Most Recent Visit: May 2021
A number of remains in the area of Corinth are worth visiting, but not quite enough to warrant their own post individually. Located less than a kilometer to the south/southwest of the ancient center of Corinth, is the fortress of Acrocorinth, literally Upper Corinth. The rocky outcropping juts up 575 meters above the plain that opens up south from the narrowest part of the isthmus, which is less than 10 kilometers away. According to a myth related by Pausanias, Poseidon and Helios had a dispute over the dominion of the lands around Corinth. The fifty-headed and hundred-handed storm giant (Hecatoncheires) Briareos arbitrated the dispute and awarded the land to Poseidon, but the high peak of Acrocorinth to Helios.
Historically, the earliest levels of the fortifications of Acrocorinth seem to be dated to roughly the mid-7th to early 6th century BCE, perhaps during the reign of the first tyrant of Corinth, Kypselos. The position of the fortress allowed for a dominant position over the land exit and entrance from the Peloponnese, and allowed Corinth to control land access through the narrow isthmus. The fortunes of Corinth as a whole were often tied to the security of the fortress. The presence of natural water sources atop the steep peak allow for a particularly resilient position. When the Macedonians gained control of the area, a garrison was stationed at Acrocorinth, and was considered one of the primary points of control for the Macedonians in Greece.
Acrocorinth was the focal point of Aratus of Sicyon’s campaign against Macedonian power in the region, and his successful capture of the fortress in a surprise attack in 243 BCE was essential to securing Corinth’s support and in convincing the city to join Achaean League. Aratus achieved success by exploiting a weakness in the defenses in the form of a less steep approach and at the lowest point (in elevation) of the walls. When the Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 BCE, they also destroyed the walls of Acrocorinth. The fortress would be reoccupied after the re-foundation of Corinth, but the walls would not be rebuilt until the late antique period, apparently from remains of the earlier, destroyed walls.
Acrocorinth is only about a 10 minute drive from ancient Corinth, but, there is significant elevation change as the entrance to site is about halfway up the peak. There does not seem to be any sort of public transportation option to get there, so a personal vehicle is probably the best option. The site is open daily from 8:30 to 15:30. Admission is free.
Unfortunately the ancient remains of Acrocorinth are not very well represented at the site. The location was indeed so well suited for control of the land passage through the isthmus that the position was re-fortified in the Byzantine period and used pretty much consistently through the Ottaman Turk occupation of Greece. As such, the near constant use erased much of the ancient remains, but there are a few spots worth mentioning. Even with the scant ancient remains, Acrocorinth offers amazing views and some significant remains of later periods, particularly the Frankish period.
There are three sets of fortifications protecting the main ingress to the site; the first is right off the parking lot, before encountering the caretaker’s booth. This is completely post-antique in construction. Up a little farther is the second gate. Much of the wall surrounding the second gate is not really visible from the visitor’s path, but it is at this level that some of the ancient fortifications start becoming visible. Perhaps the best preserved part of the ancient fortifications here is not actually visible until passing through the gate, as there is a section on the north side of a tower to the south of the gate, at a significantly higher elevation as the walls ascend up the slope. Looking to the left (north) there is a section of the third line of defenses that juts downhill toward the west, and there is a plentiful section of the larger ashlar blocks from the 4th century BCE defenses visible on that tower.
Approaching the third gate, the southern of the two towers flanking the gate also has some very significant ancient remains. The courses of ancient blocks make up almost an entire face of this tower, stopping just below the highest preserved course of wall. The third gate runs into the course of the walls that surrounds most of Acrocorinth. There’s apparently sections of ancient wall preserved at various points through the course, but much of it is not visible or easily accessible. Particularly early in the season when there’s still a lot of high brush around. Though, I suspect that even if that were not the case, many of these sections would be largely inaccessible without a great deal of effort.
Inside the entrance of the third gate, there’s quite a few remains of later periods, but the next of the two ancient remains within the walls is a good distance away, at essentially the southernmost extent of Acrocorinth; the Upper Peirene Fountain. Like the Peirene Fountain in Corinth, this one also has a few mythological stories around it. The first being that the spring sprung forth when Pegasus kicked a crevice in the rock whilst Bellerophon was attempting to tame him. The second, that after Zeus abducted the sea nymph Aegina, taking her to the island that now bears her name, he was seen by the king of Corinth, Sisyphus. Sisyphus told Aegina’s father, Asopos, where he had seen Zeus taking his daughter, and as a reward, Asopos gifted him the spring, which would always provide clean water to Acrocorinth.
Most of the construction of the fountain left today is from the 4th century BCE, though there were apparently improvements made during the Roman period. Part of the water storage area is open on the north side, but on the south side there is a passage to descend into the fountain. There is a gate, so presumably it can be closed, but, it was open when I visited and a staircase leads down to the Hellenistic double archway that leads into the reservoir. The visitor path is halted before getting to the archway, but it is clearly visible.
To visit the final area, one must ascend to the highest part of Acrocorinth, where a temple to Aphrodite once stood. A temple to the goddess was located here since the 5th century BCE, but seems to have been destroyed in the Roman destruction. After the re-establishment of Corinth, it was probably rebuilt, no later than the 2nd century CE, when it is mentioned by Pausanias. Nothing significant remains of the temple except for some blocks that were subsequently re-used to build a church on the site of the temple after it was destroyed
On the road between Acrocorinth and Corinth is a sanctuary to Demeter and Kore. There was a small sanctuary here prior to the 4th century BCE, but at that point, a larger temple was built. Like many other structures in the Corinth area, the site was abandoned and fell into disrepair between the Roman destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE and the re-founding of the city in 44 BCE. A series of three small temples were built here in the 1st century CE, and in the 2nd century CE, the sanctuary is mentioned by Pausanias by name. It seems to have been closed in the 4th century CE. Unfortunately, though the sanctuary is right by the road, it is fenced off and the angle offers very little viewing of the city. I searched around for some sort of entrance, but there didn’t seem to be any way to access the sanctuary.
