Ancient Corinth: Rich In History, Culture and Religion

The city of Ancient Corinth is located at the foot of the towering Acrocorinth and as a foremost city-state is itself a monument to having overcome centuries of turbulent history. Ancient Corinth became the richest centre in Greece, generated a culture that promoted prosperity and pleasure, and hosted a plethora of religions that were as diverse as its own historical paganism and the new Christianity.

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A Few Facts About Ancient Corinth

The early history of Corinth includes its settlement by the Phoenicians who introduced various crafts to Corinth which included dyeing and weaving. Corinth was then occupied by the Dorians.

Ancient Corinth was an independent city state by the seventh century BC but fell under Macedonian rule during the 4th Century BC until its liberation by the Romans in 196 BC. The Romans destroyed Ancient Corinth in 146 BC when Roman consul Mummius virtually depopulated the city. Ancient Corinth, having laid desolate, was later restored by Julius Caesar during the first century BC to become a cosmopolitan colony partial to Greek culture. Corinth progressed to become the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.

The culture of Ancient Corinth was further influenced by its diverse multicultural population of Greeks, Italians Jews and others from Asia Minor. There was also a significant transient population of athletes and spectators, philosophers, industrialists, merchants and artists. Such an eclectic mix ensured rich and diverse cultural practices and customs.

Ancient Corinth’s religion varied due to its increasingly cosmopolitan population. The worship of the Greek gods was joined by Judaism, Christianity and the transformation of the Greek gods by the Romans into their own incarnations.

A thoughtful observation of the ruins of Ancient Corinth is an engagement with a millennium of Greek history and the changed face of Corinth’s culture and religion.

A Brief History of Ancient Corinth

Corinth was one of the primitive settlements that formed following the arrival of Indo-Europeans, developing into a city-state as did Athens, Sparta and Argos. Each city state community maintained independence and developed its own regulations.

During the seventh century BC Corinth sought political change when in 657 BC Cypselus overthrew the Bacchiadae, an aristocratic clan that controlled both the Corinthian state and its treasury. The Corinthians acceded to the tyranny and benefitted by sharing in government, receiving improved justice, and extending growth in industries associated with painting and pottery. They also shared the benefits and increased prosperity that resulted from the expansion of Corinth’s colonies, namely the founding in 734 BC of Corcyra (Corfu) and Syracuse. The tyranny ceased in Corinth following the death of Cypselus’ son, Periander.

During the sixth Century BC Corinth aligned itself with other city-states within the Peloponnesian League for the defence of its region against the Persians and made the city available at the call of Sparta to organise battle. A general rebellion against Persian governance led to the invasion of Greece by Persia under Darius. Athens defeated Persia at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Greek city-states met at Corinth 10 years later to plan against Persia’s return in 480 BC. The famous Battle of Thermopylae resulted as did Athens’ defeat (if you’re thinking of visiting Thermopylae, see the post that describes the drive from Athens to Meteora. The Delian League led by Athens was formed in 478 BC following the Persian invasion to liberate eastern Greek cities from Persian governance. Corinth was not a member of the Delian League.

A monument to Leonides can be seen by travellers who drive from Athens to Meteora
The Drive from Athens to Meteora passes the Leonides Memorial at Thermopylae

The fourth Century saw the arrival of Alexander (The Great) the Macedon, and Corinth remained under the control of the throne of Macedon until its liberation by the Romans in 196 BC. Discontent with Roman oversight, Corinth joined other cities of the Achaean League, led by Critolaus, and opposed Rome. Corinth was punished by Rome and destroyed by fire in 146 BC. The Romans plundered Corinth’s art, slaughtered the men and sold the women and children into slavery, virtually depopulating the city. Julius Caesar restored Corinth in 44 BC as a Roman colony and it progressed to become the capital of Achaia. Corinth was no longer solely Greek and many of the ruins now present at Ancient Corinth reflect the Roman occupation. In fact, according to Pausanias who visited Corinth during the first century, ‘The things worthy of mention in the city include the extant remains of antiquity, but the greater number of them belongs to the period of its second ascendancy. ‘

Ancient Corinth Culture

As one of the most prominent cities of ancient Greece, Ancient Corinth was a major centre of government. The city had a generally well educated population of about 200,000, Cicero calling Corinth ‘the eye of all Greece’. Ancient Corinth was situated on a narrow land corridor approximately 6 kilometre-wide that connects central Greece with the Peloponnesus, and is bordered by the Gulf of Corinth to the north and the Saronic Gulf to the south. The isthmus, according to myth, is the possession of Poseidon and the Temple of Poseidon is located quite close to modern Corinth.

