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CORINTH AND ITS CANAL

CHAPTER VII




By its geographical position Corinth seems to have been predestined to
commercial greatness. While it commanded the land route from the
Peloponnesus to continental Greece, its two harbours on either side of
the isthmus, opening, the one on the Corinthian, and the other on the
Saronic Gulf, made it a natural emporium for East and West. There was no
reason indeed why its military power should not have been as
distinguished as its opulence. Its great acropolis (Acro-Corinthus, as
it was called), a precipitous mountain nearly 1900 feet high, rising
abruptly out of the plain and commanding a view of nearly the half of
Greece, with a plateau on its summit large enough to accommodate
thousands of men, was marked out by nature as an impregnable fortress.
But, whether owing to the Phœnician element in the population or to
the peace-making tendencies of its commercial pursuits, Corinth was
never of very much account in war, though it was the first city in
Greece to build a navy.

One of the most famous of its early kings was Sisyphus, whose name is
supposed to have been a reduplication of the Greek word _sophos_. His
wisdom, however, seems to have been of a mean and sinister kind, better
described as cunning, if we may judge from some of the illustrations of
it which have come down to us. According to a well-known tradition he
was condemned by Zeus to the hopeless and never-ending task, in Hades,
of pushing a stone up the side of a mountain, from which it always
rolled back before he could place it securely on the summit--an
appropriate enough punishment for a man who had been guilty of murdering
travellers as they crossed the isthmus by rolling down great stones upon
them from the mountains.

His beautiful grandson, Bellerophon, was a man of a different type. His
incorruptible virtue, when tempted by the queen of Argos, and the divine
protection granted to him in all the perils to which, like Joseph in
Egypt, he was exposed--culminating in his marriage to the King of
Lycia’s daughter with half the kingdom for a dowry--formed a pleasing
theme for ancient poets and moralists. According to one tradition, it
was the hoof of his winged horse Pegasus that struck the first water
from the fountain Peirene, on the top of Acro-Corinthus. According to
another account the spring was a gift to Sisyphus from the river Asopus,
for having given information against Zeus in a matter affecting his
family welfare.

Another famous name was that of Creon, King of Corinth, whose daughter
Glauké came to such a tragic end. According to the common version of
the story, Jason had come to Corinth with his wife Medea, by whose aid
he had succeeded in bringing back the Golden Fleece from Colchis.
Forgetful of his vows, he fell in love with Glauké and was about to
marry her, when the enraged Medea, who was skilled in the magical arts
of the East, sent the bride a beautiful undergarment, which, as soon as
it was put on, set fire to the wearer. Pausanias mentions a fountain
into which Glauké threw herself in her agony, and within the last few
years the enclosed well referred to has been brought to light.

After a long line of kings the Bacchiadæ are said to have come into
power, ruling jointly, with one of their number as president, until the
government was usurped by Cypselus, one of those “tyrants” who figure so
prominently in Greek history during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
Among the finest votive offerings at Olympia was an elaborately-carved
chest dedicated by his descendants, the Cypselids, to commemorate the
preservation of his life while he was an infant. His birth had been
heralded by oracles which portended destruction to the ruling clan, from
which his mother was sprung, and messengers were sent to Petra, where
his parents lived, to take the child’s life. They had arranged that the
first of them who should receive the child in his arms should dash it to
the ground. But when the unsuspecting mother put it into the hands of
one of them, he was so touched by a smile on the face of the infant that
he passed it on to the second, and so on, till they had all failed to
carry out their cruel design. On leaving the house they began to
reproach one another for their weakness of purpose, and agreed to go in
again and all take a share in the deed. But the mother had overheard the
conversation, and succeeded in saving the child’s life by concealing it
in a chest, for which reason it was called Cypselus.

