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Ancient Corinth and Acrocorinth

Ancient Corinth, Greece

Ancient Corinth

According to myth, the first kings of Corinth were descendants of Sisyphos, the man who was punished by the Gods for his hubris by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again when they came near the top, repeating this action for eternity.

Thanks to traffic and trade over the Isthmos, the narrow strip of land that connects the Peloponnesos to the mainland of Greece and Attika, this ancient city, whose foundation dates back to the 10th century BCE, could easily compete in terms of wealth and fame with Athens and Thebes. Until the middle of the 6th century BCE Corinth's main export product were the black-figured vases, many of which made their way to several colonies in Magna Graecia.

The great temple on its Acropolis (the Acrocorinth) was dedicated to Aphrodite. Corinth was one of the most important cult centres for the Goddess of Love throughout its history. According to some sources, there were more than a thousand temple maidens serving at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite. Corinth was also famous for hosting Games similar to those in Olympia. They took place in Isthmia, hence the name Isthmian Games.

Ancient Corinth

Around 730 BCE the city started to found colonies like on the island of Kerkyra (Corfu) and like the city of Syracuse in Sicily. In 664 BCE Corinth and Kerkyra clashed in what is now known as the first Greek naval battle in history. In the 7th century BCE, when Corinth was ruled by the tyrants Kypselos and Periander, the city sent out more colonists to found cities, such as Poteidaia on the Chalkidiki peninsula, Ambrakia, Apollonia, and Anaktorion, and together with its colony Kerkyra the cities of Leuka and Epidamnos.

The city was an important participant in the Persian Wars, as it joined Athens in the Battle of Salamis with the second largest fleet contingent. Also in the Battle of Plataiai (479 BCE) the city participated with a large contingent. But it soon came to a rift with Athens when in 462 BCE the Athenian Kimon with his troops crossed the Corinthian territory without permission. It came to an open war in which Corinth defeated in league with Epidauros the Athenians at Halieis, but later lost an important naval battle in the Saronic Gulf. Only some ten years later, in 451 BCE, a ceasefire and later on a peace treaty were agreed upon with Athens.

However, the dispute continued to smolder and eventually became one of the key factors that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. When Corinth got involved in the internal political turmoil of the Kerkyrian colony of Epidamnos, its fleet first suffered a serious defeat. But in 433 BCE Corinth managed to win the naval battle near the Sybota islands just off the coast of Epeiros, which made Kerkyra turn to Athens with a request for help. As a consequence, Corinth joined the side of Sparta. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, in the face of the increasing hegemony of Sparta, the city's government decided to switch sides and move closer to the Athenians. This resulted in the outbreak of the Corinthian War in 394 BCE, in which Corinth and Athens once again fought together with Thebes and Argos against Sparta. Two years later Corinth witnessed a revolution and became for the first time in its long history a democracy. The new government managed to establish a political union with the city state of Argos. In 390 BCE internal political turmoil plunged the city almost into a civil war when a large number of its citizens fought with each other outside the walls. But in 386 BCE Sparta managed to restore its hegemony over the other Greek city states. The political union between Corinth and Argos was abolished and an aristocratic oligarchy, favourable to the politics of Sparta, was installed.

In 337 BCE Corinth fell under the rule of the Macedonians. After the murder on king Philip II of Macedonia in 336 BCE the Federal Assembly in Corinth chose his son Alexander the Great as the commanding general of the military campaign against Persia, which had already been planned by Philip. In the subsequent period, the city was under the rule of Macedonian noblemen. During this time, Corinth became the most populous city in Greece and was known far and wide for its thriving economic and cultural life. In 243 BCE the city was attacked and captured by the strategist of the Achaean League called Aratos. Under the reign of this important statesman Corinth joined this league, but when its citizens, dissatisfied with his government, turned to the Spartan king Kleomenes III with a request for help, Aratos handed over the rule of Corinth to the Macedonian king Antigonos III in 224 BCE. The victory of the Romans in the Battle of Kynoskephalai in 197 BCE brought the Corinthians liberation from the Macedonian tutelage, because the Romans forced the Macedonian garrison to withdraw. But after the expulsion of the Macedonians Corinth joined once again the Achaean League and now ran a very anti-Roman policy.