Ancient Corinth’s position produced significant strategic, commercial and maritime advantages. Its acropolis, the Acrocorinth, also a possession of Poseidon, was an imposingly steep, 570 metre high limestone formation which provided outstanding views across the fertile Corinthian Plain. It was not possible to traverse the length of Greece by land without coming to the attention of Ancient Corinth. Ancient Corinth therefore developed into a healthy commercial, political and industrial centre and its spacious agora ensured prosperous trade. In fact, Corinth was richer and more comfortable that Athens, and possessed more valuable art and finer statues.

Image showing Ancient Corinth's strategic location on the fertile isthmus at Corinth as taken from the Acrocorinth
Ancient Corinth was strategically located on the fertile Corinthian isthmus

The location of Ancient Corinth on the isthmus that separated the Corinth Canal to the north from the Saronic Gulf to the south also made the city an attractive proposition for vessels which preferred an alternative route to sailing around the boisterous south coast of the Peloponnese. The craft could sail up the Corinth canal after which freight and small vessels were transported for a fee by land bridge to a port on the opposite side of the isthmus. This method preceded the Corinth Canal (Read more about the Acrocorinth, Corinth transported vessels across the isthmus, and the development of the Corinth Canal in our post 7 Reasons to Drive from Athens to Delphi Across the Gulf of Corinth). The journey was, of course, also conducted in the opposite direction. It was this location of Corinth as a port city, serving both the Ionian and Aegean seas, that was the basis of its wealth. Horace referred to Corinth as ‘bimarisve Corinthi’ or ‘two-sea’d Corinth’. Homer recognised Corinth as ‘wealthy Corinth’.

Corinth’s position between two ports sponsored a prosperity that could not be equalled by any other city in Greece. Corinth welcomed a continual throng of foreign maritime visitors who brought with them an intention to spend, but also a variety of vices and kinks that made Corinth the perfect storm for the development of a morally bereft and debauched society. The evenings were occupied by feasting, and foreign merchants and travellers sought pleasures of a more carnal kind at taverns, temples and along dark streets. The word ‘corinthianize’ has been incorporated into our languages. There are various definitions but they all converge to the same understanding.

Ancient Corinth was not short of entertainment. Corinth was the host of the biannual Isthmian Games, one of four important Pan Hellenic festivals and second in status to the Olympian Festival. The Isthmian Games were held from the 6th Century BC to the 4th Century AD. The Olympian (c 776 BC) and Nemean festivals were dedicated to Zeus, the Pythian festival at Delphi, the seat of the most celebrated oracle in the ancient world, was dedicated to Apollo, and the Isthmian festival which was held in the Sanctuary of Poseidon near Ancient Corinth was dedicated to Poseidon. The contests included chariot racing, running, leaping, dart throwing, boxing and wrestling. The Pythian festival emphasised song and dance , in addition to athletics to honour Apollo, the God of poetry and music. A more detailed description of the origin of the Pan Hellenic Festivals, the events, and the role and importance of the festivals in Greek culture is included in the section describing the Stadium in the post that describes the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi.

Entertainment was also provided by itinerant performers who would visit the city and enliven the agora. The Theatre and Odeon (music hall) were also well supported venues with an attendance capacity of 18,000.

Needless to say that in such a prosperous community, much attention was placed on grooming and appearance.Women emphasised jewellery which included earrings, necklaces, brooches, hair pins, rings and buttons, many of which were made from metal or bone. Women kept powder in special boxes, perfumes in small bottles, cosmetics in clam shells and always had access to a mirror. Some of the primitive chemistry that was used for makeup and colour was quite disavantageous to health.

Image  of the dress culture exhibited at the museum at ancient Corinth
Styles of dress culture and grooming in Ancient Corinth are exhibited at the Museum

More information about the culture of Ancient Corinth can be derived by viewing the images taken at the Museum of Ancient Corinth which can be found at the end of the post.

Religion in Ancient Corinth

The most prominent site in Ancient Corinth and the important to the religion of the Ancient Greeks was the Temple of Apollo. However, there were many others, including temples of Asclepius and Hermes, shrines to Athena and Poseidon, and sanctuaries of Zeus, Apollo, Jupiter and Hera. Of course, statues of the gods and heroes adorned just about every public thoroughfare and space, and included a bronze Poseidon, a bronze Apollo, and a statue of Aphrodite. There are two bronze, standing images of Hermes and images of Zeus.

