Corinth in classical times

Corinth, in ancient Greek Korinthos (which some associate with the word Korus-thos meaning helmet, let us also note that the city names ending in -inthe are the oldest) was a Greek city, which played a non-negligible role in the history of ancient Greece. It was a power with the other Greek cities with a rather strong foreign policy. Let us also take a look at life inside Corinth, and its very particular geography which gave it many advantages in Antiquity ...

This article is called "Corinth in the Classical Period", and the Classical period begins with the war against the Persians at Marathon, that is to say in 490 BC and ends with the death of Philip II of Macedon in 336. It is a period between the Archaic period and the Hellenistic period. However, some historians start the classical period with the victory of Salamis (second Median war against the Persians) in 480 and end it with the death of Alexander the Great in 323.

The geography of Corinth

The city of Corinth is located about 80km from Athens, west of Athens. The city is placed in a privileged place, because it is a crossroads between two continental regions, Attica and the Peloponnese, and two seas, the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea, it is therefore an isthmus.

In terms of relief, Corinth is not located in the mountains, but in the plain. It is, however, very close to the southern hills. The Diolkos, a land route for the passage of boats, allowed passage from one sea to another. The Diolkos (in ancient Greek Dia meant "through" and -Olkos meant "drag") prevented ships wishing to pass from the Ionian Sea to the Aegean Sea to cross Cape Tenare and Cape Malea, whose winds often reached sink ships. Corinth had two ports: Léchaion on the Gulf of Corinth and Cenchrea on the Saronic Gulf.

Corinth was a maritime power. In addition to having a strategic position geographically, the geomorphology of Corinth is also still interesting today, because it allows us to understand how the Corinthians could face the enemy. The city leans against the Acrocorinth, a native fortress whose highest point is located at 574m. It was undoubtedly a natural defense since it made it possible to see the enemies approaching while they were still far away.

The economy of Corinth

Money made its appearance in the 7th century in Corinth. In the classical period, trade was therefore supported by money. Here is an example of a coin commonly referred to as a “Corinthian foal”. On the left, we have the representation of Pegasus, the mythological winged horse, and on the right the representation of Athena, goddess of wisdom and war strategy. Her helmet allows us to recognize her and the light behind her is sometimes replaced by other symbols. The coin has been dated approximately, to around 375 - 350 BC, therefore to the classical period. It is a stater, that is to say a tetradrachm of 8.53 kg. The economy of Corinth is therefore based on exchanges supported by metallic money. But it is based on trade, in addition to agriculture.

Corinth is above all a commercial city: its two ports (Lechaion and Cenchrea) give it an opening to the West and to the East. Corinth therefore took advantage of this geographical location to make profitable the passage of commercial vessels from one sea to another. It collected customs duties on various goods in transit, and its system, the Diolkos, was efficient. It is said to be used by small warships as well.

The definition of this Diolkos is given by Amouretti and Ruzé in The Ancient Greek World where the two historians describe the Diolkos as being a “paved road of 6km built around 600 [BC] and crossing the Isthmus of Corinth; it allowed the transport of cargoes on wheeled sleds and, perhaps, that of trières. The role of this passage was capital for the transport of beautiful building stones. "

The Corinthians were also artisans. They would have invented the trière, and the Corinthian capital which today bears an eponymous name in reference to the craftsmen of the ancient city. The Pirene fountain, whose basin is still visible today (several restorations have taken place, nine they say, the latest being the work of Herod Atticus) was used to soak the bronze. Let us not forget that Corinthian ceramics were exported throughout Greece, and that the soil of Acrocorinth made of pottery clay allowed the city to excel in the manufacture of pottery (which was whiter, given the composition. soil rich in iron oxide).

Religious life in classical Corinth

It is the goddess Aphrodite was venerated under the epiclesis of Melainis, in the wood of Kraneion. According to certain Roman sources, therefore later, sacred prostitution was practiced there, but nothing allows us to say whether this prostitution took place in the classical period in particular. Aphrodisias were celebrated there, a cult dedicated to the same goddess Aphrodite.

