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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites
Isthmus of Corinth
Neck of land, 5,857 m wide at its narrowest point, joining the Peloponnesos
to the mainland of Greece. Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery discovered in several
places there shows early occupation of the area. East of it an inscribed stele
marked the boundary between Corinth and Megara. Mythology tells of a dispute between
Poseidon and Helios for possession of the land; Briareos, who was appointed arbitrator,
decided in favor of Poseidon.
The Isthmus formed a bridge for land traffic and a barrier to E-W
shipping, and attempts were made early to facilitate passage from sea to sea.
In the 6th c. B.C. a causeway (diolkos), 3.60-4.20 m wide, was constructed, the
pavement of which has been exposed for a distance of nearly 1 km near the Corinthian
Gulf. On it ships were hauled on cradles, as shown by deep wheel ruts, 1.50 m
apart. The diolkos was still in use in the 9th c. A.D.
Plans to dig a canal were conceived by Periander, Demetrios Poliorketes,
Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Herodes Atticus. Nero broke ground for a canal
during his visit to Greece in A.D. 67. Two of his trenches, 2,000 and 1,500 m
long but nowhere reaching water level, and several pits, 37-42 m deep, were clearly
visible before the modern canal was dug in 1881-93. Traces of Nero's work still
To protect themselves and the Peloponnesos from attacks by land, the
Corinthians fortified the Isthmus. The earliest of the walls, which dates back
to about 1200 B.C., may have been planned to stem the recurrent waves of Dorian
invaders at the end of the Mycenaean period. It was probably left unfinished when
the decisive invasion took place. The next line of defense, built in haste in
480 B.C. against an expected Persian attack that never materialized, has left
no sure traces. There are extensive remains of a later fortification, built probably
in 279 B.C., when the Gauls, who overran the N of Greece, threatened invasion
of the Peloponnesos. This wall crossed the Isthmus so far to the W as to leave
the Precinct of Poseidon (see Isthmia) and large parts of Corinthian territory
open to the attackers. There are also references to a wall built in the reign
of Valerian (A.D. 253-60). The Wall of Justinian, which can be followed through
most of its course, had originally 153 towers on the N side, spaced at intervals
of about 40 m. Near the E end, close to the Sanctuary of Poseidon, there is a
massive fortress whose walls abut against the trans-Isthmus wall. The fortress
and much of the Isthmus wall are constructed largely out of reused material from
the sanctuary. Recent excavations (1967-69) tend to show that these walls are
earlier than Justinian; if this is correct, they must have been rebuilt during
his reign. The fortress has three gates: the NE Gate, incorporating an earlier
Roman gateway; the S Gate, built or repaired by Justinian's engineer Victorinus;
and a smaller gate in the W wall. Repairs were again made in the reign of Manuel
II (1391-1425). Until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the trans-Isthmus wall
and the fortress remained a bulwark against invasions from the N.
O. Broneer, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites,
Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from
Perseus Project URL below, which contains 3 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.
Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
An isthmus between the Saronicus Sinus and Corinthiacus
Sinus, and uniting the Peloponnesus to the northern parts of Greece. Its breadth,
in the narrowest part, was less than six miles (or not quite five miles). It
has lately (1893) been cut by a canal. Ships were drawn, by means of machinery,
from one sea to the other, near the town of Schoenus, over the narrowest part
of the isthmus, which was called Diolkos. This could only be accomplished, however,
with the vessels usually employed in commerce, or with lemboi, which were light
ships of war, chiefly used by the Illyrians and Macedonians. The tediousness
and expense attending this process, and still more probably the difficulty of
circumnavigating the Peloponnesus, led to frequent attempts, at various periods,
for effecting a junction between the two seas; but all proved equally unsuccessful.
Demetrius Poliorcetes abandoned the enterprise, because it was found that the
two gulfs were not on the same level. We read of the attempt having been made
before his time by Periander and Alexander, and, subsequently to Demetrius,
by Iulius Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Herodes Atticus. Dio Cassius tells nearly
the same story about digging through the isthmus as that which is related to
travellers at this day. He says that blood issued from the ground; that groans
and lamentations were heard, and terrible apparitions seen. In order to stimulate
the perseverance of the people, Nero took a spade and dug himsel . Lucian informs
us, that Nero was said to have been deterred from proceeding, by a representation
made to him, similar to that which Demetrius received respecting the unequal
levels of the two seas. The Isthmus of Corinth derived great celebrity from
the games which were celebrated there every five years in honour of Palaemon
or Melicerta, and subsequently of Poseidon. These continued in vogue when the
other gymnastic exercises of Greece had fallen into neglect and disuse; and
it was during their solemnization that the independence of Greece was proclaimed,
after the victory of Cynoscephalae, by order of the Roman Senate and people.
