity as Argos, Sicyon, and other cities, for we find eight tribes instead of the usual three, and it is certain that the aristocracy of the city did not disdain to lead in trade, and resembled rather the nobility of Venice than the pure-blooded warrior-caste of other Dorian cities. The most wealthy family was that of the Bacehiadae, the descendants of Aletes, who furnished first a succession of kings, and afterwards yearly prytaneis who ruled with kingly power. It was about 657 B.C. that Cypselus, a Bacchiad on his mother's side, succeeded in overthrowing this oligarchy and, by the aid of the commons, establishing his power at Corinth so firmly that he could even forego the foreign body-guard and the external supports of the Greek tyrant. His son and successor, Periander was some-times reckoned among the wise men of Greece, and probably did more than any other man to shape the colonial and mercantile policy of the city. Under him Corinth reached the summit of prosperity, but Periander's family was destroyed by internal dissensions, and his nephew Psammetichus was after a brief reign put down by the Spartans about 584 B.C.
It was in the period between Aletes and Psammetichus that lay the golden days of Corinth. Then were made a series of splendid discoveries and inventions, which increased the trade and multiplied the resources of the city, and enabled it to found the numerous colonies which were the basis at once of its wealth, its power, and its policy. To begin with the loftier arts. Arion graced the court of Periander, and secured for Corinth the honour of the in-vention of the dithyramb ; Eumelus and Eumolpus, both Corinthians, were among the earliest and the most cele-brated of the cyclic poets. Corinthian architecture was renowned until the later time when a light and ornate style of building took its origin and its name from the city. Corinthian pottery was early celebrated, and it is said that the art of ornamenting earthenware was improved at Corinth by Butades, Eucheir, and Eugrammus. Even paint-ing was either introduced into Greece, or was much improved, by the Corinthians Aridices, Ecphantus, and Cleanthes. Still it was in the useful rather than the ornamental and imaginative arts that Corinth most excelled. There the trireme was invented, and the machinery for the transport of ships carried to the highest perfection, while Corinthian bronzes, tables, coffers, and objects of luxury were renowned on all shores of the iEgean and Adriatic. One of the most remarkable of these pieces of handiwork was the well-known chest of Cypselus, still preserved at Olympia in the time of Pausanias, made of cedar and inlaid with a mul-titude of figures in gold and ivory, a miracle of archaic art.
The wealth and prosperity of the city caused its rulers to plan early a scheme of colonization. Professor Ernst Curtius has given reasons for supposing that at the time of the Lelantian war, of which Thucydides speaks, between Chalcis and Eretria in Eubcea, Corinth was, together with Samos, a firm ally of the former city, and that it was in company with the Chalcidians that the Corinthians made their first attempts at colonization. That these attempts were, through a series of years, made almost constantly in a western rather than an eastern direction was due to the position of iEgina, which island lay right in the track of travellers from Corinth to Asia Minor or the Euxine,—the jEginetans having maintained a constant hostility to the Corinthians from the earliest times, until their island was finally conquered by the Athenians, who had received for the war a detachment of ships sent from Corinth. It was in the 8th century that the two greatest colonies, Coreyra and Syracuse, were founded. Syracuse remained, even in the time of her greatest prosperity, a grateful and dutiful daughter, but Corcyra very soon after its foundation was engaged in hostilities with the mother-city, and, though reduced to obedience in the time of Periander, finally ousted Corinthian commerce from the northern part of the Adriatic, and maintained undivided supremacy over the cities of Dyrrhachium and Apollonia. But south of the straits of Sybota, which divided the southern point of Corcyra from the mainland, Corinth was supreme. To her the towns of Achaia, Phocis, and Locri, on both sides of the Corinthian Gulf, looked as their head; she ruled all the rich country watered by the Achelous, which region, indeed, became in time almost more Corinthian than the isthmus itself, while all the Dorian cities of Sicily and Southern Italy looked to the navy of Corinth to keep up their connection with the mother country.