There’s a few other worthwhile sites in the area of Corinth. The first is the Hexamilion Wall. As the name suggests, it was an approximately 6 mile defensive wall that was constructed across the narrow of the isthmus. Such a defensive fortification was attempted at various points in antiquity, but it was not fully realized until the reign of Theodosius II in the first half of the 5th century CE. The increased threat of Barbarian invasions seems to have been the impetus for the construction. Many buildings in Corinth and even at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia (which had by that time fallen victim to the closure of pagan religious sites) were dismantled in order to provide building material for the wall.
The wall is visible at a few fairly accessible points, all marked on the map. A roughly 150 meter stretch of the wall parallels the Isthmou Archaias Epidavrou road, east of modern Isthmia. This section is pretty visible from the road, and I actually found it quite by accident on the way to Cenchreae. The field it is adjacent to is not very well cared for, so close approach the wall may be made difficult by overgrowth, but, it’s pretty clearly visible from the road and there are a few places to stop along the way. A second significant section is located beneath an underpass of the E94/A8 highway about 1.25 kilometers southwest of the canal. This area is generally a bit better taken care of, and there’s a small parking area and path that leads along the approximately 500 meter stretch of walls that span either side of the highway.
Another 400 meter section of the walls stretches on either side of the old Athens-Corinth road between the canal and modern Corinth. The wall on the north side of the road is fairly visible from the road as it is raised above the ground level and comes very close to the road. It is also signed. The wall to the south of the road, however, is much less visible and was, for the most part, overgrown when I passed by. It is a fairly busy road, and there is not a really great place to stop to get out and look at the wall on the north. The wall on the south does run along a regular residential road, so it is much easier to visit. No segments of the wall have any kind of admission or restriction on viewing.
A few interesting monuments are located at the modern canal as well. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Diolkos. The Diolkos was the paved road that ran from the Corinthian Gulf to the Saronic Gulf, allowing the overland transportation of ships between the two bodies of water. There are historical records of at least 8 fleet crossings along the road. Strabo and Pliny note that the crossings were made with the ships being carried by wagons. The road seems to have been created sometime around 600 BCE and continued to function until the mid-1st century CE. The Diolkos seems to have fell out of use at that time, perhaps in light of Nero’s unsuccessful attempt to build a canal around 66-67 CE.
Plans for digging a canal had existed well before Nero’s attempt. The building of the Diolkos itself seems to have been spawned from a scrapped idea to construct a canal by Periander of Corinth. Another planned attempt by Demetrios Poliorketes in the early 3rd century BCE was ultimately abandoned due the mistaken belief that the Saronic and Corinthian gulfs had different sea levels and the construction of a canal would cause widespread flooding. Two other Romans before Nero also considered plans to build a canal; Julius Caesar and Caligula. Nero, however, was the first to actually begin construction on a canal, starting from both sides. His attempt reached about 2 kilometers from the Gulf of Corinth on the west side, and about 1300 meters from the Saronic Gulf on the east side. The constructed part of this canal apparently measured about 40 meters across and a depth of roughly 10 meters.
Despite the modern canal destroying evidence of both the ancient canal and the Diolkos, there are some remains visible around the western part of the modern canal. At the western mouth of the canal, on the south side, about 50 meters in from the coast, are the remains of some partially submerged blocks. While these have traditionally been associated with the Diolkos, perhaps as some part of staging area for the carts used for transportation, they may, in fact, be much later constructions that are related to some kind of dock structure dating to Nero’s canal attempt.
Just a few meters inland from this area is a small excavated area that marks the start of the Diolkos. The course of the road drops off into the canal due to erosion, with the Diolkos disappearing for a stretch of about 85 meters. It then picks back up and is visible for another 95 meters or so before it meets up with the modern road Poseidonos. It then picks up again about 25 meters east of the road and continues for another 30 meter or so before once again dropping off into the canal. At this point the road juts to the north and is visible on the other side of the canal, but that well preserved stretch of the canal is located on the grounds of the Loutraki Military Engineering School and is inaccessible.
A path parallel to this last segment of the road on the south side leads along the modern canal. Roughly 700 meters from the stretch of the Diolkos (1 kilometer from the coast), are the remains of the foundation of an old railway bridge. The corresponding foundation can be seen on the other side. A small path leads to this foundation, and a further path can be taken down toward the canal on the west side of this foundation. Upon reaching a lower level below the bridge, another path leads a few meters back to the west, and upon the walls of the canal can be seen a relief carved during Nero’s canal attempt.
The exact nature of the relief as far as what it depicts is unclear due to the advance weathering when it was first studied. Some interpretations believe it to be an image of Nero himself, while others an image of Hercules. Perhaps also it may be an image of Nero in the guise of Hercules. An inscription also seems to have accompanied the relief, but it is no longer visible.
Carpenter, Rhys and Antoine Bon. The Defenses of Acrocorinth and the Lower Town. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Lewis, M. J. T. “Railways in the Greek and Roman World.” Early Railways: A Selection of Papers from the First Internatinoal Early Railways Conference, pp. 8-19.
Pausanias. 2.1.6, 2.4.5
Plutarch. Life of Aratus, 16-18.
Werner, Walter. “The Largest Ship Trackway in Ancient Times: the Dioollkos of the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece, and Early Attempts to Build a Canal.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 26, No. 2 (1997).