When the Achaean League declared war on Sparta in 146 BCE, a military clash with the Roman armies became unavoidable. The victorious Romans under the command of the general Lucius Mummius besieged Corinth, destroyed it, and murdered or enslaved all surviving inhabitants. The area fell partly to Sikyon, the predominant part was declared "ager publicus" and handed over to Roman colonists.

Although there is archaeological evidence for a small revival after the destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE, it took more than a century before the city was re-founded in 44 BCE by Gaius Iulius Caesar as a Roman colony under the name "Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis". According to the Roman historian Appianus, the settlers were freedmen from Rome. Under the Romans, Corinth became the administrative seat of the province of Achaea in southern Greece, and for several decades the city was a Latin-speaking island in the midst of a Greek environment.

As early as the 2nd century CE, Corinth became the seat of a diocese, at the latest in the 4th century, the seat of a metropolitan bishopric, and it remained in that position until the rise of Athens at the beginning of the 9th century. In 267 CE the city was destroyed by the invasion of the Goths and Herulians, but quickly rebuilt. For more than a hundred years, Corinth was able to experience a late flowering, before it was plundered and sacked by Alaric I in 395 CE during the invasion of the Visigoths in Greece. Many of its citizens were sold into slavery. Nevertheless, Corinth could recover once again. In 521 CE the city was heavily damaged as a result of a severe earthquake, but rebuilt by the Emperor Iustinianus I. A few decades later, the Slavic invasions in Greece, starting around 580 CE, made almost all life in the ancient city impossible. Only after decades did it come back to a modest economic rise.

In 1147 the Gulf of Corinth became the operational base of Norman Roger II against the region of Arta. Roger soon occupied Corinth himself and resettled all native silk weavers to Palermo. However, soon the city was re-incorporated by Byzantium. In 1202, a high Byzantine official, Leon Sguros, managed to become master of the city, but only two years later his rule was ended by the participants of the Fourth Crusade who took the city by force. In 1210, Corinth became part of the newly created Principality of Achaia and thus part of the Latin Empire. In the following years, the city had several rulers, who made it the scene of bloody battles over influence in southern Greece. From 1421 to 1458 it was in Byzantine possession. In 1458 the Ottomans took power in Corinth, which had already become a completely insignificant city by that time. In 1611, the Knights of the Order of Malta made a raid on Corinth, which damaged the city even more. From 1687 to 1715, the Venetians ruled the place, in which only 1500 inhabitants lived. The period of Ottoman rule ended in 1829/1830, and Corinth became Greek again. At the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, it had been considered for a time that Corinth should become the capital of the free Hellenic state. On the 21sf of February 1858, the ancient city of Corinth was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt six kilometres to the northeast. Today, immediately adjacent to and for a big part right on top of the ancient settlement area is the village of Archaia Korinthos. Since the start of tourism in Greece in the 19th century, the ruins of Ancient Corinth with its temples, fountains, theatre, agora, shops, and paved streets have attracted many visitors.

Temple of Apollo in Cornith
Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollon, built in the middle of the 6th century BCE, is probably the most famous testimony of the splendour of the ancient city. A particular feature of the temple is the use of monolithic columns rather than the more commonly used column drums. Seven columns remain standing today. Although only a small part of the ruins of the city has been excavated and so much has been destroyed during many invasions and wars, some remains of the buildings as they are today, together with their 2D and 3D archaeological reconstructions, still manage to give the visitor an idea of what Corinth must have looked like during the time when it was one of the most important Roman cities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Temple of Apollo in Corinth
Temple of Apollo

Noteworthy is the great agora, which probably dates back to the 4th century BCE and would not have changed much during the following centuries. To the east of the agora the remains of the Basilica Iulia can be seen, a courthouse built by the Emperor Claudius in 44 CE. In the middle of the agora can be found the so-called "bèma" or "rostrum" - a platform where important juridical and political decisions where announced to the citizens of Corinth. It is being claimed by Christians as the place where the proselytiser Paul was questioned by Gallio, proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. However, archaeological and historical research has proven this claim to be unsubstantial. Even the very presence of Paul in Corinth as well as his activities there have become more than doubtful. In the Middle Ages this place was overbuilt by a church.

