We saw to the west under us the north east bay of the gulph of Lepanto, formerly called the bay of Corinth; and consequently we were at the Isthmus of Corinth.(..) A ridge of very low rocks run across the Isthmus, near the first entrance of it, then at a little distance appear like ruins; and
further on is the canal, which was begun to be dug across it, where one
sees the bank of earth that was thrown up on each side; it extends about
half a mile from the west: and where they left off, I saw plainly the
ground was very rocky, which doubtless made them desist from their
enterprize, though it is said that the oracle at Delphi advised them
against it: The persons who at different times endeavoured to make this
canal were Alexander, Pitias, Demetrius, Cesar, Caligula, Nero, and
Herodes of Athens.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
The Gulf of Corinth seen from the Temple to Apollo
This part was called Examilia, because it was
six miles broad; and there is a village to the south east which now bears
that name; notwithstanding the Isthmus is not above four English miles
wide, but it is to be considered that the Greek miles were very short. Pococke
The city of Corinth stands in the Isthmus on the side of the Peloponnesus, a situation once peculiarly happy, from which also its antient prosperity was derived. Its ports were commodiously disposed by nature, to receive the ships of Europe, and of Asia, and to render it the centre of their commerce. (..) Moreover, it held the keys of the peninsula, and taxed both the ingress and egress.
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
At length, from a mountain at half an hour's distance, I saw Corinth and the Corinthiacus Sinus to the left. But I could not see the other sea, the Saronicus Sinus. The city looked small, but the scenery round it was delightful, consisting of giant mountains overhanging rich plains, which were bounded by a calm sea. (..) Afterwards I executed a project which I had long conceived of walking from one sea to the other. I walked it at the rate of four miles an hour, in eighty-six minutes, but as the mountains, etc., prevented my taking the shortest cut, I should think that the nearest distance between the two seas would not be above five miles.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
The wealth of Ancient Corinth was due to its being located at the end of a deep gulf of the Ionian Sea; only six miles (Examilion) of land separated this sea from the Aegean one. At a time when travelling by sea was by far more effective than travelling by land, this position helped the city in becoming a major trading centre; the Corinthians sent settlers to found colonies at Corfu and in Sicily (e.g. Syracuse) to develop new markets. The town gave its name to an elaborate design of capitals.
Temple to Apollo and Acrocorinth
From the lower part of the Isthmus there is an ascent up a steep bank
to a higher ground on which Corinth stands near the south west part
of the Isthmus and (..) to the north west of that
high hill called Acrocorinthus, on which the citadel was built. (..) The antient city
seems to have been on the spot of the present town. (..) Here was
also a forest of pine trees, with which the victors at the games were
crowned and these games, without doubt, answered
some end of trade; for which this place was so well situated on both
seas; which made Corinth so flourishing a place. Pococke
In truth, no literary work could give the heavenly spirit of Roman generosity the praise it deserves. After the defeat of Philip, King of Macedonia, when all of Greece was gathered together for the Isthmian Games, a trumpet gave the sign for everyone to be silent, and Titus Quintius Flamininus ordered a herald to read out the following proclamation: "The Senate and the people of Rome, and their general Titus Quintius Flamininus, order that all the cities of Greece that were under the rule of King Philip should be free and pay no tribute." When they heard these words, the people were overwhelmed by their great and unexpected joy, and at first they did not make a sound, not being able to believe that they had really heard those words. But when the herald repeated the proclamation, they filled the heavens with loud, joyous shouts, and it is a well-established fact that the birds flying overhead were so astonished that they fell from the sky in terror
(Valerius Maximus - Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium (Memorable Deeds and Sayings) Book IV - 4.8.5 - Generosity - Translation by Henry John Walker)
The Isthmian Games were held every two years in Corinth. They did not coincide with the cycle of the Olympic Games which recurred every four years.
At the south west corner of the
town are twelve fluted Doric pillars about five feet in diameter, and very
short in proportion, resting on a square base, as I observed one of
them, the bases of the others being under ground; they seem to be
much older than those of Athens, and differ from them in the capital. (..) If I mistake not, they
are all of one stone, except that the upper part of the shaft down to the
flutes is of the same stone as the capital. There are seven pillars to the south
and five to the west, counting the corner pillars twice: There is one pillar
without a capital near them, which is as high as the architrave over the
The honeymoon between the Romans and the Greek world which was announced by Consul Flamininus in 196 BC at the Isthmian Games lasted only fifty years: in 146 BC Consul Lucius Mummius defeated the army of the Achean League, a Confederation of Greek city states, and conquered Corinth; the pressure of the Roman mercantile society and of some of the Roman allies (including the King of Pergamum) led Mummius to raze the town to the ground and to sell its works of arts and its inhabitants. Only the ancient temple to Apollo with its Doric columns was spared.