After the destruction of Corinth, the superintendence of the Isthmian Games
was committed to the Sicyonians by the Romans; on its restoration, however,
by Iulius Caesar, the presidency of the games again reverted to the Corinthian
This text is cited Sep 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Perseus: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)
The most important part of the territory of Corinth was the Isthmus,
both as the place across which merchandise was carried from the eastern to the
western sea, and more especially as hallowed by the celebration of the Isthmian
games. The word Isthmus (Isthmos) probably comes from the root i, which appears
in i-enai to go, and the Latin i-re, and hence originally meant a passage. From
being the proper name of this spot, it came to be applied to the neck of any peninsula.
The situation of the Isthmus, a stony plain lying between the mountain barriers
of the Geraneia on the north and the Oneia on the south, has been already described.
The word was used both in a wider and a narrower signification. In its wider use
it indicated the whole land lying between the two gulfs, and hence Corinth is
said to have been situated on the Isthmus (Korinthos epi toi Isthmoi keimenos,
Strab. viii. p. 380; Corinthum in Isthimo condidit, Vell. Pat. i. 3): in its more
restricted sense it was applied to the narrowest part of the Isthmus, and especially
to the neighbourhood of the Poseideium and the locality of the Isthmian games
ten eis Kenchreas lonton ex Isthmou, Paus. ii. 2. § 3; ta Isthmoi dgalmata,, Philostr.
Vit, Her. 5.) Most of the Greek writers make the breadth of the Isthmus 40 stadia..
(Strab. viii. p. 335; Diod. xi. 16; Scylax, p. 15.) Pliny states it as 5 miles
(iv. 4. s. 5), and Mela 4 miles (ii. 3). The last statement is the most correct,
the real breadth being about 3 1/2 English miles in direct distance. In the Byzantine
time it was called to hexamilion, the name which the village on the Isthmus still
bears, and which was also given to the Isthmus of Mount Athos.
The only town on the Isthmus in ancient times was Schoenus on the
Saronic gulf. (ho Schoinous, viii. p. 380; Portus Schoenitas, Mel. ii. 3.) Situated
at the narrowest part of the Isthmus, it was the port of the Isthmian sanctuary,
and the place at which goods, not intended for the Corinthian market, were transported
across the Isthmus by means of the Diolcos. This harbour, which is now called
Kalamaki, is exposed to the east and south-east: the site of the town is indicated
by a few fragments of Doric columns. The Isthmian sanctuary lies rather less than
a mile south-east of Schoenus. It was a level spot, of an irregular quadrangular
form, containing the temple of Poseidon and other sanctuaries, and was surrounded
on all tides by a strong wall, which can still be clearly traced. The northern
and north-eastern parts of the enclosure were protected by the wall, which extended
across the Isthmus, and of which we shall speak presently. On the other sides
it was shut in by its own walls, which are in some cases more than 12 feet thick.
The enclosure is about 640 feet in length; but its breadth varies, being about
600 feet broad on the north and northeast, but only 300 feet broad at its southern
end. Its form, as well as the way in which it was connected with the Isthmic wall,
is shown in the annexed plan copied from Curtius, which is taken with a slight
improvement from Leake. The interior of the enclosure is a heap of ruins, which
in consequence of earthquakes and other devastating causes have been so mixed,
that it is impossible without extensive excavations to discover the ground-plan
of the different buildings.