Lechaion Road, Corinth
Lechaion Street

In the north of the agora, an elaborately decorated arched gateway of the 1st century CE formed the beginning of the magnificent Lechaion Street, which was preserved in its original state until the 10th century. Even today, the paved street that was bordered by galleries featuring shops with all kinds of products from all over the Roman Empire and beyond, is still very impressive to walk on. The Lechaion Street was a kind of "shopping mile" where almost all public life took place. There is also a well-preserved latrine to admire. During the 11th and 12th centuries the area around the Lechaion Street was where the Byzantine aristocracy of the city built its rich houses. In the 17th century, the palace of the Ottoman Bey, governor of the city, of which hardly anything remains today, was built north of it.

In the south, the agora is bordered by the 154 m long Stoa, which was built by Philip II of Macedonia after 338 BCE as a guest house for the deputies of the Corinthian Confederation. At the back of it there were numerous shops. During the period of Roman rule, the southern part of the Stoa functioned as the administrative seat of the Isthmian Games.

Fountain of Peirene, Corinth
Fountain of Peirene

Next to the arched gateway that leads onto the Lechaion Street lies the well house of the spring of Peirene, which was famous for its clear water. It was lavishly decorated and its arcades were once equipped with several statues. Poets came to drink from its water in search for inspiration, as the spring had been linked to swift-winged Pegasos.  

Roman Odeion, Corinth
Roman Odeion

Also worthy of mention are two impressive buildings lying to the north-west of the parking and entrance of the archaeological site and museum. The Odeion (or concert hall), dating from the 1st century CE, was substantially enlarged during the 2nd century by none other than Herodes Attikos, known from the Odeion in Athens. And the large Greek-period theatre (from the 4th century BCE, but with many later alterations), was replaced in the Roman period by an arena-equipped building, where even the performance of naval battles, the so-called Naumachiai, was possible.

Corinth Ancient Theater
Ancient Theater

Acrocorinth

Acrocorinth

The akropolis of Ancient Corinth (called the "Acrocorinth") lies 1 km to the southeast, located on a 575 m high table mountain. It was already fortified in Antiquity but the walls and towers that can be seen today, are mostly of Frankish and Venetian times. It is considered to be the largest, highest, and most spectacular akropolis of Ancient Greece.

Acrocorinth

The earliest traces of human occupation date to Neolithic times. People chose this table mountain not only for its obviously very strategic and easily defendable position, but also for the presence of a copious source of fresh water: the spring of Peirene. From the Acrocorinth the Isthmos and its fertile arable fields could be guarded. The choice of this location was apparently a very good one because the fortifications that were built later on, served the population of Corinth and its rulers well into Mediaeval Times.

Shortly after 2,000 BCE the Early Bronze Age settlement was destroyed for reasons that are unclear until today. During the Middle and Late Helladic Periods the Acrocorinth seemed to have known no human presence whatsoever, in contrast to neighbouring settlements like Korakou and Lechaion that had a thriving community in those times.

It took almost a thousand years before a new settlement appeared on the Acrocorinth, around 1,000 BCE, a time when Argos ruled Corinth. In the 8th century BCE Corinth was a flourishing city and became independent politically and militarily. The first fortifications of the Acrocorinth date from about a century later, when tyrants like Kypselos and his son Periandros ruled Corinth.

Acrocorinth

The city experienced many ups and downs in its long history, until it reached its first peak as capital city of the Hellenic Federation of city states. However, in 146 BCE the Roman consul Lucius Mummius ordered the complete destruction of the city and Acrocorinth. It was not until Iulius Caesar rebuilt the city as a Roman colony in 44 BCE, that a settlement re-appeared on the Acrocorinth as well. During several centuries Ancient Corinth was a very important and rich Roman city, until invasions of the Goths in 267 and 395 CE and a number of earthquakes (especially those of 357 and 521 CE) destroyed it, although it was never completely abandoned. Starting with the Norman invasions of 1147 and up until the 19th century, Corinth and the Acrocorinth saw many different occupants and rulers. All of them participated in enlarging and improving the fortifications of the Acrocorinth and its buildings. In 1205 the Byzantine despot Leon Sgouros defended the Acrocorinth against the crusaders Otto de la Roche and Gottfried I. of Villehardouin, who could only take the citadel after a more than three year long siege and then incorporated it into their Sovereign State of Achaia. In 1404 the Acrocorinth belonged once more to the Byzantine monarchy of the Morea (the Peloponnese), but became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1458.

