Early history

Corinth, or more accurately Korinthos, is a very ancient city, thought to have been inhabited from 900BC onwards. Homer records in The Iliad (690BC)—alluding to the mythical origins of Corinth—the list of ships that went to fight against Troy, one of which was from Corinth, which he goes on to describe as a very wealthy city (The Iliad book 2). Homer also refers to Corinth as Ephyre, where he recounts the myth of Bellerophon, son of the king of Corinth, who rode Pegasus (the flying horse) to destroy the Chimaera, a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat, and tail of a dragon (The Iliad book 4). From these Greek references we see that Corinth was well-known from the earliest times and stood as a well-established city during the days of the Hebrew kings of Judah and Israel.

Later history

Strabo records that Corinth was wealthy because of its geographical position east and west of a strategic isthmus and because it formed an important land bridge between the north and south of Greece (Strabo Geography 8:6:20). A great deal of trade between Italy, Sicily, and Asia passed through Corinth, thereby ensuring that ships could avoid the dangerous travel around the Peloponnese Peninsula (the land south of Corinth).

To demonstrate Corinth’s wealth, Strabo mentions Cypselus, the king of Corinth (658-628BC), donating a huge statue of Zeus made out of beaten gold to the temple of Zeus in Olympia. He continues: “the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And, therefore, it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, ‘Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.’” (Strabo Geography 8:6:20).

Overlooking the city of Corinth was the Akrocorinthos, upon which was a temple dedicated to Aphrodite. Strabo writes: “Now the summit has a small temple of Aphrodite; and below the summit is the spring Peirene”. You can still see the foundations of the temple today, which are probably about 10 metres square, if not smaller. Such a small structure meant that the temple slaves didn’t work in the building itself, though they were owned by it, and most likely inhabited the buildings surrounding the place of worship. All proceeds from selling themselves went to supporting the temple.

Aphrodite was worshipped in many places in the ancient world but in the sense of representing the virtuous aspect of love rather than the sensual love practiced in Corinth. In Plato’s Symposium (circa 280BC), Pausanius is recorded as saying that there are two loves, just like there are two Aphrodites: one representing heavenly love, and the other earthly love. In mythology, Aphrodite was known as the most beautiful of the goddesses mainly because Paris, the prince of Troy gave her the golden apple inscribed “to the fairest” and she, in return, promised to give him the most beautiful woman on earth. This turned out to be Helen of Troy, who was already married to King Menelaus, and, according to The Iliad, the dispute over Helen ignited the Trojan war. Because of Aphrodite’s reputation of physical perfection, the highest compliment given to a woman was to say that she is as beautiful as Aphrodite.

According to Thucydides, in the late eighth century BC, Corinth developed the standard warship used until the late Roman period, the Trireme. These vessels had three rows (storeys) of rowers on each side and were highly manoeuvrable and effective. Corinth apparently was the first city to utilise these ships in naval battle.

The Corinthian war helmet became famous throughout Greece because it offered the most protection in battle and could be worn as a cap. These helmets were made out of bronze/brass and can be seen in various museums throughout Greece.

Post Persian war – Philip II’s upbringing

After the Greeks repulsed the Persian invasion in 479BC, two leagues were formed, consisting of many Greek city states, one led by Athens and the other by Thebes in Sparta. It is interesting to note that Corinth kept switching sides, depending on which league offered the most advantages.

When Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father, was young, probably a teenager, he was held hostage in Thebes and learned his military tactics directly from an outstanding general called Epaminondas (Dio Chrysostom Discourses 49:5). Epaminondas conquered the previously unbeaten Spartans in 372BC.

Philip II’s Hellenic League was to unite all Greece against Persia

The two leagues led by Sparta and Athens weakened each other over 141 years to the point where Philip II of Macedon was able to conquer Athens and Thebes at the battle of Chaeronea in 338BC. As a result of this battle, Philip set up the Hellenic League, also known as the League of Corinth, unifying all the Greeks except Sparta, which he left untouched. The purpose of this league was to form a united front against Persia. By this arrangement, Corinth was drawn into the conflict against Persia.

Hellenistic period

After the conquests of Alexander the Great, control of Corinth changed hands between the Antigonids ruling Macedonia, the Ptolemies ruling Egypt, and the Achaean League, which dominated the northern cities of the Peloponnese. After the Second Macedonian War, when Rome clashed with Macedonia between 200–197BC, Corinth was declared a free city despite the presence of a Roman garrison on the Akrocorinthos (Titus Livius (Livy) The History of Rome 33:31-32).

In 146BC, the Achaean League went to war against Rome and lost, and Corinth was entirely destroyed and its walls demolished (Polybius (lost parts of his work) and Paul Orosius 5:3). When Rome destroyed Corinth, most of its inhabitants were traded as slaves in the slave market at Delos (Strabo Geography 14:5:2).

Roman reconstruction

After Rome’s destruction of Corinth, the city was deserted for 102 years until Julius Caesar commanded it to be rebuilt in 44BC, shortly before his death (Plutarch Lives 7:57:8). Octavian continued the work of revitalising the city and distributed plots of land in Corinth to veteran soldiers, freed men and to the poor of Rome, who could not afford land there (Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth and Appian’s Roman History 8:20:136).

Corinth was rebuilt by Romans for Romans, so it’s no surprise that most of the writing on the monuments of Ancient Corinth are in Latin rather than Greek. Corinth in the first century AD was more similar to Rome, the capital, than other Greek cities like Athens, Ephesus, Miletus and others which did not have their populations entirely removed and replaced a hundred years later. This is an interesting point to keep in mind when we read about the first century Corinthians because, as we shall see in the next article, it was predominantly dominated by Roman culture.