The Archaeological Site of
Isthmia is an ancient sanctuary of Poseidon and an important archaeological site and museum on the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece. Situated on the territory of the ancient city-state of Corinth, it was famous in antiquity for the Isthmian Games and its Temple of Poseidon.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL POSITION OF THE SANCTUARY
Isthmia is located on the critical land route connecting Athens and central Greece with Corinth and the Peloponnese. Its location on the Isthmus, between the critical Corinthian ports of Lechaeum on the Gulf of Corinth and Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf, made Isthmia a natural site for worship Poseidon, god of the sea and also of mariners. Isthmia sits on a very active fault line, and Poseidon's role as "Earth-holder" in causing and averting earthquakes is another reason Isthmia became the center of athletic and religious festivals in his honor. The Games at Isthmia were second in significance only to those at Olympia.
The narrow ribbon of land throughout the ages functioned both as a political and commercial meeting place: The diolkos, or paved roadway, between the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs reveals the importance of the place for transport of men and goods.
The Isthmus was a place were attempts were made to halt invasions from the North by construction of walls. The Classical and Hellenistic barriers did not extend across the entire Isthmus but the Hexamilion built in Byzantine times went from sea to sea.
The Temple of Poseidon stands on a plateau 1.5km from the Saronic gulf, 16km from the Corinthian gulf and immediately north of a low ridge named locally the Rachi. The plateau was cut on the east and west sides by gullies carrying water down from this ridge. The road connecting Corinth with the Isthmus passed along the north side of the plateau.
During the Classical and Hellenistic periods, the surface of the plateau was extended by terracing to the north and east sides in order to accommodate the ever-larger crowds that were attracted to the popular games.
The sanctuary extended from the central temple for about 560 meters to the west, reaching as far as another, larger gully (the Kyras Vrisi Gorge). In the valley were shrines to Demeter and Kore, Dionysus and other deities. The area, called the “Sacred Glen”, was supplied by a plentiful spring from which water was piped to the temple, theater and other places to the east.
The Sanctuary was the largest shrine outside the walls of the city of Corinth. Sacrifices and feasting began in the mid-11th century B.C., and small dedications and tripods were added three centuries later. After another century the festival of Poseidon became PanHellenic and followed the Olympic model with athletic and equestrian competitions every two years. After the Romans sacked Corinth in 146 B.C. the games moved to Sikyon, returning to Corinth with foundation of the Roman colony a century later. The first Temple of Poseidon and the hundred-foot altar were completed by 650 B.C. A great fire destroyed the archaic temple about 450 B.C. and immediately on the same place a second, larger temple in the Classical Doric order was constructed. The foundations are clearly visible today. In Roman times the temple was enclosed by four long stoas and a shrine to the hero Melikertes-Palaimon was added.
The Corinthians built the first stadium southeast of the temple but with an increase of spectators in the Hellenistic period they made a new and larger stadium in the Southeast Valley. At the foot of the plateau was a Greek bathing establishment, which was replaced in Roman times by a larger bath building. To the east of the bath the Greeks located their theater which continued there throughout the Roman period. The theater used for musical contests. The end of the sanctuary came shortly after 400 A.D. in the wake of Alaric's invasion. The buildings were dismantled to build a defensive wall across the Isthmus and a fortress at the east end which you see today.
Archaic and classical periods
As Greece moved into the Archaic period, writing, material culture, and population increased. The people of Isthmia began constructing significant stone monuments and religious sanctuaries. In the year 481 BC, the Persian Empire attempted to invade Greece. Isthmia was not a significant battlefield, but its central location made it a preferred site for Greek conferences and pre-battle meetings. The Archaic temple at Isthmia was severely burned in a fire in 480 BC, and the Doric-style temple remains were repaired using Classical architecture style elements. In 390 BC, during the Corinthian War, the Spartan king Agesilaus encamped at the sanctuary, and the archaic temple of Poseidon was burned down in uncertain circumstances. The lack of pottery found at the site after the fire indicates that Isthmia entered a period of decreased prosperity at this time. After Philip II, King of Macedon, won the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, he united the Greek city-states into the League of Corinth, which was formed at a council at Isthmia. Philip's successor, Alexander the Great, called a meeting in Isthmia between the Greek city-states to discuss his war with Persia. During the Wars of the Diadochi after Alexander's death, several successors tried to use Isthmia as a central place in short-lived attempts to unify the Greeks under their control - first Ptolemy I in 308 BC and then Demetrius Poliorcetes. The latter refounded the League of Corinth at Isthmia in 302 BC.