Cypselus was succeeded by his son Periander, who ruled with a rod of
iron, but brought the country to a still higher degree of prosperity
than it had ever attained before. According to Herodotus, his cruel
policy of destroying men of light and leading among his subjects had
been learned from Thrasybulus of Miletus, to whom he sent a deputy for
advice as to the best means of securing his position. Thrasybulus said
nothing, but took his visitor into a corn-field, and as they passed
along cut down all the high and heavy stalks which attracted his
attention. According to Aristotle, however, Periander was the teacher of
this lesson, not the learner. He was succeeded by a son, who was soon
driven from the throne. A democratic government was then established,
which continued, with the occasional rise of an oligarchy, for several
centuries. So deep was the impression made on the Corinthians by the
cruelty of their despots, that when a conference was held at Sparta some
time afterwards for the purpose of considering a proposal to restore the
Peisistratid dynasty to Athens, the Corinthian deputy made a strong and
eloquent protest against it, and the design had to be abandoned.

The unhappy relations of Corinth to her colony Corcyra have already been
alluded to (p. 9). On the other hand, there are few brighter pages in
the annals of Greece than the story of the deliverance of Syracuse,
another of her colonies, from the tyranny of Dionysius by Timoleon, one
of the best and greatest of her sons. Timoleon had lived in retirement
for twenty years, owing to a crushing sorrow which had befallen him in
connection with the death of his brother Timophanes, who had sought to
make himself master of the city. Timoleon went up to the citadel with
one or two other patriotic men to remonstrate with the new despot, who
was bringing in a reign of terror. Timophanes was obdurate, and from
angry words the parties came to blows, with the result that the usurper
was slain. Timoleon himself took no part in the affray, his heart being
torn with conflicting emotions, owing to his love for his brother, whose
life he had once heroically saved in battle. His position excited
general sympathy, but in some quarters he was blamed for his brother’s
death, and his mother was inexorable in her bitter grief, refusing ever
to look upon his face again. After his long and sad seclusion he was now
called by the voice of the assembled people to take command of the
expedition to Sicily, the task having been declined by many of the
leading men. He accepted the commission; and with such signal success
did he execute it, with very limited means at his command, that his
achievements were universally attributed to the favour of the gods. He
was equally eminent for courage and sagacity. On one occasion, when he
was about to encounter a Carthaginian army many times greater than his
own, he met some mules carrying burdens of parsley, which was generally
used for putting on tombstones. The evil omen struck the imagination of
his soldiers and their hearts were beginning to sink, when Timoleon,
seizing some of the parsley, made a wreath of it and put it on his head,
exclaiming that it was their Corinthian emblem of victory which fortune
was now putting in their way. His officers followed his example, the
result being that the spirits of the army rose, and they went forward to
a glorious victory. As soon as he had restored freedom and order
throughout the island he invited the citizens of Syracuse to join with
him in pulling down the tyrant’s stronghold, setting up courts of
justice in its place. He then resigned his commission, refusing to
accept any official position in the state, of which he had been
virtually the restorer. But so deep was the impression made on the
community by his great and disinterested services that whenever there
was a serious difference of opinion on any public question he was called
in as umpire. He lost his eyesight towards the end of his life, and
Cornelius Nepos gives a touching picture of the acclamation with which
he would be greeted by the assembly when he was led into the hall seated
on his car, from which the mules had been unyoked, to hear some question
referred to him, and of the profound respect with which his judgment
would be received. One of the results of Timoleon’s mission to Sicily
was that the dethroned Dionysius was brought over to Corinth, and spent
the remainder of his life there in very humble circumstances. He made a
livelihood by teaching reading and singing, and for a while he was as
great an object of interest in the city as Napoleon the Great would have
been if he had been sent to London instead of St. Helena.