The Isthmian games likewise by the concourse of people at their
celebration contributed to its opulence, which was immense. New Corinth had flourished two hundred and seventeen
years when it was visited by Pausanias. It had then a few
antiquities, many temples and statues, especially about the
Agora or market-place, and several baths. Chandler
Eventually the advantage of reviving Corinth for the development of trade was acknowledged by the Romans and in 44 BC Julius Caesar re-established the city; some forty years later a new cycle of Isthmian Games began, a sign that Corinth had regained its past role and wealth.
In 67 AD Emperor Nero attended the games and he re-enacted the speech of Consul Titus Quintius Flamininus by announcing that Greeks would be exempted from taxation; he also announced that the work of cutting a canal through the isthmus (an enterprise which had been attempted by others earlier) was going to start immediately; raising a golden pick the emperor made the first cut. The work, however, stopped after his death. The Corinthians retained a positive image of Nero and the Museum of the archaeological site retains a rather rare portrait of him.
The town lay desolate until Julius
Caesar settled there a Roman colony, when, in moving the
rubbish and digging, many vases were found, of brass or earth
finely embossed. The price given for these curiosities excited
industry in the new inhabitants. They left no burying-place
unexamined, and Rome, it is said, was filled with the furniture
of the sepulchres of Corinth. Chandler
The wealth of Corinth did not rely solely on its trading activities. Its acropolis housed a sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite, which was famous for its priestesses who practised a form of sacred prostitution; their fees were so high that the Romans had a say Non licet omnibus adire Corinthum to explain that not everybody could afford to pay them. The rites performed at the sanctuary were thought to have healing effects on many diseases; the many ex-votos which have been found indicate that treatments based on causing strong emotions had a high rate of success. You may wish to see a rather peculiar ex-voto at the shrine of Aesculapius at nearby Epidaurus.
Greek Corinth was famous for its pottery which was exported all over Greece; Roman Corinth achieved a leading role in the manufacturing of glassware; at that time glassware was a luxury good and an important export item in the trade between the Mediterranean basin and Central and Eastern Asia; Byzantines and Venetians continued this tradition.
(above) Temple to Octavia, Augustus' sister (according to Pausanias); (below) inscription celebrating the construction of a portico and indicating that Roman Corinth had the status of "colonia"
We arrived in the midst of the Ruins. (..) The fallen architraves and other parts of the entablature also remain.
Edward Daniel Clarke - Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa in 1799-1804
For the Romans Corinth was the Gateway to Greece and Latin was widely spoken by its population; this explains the use of this language on almost all the inscriptions on the main buildings and on the many gravestones found outside the city. In other Greek locations such as Eleusis and Athens the monuments dedicated to Roman emperors had inscriptions in Greek.
Roman Forum and shops
Without the town to the north there are great ruins of
a large building of very thick walls of brick, which might be antient
baths, or the foundation of some great building; for I observed, that
the rooms which are arched are very small. Pococke
The earth was covered with fragments of various coloured marble, grey granite, white limestone, broken pottery, disjointed shafts, capitals, and cornices. We observed part of the fluted shaft of a Doric column, which was five feet in diameter. Clarke
The centre of Roman Corinth was the Forum: it had a rectangular shape and its northern side was closed by a series of vaulted shops; it is possible that they were not ordinary shops, but the offices of shipping agents and other traders, similar to what occurred in Ostia. The variety of coloured columns which can be seen in the Forum indicates that it was renovated and embellished in the IInd and IIIrd century AD when the use of these columns was in fashion; it is also an indication of the city's wealth.
Museum of Corinth: (left/centre) telamons portraying Dacian prisoners; (right) Dionysus
The vicinity of these Ruins to the sea has very much facilitated the removal of many valuable antiquities, as materials for building; the inhabitants of all the neighbouring shores having long been accustomed to resort hither, as to a quarry: but no excavations have hitherto taken place. Persons have been recently sent from England to carry on researches, by digging upon the site of the antient cities and temples of Greece, and it may therefore be hoped that this spot will not remain long neglected.
The systematic excavations of the area, initiated by the American School of Classical Studies in 1896, brought to light many excellent works of art of the Roman period. After Emperor Trajan's conquest of Dacia the "Dacian prisoner" became a popular subject of reliefs and statues celebrating the victories of the emperors, regardless of the actual enemy they had defeated. The "Dacian prisoner" was portrayed as a mature man with a beard, but in Corinth this iconography was combined with the Greek ideal of beauty (according to others the telamons portray Castor and Pollux, but these were usually portrayed naked).
