September 10, 2011

History of Corfu - Ancient Times

Corfu is situated between the Italian and the Balkan peninsulas, in the marine passage between the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Its geography has had played a key-role to the determination of the history of the island.

Our knowledge for the island goes back to the age of legend. It is mentioned in both the Odyssey and the Argonautic epics, as the island of the Phaeacians, a people of high political, economic and social status, descendants of Feax, son of the nymph Corcyra and Poseidon. Poseidon is supposed to have abducted Corcyra and brought her to this island to mate, which then was named after her.

When the Argonauts were on their adventurous journey back home, chased by the Colchian fleet in order to give back Medea, their princess, they found refuge on the island of the Feacians. King Alkinoos welcomed them, as well as his people who were famous for their hospitality. Later on the same day the Colchians arrived, too, and they asked king Alkinoos to give them back Medea, as only him had the jurisdiction to do so on his island. Alkinoos, who felt sympathy for Jason and Medea, said that he would reply the next day. Later that night, he asked his wife, Arrete, what he should do: on one hand he was obliged to return Medea to the Colchians, as she had been abducted from Colchis, but on the other hand, he sympathized the young couple and his heart was telling him to help them. Arrete responded that he couldn’t give Medea to the Colchians if she was married to Jason, and that this matter should be solved the next day. In that night, though, Jason and Medea, after receiving notice from Arrete, were married in a small cave-shrine of Hera, and thus Alkinoos refused to assist the Colchians. Legend has it that out of the cave-shrine where Jason and Medea were married, came a small stream of fresh, spring water, and this water was chanted by their love, so that anyone who would taste the water, should get in love soon, and never leave the island of Corfu.

One generation later, according to Greek Mythology, Odysseus, on his way to Ithaca after leaving the Isle of Ogygia where he spent some years with the beautiful nymph Calypso, was shipwrecked off the shores of the Isle of Phaeacians. When he landed, naked and exhausted, was found by the princess Nausika who brought him to the palace of Alkinoos. There Odysseus was treated with the famous Phaeacian hospitality, and was granted one of the steerless ships of the Paeacians to bring him back home to Ithaca.

Coming into the historic era, Corfu was first colonized by the Eretrians, Greeks coming from the island of Euboea, who drove off the Liburnians, an Illyrian tribe of pirates, who were settled on the island. This must have happened in about the middle 8th century BC, since in 730 BC there came the Corinthians who, in their turn, drove off the Eretrians, and settled the island to which gave the name “Corcyra”. The leader of the Corinthian settlers was Chersicrates, after whom the city of the island (located at Palaiopolis) were named.
The new colony was soon bloomed into a wealthy state, with a large fleet and significant population. Corfu was so powerful, that founded two colonies on the shores of Epirus and Illyria, Epidamnos and Apollonia.
This situation, off course, was not very pleasant for the metropolis, Corinth, treated the Corcyreans with distrust, and in 665 BC the Corinthians demanded that 400 young Corcyreans who were supposed to be held in Corinth as hostages. But, after the departure of the Corinthian fleet, the Corcyreans found out that the true destination was Frygia, where the young Corcyreans were going to be castrated, in an effort of Corinth to show her brutality and power to her colony. The Corcyreans then sent out their fleet, and thus the first naval battle in history took place, with the Corcyreans outrunning the Corinthians and saving their youth.

The next stone mark in Corfiot history is at the eve of the Peloponnesian War, in the end of the 5th century BC, when Corcyra was a large state of 150,000 people, and her fleet was the second largest in Greece (after that of Athens), with over than 60 triremes. Thucydides, in the first chapter of his history of the War, under the title “Κερκυραϊκά” (“Corcyrean”), describes the struggle that occurred between Corcyra and Corinth over the colony of Epidamnos on the Illyrians coast. Corinth sent out her fleet and a naval battle took place in 435 BC at the south marine straight between Corfu and Epirus, near the islets Sybota, with the Corcyreans winning their rivals.
This win, though, didn’t mean the end of troubles for Corcyra. A new struggle broke soon, between the republican and oligarchic Corcyreans, which soon scaled up to a civil war. The Corinthians, whose trade interests were threatened by the mighty Corcyrean fleet, intervened in favor of the oligarchics,and Athens intervened in favor of the republicans. That was the starting point of the Peloponnesian war, which was the worse inter-Greek war of Antiquity. After the end of that war and the victory of Spartans and their allies, Corcyra came out with diminished economical and military power. Even though things went better in the years to come, the innavoidable engagement in the wars of Epigoni ("offspring") of Alexander the Great after his death, led to more troubles that led to the conquest by the Illyrians in 229 BC. It was then obvious that the Corcyreans could not overthrow the Illyrians by themselves, while none of the Greek states of the time was able or willing to asist them. So, they turned to the rising power of Rome, who rapidly responded, sending a mighty force which anihilated the Illyrians. Thus, Corcyra was the first Greek State to be annexed to the Roman state, even if it kept its autonomy under the status of "ally". This status was maintained probaly until 212 AD (when emperor Caracalas granted full citizenship to all free subjects of the empire), as it is implied by the historians mentioning the Corcyreans participating the Roman campaigns as a seperate force.

During the Roman era Corcyra was one of the most popular places for leisure, as it is implied by the numerous villas on the island. Nero himself and Cicero were two of the vost famous visitors of Corcyra.

Later on, at the time of the expansion of Christendom, Apostle Paul visited Corcyra and left behind his disciplines Jason and Sosipater to teach the Christian faith in the island.

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