A permanent settlement was established on the Rachi hill to the south of the temple at the end of the fourth century BC. This settlement lasted until it was destroyed by the Roman Republic in 198 BC, during the Second Macedonian War. After the Romans defeated Macedon in that war, Titus Quinctius Flamininus declared the "Freedom of the Greeks" at Isthmia, cementing the location's status as a symbol of Greek unity and freedom. In 146 BC, rising tensions between the Greek states and the increasingly hegemonic Romans resulted in a last attempt by the Achaean League to maintain its independence. The Achaean War ended in a quick Roman victory, and consul Lucius Mummius Achaicus ordered the destruction of Corinth as an example to all Greeks. The sanctuary was destroyed, and control of the Isthmian Games was transferred to Sicyon. The Isthmian Games were returned to Corinth after its foundation as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. However, it appears that the games were held in Corinth itself, and there is little evidence of activity at Isthmia until the mid-first century AD. Emperor Nero visited the site on his tour of Greece in AD 67 and performed in the musical events at the Isthmian Games. A new round of construction in the second century AD was presided over by the local aristocrat, Licinius Priscus Juventianus.
Late Antique, Medieval, and Early Modern periods.
In the 4th century AD, Emperor Constantine the Great banned all pagan religions and artifacts from Isthmia. The Temple of Poseidon fell into disuse, and its material was partly re-used for the building of the Hexamilion wall, which was used as protection against invading barbarians in the 5th century. The Ottoman Empire captured Isthmia in 1423 and permanently in 1458. Isthmia was fought over by the Turks, Venetians, and local potentates for over three centuries. In 1715, the Venetians were expelled, and the Ottoman Empire controlled southern Greece for a hundred years until the Greek War of Independence.
History of the Isthmia Excavations
The first systematic archaeological investigation under Paul Monceaux of the French School in Athens took place in 1883 in the area of the Byzantine fortress, which was thought then to represent the Sanctuary of Poseidon.
The theory was disproved by the British archaeologists, R.J.H. Jenkins and A.H.S. Megaw in the early R.J.H. 1930s, but discovery of the Temple of Poseidon came only in 1952 when Oscar Broneer began systematic excavations for the University of Chicago under the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
He excavated the temple, the theater, two caves used for dining, the central part of the sanctuary with the Early Stadium, the Palaimonion, the Theater and the Rachi Settlement, and he explored outlying monuments including the Later Stadium. The two stadia used for the Isthmian Games. Broneer's findings were published in three volumes starting in 1971 and articles in the Hesperia Journal.
In 1967 Paul Clement began excavating the Roman Bath for the University of California at Los Angeles and he continued until 1987, also uncovering portions of the Trans-Isthmian Wall (the ‘Hexamilion’) and fortress, and the area east of the main temple (East Field). He was succeeded by Timothy E. Gregory of Ohio State University in 1987, who was himself succeeded by Jon Frey of Michigan State University in 2020. These excavations focused mainly on the Roman bathing complex and the Byzantine fortress.
Elizabeth Gebhard took over the University of Chicago finds management from Oscar Broneer in 1976. Between August 16 and November 29, 1989, she led new excavations in the central area of the sanctuary under the auspices of the University of Chicago, primarily to clear up disputes that had arisen over the conclusions Broneer had drawn from his finds. The first report of the 1989 findings was published in Hesperia in 1992, with subsequent reports in later years.
These excavations helped to uncover evidence relating to all the areas of development of Isthmia from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, but in particular focused on the Archaic temple, partly because this is the most complete of the buildings found at the site despite being one of the oldest.
