Ancient Corinth was a major Greek city in ancient times. It allied itself with Sparta against Athens and contributed to the war against Persia. In 146 BC it was sacked by the Romans which left the city virtually uninhabited until in 44 BC when Julius Caesar founded a colony at the site. By the 1st century AD Corinth had become an important administrative and trade centre and was the provincial capital of Greece. Around 50 AD Saint Paul visited Corinth and spend 18 months in the city. Its decline started in the 3rd century AD, although it was occupied by a number of foreign powers until 1858 when the city was destroyed by an earthquake.
Located on the Isthmus of Corinth approximately 5 km from the modern-day city of Corinth. Ancient Corinth was, according to mythology, founded by King Sisyphus who is famous for being forced to roll a large boulder up a hill in Hades for eternity. Sisyphus was succeeded by his son and then by his grandson, Bellerophon, whose winged-horse Pegasus, was the symbol of Corinth and found on Corinthian coins.
Corinth dates back to 5000 BCE and Neolithic times when its original name was believed to have been Ephyra. In the 10th century BCE its population began to grow, and between 747 to 650 BCE, Corinth underwent significant development with the construction of public buildings and monuments. It was during this period that it became a unified state and in 733 BCE, it established colonies on Corfu and on Sicily. By 730 BCE, Corinth was to have a population of over 5,000.
It was also during this period that Corinth became renowned for the quality of its pottery. Its design, with its innovative figure decoration, was to be dominant in Greece for 200 years. The export of this and stone and bronze ware was to make Corinth a significant trading hub.
In 657 BCE it was taken over and ruled by the tyrant Cypselus, who removed the ruling Bacchiad aristocracy from power. He ruled from 658–628 BCE, during his rule he built temples to Apollo and Poseidon.
In 585 BCE, Corinth was ruled over by a council consisting of 80 men. They were concerned about the ambitions of Argos so became an ally of Sparta, although they opposed Sparta’s intervention in Athens. Corinth also fought in the Persian Wars (499 – 448 BCE) with the other Greek city states and was a major participant having sent 400 soldiers to Thermopylae and 40 warships to the Battle of Salamis.
At one time, Corinth was one of the largest and most important cities of Greece, and in 400 BCE had a population of 90,000.
During the First (460-445 BCE) and Second (431-404 BCE) Peloponnesian War - which were the wars between Athens and Sparta - Corinth suffered particularly badly. Following this they became disillusioned with Sparta due to it not completely destroying Athens after their victory in 404 BC. Corinth was also concerned over Spartan expansion in Greece and Asia Minor, so formed an alliance with Argos, Boeotia, Thebes, and Athens to fight Sparta in the Corinthian Wars (395-386 BCE). This was mainly fought at sea and on Corinthian territory and was very costly for Corinth. In 338 BCE Corinth suffered a defeat against Philip II (383-336BC) of Macedon and this led to the occupation of Corinth by the Macedonians who remained there until 243 BCE when Corinth joined the Achaean League. The League was disbanded following the defeat by the Romans in 146 BC, which resulted in Corinth being sacked and all the men being killed, and the women and children being sold into slavery. Following this the city was virtually uninhabited until in 44 BCE when Julius Caesar (100 – 44BCE) founded a colony at the site and organised the agricultural land into plots for distribution to Roman settlers. By the 1st century AD Corinth had become an important administrative and trade centre and was the provincial capital of Greece.
Around 50 AD Saint Paul visited Corinth and spend 18 months in the city, making it the centre for Christianity in Greece. During his time in the city he was accused of preaching which undermined the Mosiac Law. It was held that he had not broken any Roman Law and so was permitted to continue his teachings, something he continued to do until departing for Ephesus. Later he was to write two letters to the Corinthians, which are in the New Testament, although it has been suggested that there were actually four, with two of them being lost.