Acrocorinth

During the Greek War of Independence, the Ottoman forces occupying the Acrocorinth surrendered and left the fortress in January 1822. The fortified Acrocorinth then lost its strategic importance, a new city was built a few kilometres to the north-east of  Ancient Corinth, and the Acrocorinth fell in ruins. Only at the end of the 19th century, in 1896, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens started the first serious excavations on the Acrocorinth.

The site of the 575m high table mountain is characterised by two rocky peaks. In between these a number of springs provide fresh water to the settlement. Although the surface area of the whole site is very large, it could be defended relatively easily by cleverly connecting the fortification walls to the natural characteristics of the mountain slopes and peaks. There is basically only one entrance to the citadel, on its western side, which was heavily fortified by three huge walls and three defensive towers. In front of the first tower there is a deep, unequal moat. The remarkable defensive wall system with a total length of almost two kilometres shows how the builders were able to incorporate it into the natural features of the mountain. On the north, east, and south sides of the mountain the site is protected by steep, rocky slopes and cliffs. Nonetheless, a very impressive defensive wall system protects the settlement on all sides.

Acrocorinth

The oldest building that is still visible on the surface, stands on the western and highest peak. Here stood originally the Temple of Aphrodite. The still visible elements, however, come from a Byzantine chapel built on the foundations of the temple. On the opposite peak the ruin of a Frankish tower can be seen, which was later on expanded by the Venetians and the Ottomans. Inside the fortress, especially at the foot of the western summit, there are numerous buildings from different eras. These include a Venetian church, Ottoman houses, wells, small mosques, and a Byzantine cistern. Since the buildings and walls were often constructed using ancient stones of the ruins, it is often difficult to date them precisely.

To preserve the complex, numerous sections of the walls and a number of buildings were restored. The Peirene spring between the peaks was restored in 1930. In 1965 and 1966, the bridge over the moat and the guardhouse at the first tower were restored. In the 1970s, the first two towers and the sections of walls surrounding them were focused on. Further measures, such as the replacement of the wooden bridge at the entrance, were carried out between 1993 and 1995.

Acrocorinth
See also Corinth Canal and Ancient Isthmia

Angelos Asklepiades photographs and writes about his passion: archaeological sites and their history, legends, and stories. Based in the heartland of the Mycenaean civilisation, the Argolid, he explores mythical hills and magical valleys in search of ruins and roads that were seen and described by travellers of the 18th and 19th century. A master's degree in Classical Philology and Greek Archaeology helps him to share to a general public what colleagues in history, philology, and archaeology research, excavate, and publish. You can contact him at garden.of.the.muses@gmail.com

Helpful Corinth Tourist Information

Corinth is less than 2 hours drive from Athens and about 40 minutes from the town of Nafplio which is probably the best place to stay. There are restaurants and hotels and holiday homes nearby on the coast of the Corinthian Gulf. Many people include Corinth when they do a One Day Tour of the Argolis with George the Famous Taxi Driver or as part of a longer trip around the Peloponnesos. Fantasy Travel also offers a Half-Day Corinth excursion. The Fantasy Travel Mycenae - Epidaurus 1 Day Tour and Mycenae - Epidaurus 2 Day Tour and their 4 Day Classical Tour, their 5 Day Classical Tour and their 7 Day Grand Tour of Greece all include a stop in Corinth, though not necessarily Acrocorinth so ask. If you plan to go by bus they leave from the Kifissos Bus Station and continue on to Argos and Nafplio and you can also take the Proastiakos (Athens Suburban Rail) to Corinth though once you get there, making your way to the ancient site and Acrocorinth may be tricky. It probably would not hurt to take a taxi. See Bus Schedules. You can also rent a car through Swift Rent-a-Car and Fantasy Rent-a-Car and go on your own. For hotels in and around Corinth see Booking.com's Nafplio Hotel Search and Booking.com's Corinth Hotel Search. If you have a car my suggestion is to stay on the sea to the west of Corinth rather than right in the city. Use the map option on the 2 booking sites I mentioned.

Be sure to visit these nearby places as well...

Ancient Myceneae, Greece
Corinth & the Argolis

Nafplio, Peloponessos
Nafplion

Nemea, Temple of Zeus
Nemea

Mycenae
Mycenae

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copyright by Matt Barrett and updated continuously