© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated November 15, 2005  
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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.

City of northern Peloponnese, on the isthmus by the same name leading from Attica to Peloponnese (area 3).
Corinth was one of the oldest and most powerful cities of ancient Greece. It occupied a strategic position on the only land road from northern to southern Greece and was the site of an almost impregnable fortress. It was located in the middle of a very fertile land and, with its two harbors, one, Lechæum, west on the Gulf of Corinth, the other, Cenchreæ, east on the Saronic Gulf, it was a leading commercial center (Thucydides' Histories, I, 13, 5). By the Vth century B. C., a towpath (diolkos in Greek) across the Isthmus (about 6.5 km wide at the narrowest point) made it possible to haul ships from one harbor to the other, saving the trip around Peloponnese. Corinth was credited with many inventions in the fields of architecture (it was at the origin of the Corinthian style, the most ornate of the three classical orders of architecture), music and shipbuilding, including the invention of triremes, these warships owing their name to their three tiers of oars on each side that were used by many Greek cities in classical times in naval battles and were at the root of Athens' empire (Thucydides' Histories, I, 13, 3).

According to mythological traditions, one of the first kings of Corinth was Æetes, a son of Helios (the Sun), and the brother of Circe, the enchantress who detained Ulysses for a year on his way back home, and of Pasiphae, Minos' wife. Æetes later left Corinth to become king of Æa, in Colchis, a country east of the Black Sea, at the foot of Caucasus, where he became the keeper of the Golden Fleece. Later Jason, son of Æson, king of Iolcos, was ordered by his uncle Pelias, who wanted to get rid of him so he could rob his brother Æson of his kingdom, to go get that Golden Fleece. With all the heroes of Greece as his companions, Jason sailed to Colchis on the ship Argo (hence the name "Argonauts" given to his companions), and once there, stole the Golden Fleece and fled from Colchis with the help of Medea, Æetes' daughter and a sorceress. Back home in Iolcos, Jason married Medea. But there, he eventually killed his uncle Pelias who wouldn't let him get his kingdom back and had to flee. With Medea, he settled in Corinth and lived there for several years until Creon, the then king of Corinth (not to be confused with Creon, king of Thebes, involved in the cycle of Oedipus), asked him to marry his daughter. To do that, Jason repudiated Medea, who became furious and sent a poisoned dress and jewels to her rival in order to kill her. Meanwhile, she killed her own sons she had had from Jason and fled to Athens, where she married Ægeus, Theseus' father, not long before Theseus came back to Athens from Troezen (this episode is the subject of Euripides' tragedy, Medea). (Eventually, Jason returned to Iolcos and regained his kingdom from Peleas' son Acastus, while Medea too returned in her homeland with a son, Medos, the eponymous of the Medes, she had had from Ægeus).
Another famous mythological king of Corinth was Sisyphus who, in some traditions, is even presented as the founder of the city (other traditions mention a Corinthus, eponym of the city, who reigned before Sisyphus and was said by the Corinthians to be son of Zeus, a pretense mocked by Greeks from other places which led to the proverbial expression "Corinthus, son of Zeus" to talk about a monotonously vain repetition (see Euthydemus, 292e, where the expression is used by Socrates)). Sisyphus was the son of Æolus, the eponym of the Æolians (not to be confused with the god of winds), himself son of Hellen and grandson of Deucalion. Sisyphus was the most cunning of men and some late traditions make him the real father of Ulysses : he was said to have seduced Anticlæa, Ulysses' mother, on the eve of her wedding with Laertius while trying to recover his herds stolen by Autolycus, her father. When Zeus abducted Ægina, the daughter of Asopus, the River-God (a river of Boeotia), Sisyphus saw them when they passed through Corinth and denounced Zeus to Asopus on the condition that he would let a spring flow in the citadel of Corinth. As a result, Zeus condemned him, once in Hades, to roll up a hill a huge rock that would fall back at the bottom each time Sisyphus reached the top (Socrates mentions Sisyphus at Apology, 41c and at Gorgias, 525e).
Some traditions ascribe to Sisyphus the foundation of the Isthmian games, third in fame of the panhellenic games, that were held in honor of Poseidon every other year in the spring near Corinth, the second and fourth year of each Olympiad.