Apollo also had a temple, in the Doric style. It is said to be monolithic because it was carved from a single block of marble. It testifies to the religious activity of Corinth at one time. It is one of the few vestiges still observable in Corinth.

Every two years, in April / May, the isthmic games were held with the tutelary god Poseidon, divinity of the seas. These games took place in the sanctuary of Isthmia, of which very few elements are visible to this day. These Pan-Hellenic games included competitions in athletics, music, painting, and other forms of art. They were above all competitions, the original meaning of the Greek word Agôn.

Corinth's foreign policy

Let us recall the context of colonization (it does not belong to the classical period). The settlements in the city of Corinth were important. Politically, the city is oligarchic. Despite its outlet on two seas, Corinth preferred to colonize in the west, on the gulf which has kept its name. She founded Potidée on the Thracian Sea, then seized the large island of Corcyra. The latter became an advanced navigation post. But the Corcyra colony grew quickly, its fortune increased considerably and rapidly, to the point that it was able to compete with its metropolis. The Corinthians continued colonization and advanced further north to the coasts of Epirus and Illyria, and west to Sicily and Italy (Syracuse).

In the classical period, after the Persian wars (Maraton, Salamis, and Plataea), many Greek cities tried to obtain hegemony over the whole of Greek territory. Corinth fits into these ambitions, but not as much as Athens, Sparta or Thebes, which are very imperialist. Corinth seeks to counterbalance Lacedaemon (Sparta) to limit its interference of the latter within other Greek cities, but Sparta is far too powerful and keeps its hegemony.

Corinth nevertheless remains an important military power, the third after Sparta and Athens. Its strategic position is advantageous: during the Peloponnesian War, the Cenchrea and the Lechaion are the naval bases of the Peloponnese, the home port of the Allied fleet. The Corinthians are also many hoplites. Herodotus speaks of 5,000 Corinthians at Plataea, and Thucydides mentions 2,000 to 3,000 hoplites during the Peloponnesian War.

The Peloponnesian War begins with an internal conflict between the city of Epidamne, colony of Corcyra, itself colony of Corinth. A conflict breaks out between Epidamne and Corcyra, which will lead Corinth to seize this opportunity to reaffirm its power in the sector. Corinth sends its fleet, and ships from allied cities will join the fleet of Corinth, but against all odds, the colony beats its metropolis: Corcyra beats Corinth in 435. For two years, Corinth prepares its revenge, and Corcyra seeks the protection of Athens, protection that it will obtain because Athens undertakes to protect the Corcyreans in the event of an attack on its metropolis.

Potidée, colony of Corinth, and member of the league of Delos, breaks all links with its metropolis under the orders of Athens, it is a consequence of the attack of Corinth against Corcyra. Potidée refuses to raze its walls, and the potidates rebel. Corinth supports its colony, so that it can face Athens which prepares its siege and foresees to resort to Sparta to help it.

According to the historian Thucydides, these quarrels are pretexts for the war in the Peloponnese. For him, the real cause of the war lies in the increase of Athenian power, the latter becoming too imperialist.

Ten years after the victory of Sparta, war broke out again on Corinthian territory. It is Sparta's turn to expand its imperialist, and Lacedaemonian power becomes too important and very threatening, even for Corinth, its old ally. As early as 394 BC, Corinth sought to strike Sparta as close as possible to its territory, but the Lacedaemonians were too strong for Corinth. In 392, Corinth rose up, the allies fighting against Sparta gradually gained control. The Persians ally with Sparta, and force the anti-Spartan alliance to want peace. It is the Treaty of Antalcidas, signed in 387 which will put an end to this war. The consequences are disastrous for Corinth, the Isthmian city saw its ports destroyed, as well as its countryside were sacked.

The city of Corinth was active on several levels during the classical period. It is a city where commerce flourishes, and where artisans are very creative. Corinth is also very important in ancient Greece on the religious level, with its isthmic games, without forgetting its military side which shows us that the city of Corinth was very dynamic.


- Doctoral thesis by Xavier Bouteiller entitled: The territory of Corinth: Political transformations and landscape developments (440 BC - 96).

- The ancient Greek world, M.-C. Amouretti, F. Ruze, P. Jockey. Hachette, 2011.

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