A Brief History of Isthmia

(Figure 5.1) Map of Greece.The archaeological site at Isthmia lies in a region of Greece known as the Korinthia, with Korinth as the most famous city in that area (Figure 5.1). There is archaeological evidence that humans have lived in the Korinthia since the Neolithic Era (New Stone Age; ca. 6500-3000 BC).

The region produces a brown stone known as chert that can be fashioned into tools such as axes and sickles. Archaeologists have found fragments of such tools scattered throughout the Korinthia along with pottery from the Neolithic period. Isthmia is one of the sites where Stone Age artifacts have been found. There were Neolithic settlers at a place called the Rachi, a ridge near the future site of the Temple of Poseidon. Unfortunately, not enough artifacts have been found to determine the size of the site or how long it was inhabited.

Archaeologists have also found signs of habitation at Isthmia during the Bronze Age (ca. 3000-1200 BC). The last part of the Bronze Age is known as the Mycenaean Period (ca. 1600-1200 BC). During this period Greece was divided into kingdoms and agricultural products and trade goods flowed into the palaces of each king. Most palace sites were fortified by walls constructed from large irregular stones in a kind of construction known as Cyclopean masonry. Some of this kind of masonry has been found at Isthmia, and it has been suggested that the Mycenaeans attempted to build a wall across the Isthmus to protect southern Greece from northern invaders. It is now thought that this wall was not for defense, but it probably does reflect a Mycenaean presence in the area. There is other evidence that Isthmia was inhabited during the late Bronze Age (Figure 5.2). From pottery we know that people lived near the site, but the size of the settlement was probably small.

(Figure 5.2) Remains of Mycenaean wall.The Dark Age of Greece (ca 1200-800 BC) was characterized by massive depopulation, as many late Bronze Age sites were destroyed. The general level of material culture in Greece also declined, and finds of artifacts from this period are fewer and smaller than in the Mycenaean Period. Again, archaeology allows us to discover what kinds of things were going on at Isthmia. Pottery finds reveal that it was during this period, perhaps during the 11th century, that the site was first used as a center for religious activity. The reason for this observation is that the pottery found there includes pieces normally used only in religious ritual. There was a road running through the Isthmus, and during this period a small shrine stood along this road near the Saronic Gulf.

The Archaic Period
(c. 800-479 BC)

Greece underwent dramatic economic, social, and cultural change during the Archaic period. Population began to increase rapidly, forcing the Greeks to colonize areas around the Black Sea and in Southern Italy. The Greek economy also improved, as evidenced by increased agricultural activity, trade, and material culture. Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use and began writing again, allowing us to learn much more about Greek culture than is possible for earlier eras. It was during this period that Greeks began to organize themselves into city-states.

(Figure 5.3) layout of the Temple of Poseidon.The Archaic period also witnessed a rebirth of monumental architecture in Greece. The Greeks began to construct large stone temples, and the small shrine near the Isthmus was replaced by a large Doric temple to Poseidon in the 7th century BC (Figure 5.3). The site at the Isthmus was a natural spot for the structure, since many travelers passed through on land and there were many ports nearby that served maritime traders. In addition, Isthmia was under the political domination of nearby Korinth, which itself was wealthy because of its fertile land and because of its strategic location near the Korinthian and Saronic Gulfs. The Korinthians could afford to finance the construction of a large temple.

The first Panhellenic festival was founded in the eighth century at Olympia (traditional date 776 BC); this was a celebration open to all the Greeks, not just those from a single polis. The festivals gave an opportunity for all the Greek city-states to come together and compete with each other in service to the gods. Such a festival gave prestige both to the temple where the games were conducted and to the city that managed the festivities. Isthmia, the crossroads of Greece, was a perfect place to host such a festival, and some time after the construction of the temple the complex was expanded to include a stadium, and games were organized there by the Korinthians. The traditional date of the founding of the Isthmian Games is 584 BC. The games attracted visitors from all over Greece. The temple received donations, and the Korinthians got the pride of hosting a major religious event every two years.