Votive offerings at Corinth were as much a feature of Greek religion as at other Greek cities (see our posts describing Delphi for descriptions of votive offerings and treasuries, and their religious significance to the city-states who made them). At the Temple of Asclepius, the God of Healing, archaeologists have found votive offerings in the form of flesh-coloured terra-cotta representations of parts of the human body so the God would be cognisant of the afflicted part. Ancient Corinth also had its own Oracle, but a fuller understanding of the roles of oracles in the religion in ancient Greece as it would apply to Corinth can also be gained by reading our post that describes the Oracle of Delphi.

Greek religion also included the worship of Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans, the Goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation. Aphrodite was worshipped in her magnificent sanctuary on the top of the Acrocorinth. The sanctuary included images of an armed Aphrodite, Helius, and Eros equipped with bow. The worship of Aphrodite promoted wantonness and decadence which guaranteed that a steady stream of adherents would make the effort to clamber up the Acrocorith to participate. According to Strabo, a first century Greek geographer, philosopher and historian, 1,000 courtesans were available to attract visitors, which also ensured the riches of the sanctuary. In this respect, public prostitution was integrated within Corinthian religion to the extent that it was not uncommon to hear public prayers that appealed to the gods for more prostitutes.

The Acrocorinth at Ancient Corinth was the acropolis of Corinth and provided both a defensive citadel and the site of the Temple of Aphrodite
The Acrocorith: both defensive citadel and site of the Temple of Aphrodite

The Roman contribution to religion in Corinth was predictably barren. Roman religion was originally influenced by the Etruscans whose principal triad of gods was adopted by the Romans who then renamed them. The Romans also borrowed the uses made by the Etruscans of temples, statues and images. The significance of this background is that when the Romans encountered the Greeks they again absorbed virtually unchanged the gods and goddesses of the Greeks. It seemed that each Roman conquest of a new territory and people provided opportunity for the Romans to expand their pantheon of gods. Roman religion certainly wore ‘many faces’ and had ‘many names’. The weight of Greek mythology and its intellectualism bore down on the vestiges of Roman religion in Corinth to the extent that it was the religion of the captives that prevailed.

The occupation of Corinth by Rome ensured that a sizeable proportion of the population were Italians. Pausanias observed that, ‘Corinth is no longer inhabited by any of the old Corinthians, but by colonists sent out by the Romans.’ The religion of the ‘colonists’ was improvised from the Greeks, the gods renamed, although the relationship of the Romans with the gods differed from that of the Greeks. Predictably, not only did the new population resume the cults of Corinth, but the old luxuries captured their minds and the city returned to its previous orientations.

A Greek inscription on a marble lintel (of a Jewish synagogue) found on the steps leading to the forum verified that Judaism was practiced at Corinth, and the letters of Paul to the Corinthians confirm the presence of both Judaism and Christianity.

The presence of Christianity in Ancient Corinth is discussed later in this post under Paul and What We Learn about Ancient Corinth from His Letters.

Is Ancient Corinth Worth Visiting?

It is possible to encapsulate the two most popular reasons why Ancient Corinth is considered worth visiting. The first reason is to enjoy the city’s secular antiquity, history and archaeology. The second is to experience something substantive in relation to personal faith. Should your interest be the latter, then by ‘feeling the place and walking around the ancient city where Paul had walked’ will certainly help you to contextualise the writings of Paul. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. You can consider Ancient Corinth as a teacher of our past or as an informant of early Christianity under formidable and unsympathetic Roman governance.

Getting to Ancient Corinth by Car

It is very straightforward to get to Ancient Corinth. If you are driving take the A6/A8 from Athens and the site is located just 5 km south of modern Corinth. You might like to take a quick peek at our post 7 Reasons to Drive from Athens to Delphi Across the Gulf of Corinth which describes a route from Athens to Delphi that passes Ancient Corinth, the Acrocorinth and the Corinth Canal on its way to cross the Gulf of Corinth.

Whether arriving by car or tour bus, the drop off point is the car park located immediately outside the museum and administration building. There is ample space available on a sealed car park.