Owing to its geographical position Corinth was frequently the scene of
conference between different Greek states. In 337 B.C. a general
congress was summoned by Philip for the purpose of obtaining approval of
his scheme for the invasion of Persia in his new rôle as the head of
Greece. The desired assent was given (Sparta alone withholding it), but
the scheme was never carried out, owing to the assassination of Philip
by an aggrieved member of his bodyguard. In the midst of splendid
festivities to celebrate his daughter’s marriage to the King of Epirus
and the birth of a son to himself by his new wife, the exultant king,
clothed in white, was about to enter the crowded theatre at the end of a
solemn procession, in which statues of the twelve great divinities of
Olympus were followed by an image of himself--when, suddenly, the fatal
blow was struck that put an end for ever to his hope of further
conquest. Within two months after the death of his father, Alexander was
marching with an army through Greece, and at another congress held in
Corinth he had the same honours voted to him as his father had received.
The following year (335 B.C.) Alexander was again at Corinth, seeing
Greece for the last time, although he was only twenty-one years old. It
was on this occasion that he was so taken with the amazing
self-sufficiency of the cynical philosopher who had nothing better to
ask of the young potentate, when he was honoured with a visit, than to
request him to stand out of his sunshine. “If I were not Alexander,”
exclaimed the monarch, “I would be Diogenes.”

At a later time Corinth played a prominent part in connection with the
Achæan League. The story of the capture of Acro-Corinthus from the
Macedonians by Aratus on a moonlit night, so graphically told by
Plutarch, is one of the most interesting passages in any of his
biographies. A hundred years afterwards (146 B.C.) the forwardness of
Corinth in an attempt to throw off the Roman yoke led to its complete
destruction and depopulation by the Roman consul, L. Mummius. In the
next century, however, Julius Cæsar saw the vast capabilities of the
site, and planted on it a Roman colony, which led to such a development
of trade that in the first century of the Christian era it was again one
of the most flourishing cities of Greece.

Of its wealth and magnificence very slight traces now remain. The most
imposing ruin is that of a Dorian temple of Apollo, dating from the
sixth or seventh century B.C. Seven of its columns, with a portion of
the architrave, have braved the storm for 2600 years and escaped the
hand of the destroyer. These monoliths, about 23½ feet high and fully 5½
feet thick, tapering upwards, form a most impressive monument. Two other
columns have recently been discoveredbelow ground by the American School of Archæology, to which we are also
indebted for the identification of the fountain of Glauké, already
mentioned, and that of the lower Peirene, with the masonry surrounding
them. Marble propylæa, leading to the market-place, and a theatre have
also been uncovered. On the top of Acro-Corinthus there was a temple of
Aphrodité, with a ritual borrowed from that of the Phœnician Astarté,
but scarcely any trace of it has been discovered, the remains being
principally those of fortifications, including some of such a primitive
and massive construction that the name of Cyclopean may be applied to
them.

Scarcely anywhere do we find any sign of the “Corinthian” column, though
the _acanthus_ or thistle, which is said to have suggested that style of
decoration to Callimachus, may frequently be seen in the bare and arid
plain which forms the southern part of the isthmus. According to
Vitruvius, the Latin writer on architecture, the idea occurred to
Callimachus on seeing the acanthus growing over a basket which had been
placed by her old nurse on the grave of a young lady who had died on the
eve of her marriage. In the basket were deposited a number of little
things which had been dear to the lady in her childhood, and on the top
the nurse had placed a square flat tile to keep out the rain. When the
spring came round, a hidden acanthus root put forth its leaves, which
crept up the sides of the basket and coiled round the corners of the
tile like volutes; and it was in imitation of the beautiful appearance
thus presented that Callimachus designed the style of capital which
afterwards became famous as the Corinthian order.

