Gorgon at the Archaeological Museum in Corfu
Korkyra (also Corcyra; Greek: Κόρκυρα, Kórkyra) was an ancient Greek city on the island of Corfu in the Ionian sea, adjacent to Epirus. It was a colony of Corinth, founded in the archaic period. According to Thucydides, the earliest recorded naval battle took place between Korkyra and Corinth, roughly 260 years before he was writing - and thus in the middle of the seventh century BC. He also writes that Korkyra was one of the three great naval powers in fifth century BC Greece, along with Athens and Corinth.
The antagonism between Korkyra and its mother city Corinth appears to have been an old one. Quite apart from the naval battle Thucydides talks of, Herodotus records a myth involving the tyrant of Corinth, Periander. Periander was estranged from his younger son, Lycophron, who believed that his father had killed his mother Milissa. After failing to reconcile with Lycophron, he sent him to Korkyra, then within Corinth's governance. In his old age, Periander sent for his son to come and rule over Corinth, suggesting that they would trade places and he would rule Korkyra while his son came to rule Corinth. To prevent this, the Korkyraeans killed Lycophron. In punishment, Periander captured 300 young men of Korkyra with the intention of castrating them. This is more likely to be a myth explaining the animosity between Corinth and Korkyra (and justifying the use of the word tyrant for Periander's rule) than an actual historical event.
The Persian War
In the Persian War of 480 BC, Greek envoys were sent to Korkyra requesting aid. Korkyra enthusiastically promised ships, and fitted out sixty of them, but they failed to arrive in time for the battle of Salamis. Herodotus credits this as a desire among the Korkyraeans to remain neutral and thus not support the losing side. The excuse given for failing to join the battle was unfavourable winds, whereas Herodotus says that, had the Persians been victorious, the Korkyraeans would have claimed to have deliberately avoided the battle and, thereby, gain favour from the invading Persians.
The Peloponnesian War
Writing between 431 and 411 BC, Thucydides credited Korkyra's conflict with Corinth over their joint city Epidamnus as a significant cause of the Peloponnesian War. Korkyra, otherwise neutral as far as the two major powers, the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League, were concerned, appealed to Athens, head of the Delian League, for assistance against Corinth, who belonged to the Peloponnesian League.
In 427 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, there was a civil war in Korkyra between the democrats, who wished to remain in an alliance with Athens, and the aristocrats, who claimed that they were being enslaved to Athens and wished to form an alliance with Corinth. The democrats won with help from Athenian ships, and subsequently slaughtered anyone they suspected of being an enemy.
The Fourth Century BC
Around 375 BC, a Peloponnesian fleet, under the command of Mnesippus, attacked Korkyra. Following the siege, the resident Korkyraeans, suffering from hunger, deserted, were sold as slaves or, later, put to death by Mnesippus.
The Hellenistic Era
In the Hellenistic Period Corcyra changed hands several times. In 303 BC, after a vain siege by Cassander of Macedon, the island was occupied for a short time by the Lacedaemonian general Cleonymus of Sparta, then regained its independence. Three years on Cassander besieged it again, but his fleet was destroyed by an intervention of Agathocles of Syracuse. The tyrant of Syracuse added the island to his own domains and in 295 BC he offered it as dowry to his daughter Lanassa on her marriage to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. When Lanassa left Pyrrhus in 291 BC she tried to pass her place on her next husband, king Demetrius Poliorcetes of Macedon, but in 274 BC Pyrrhus' son Ptolemy recovered Corcyra for his father.
Corcyra remained a member of the Epirote League until 255 BC when it regained independence after the death of Alexander II, last King of Epirus. In 229 BC, following a Greek defeat in the naval battle of Paxos, the city suffered a short-lived occupation by Illyrians under the command of Demetrius of Pharos. Polybius wrote the background of this incident, in that same year "When the season for sailing had come, [Queen] Teuta sent out a larger fleet of [piratical] galleys than ever against the Greek shores, some of which sailed straight for Corcyra...." Another part of the fleet which had sailed for Epidamnius being repulsed went also "there, to the terror of the inhabitants, they disembarked and set about besieging the town...the Corcyreans...sent off envoys to the Achaean and Aetolian leagues, begging for instant help...ten decked ships of war belonging to the Achaeans were manned...fitted out in a few days, set sail for Corcyra in hopes of raising the siege." However, "the Illyrians obtained a reinforcement of seven decked ships from the Acarnanians" engaging off the island of Paxi. Besting the Achaeans, capturing four and sinking one, the remaining five ran back home. "The Illyrians, on the other hand, filled with self-confidence by their success, continued their siege of [Corcyra] in high spirits...while the Corcyreans, reduced to the despair of their safety by what had happened, after sustaining the siege for a short time longer, made terms with the Illyrians, consenting to receive a garrison, and with it Demetrius of Pharos."
The Roman Republic intervened almost immediately, sending one of the consuls to relieve the island. At the end of the First Illyrian War Korkyra was declared a free city and transformed into a Roman protectorate, de facto ending the independence of the polis. Around 189 BC it was governed by a Roman prefect (presumably nominated by the consuls), and in 148 BC it was attached to the province of Macedonia.
- An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis: An Investigation Conducted by The Copenhagen Polis Centre for the Danish National Research Foundation by Mogens Herman Hansen, 2005, page 361
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.13.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.36.3
- Herodotus, The Histories 3.48-52.
- Osborne, R. 1996. Greece in the Making 1200-479BC. Routledge.
- Herodotus, The Histories 7.168.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.24-45.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 3.69-85.
- Xenophon, A History of My Times 6.2.4-23.
- Justin, 25, 4, 8.
- Guide to Greece 1.11.6.
- The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1992.