Proximity of sealed car park to entrance at Ancient Corinth
Ancient Corinth arrival: Car Park, Administration and Museum

Getting Around the Ruins of Ancient Corinth

The scattered ruins of Ancient Corinth can be a little difficult to decipher so we have prepared the following information which we hope will help you, not only identify each structure, but also to understand its purpose and importance to Ancient Corinth’s history, culture and religion. Is it the city you are visiting? Then imagine the city as it was and create the events around you. Are you following Paul? Then see him in the streets and in the marketplace and sense the intimidation he would have sometimes felt. Just don’t look at the ruins.

Maps of Ancient Corinth to Help You

The skeletal image is borrowed from the Ancient Corinth Archaeological Site and the accompanying image is by licence; Davide Mauro [CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D>, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ruins of Ancient Corinth

The Ruins Located on the Upper Terrace

The Glauke Fountain (#27)

Glauke Fountain at Ancient Corinth - a contribution to myth and culture
Glauke Fountain in the Direction of Apollo’s Temple at Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth varies in elevation. Apollo’s Temple has been constructed on the highest terrace and there is a drop into the Agora. The lowest level is that of the Theatre.

The place to start is the historically Greek Glauke Fountain, a very difficult to miss limestone monolith that dominates the open green space adjacent to the entrance of the Administration Building. The fountain’s name is based on a well-known Greek myth.

Perhaps you have read ‘Medea’ by Euripides or alternatively, you may have enjoyed the film ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and can recall some of his seemingly impossible challenges in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. The details of both the myth and the identities of those involved are far denser than the film portrays.

When the good ship Argos arrived at the Caucasian city of Colchis, Jason gained the romantic attention of the young witch Medea, the daughter of King Aetes. Medea accompanied Jason for the remainder of his journey, often delivering him by her magic from significant threats. They settled in Corinth where Medea gave birth to three children.

Jason became attracted to Glauke, the daughter of King Creon, and in order to marry her sought a conciliatory arrangement with Medea who feigned her consent. Glauke could not resist enrobing herself in a gift from Medea in the form of a beautiful but poisoned garment. When she did so, she was consumed by flame. It was recounted that Glauke fell into the fountain. And Jason? He fell on his sword at the sight of his three dead children, murdered by Medea.

Glauke's Fountain in Ancient Corinth is hewn from a limestone monolith
Glauke Fountain with Museum in Background

Make you way to the Temple of Apollo, labelled as #1, which is the first attraction within what are predominantly Roman ruins. It is very difficult to miss. You’ll be standing pretty well as shown in the image below.

The Temple of Apollo (#1)

The Temple of Apollo is important to Ancient Corinth religion
The Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth

The 6th Century BC Temple Of Apollo towers over its visitors and no doubt because of its enormity it is an iconic symbol of the culture and religion of Ancient Corinth. It was built on the site of an earlier temple, and the local bedrock also appears to have been used to provide the temple’s foundation. The Temple of Apollo, although rebuilt under Roman governance, is characteristic of Doric Greek Temples that its rectangular form was accessed by steps that surrounded the entire building; fluted columns shared a common base above which an architrave would have supported a frieze, triangular pediment and roof. The dimensions of the temple’s Doric columns are imposing. The temple had a colonnade of 38 columns, and as five of the six columns at one end of the temple can be plainly seen, it is implied that there would also be six at the other. The columns were about 7 metres high and nearly 2 metres in diameter at the base. Unlike the columns of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi or the temple at the Athens Acropolis which were segmented, the columns of this temple are in single pieces (see our description of the Temple of Apollo). The fluted limestone columns were coated with a layer of weather resistant stucco. The locations of the other columns are suggested when you walk around and inspect the temple’s base. Ancient Corinth was fortunate in that it was located in an area rich in fine-grained limestone and so it would be expected that it would feature in the construction of the temple. Of course, marble is derived from limestone under pressure and so it is not unreasonable to predict that it may have also been used in the temple’s construction or decoration.

The temple’s construction and design are evidence of the knowledge and skills of earlier civilisations. But nothing is more interesting than the people themselves and how they incorporated temple worship into their lives. The practice of religion at Apollo’s Temple in Ancient Corinth would not have been dissimilar to its practice in Ancient Delphi. The structure of the Temple of Apollo at Corinth can also be compared with the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Temple of Athena at the Athens Acropolis.

“The challenge when standing in the midst of any ruins is to try to visualise what the ruins represented; to transfer within your mind the incomplete material structure being observed to a complete edifice. It is then that the significance of the object becomes apparent and the mind starts to create a virtual community with its activity and culture. The imposing Temple of Apollo is a good place to start.”