In historical times, Corinth, during the VIIIth and VIIth centuries B. C., was governed by an oligarchic regime at the hands of a family called the Bacchiadæ (Herodotus' Histories, V, 92b1), which replaced kingship in 747 B. C. It was a time when Corinth was the most prosperous city of Greece. It founded colonies in Corcyra and Syracuse. It developed artistic creations and high quality pottery.
In 657 B. C., the oligarchy of the Bacchiadæ was replaced by one of the first tyrannies in Greece, that of Cypselus, himself a Bacchiadæ by his mother, but not by his father (Herodotus' Histories, V, 92b1-92e1). Cypselus rid Corinth of the Bacchiadæ, confiscated their properties, and stayed in power for thirty years. In 627 B. C., he was succeeded by his son Periander, who left a repute of even greater cruelty (Herodotus' Histories, V, 92f1-92g4), though he is sometimes counted among the Seven Wise Men of Greece (for instance by Diogenes Lærtius, Lives, I, 13, who includes his life in that of the sages, Lives, I, 94-100, but not by Plato in the list he gives at Protagoras, 343a ; in fact, Plato even opposes him to other wise men as one of the possible authors of Polemarchus' definition of justice as benefiting friends and harming ennemies at Republic, I, 335e-336a). Periander stayed in power from 627 to 585 B. C. He was not succeeded by one of his sons for reasons detailed by Herodotus in his Histories, III, 50-53, but by one of his nephews. During that time, Corinth founded more colonies, at Potidæa in Chalcidice, and at Epidamnus and Apollonia along the northeastern coast of Greece, north of the island of Corcyra. Soon after Periander's death, the tyranny was overthrown and an oligarchic regime restored, though no longer in the hands of a single family like before.

Corinth's hostility with Argos made it a member of the Peloponnesian League and an ally of Sparta. Its involvment in the Persian Wars was half-hearted (see the attitude of its general, Adeimantus, in Herodotus' Histories, VIII, 5 ; 59-61 ; 94). Its long-standing conflicts with its colony of Corcyra, whose origins are traced by Herodotus to the murder by the Corcyreans of Periander's son (Histories, III, 49-53), culminated around 433 in an open war between the two cities in which Corcyra called upon Athens for help and obtained it. Thucydides sees in these events, and in the siege, the following year, of Potidæa, another colony of Corinth, the origin of the Peloponnesian War, through the complaints of Corinth to Sparta against Athens it led to (Histories, I, 24-87 ; 118-125). All through that war, Corinth was among the most extreme adversaries of Athens, refusing to sign the Peace of Nicias in 421 (Thucydides' Histories, V, 17-22), and asking for its total destruction at the end (Xenophon's Hellenica, II, 2, 19). Yet, a few years later, owing in no small part to the diplomacy and gold of the Persian Satraps worried of the growing power of Sparta after its victory in the Peloponnesian War, Corinth found itself allied to Athens and several other Greek cities in the so-called War of Corinth (395-386 ; see Xenophon's Hellenica, III, 5, 1-e, 1, 36). Half a century later, when Greece was subjected by Macedon, after the battle of Chæronea (338), it is in Corinth that Philip of Macedon gathered the representatives of Greek cities to offer them peace and form what became known as the Corinthian League.

The prologue of the Theætetus takes place in Megara when a wounded Theætetus is being brought back home in Athens from a battle that has been fought near Corinth (Theætetus, 142a). Scholars have hesitated between a battle having taken place during the War of Corinth around 390 and another one having been fought by the Spartans and Athenians allied against the Thebans of Epaminondas in 369 (Xenophon's Hellenica, VII, 1, 15, sq.). Most of them now favor the later date, as the earlier would lead to too young a Theætetus at his death for the mathematical achievments ascribed to him, if he was still a kid in 399, the date of Socrates' trial, which is the time the discussion reported in the Theætetus is supposed to have taken place.

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First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated November 15, 2005
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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