The temple and Isthmia prospered because of the games, and the site's location as a gathering place for Greeks would eventually make it a center of Panhellenic unity. In 490 and 484 BC the Persians attempted to invade Greece, but failed. By 481 it was clear that they were going to try again. A number of city-states in central and southern Greece were determined to fight the Persians, and they gathered at Isthmia to make plans about how to face the larger Persian force. The Spartans, who commanded the force and who lived south of the Isthmus, were at several points during the war inclined to fortify the Isthmus and withdraw to the south; according to the historian Herodotus such fortifications were actually built. The Athenians, who lived north of the Isthmus, contrived to keep the fighting north of the Isthmus, and succeeded. The Greeks won a naval battle at Salamis in 480 and a major land victory at Plataia in 479. Though Isthmia was not the main battleground for the Greek armies during the Persian wars, its function as a meeting place for the Greek world would set a precedent - many times during the next three hundred years the site hosted conferences among the city-states of Greece.

Classical Period to the Destruction of Korinth
(479-146 BC)

(Figure 5.4) A moden Reconstrucion of the temple.Around 480 BC the archaic temple was destroyed by fire. A new, larger temple was constructed about 465 BC, and the games continued (Figure 5.4). From 431 to 404 Greece was divided into two camps as the Athenians and Spartans struggled for dominance. Korinth was allied to the Spartans, but the war did not disrupt the biannual festival at the Temple of Poseidon; for example, in 412 the Korinthians refused to send ships to their Spartan allies until the Isthmian games had been concluded. From 395 to 387 Korinth found herself in another war, this time allied with the Athenians and fighting against the Spartans. In 390 the games were disrupted when a Spartan Army marched on the Isthmus. The temple was damaged again by fire, and because of economic trouble in Korinth during the fourth century the damage took some time to repair.

At the end of the fourth century Isthmia again became a center of Panhellenic conferences. Philip II of Macedon (ruled 359-336), the father of Alexander the Great, was expanding the power of his kingdom by subjugating the city-states of Greece. In 338 he defeated his last opponents and was firmly in control of almost all Greece. He wanted to launch a war against Persia, and called for a meeting of all of his Greek subjects at Isthmia. Philip was assassinated in 336 and the next year his son Alexander, having taken his father's place and having assumed control over Greece, called another conference at Isthmia. By the end of the century five more such conferences would take place, and Isthmia was recognized as one of the centers of Greek unity. Unfortunately for Greece, these conferences were too often assembled at the behest of powerful kings, and Greek unity was imposed from above. Still, such meetings added to Isthmia's already considerable prestige and attracted even more visitors.

(Figure 5.5) Ancient Korinth.Throughout most of the third century the Macedonian kings used Korinth as one of their most strategic garrisons (Figure 5.5). Control over the isthmus meant strategic dominance over much of Greece. The Macedonians lost control over Korinth in 243 BC to the Achaian league, a federation of Greek city-states in the Peloponnese, but regained it in 228. In 225-4 the Macedonians brought an army through the Isthmus to face another Achaian force trying to take Korinth. Since the Isthmus was the crossroads of Greece, armies would continue to march through it, often with disastrous consequences to Isthmia and the Temple.

At the beginning of the second century Greek political life would be forever changed by the entry of Rome into Greek affairs, and the consequences would be especially disastrous for Isthmia. Rome arrived in 200 BC to "liberate" Greece from Macedonian control; one of the garrisons they took was Korinth, but in the process their armies damaged the temple of Poseidon and destroyed the village on the Rachi.

The war against the Macedonians concluded in 196 BC with a complete Roman victory. Before withdrawing his troops the Roman General Flamininus chose to make a political statement and a demonstration of Roman goodwill: to announce the complete liberation of Greece. It should come as no surprise that the place he chose to make this announcement was the Isthmian games. By now Isthmia had had a long history as a symbol of Greek freedom, Greek unity, and Greek resistance to outsiders.

Fifty years later the Romans were less magnanimous to Greece. After continued trouble with their Greek allies, the Romans declared war on the Achaian League. The Roman General Mummius decided to make another political statement in Korinth, this one decidedly different from the one Flamininus had made. In 146 BC Mummius ordered Korinth to be destroyed. Isthmia, near the spot where Mummius army was encamped, was not spared. The Altar of Poseidon was destroyed, and the Isthmian Games were transferred to the control of Korinth's neighbor Sikyon. The games probably moved there too.