Pausanias's account of the Isthmian sanctuary is unusually brief and
unsatisfactory (ii. 1). He came to it from the port. Towards his left he saw the
stadium and theatre, both constructed of white marble, of which there are still
some vestiges. Both lay outside the sacred enclosure, the stadium towards the
south, and the theatre towards the west, Here the Isthmian games were celebrated;
and these buildings were connected with the sacred enclosure by a grove of pine
trees. (Strab. viii. p. 380.) The main gate of the sanctuary appears to have been
in the eastern wall, through which Pausanias entered. The road leading from this
gate to the temple of Poseidon, was lined on one side by the statues of conquerors
in the Isthmian games, and on the other side by a row of pine trees. Upon the
temple, which was not large, stood Tritons, probably serving as weather-cocks,
like the Triton on the Horologium of Andronicus Cyrrhestes at Athens. In the pronaus
Pausanias saw two statues of Poseidon, and by their side statues of Amphitrite
and Thalassa. The principal ornament of the cella was a magnificent gift of Herodes
Atticus, consisting of four gilded horses with ivory hoofs, drawing the chariot
of Poseidon, Amphitrite and Palaemon. The chariot rested upon a base, on which
were represented in bas-relief Thalassa with her child Aphrodite in the centre,
while on either side were the Nereids. The fragments of Doric columns found within
the enclosure may be assigned to this temple. Leake measured the end of the fluting
of one of these shafts, and found it ten inches and a half.
Within the sacred enclosure, to the west, was the Palaemonion, consisting
of two sanctuaries, one above ground, containing statues of Poseidon, Leucothea,
and Palaemon; and a subterraneous adytum, where Palaemon was said to have been
buried. This adytum was the most sacred spot in the Isthmus, since the festival
was originally in honour of Palaemon. Poseidon was subsequently substituted for
this local divinity as the patron god of the festival; but Palaemon continued
to receive special honour, and in his adytum the most sacred oaths were sworn.
Pausanias also mentions an ancient sanctuary, called the altar of the Cyclopes.
Sisyphus and Neleus were said to have been buried here, but the site of their
graves was unknown.
These are all the buildings in the Isthmic sanctuary mentioned by
Pausanias; but we learn, from an inscription discovered by Wheeler in 1676, and
now preserved at Verona, that there were several other buildings besides. (See
the inscription in Bockh, Corp. Inscr. n. 1104.) It contains a list of the Isthmian
edifices erected by Publius Licinius Priscus Juventianus, high priest for life
at Roman Corinth. He built lodgings for the athletae, who came to the Isthmian
games from the whole world. He erected, at his own expense, the Palaemonium, with
its decorations;--the enagisterion, probably the subterraneous adytum, spoken
of by Pausanias;--the sacred avenue;--the altars of the native gods, with the
peribolus and the pronaos (perhaps the sanctuary containing the altars of the
Cyclopes);--the houses in which the athletae were examined;--the temple of Helios,
together with the statue and peribolus;--moreover, the peribolus of the Sacred
Grove, and within it temples of Demeter, Core, Dionysus and Artemis, with their
statues, decorations and pronai. He repaired the temples of Eueteria, of Core,
of Pluto, and the steps and terrace-walls, which had fallen into decay by earthquakes
and antiquity. He also decorated the portico at the Stadium, with the arched apartments
and the decorations belonging to them.
It has been already mentioned that the northern portion of the walls
which surrounded the Isthmic sanctuary belonged to a line of fortification, which
extended at one period across the Isthmus. This wall may still be traced in its
whole extent across the narrowest part of the Isthmus, beginning at the bay of
Lechaeum and terminating at the bay of Schoenus. It was fortified with square
towers on its northern side in the direction of Megaris, showing that it was intended
for the defence of Peloponnesus against attacks from the north. It was not built
in a straight line, but followed the crest of a range of low hills, the last falls
of the Oneian mountains. The length of the wall, according to Boblaye, is 7300
metres, while the breadth of the Isthmus at its narrowest part is only 5950 metres.
At what period this wall was erected, is uncertain. The first Isthmian wall, mentioned
in history, was the one thrown up in haste by the Peloponnesians when Xerxes was
marching into Greece. (Herod. viii. 71; Diod. xi. 66.) But this was a work of
haste, and could not have been the same as the massive walls, of which the remains
are extant. Moreover, it is evident from the military operations in the Corinthia,
recorded by Thucydides and Xenophon, that in their time the Isthmus was not defended
by a line of fortifications: the difficulties of an invading army always begin
with the passes through the Oneian mountains. Diodorus (xv. 68) speaks of a temporary
line of fortifications, consisting of palisades and trenches, which were thrown
across the Isthmus by the Spartans and their allies, to prevent the Thebans from
marching into Peloponnesus (B.C. 369), from which it clearly appears that there
was no permanent wall. Moreover, Xenophon (Hell. vii. 1. § 15, seq.) does not
even mention the palisading and trenches, but places the Lacedaemonians and their
allies upon the Oneian mountains. It is not till we come to the period of the
decline of the Roman empire, that we find mention of the Isthmian wall. It was
then regarded as an important defence against the invasions of the barbarians.