The museum was built in 1970 by the architect Paul Mylonas and opened to the public in 1978. It contains collections of finds from the sanctuary of Poseidon, the sanctuary of Palaimon, the Hellenistic settlement at Rachi, and from the excavations in the area of Isthmia and the ancient harbour of Cenchreai.
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Impressive museum that unfortunately remains relatively unknown as it is overshadowed by other important places of archaeological and historical interest in the surrounding area. It has been built next to the Archaeological site of the pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Poseidon.
In the vestibule of the Museum are exhibited individual finds, sculptures, epic columns and part of the simi of the temple of the 4th c. e.g.
The main hall is divided into 2 sections, that of the sanctuary and the wider area and that of the port of Keghreon where parts of the unique glazing are exhibited. parts of the tiling and the frescoes of the Archaic temple are built, a marble trunk of Amphitrite from the cult constitution of the temple of the Roman period, an elaborate marble enclosure of the 7th c. e.g. Also findings related to the competitions of the Isthmian Games (dumbbells, iron disc, staves, chariot wheel section, etc.), as well as chronological findings of the various phases of worship of Palaimonas-Melikertis who was worshiped together with Isthomias in Isthmia. Also, supervisory material related to the construction and operation phases of the ancient theater-conservatory of the sanctuary of Isthmia and findings from the interior of a worship cave of the 4th c. BC, as well as commercial amphorae from the classical to the Byzantine period from various places in the region of Isthmia accompanied by supervisory material related to trade and ancient Diolkos. Finally, one can see material related to the luxurious Roman baths that were probably offered by Herod of Attica in the sanctuary of Isthmia.
In the section of the port of Keghrei located at the western end of the room, findings from the partly underwater excavations at the two piers of the ancient port and from the Roman necropolis of Rahi Koutsogilla located just north of the port are exhibited.
From the port of Kechreon there are exposed sections of unique glazing in their kind. Glass panes are a form of glass mosaics in the 4th century AD. c. They were discovered in excavations at the American School of Classical Studies in the period 1964-1968. They were packed (every two face to face) in wooden crates that were stacked on the floor of a seaside building.
In the main hall, it is worth spending time in the 7th-century marble archaic precinct. B.C. It consists of a marble basin resting on an elaborate thing. The bowl rests on a ring that supports 4 daughters. Each daughter is lying on the back of a lion and holds the leash in one hand and the other on his tail. Between the daughters in the ring there are hollow ramsheads.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON
Around the turn of the 8th to 7th century BC, it is apparent that there is the emergence of a new period in both Greek architectural and artistic history. Corinth was at the center of this with its development of new pottery design, settlement planning, military organization and most significantly being the possible birthplace of monumental buildings and a new style of architecture known as the Doric order. The date of the Archaic (*) Temple of Poseidon construction in Isthmia is important then as it establishes when monumental architecture began as well as when the transition from Iron Age architecture to Doric occurred. This was also the point where the Greek temple as a whole became a defined form.
(*) Archaic Greece was the period in Greek history lasting from circa 800 BC to the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, following the Greek Dark Ages and succeeded by the Classical period. In the archaic period, Greeks settled across the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, as far as Marseille in the west and Trapezus (Trebizond) in the east; and by the end of the archaic period, they were part of a trade network that spanned the entire Mediterranean.
The Archaic Temple of Poseidon (the first temple), which was excavated in 1952 by Oscar Broneer, was considered the center of the Isthmian sanctuary. Αs was usual in Greece, faced to the east, and in front was a thirty-meter altar where Poseidon received sacrifices of bulls and sheep or goats. With a similar temple in Corinth the archaic temple is an early example of monumental architecture on the Greek mainland. Built between 690 and 650 B.C. the walls were made of well-out rectangular blocks that were covered with fine plaster. Large s-shaped terracotta tiles covered the roof (restored in the museum), and on the outside was a peristyle composed of 7 wooden columns at each end and 18 along the sides. Standing against the long walls were piers, probably also of wood. Inside the building 5 columns supported the ceiling, and another 2 columns stood in the pronaos. A painted frieze may have decorated the interior (fragments in the museum). In the pronaos stood an elaborate marble basin on a stand (περιρραντήριο; restored in the museum), and its round base can be seen in place. The temple also housed shrines to gods related to Poseidon such as his son, Cyclopes, and the goddess Demeter. A multitude of other named divinities said to have been worshipped within the confines of the temple have links to Demeter, suggesting the Isthmian people's devotion to fertility and harvest. Evidence including plates, bowls, and animal bones discovered within the ash on the plateau suggest that animal sacrifices of sheep, cattle, and goats took place at the temple on a regular basis and were often a cause for feasting and celebration.