Isthmia under Roman Control
(146 BC-267 AD)

There is some evidence that Korinth was not totally destroyed in 146 BC, but the fortunes of the city would not really improve until 44 BC, when Julius Caesar refounded the city as a Roman colony. The site of the sanctuary did not immediately recover its ancient glory, however. Though Korinth regained control over the games about 40 years after it was refounded, archeological evidence suggests that the games did not return to Isthmia until about 50 AD. The temple and the facilities for the games were repaired, and, in fact, in 67 AD the sanctuary witnessed a scene reminiscent of Flamininus' grant of freedom 250 years earlier. The Emperor Nero made a tour of Greece, and took part in the Panhellenic games, many of which were rescheduled in his honor. At the Isthmian games he repeated the proclamation of Flamininus and granted freedom to the Greeks, as well as exemption from Roman taxes. The Greeks were sufficiently enthusiastic about the Emperor's munificence, but his promises did not outlive his death the next year. Still, Poseidon's sanctuary was given a second chance at life, and new buildings were added to the area in the next century.

(Figure 5.6) Reconstruction of Palaimonion.Roman Emperors would continue to take interest in the sanctuary of Poseidon. There was a cult site to Palaimon (see the Mythology section) since the latter part of the 1st century BC, but no building from this time has been found. In the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138) a circular building was constructed to house the cult (Figure 5.6). Less then fifty years later however, the Palaimonion, as it is called, was relocated to the south to accommodate expansions to the sacred area surrounding the temple. It was also in the second century that Roman baths, with a famous black and white mosaic, were constructed near the temple.

After the second century, our literary sources for Isthmia decrease in number, and it is harder for us to find out what life was like at the temple site. The Herulians, a barbarian tribe, invaded Greece in 267 AD, making it to the south and doing much damage before being driven off. It is possible and perhaps likely that the temple was damaged.

Late Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern Isthmia
(267-1715 AD)

(Figure 5.7) The Hexamilion.In the fourth century the Roman world began changing in ways that would greatly affect the cult of Poseidon. The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and began supporting his new religion by confiscating pagan temple treasures. By the end of the century Christianity would be the only legal religion in the Empire, and it is almost certain that no more games were given in honor of Poseidon.

In 378 AD the Roman emperor Valens was killed at Adrianople, near Constantinople, and repeated barbarian threats became a possibility. In 395 the Goths, under the leadership of Alaric, moved into southern Greece and devastated the area. By 400 the sanctuary to Poseidon was an abandoned relic to a bygone era, and the emperors found a new use for the stones of the temple. In the reign of Theodosius II (408-450 AD) it was decided that the Peloponnese needed to be protected from attacks from the north, and a wall was constructed across the Isthmus, running very near the site of the sanctuary (Figure 5.7). The Hexamilion ("six-mile") wall required an enormous quantity of stone to construct, and many no-longer used buildings, including the Temple and surrounding constructions, were plundered for stone. The Temple was torn down to its foundations.

Large sections of the Hexamilion wall still stand. The wall fell into disuse relatively rapidly after it was first constructed, but it was repaired between 548 and 560 by the Emperor Justinian. Isthmia itself may have been sporadically abandoned between the late 7th century and the 11th or 12th century AD. During this time southern Greece was attacked by numerous enemies, including the Slavs and Bulgars; although the Hexamilion apparently was used as a defense, it does not seem to have been successful.

The Isthmus continued to be an important strategic location during the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and a significant settlement grew up near the ruins of the ancient sanctuary. The Ottoman Turks gradually gained control over the Balkans, but their control was challenged at various times. The Hexamilion was refortified in 1415 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, but he lacked the manpower to make the wall a viable defense. The Turks captured it in 1423, and for the next three hundred years Isthmia would occasionally witness battles between the Turks, the Venetians, and local nobles over control of the region, until the Venetians were expelled in 1715. The Ottomans then had a century of unchallenged control over Southern Greece, including Isthmia.