The city began to decline from the 3rd century AD and it was attacked in 267 and 396 by the Germanic Heruli and Alaric tribes. It also suffered in 365 and then again in 375 from an earthquake, which inflicted substantial damage on it. The city was rebuilt but covered a much smaller area.
During the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527–565), a large stone wall about six miles long was built to protect the city from the barbarians in the north. The decline, however continued through the 6th century and until the 9th century when its decline ceased and it began to prosper, although another earthquake in 856 is believed to have killed around 45,000 people. Its prosperity continued through to the 12th century when it became a flourishing centre for the silk industry.
Corinth’s prosperity resulted in the city being attacked and plundered in 1147 by the Normans under King Roger II (1130 – 1154) of Sicily, who carried off many of the silk weavers resulting, once again, in the decline of the city.
In 1210 Corinth came under the control of the Crusaders and in 1395 the city was captured by the Ottomans. The Knights of the Order of Malta raided the city in 1611 inflicting substantial damage on it. Between 1687 to 1715, the city was ruled by the Venetians, although by that time only 1500 inhabitants lived there. The period of Ottoman rule ended in 1829/1830, and Corinth became Greek again. In 1858 the city was destroyed by an earthquake and was not rebuilt; the new city being built about 5 km to the northwest.
Excavation of the site began in the 1890’s and led to the site becoming a popular tourist attraction.
On entry to the site, one of the first buildings that is noticed is the Temple of Apollo.
This was built in Doric style on the ruins of earlier temple and is a good example of a peripteral temple, which means that it has a single row of pillars on all sides. The roof was supported by 38 columns, 6 columns on the front façades and fifteen on the long sides, of which only 7 remain today. The temple dates back to 550-530 BCE. The construction of these columns is unusual as they are made from a single piece of stone rather than being constructed with column drums.
It was the Corinthians who developed the Corinthian order, the third main style of classical architecture. The other two being the Doric and the Ionic.
The majority of the surviving buildings date from the Roman era and the 1st century AD. This includes the forum, which was larger than that of the one in Rome, it contained theatres, basilicas, baths and shops and temples, including the temple of Aphrodite, Poseidon, and Demeter who were worshipped along with the Roman gods. These temples were originally clad in marble with a staircase on the east side and they stood on a podium consisting of rubble and cement.
The Rostra constructed of marble dominated the front of the terrace of the Upper Forum.
In the shape of an open propylon placed on a pedestal, it dates from the middle of the 1st century AD. The Rostra was the place for public ceremonies and where the citizens could be addressed. It is also believed to have been where St Paul addressed the Corinthians and where he was brought to be questioned by the Roman Proconsul when accused of subversive teaching. It was found that his teaching did not constitute an offense against Roman law, so he was able to continue. During the Byzantine period a church as built at this location.
Still to be seen is the remains of the paved Lechaion Road, 25 feet wide, and still containing much of its paving.
Originally it was unpaved and open to wheeled traffic but was paved with limestone slabs in the time of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) when its use became restricted to pedestrians only. Shops were located on either side of the road, the remains of which can be seen. Also, on the west side of the road was the basilica which was believed to have been used as a courthouse.
The Lechaion Road was the main north-south road of the Roman city. This linked the Agora to the harbour of Lechaion 3kms to the north.
The agora was the centre of political, business and social life in the city.
The city also has many other ruins including the Peirine fountain complex. By the 2nd century BC this consisted of six chambers which accessed 3 deep basin which were supplied with water by conduits running under the forum from four large reservoirs.
The fountain is housed within a large rectangular court. In later years the ground level rose, and a small chapel and cemetery occupied the court.
The site contains a museum where many of the archaeological finds are displayed. These include mosaics, statues and every day object including a selection of the pottery which Ancient Corinth was famous for.
The museum was constructed in 1932 to house the many items found at the site. In 1951 the west wing was added, and the museum was organised around two atriums. In 2007-2008 the museum underwent an extension and in 2015 the east and south wing were developed.