A fire destroyed the building at about 470 B.C. and in its place the Corinthians built a larger temple in the Classical Doric order. Trenches for the peristyle and naos were cut out into the rock of the plateau (clearly visible), nearly obliterating traces at the earlier temple. The new building measured approximately 22.90 by 53.50 m., similar but about one-eighth smaller than the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The interior preserved the archaic plan of two aisles divided by a single row of columns, unusual for this period. The limestone walls were covered with white stucco, and the roof had marble tiles. A second fire in 390 B.C. destroyed the roof, cornices and much of the walls. The building was restored similar to the original (sima (*) in the museum), but the interior was changed to a canonical three-aisled plan. Nothing remains of the cult statue(s) representing Poseidon and perhaps Amphitrite. After almost two centuries of neglect, the Romans restored the building and added a marble cult group of Poseidon and Amphitrite (torso in the Museum). In the early 5th century A.D. the temple was dismantled to furnish material for the trans-Isthmian fortifications.
(*) In classical architecture, a ‘sima’ is the upturned edge of a roof which acts as a gutter. Sima comes from the Greek ‘simos’, meaning bent upwards.
At the western entrance to the Classical Temple of Poseidon there was an irregular sunken room entered by two staircases, one from the west and the other at the northeast side. A tank (0.91 by 0.56 m) was situated by the south wall of the room and a bench ran along its west wall. A limited amount of water entered the tank from a reservoir, which had been constructed to serve the feasting area. The entire interior is covered with a hard, waterproof cement. The upper part of the chamber is not preserved because the surface outside the room was lowered when the temple was expanded and surrounded by stoas. The space may have been roofed or it could have been open.
A religious (ritual) function for the place is suggested by its sunken elevation, the limited interior space, the small amount of water collected, and the fact that the two stairways were so angled that persons entering or leaving by either stair were concealed from the other side. The western staircase pointed in the direction of the Corinth road and may thus have been used by persons entering the room. When they had performed whatever rite was required, certainly with the use of water, they may have left by the opposite stair.
BEYOND THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
THE HEXAMILION WALL
The Hexamillion (meaning “six-mile-long” wall) was a defensive fortification built across the Isthmus of Corinth, from the Saronic to the Korinthian Gulf. It was constructed in the early years of the 5th century A.D. to protect the Peloponnese against barbarian attacks coming from the north.
The Hexamilion was an enormous engineering and military undertaking. It is almost 8 km long, 3 m wide, and 7-8 m high, with more than 100 towers along its line.
The fortification ran along a ridge on the north edge of the Sanctuary of Poseidon, frequently making use of the foundations of ancient buildings as an aid its construction. A large fortress was built in the vicinity of the Sanctuary and blocks from many of the buildings in the sanctuary were removed from the coapsed buildings (including the Temple of Poseidon and the Roman Baths) and used in the fortifications.
The Hexamilion was rebuilt several times most notably by the emperors Justinian (527-565) and Manuel II Palaiologos (in 1415). After the Fall of Constantinople (1453) the Venetians made several attempts to rebuild the walls and use them as a means to defend the Peloponnese against the Ottoman Turks, but these ultimately came to nothing as the Venetian state did not have the financial resources to carry out the task.
The fortifications served practical needs of defense and they also figured in myths and stories that represented the hopes and aspirations of the Greek people in the Byzantine period and beyond. A settlement of considerable size grew up within and around the fortifications during the Middle Ages, and this continued to exist apparently until the final abandonment of the Hexamilion in 1715.
Today, traces of the Hexamilion can be seen in many places and parts of it have been recently renovated and can be visited.