Hence, it was restored by Valerian in the middle of the third century (Zosim.
i. 29), by Justinian towards the end of the sixth (Procop. de Aedif. iv. 2), by
the Greeks against the Turks in 1415, and after it had been destroyed by the Turks
it was rebuilt by the Venetians in 1463. It was a second time destroyed by the
Turks; and by the treaty of Carlowitz, in 1699, the remains of the old walls were
made the boundary line between the territories of the Turks and Venetians.
The Isthmian wall formed with the passes of the Geraneian and with
those of the Oneian mountains three distinct lines of defence, which are enumerated
in the following passage of Claudian (de Bell. Get. 188):
Vallata mari Scironia rupes,
Et duo continuo connectens aequora muro Isthmus,
et angusti patuerunt claustra Lechaei.
A short distance north of the Isthmian wall, where the ground was
the most level, was the Diolcos (diolkos, Strab. viii. p. 335). It was a level
road, upon which smaller vessels were drawn by moving rollers from one sea to
the other. The cargoes of those ships, which were too large for this mode of transport,
were unloaded, carried across, and put on board other vessels upon the opposite
coast Hence we find the expressions diisthmein tas naus, huperisthmein (Pol. iv.
19), huperpherein (Thus. viii. 7), dielkuein (Diod. iv. 56). In some seasons of
the year there was an uninterrupted traffic upon the Diolcos, to which allusion
is made in one of the jokes of Aristophanes (Thesmoph. 647).
The narrow breadth of the Isthmus, and the important traffic across
it, frequently suggested the idea of cutting a canal through it. This project
is said to have been formed by Periander (Diog. Laert. i. 99), Demetrius Poliorcetes
(Strab. i. p. 54), Julius Caesar (Dion Cass. xliv. 5; Suet. Caes. 44; Plut. Caes.
58), Caligula (Suet. Calig. 21), Nero, and Herodes Atticus (Philostr. Vit. Soph.
ii. 6). But the only one who actually commenced the work was Nero. This emperor
opened the undertaking with great pomp, and cut out part of the earth with his
own hands; but the work had advanced only four stadia, when he was obliged to
give it up, in consequence of the insurrection of Julius Vindex in Gaul. (Dion
Cass. lxv. 16; Suet. Ner. 19; Paus. ii. 1, § 5; Plin. iv. 4. s. 5; Lucian, de
Fossa Isthmi.) The canal was commenced upon the western shore close to the Diolcos,
and traces of it may still be seen at right angled to the shore. It has now little
depth; but it is 200 feet wide, and may be traced for about 1200 yards. It ceased
where the rocky ground begins to rise; for even the Isthmus is not a perfect level,
but rises gradually from either shore, and steeper from the eastern than the western
side. Curtius says that the highest point is 246 feet above. the level of the
sea. The existing remains of the canal leave no doubt respecting its position;
but since it was said by some authorities to commence apo tou Lechaiou, Chandler
erroneously concluded that it commenced at the port of Lechaeum. Leake, however,
has shown that the bay of the Corinthian gulf at the Isthmus bore the name of
Lechaeum, and that we are to understand the bay, and not the port, in the passages
This extract is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD)
- Isthmus: Perseus Lookup Tool, text search
- Isthmos: Perseus Lookup Tool, text search
- Perseus: Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary(1879)
- Isthmus: Perseus Lookup Tool
The Corinth Canal is a junction of international sea transport and
serves ships coming from the Western Mediterranean and Adriatic en route to Eastern
Mediterranean and Black Sea ports and vice versa.
The Corinth Canal intersects the Isthmus of Corinth and has a length
of 6.343m. The minimum width of the canal at sea level is 24.6m and bottom width
of 21m at 8m depth.
This text is cited October 2004 from the Corinth Canal Management Company Periandros S.A. URL below, which contains images