It is said that Corinth adhered in a special manner to the customs of Phoenicia as regards colonies, at any rate the city was in this respect successful beyond the rest of Greece. Expeditions were directed to some promising point on the Illyrian or Acarnauian coast, the approval of the Delphic oracle was secured, and volunteers were invited from all parts of Greece. At the head of the colony was placed some cadet of the Bacchiadse, or another great family, and some of the mercantile nobility accompanied it, retaining in the new home much of the oligarchical predominance which they had enjoyed at home. It was probably the preservation of this aristocratic tinge which made the union closer between colony and mother-city, so that the Corinthian envoys could boast (Thucydides, i. 38) that Corinth was of all cities the most popular with her colonies ; and, with the exception of Corcyra, few of the new settlements gave the mother-city any trouble. Alone among cities Corinth imposed on all her colonies a uniform coinage, the different issues of which are so similar in appearance that it has been doubted if Corinth did not keep in her own hands all minting of silver.
After Psammetichus had been put down, a timocracy was instituted, with hierarchy of grades. Corinth set an early example in that system of political classification according to revenue which was afterwards adopted in Rome and other cities. At the same time, it is clear that in so com-mercial a city an organization of this kind would not produce an exclusive land-owning aristocracy.
It was about the middle of the 5th century B.C. that Corinth started upon a more restless and aggressive career. At that time her very existence was threatened by the growing greatness of Athens, which city had gained the mastery of Megara and predominant power among the cities of Achaia. Soon after the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, an Athenian fleet under Tolmides appeared in the Corinthian Gulf, and seizing upon Naupaetus, and expelling thence the Locrian colonists whom Corinth had stationed there to defend her interests, established in that city a colony of Messanian fugitives, in order to cut the com-munications of Corinth close to their base. Hence the bitter and vindictive animosity felt by the Corinthians towards Athens, which caused them, after that city had surrendered to Lysander, to urge upon the Spartans its total destruction. No sooner, however, was the Spartan supremacy undisputed, than a party among the Corinthians, whether seduced by Persian gold, or following notions of supposed expediency, began to cabal with Athens and Argos against the Lacedaemonians, with whom the aristo-cracy of the city still sided. Hence bitter dissensions and many calamities to the Corinthians, whose city was more than once the battle-field of parties, as well as of the Argive and Lacedaemonian troops. The events of the war hence arising, and called Corinthian, belong to the history of Greece. The city, weakened by sedition, fell easily into the hands of Philip II. of Macedon, whose successor, the fifth Philip, called it, in virtue of its splendid position, one of the three fetters of Greece. As the chief city of the Achaean League during the latter part of its existence, Corinth claimed a share in the 2d century in the latest glories of Greece. There Flamininus proclaimed the liber-ties of Greece; and as the ally of Rome, Corinth reached a high point of wealth and splendour. But that alliance was broken off, and the result was the total destruction of the city by Mummius in 146 B.C., and the sale of its inhabitants into slavery. The richness of the city at this period in all the accumulated results of Greek science and art was immense, as we know from the statements of Polybius, an eye-witness. The Romans secured a vast spoil of statues, pictures, and furniture, of which a part was purchased by Attalus of Pergamus, a part sent in many ships to Borne, and much also destroyed in mere wantonness. Notwith-standing, the place remained a quarry whence in after ages were dug innumerable treasures of art. The Corinthian territory was given to Sicyon, and the site lay waste until the time of Julius Caesar. The great dictator settled there a colony of needy Greeks and Roman freedmen, which he called after himself Laus Julia, and made the seat of government of Achaia. Between the new Corinth and the old the site was the only bond of connection, yet the historic splendours of the place seem to have mastered the minds of the new inhabitants, who before long began to resume all the local cults, and to claim the past glory of the city as their own. Latin, however, as we know from coins, remained the official language, and the duumviri were usually the freedmen of the emperors or of Roman nobles.
The new city, from its position, soon acquired a great trade with Epliesus, Thessalonica, and other cities. For this reason it attracted St Paul, who visited it more than once, and spent many months there in converse with Aquila and Priscilla, and in preaching in the synagogue. Hence were written the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, and here was founded a church which claimed for a long period the deepest anxieties of the apostle and after his death of Clement,—the temptations to sensual indulgence and antinomian heresies being here stronger than in most of the Greek cities.