Northward from the propylæa the road leads to the harbour of Lechæum,
about a mile and a half distant, and alongside of it traces of the two
long walls can still be seen. The harbour is now a lagoon, and that on
the eastern side of the isthmus at Cenchreæ is also desolate--a state of
things which contrasts sadly with what might have been seen as early as
700 B.C., when Corinth was famous for its shipping, and had just built
four triremes (full-deckers, with triple banks of oars) for the people
of Samos, who had never possessed such ships before. To many minds,
however, Cenchreæ suggests other thoughts, for it was there that
Phœbe, the prototype of Christian deaconesses, dwelt, whom St. Paul
commended to the Christians at Rome as “our sister, which is a servant
of the church which is at Cenchreæ.” Another thing that reminds us of
St. Paul is a fragment of marble in the local museum bearing the letters
... αγωγη εβ ..., the original having evidently been συναγωγη εβραιων,
recalling the fact mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul spent
a year and a half in Corinth with Aquila and Priscilla, in a house
adjoining the synagogue. At the little railway station of New Corinth we
had a proof how much more lasting may be the influence of the pen than
of the sword when we were offered a copy of the New Testament in Greek,
issued by the British and Foreign Bible Society. New Corinth lies to the
north-west of the ancient city, not very far from the Lechæan harbour.
It is a well-built little town of about 4000 inhabitants, and was
founded fifty years ago, when the old town was destroyed by an
earthquake--the third time that such a calamity had happened to it
during the Christian era. At no great distance are the traces of the
walls by which the Peloponnesian states at various periods attempted to
secure themselves against invasion from the north. Some remains have
also been found of the _diolkos_ or tramway, running across the
narrowest and lowest part of the isthmus, by which it was customary to
transport not only the freight of vessels but the vessels themselves,
while the passengers frequently walked across to the port on the other
side.

The idea of cutting a canal is said to date as far back as the reign of
Periander, already mentioned, who was accounted one of the Seven Wise
Men of Greece. It was entertained by Demetrius Poliorcetes and Julius
Cæsar, but Nero was the first to make any serious attempt to carry it
out. “A great multitude of soldiers and prisoners, including apparently
6000 Jews sent by Vespasian from Judæa, were assembled at the isthmus,
and operations were begun with much solemnity, apparently about the end
of 67 A.D. The emperor himself, after chanting hymns in honour of the
marine deities, set the example by giving a few strokes with a golden
pickaxe, which the governor of Greece formally handed to him. Then the
multitude fell to work in earnest, the soldiers turning up the earth,
and the prisoners hewing at the rocks. A beginning was made on the
western side of the isthmus, but excavations had been carried for a
distance of only about four furlongs when they were suddenly suspended
in consequence of evil tidings which Nero received of conspiracies at
Rome and disaffection among the armies of the West.”[4]

The modern canal, which was undertaken by a French Company in 1881, was
completed by a Greek Company in 1893. To one sailing through it has a
much more striking appearance than the Suez Canal, owing to the height
of its banks on either side, for the most part cut out of sandy or
alluvial soil, and rising like walls to a height of more than 100 feet.
At one point the railway passes over it at a height of about 170 feet
above the water. The canal is about three and a half miles long. It
reduces the voyage from the Ionian Islands to Athens to about half the
distance involved in sailing round Cape Matapan, but unfortunately it is
too narrow (only about 75 feet wide) to be of much use for the larger
ships. As a rule it is only the Greek coasting vessels that take
advantage of it, and there is little or no prospect of its ever becoming
one of the great highways to the East.

Not far from the eastern end of the canal is the precinct that was
sacred to Poseidon, where the Isthmian Games were held every second
year. The stadium can still be traced, memorable, among other things, as
the scene of the inauguration of Alexander the Great as the acknowledged
prince of Greece, and of the proclamation of liberty to the Greeks, one
hundred and forty yearsafterwards, by the Roman Consul Flamininus. A little way south, on a
plateau about 300 feet high, are extensive remains of a city built out
of the rock, which may have been the prehistoric city of the isthmus,
referred to by Homer as “wealthy Ephyra.” Some twenty miles to the
south-west, on the way to Mycenæ, lies the secluded vale of Nemea, where
games were also celebrated every second year, consecrated by the
erection of a temple of Zeus, of which a number of beautiful columns are
still standing, while others lie prostrate on the ground. It was in this
woody district that the lion which Heracles slew, as the first of the
Twelve Labours imposed upon him by Eurysthenes, was supposed to have had
his lair.





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