Museum of Corinth: (left) relief portraying a fight with an Amazon (IInd century AD), a similar relief is shown in the image used as background for this page; (right) detail of the armour of an emperor
The fight between the Athenians led by Theseus or the Greeks led by Achilles and the Amazons was a preferred subject for reliefs, especially for those decorating sarcophagi, but the intent of this relief was almost didactic: to show the military equipment used by the fighters; in particular the artist drew attention to the peltae, the Amazon's shield which resembled a crescent (the Amazons worshipped the Moon). The Romans were fascinated by the shape of this shield and many Roman mosaics (e.g. at Tipasa in Algeria) are decorated with motifs based on it; you may wish to see a fountain showing four peltae at Domus Augustana in Rome.
Roman emperors had a grand uniform they wore only in ... statues. In Augustus of Prima Porta the emperor was portrayed wearing a very elaborate and decorated armour; his successors (see some statues from Perge) followed his example and wanted their armours to be more and more decorated to convey a long series of messages to the viewer; animal heads were probably a reference to the emperor's qualities and skills.
Lechaion, road leading to Lechao, the harbour on the Corinthian Gulf
The port toward Italy was
called Lechaeum. It lay beneath the city, the road to it between long walls reaching twelve stadia or a mile and a half. Pococke
The circumnavigation of the Peloponnesus was tedious and uncertain to a proverb; while at the Isthmus not only the cargoes, but, if requisite, the smaller vessels were easily transported from sea to sea. (..) Going from the market-place toward Lechaeum was a gate, on which were placed Phaeton and the Sun in gilded chariots. Chandler
The centre of Corinth was built inland and it was linked to the harbour by a road which in its initial section was flanked by columns and large buildings. The city had a second harbour on the Aegean Sea and goods were transferred from one to the other port through a trackway which in case of need, especially during wars, could also be used to haul ships.
(left) Peirene fountain; (right) nearby relief: swans were sacred to Venus
Hadrian introduced water from a famous spring at Stymphalus
in Arcadia; and it had various fountains alike copious and ornamental. The stream of one issued from a dolphin, on
which was a brazen Neptune; of another, from the hoof of
Pegasus, on whom Bellerophon was mounted. (..) Pirene entered a fountain of white marble, from which the
current passed in an open chanel. Chandler
Corinth was full of fountains; there was no city in Greece better supplied with water: many of those fountains were supplied by means of aqueducts. (..) He mentions the water of the Nymph Pirene, who poured forth such abundance of tears for the loss of her son Cenchrias, when slain by Diana, that she was metamorphosed into a fountain. (..) This weeping spring may therefore be considered the same with that which he has denominated the fountain of the Nymph Pirene: as it occurs in the road leading from Corinth to Lechaeum (..) but Pausanias allows that this was not the only fountain called Pirene. Clarke
Corinth had three fountains originating from local springs: the water of the Peirene fountain was thought to inspire poets; over the centuries these springs became underground springs so Emperor Hadrian commissioned an aqueduct to provide Corinth with an adequate supply of water.
Roman Corinth had advanced drainage and its baths were provided with public toilets having a flushing system. It appears that the Romans had a concept of decency which did not condemn the performing of natural functions in the presence of other members of the same sex. You may wish to see the latrine near the Forum of Ostia or a cosy latrine in the baths of Uthina.
The use of acanthus leaves arranged as a scroll is a decorative motif which was widely used in classical architecture; during the last centuries of the Roman Empire friezes based on this motif became "inhabited" by the insertion of a person, an animal or a flower in each scroll; see similar mosaics at Bulla Regia in Tunisia, Philippopolis in Syria and in Rome.
Optical art is a genre of art which flourished in the 1960s and which was based on the effect of optical illusions; yet Roman floor mosaics often had complex geometrical shapes which created these effects. In particular floor mosaics depicting a coloured vortex having at its centre a head of Medusa can be found in many parts of the Empire, e.g. at Pergamum and Sousse in Tunisia.
Mural paintings were widely employed in the decoration of Roman houses, as one can see in Pompeii, but the circumstances which preserved them in that town were exceptional and did not occur elsewhere. In Corinth only a few fragments of mural paintings have been found; they are of the genre called grotesque with small human figures portrayed in unusual postures and with no background.
(left) Byzantine church; (right) medieval relief
The present town is very small, and more like a village. (..) I saw no other ruins that I could
make any thing of: So little is now remaining of that city, which was
formerly so famous for its architecture, sculpture, and paintings. Pococke
A Greek Chapel, also in a ruined state, now stands upon the area of a temple. Clarke
The prosperity of Corinth was based on a stable political environment; when the unity of the Roman Empire collapsed trade with Italy declined and later on the Arab invasion of all the Byzantine possessions in Africa cut other trading routes. The general lack of security led the inhabitants of Corinth to seek refuge in Acrocorinth and the Lower City was almost abandoned; earthquakes contributed to the progressive disappearance of the main buildings.
You may wish to visit Acrocorinth.