Unfortunately, it is only of this second Corinth that we possess detailed descriptions. It was visited both by Strabo and Pausanias. From the former we learn that the sum-mit of the Acrocorinthus bore a little temple of Aphrodite, and that just below the summit gushed out the fountain Peirene, which once more rose to the surface down in the lower city. Just below this fountain were the remains of a marble building, supposed to have been the remains of the palace of the monarch Sisyphus. From the account of Pausanias (ii. ch. 1-4) we may gain a clear notion of the topography of the city and the isthmus. In the midst of the city was the market-place, commanded by a lofty statue of Pallas made of bronze, and surrounded by many temples, among others those of the Ephesian Artemis and of Fortune, and by statues standing in the open air. Hence three principal roads led in various directions. The first passed westwards towards Sicyon, leading by a temple of Apollo, the Odeum, and the tomb of the children of Medea, Mermerus and Pheres, whom a local legend asserted to have perished at the hands of the Corinthians, after they had brought their poisoned gifts to Glauce. A little further on was the temple of Athene Chalinitis (the bridler), so called because she bridled for Bellerophon the unruly Pegasus; the statue of the goddess was of wood and doubtless ancient, a fact which proves that the sack by Mummius cannot have been so complete as might have been imagined. Near this temple was a theatre, probably a work of Roman times, and a temple of the Roman Jupiter Capitolinus.
The second road led north towards the harbour of Lechaeum and the Corinthian Gulf. It first passed Propylasa, surmounted by two gilt quadriga? driven by Phaethon and Helios, and next the grotto where issued afresh the same fountain Peirene which rises near the summit of the Acrocorinthus, and filled a large basin with sweet water, used by the inhabitants for drinking, and as a bath in which to dip the vessels of Corinthian bronze while still red-hot, a process which was supposed to make their fineness unapproachable. The water-supply of the city was unrivalled, yet the emperor Hadrian constructed an aqueduct all the way from the Stymphalian Lake, a work, if we may believe Pausanias, of vain ostentation.
The third road led eastwards, first to the fashionable suburb of the city, a cypress-grove called Craneion. This quarter is well described in Becker's Charicles. It abounded with the life which distinguished Corinth from other cities, crowds of travellers, seeking both gain and pleasure, with the lively booths which offered the former, and the crowds of female slaves who ministered to the latter. Here was the tomb of Lais, to whom her fellow-citizens paid almost divine honours, and here, strangely, the monument of the great cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, who had passed his life in the midst of this gay and dissolute company. On the Craneion the road divided into two branches. Of these the more southerly ran to the harbour of Cenchrese, a roadstead fenced on both sides by pro-montories stretching out to sea, but not much assisted by art ; while the more important Lechaeum, on the other side of the isthmus, was almost entirely artificial. The more northerly branch of the road led to the little harbour of Schcenus, and the world-renowned spot where were celebrated every second year the Isthmian Games. These games were held in honour in early times of Melicertes, in later times of Poseidon, and close by were temples of both deities. That of Poseidon was not large; it contained statues of Poseidon, Amphitrite, and Thalassa, and in front was a crowd of statues of the victors in the games. The shrine of Melicertes stood under a pine; it was circular, and contained, as we know from coins, a statue of the divinity reclining on the back of a dolphin. Melicertes (also called Pakemon) had also a subterranean chapel where the most solemn oaths were administered, and it was said that perjurers seldom left the spot unpunished. Close to the temples was the stadium of the games made of white marble, and not far from it the road on which triremes were transported from sea to sea. There were also traces of a canal which, projected by Alexander the Great, resolved on by Julius Caesar, commenced by Nero, was never dug more than a few hundred yards inland from the Corinthian Gulf.
In the Middle Ages Corinth suffered many disasters. It was sacked by Alaric, and at a later period was most bitterly contended for by the Turks and the Venetians. During the Middle Ages the city occupied the hill of Acrocorinthus itself, not the ledge at its base, but it has now resumed its earlier position. The modern town is small and wretched, and retains few remains of antiquity. The most remarkable among these are seven columns of an exceedingly ancient temple of the Doric order, and some traces of the Boman amphitheatre.
The best authorities on the subject are—Ernst Curtius, Pelopon-
nesos, vol. ii. p. 514, and a dissertation in the Hermes, vol. x.;
Earth, Corinthiorum Commercii et Mercalurae Historiae I'articida,
Berlin, 1843 ; Dr "Wm. Smith's article in his Dictionary of Ancient
Geography. The autonomous coins afford valuable data for the
history of the Corinthian league, and the coins of Eoman times
offer representations of many of the most interesting objects of the
later city. (E.G.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries