Corinth, or Korinth (Greek: Κόρινθος, Kórinthos) was a city-state (polis) on the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow stretch of land that joins the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece, roughly halfway between Athens and Sparta. The modern town of Corinth lies adjacent to the ancient ruins.
Neolithic artifacts show that the site of Corinth had been occupied as early as the fifth millennium BC. According to Hellenic myth, the city was founded by Corinthos, a descendant of the god Helios (the Sun), while other myths suggest that it was founded by the goddess Ephyra, a daughter of the Titan Oceanus, thus the ancient name of the city (also Ephyra). There is evidence that the city was destroyed around 2000 BC.
Some ancient names for the place, such as Korinthos, derive from a pre-Greek, "Pelasgian" language; it seems likely that Corinth was also the site of a Bronze Age Mycenaean palace-city, like Mycenae, Tiryns or Pylos. According to myth, Sisyphus was the founder of a race of ancient kings at Corinth. It was also in Corinth that Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, abandoned Medea. During the Trojan War Corinthians participated under the leadership of Agamemnon.
In a Corinthian myth related in the second century AD to Pausanias Briareus, one of the Hecatonchires, was the arbitrator in a dispute between Poseidon and Helios, between the sea and the sun: his verdict was that the Isthmus of Corinth belonged to Poseidon and the acropolis of Corinth (Acrocorinth) to Helios. Thus Greeks of the Classical age accounted for archaic cult of the sun-titan in the highest part of the site.
The Upper Peirene spring is located within the walls of the acropolis. "The spring, which is behind the temple, they say was the gift of Asopus to Sisyphus. The latter knew, so runs the legend, that Zeus had ravished Aegina, the daughter of Asopus, but refused to give information to the seeker before he had a spring given him on the Acrocorinthus." (Pausanias, 2.5.1).
Before the end of the Mycenaean period the Dorians attempted to settle in Corinth. While at first they failed, their second attempt was successful when their leader Aletes followed a different path around the Corinthian Gulf from Antirio.
The Bacchiadae (Ancient Greek: Βακχιάδαι Bakkhiadai), a tightly-knit Doric clan claiming descent from the Dorian hero Heracles through the seven sons and three daughters of a legendary king Bacchis, were the ruling kinship group of archaic Corinth in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, a period of expanding Corinthian cultural power. Corinth had been a backwater in eighth-century Greece. In 747 BC (a traditional date) an aristocratic revolution ousted the Bacchiad kings, when the royal clan of Bacchiadae, numbering perhaps a couple of hundred adult males took power from the last king, Telestes. Practicising strict endogamy which kept clan outlines within a distinct extended oikos, they dispensed with kingship and ruled as a group, governing the city by electing annually a prytanis who held the kingly position for his brief term, no doubt a council (though none is specifically documented in the scant literary materials) and a polemarchos to head the army.
In 657 BC the Bacchiadae were expelled in turn by the tyrant Cypselus, who had been polemarch. The exiled Bacchiadae fled to Corcyra but also to Sparta and west, traditionally to found Syracuse in Sicily, and to Etruria, where Demaratus installed himself at Tarquinia, founding a dynasty of Etruscan kings. The royal line of the Lynkestis of Macedon also claimed Bacchiad descent.
With increased wealth and more complicated trade relations and social structures, Greek city-states tended to overthrow their traditional hereditary priest-kings; Corinth, the richest archaic polis, led the way. Like the signori of late medieval and Renaissance Italy, the tyrants usually seized power at the head of some popular support. Often the tyrants upheld existing laws and customs and were highly conservative as to cult practices, thus maintaining stability with little risk to their own personal security. As in Renaissance Italy, a cult of personality naturally substituted for the divine right of the former legitimate royal house.
Cypselus, the son of Eëtion and a disfigured woman named Labda, who was a member of the Bacchiad kin usurped the power in archaic matriarchal right of his mother, became tyrant and expelled the Bacchiadae.
According to Herodotus the Bacchiadae heard two prophecies from the Delphic oracle that the son of Eëtion would overthrow their dynasty, and they planned to kill the baby once it was born. However, Herodotus says that the newborn smiled at each of the men sent to kill it, and none of them could go through with the plan. An etiological myth-element, to account for the name Cypselus (cypsele, "chest") accounted how Labda then hid the baby in a chest, and when the men had composed themselves and returned to kill it, they could not find it. (Compare the infancy of Perseus.) The ivory chest of Cypselus, richly worked with mythological narratives and adorned with gold, was a votive offering at Olympia, where Pausanias gave it a minute description in his second century AD travel guide.
When Cypselus had grown up, he fulfilled the prophecy. Corinth had been involved in wars with Argos and Corcyra, and the Corinthians were unhappy with their rulers. At the time, around 657 BC, Cypselus was polemarch, the archon in charge of the military, and he used his influence with the soldiery to expel the king. He also expelled his other enemies, but allowed them to set up colonies in northwestern Greece. He also increased trade with the colonies in Italy and Sicily. He was a popular ruler, and unlike many later tyrants, he did not need a bodyguard and died a natural death.
He ruled for thirty years and was succeeded as tyrant by his son Periander in 627 BC. The treasury Cypselus built at Delphi was apparently still standing in the time of Herodotus, and the chest of Cypselus was seen by the traveller Pausanias at Olympia in the second century AD.
During the 7th century BC, when Corinth was ruled by the tyrants, the city sent forth colonists to found new settlements: Epidamnus (modern day Durrës, Albania), Syracuse, Ambracia (modern day town of Lefkas), Corcyra (modern day town of Corfu) and Anactorium. Periander also founded Apollonia in Illyria (modern day Fier, Albania) and Potidaea (in Chalcidice). Corinth was also one of the nine Greek sponsor-cities to found the colony of Naukratis in Ancient Egypt. Naucratis was founded to accommodate the increasing trade volume between the Greek world and the pharaohnic Egypt, during the reign of Pharaoh Psammetichus I of the 26th dynasty.
In classical times, Corinth rivaled Athens and Thebes in wealth, based on the Isthmian traffic and trade. Until the mid-6th century Corinth was a major exporter of black-figure pottery to cities around the Greek world. Athenian potters later came to dominate the market. Corinth's great temple on its ancient acropolis was dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. According to most sources, there were more than one thousand temple prostitutes employed at the Temple of Aphrodite. Corinth was also the host of the Isthmian Games.
Periander was considered one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. During his reign the first Corinthian coins were struck. He was the first to attempt to cut across the Isthmus to create a seaway to allow ship traffic between the Corinthian and the Saronic Gulf. He abandoned the venture due to the extreme technical difficulties he met, but he created the Diolkos (a stone-build overland ramp) instead. The era of the Cypselids, ending with Periander's nephew Psammetichus, named after the hellenophile Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus I (see above), was the golden age of the city of Corinth.
During this era Corinthians developed the Corinthian order, the third order of the classical architecture after the Ionic and the Doric. The Corinthian order was the most complicated of the three, showing the accumulation of wealth and the luxurious lifestyle in the ancient city-state, while the Doric order was analogous to the strict and simplistic lifestyle of the older Dorians like the Spartans, and the Ionic was a balance between those two following the philosophy of harmony of Ionians like the Athenians.
Horace is quoted as saying: "non licet omnibus adire Corinthum", which translates as "Not everyone is able to go to Corinth", due to the expensive living standards that prevailed in the city. The city was renowned for the temple prostitutes of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who served the wealthy merchants and the powerful officials living in or traveling in and out of the city. The most famous of them, Lais, was said to have extraordinary abilities and charged tremendous fees for her favours.
The city had two main ports, one in the Corinthian Gulf and one in the Saronic Gulf, serving the trade routes of the western and eastern Mediterranean, respectively. In the Corinthian Gulf lay Lechaion, which connected the city to its western colonies (Greek: apoikoiai) and Magna Graecia, while in the Saronic Gulf the port of Kenchreai served the ships coming from Athens, Ionia, Cyprus and the rest of the Levant. Both ports had docks for the large war fleet of the city-state.
The city was a major participant in the Persian Wars, offering forty war ships in the sea Battle of Salamis under the admiral Adeimantos and 5,000 hoplites (wearing their characteristic Corinthian helmets) in the following Battle of Plataea but afterwards was frequently an enemy of Athens and an ally of Sparta in the Peloponnesian League. In 431 BC, one of the factors leading to the Peloponnesian War was the dispute between Corinth and Athens over the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (Corfu), which probably stemmed from the traditional trade rivalry between the two cities.
After the end of the Peloponnesian War, Corinth and Thebes, which were former allies with Sparta in the Peloponnesian League, had grown dissatisfied with the hegemony of Sparta and started the Corinthian War against it, which further weakened the city-states of the Peloponnese. This weakness allowed for the subsequent invasion of the Macedonians of the north and the forging of the Corinthian League by Philip II of Macedon against the Persian Empire.
While there is archeological evidence of some minimal habitation in the years afterwards, Julius Caesar refounded the city as Colonia laus Iulia Corinthiensis in 44 BC shortly before his assassination. According to Appian, the new settlers were drawn from freedmen of Rome.
Acrocorinthis, the acropolis of ancient Corinth, is a monolithic rock that was continuously occupied from archaic times to the early nineteenth century. The city's archaic acropolis, already an easily defensible position due to its geomorphology, was further heavily fortified during the Byzantine Empire as it became the seat of the strategos of the Thema of Hellas. Later it was a fortress of the Franks after the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. With its secure water supply, Acrocorinth's fortress was used as the last line of defense in southern Greece because it commanded the isthmus of Corinth, repelling foes from entry into the Peloponnesian peninsula. Three circuit walls formed the man-made defense of the hill. The highest peak on the site was home to a temple to Aphrodite which was Christianized as a church, and then became a mosque. The American School began excavations on it in 1929. Currently, Acrocorinth is one of the most important medieval castle sites of Greece.
Corinth had two harbours: Lechaeum on the Corinthian Gulf and Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf. Lechaeum was the principal port, connected to the city with a set of long walls of ca. 2 miles length, and was the main trading station for Italy and Sicily, where there were many Corinthian colonies, while Cenchreae served the commerce with the Eastern Mediterranean. Ships could be transported between the two harbours by means of the diolkos constructed by the tyrant Periander.
Corinth is mentioned in the New Testament in the epistles of Corinthians 1 and 2. Under the Romans, Corinth became the seat of government for Southern Greece or Achaia (according to ). It was noted for its wealth, and for the luxurious, immoral and vicious habits of the people. It had a large mixed population of Romans, Greeks, and Jews.
When the apostle Paul first visited the city (AD 51 or 52), Gallio, the brother of Seneca, was proconsul. Paul resided here for eighteen months (see Acts 18:1-18). Here he first became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, and soon after his departure Apollos came from Ephesus.
Paul visited Corinth for a "second benefit" (see 2 Corinthians 1:15), and remained for three months, according to Acts 20:3. During this second visit, believed to have occurred in the spring of 58, it is likely that the Epistle to the Romans was written.
Based on clues within the Corinthian epistles themselves scholars have concluded that Paul wrote possibly as many as four epistles to the church at Corinth. Only two of them, the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians and the 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians are contained with the Canon of Holy Scripture. The first Epistle reflects the difficulties of maintaining a Christian community in such a cosmopolitan city. The second reaffirms the love Paul has for this young church and his hopes for their continued growth.