There were many divinities in Ancient Corinth culture and so the Corinthians worshiped many gods. Although the Temple of Apollo is the most obvious, there were also other temples, sanctuaries and shrines to many other gods and goddesses as previously indicated.

The North-West Stoa (#11)

Continue your tour by walking towards #17 with the Temple of Apollo #1 on your left and the Northwest Shops #19 on your right.

A Stoa refers to a covered linear walkway the roof of which was supported along the length of the stoa by a colonnade. Large stoae often hosted shops and other commercial places which were often located in the rear. The stoae were busy thoroughfares and offered protection from the elements as citizens made their way around the city. They were also informal meeting places, offering cover as Corinthians swapped stories or plans. We could expect this area to be regularly populated given its proximity to the Temple of Apollo and to other temples at the western end of the Forum. Ruins associated with the Northwest Stoa are scattered on the ground on the right hand side of the pathway.

The Propylaia (#3)

Sign for the Propylaia in Ancient Corinth, the monumental forum entrance
Propylaia

Continue walking as previously with the ruins of the Stoa on your right and the Temple of Apollo on your left until you reach The Propylaia #3 (monumental entrance way), the main entrance to the Agora, or alternatively when referrring to Roman occupation, the Forum. The south side of the Forum is the open area looking in the direction of Acrocorinth. In the opposite direction a set of steps descends down into Lechaion Road #2 which leads due north towards the Gulf of Corinth.

The next image shows an overview of the area. The minor ruins of the Propylaia can be identified along the path midway between the stairs and the tree. The small sign on the face of the ruins on the right hand side of the path can be just made out. In the centre of the image are the steps leading down from the upper terrace into Lechaion Road. Immediately under the tree is the wall-like remnant of the Captives Façade. Behind the stairs is the Fountain of Peirene.

General setting of entrance to forum, the Propylaia, in Ancient Corinth
Overview of location of the Propylaia in Ancient Corinth

The Propylaia consisted of three archways – one main archway and two smaller archways. Guilded bronze chariots once stood on this imposing structure. It is not difficult to visualise the animated Corinthians lining both sides of Lechaion Road, the area immediately surrounding the Propylaia and packing the Forum to welcome the triumphant processions of returning armies, dignitaries or similar. There is not a lot of the Propylaia left to see but there is much to imagine.

Immediately to the left of the Propylaia you will see The Captives Façade.

The Captives Façade (#18)

Sign on Captives Facade structure, Ancient Corinth, hints of Roman occupation

You can readily identify the bi-level Captives Façade under the tree to the left of the Propylaia. It is clearly signed. This marble monument functioned as an entrance and screen of the Basilica #17 (meeting place, law building) situated at the western side of the Lechaion road.

Image showing bi-level structure of Captives Facade in Ancient Corinth
Captives Facade at Ancient Corinth

The figures on the relief allude to foreign territories under Roman occupation so it would be consistent that the structure would serve to commemorate Roman victories, particularly as it situated adjacent to the monumental gate through which the returning legions would enter the forum.

Pillar of Phrygian used to support the Captives Facade at Ancient Corinth
Phrygian Pillar used to support the Captives Facade

The Ruins Associated with Lechaion Road (#2)

Sign for Lechaion Road in Ancient Corinth

Follow the unpaved path and descend the steps onto the statue-lined 12-metre wide Lechaion Road which is located in the north-east corner of the site.

Leachaion Road displaying Ancient Corinth culture with remnants of statues lining the sides of the road
Lechaion Road in Ancient Corinth

Lechaion Road served as the major two kilometre thoroughfare from the Agora (Forum) to Ancient Corinth’s western harbour, Lechaio, on the Gulf of Corinth. Lechaion Road therefore played an important role in transporting goods to and from the Corinthian ports. It would have been a busy venue for civic workers, itinerant seamen, shoppers and merchants and was lined with temples, shops, markets and administrative buildings. It also served in Roman times as the major entrance into the Forum from the north and the main exit from the Forum to the south. The road was originally unpaved and available to wheeled traffic but was finally paved under Augustus and restricted to pedestrians. The road was apparently walled and lined with statues all the way to the harbour. You will be able to see the limestone paving of Lechaion Road. Narrow pavements with gutters to carry away rainwater were also installed towards the edge of the road. Lechaion Road was the confuence of Corinth’s commerce and religion.

Western Side of Lechaion Road (looking in direction of The Temple of Apollo)

You will clearly see remnants of 16 shops within the excavations along the western side of Lechaion Road, at least within the precinct of Ancient Corinth. These were part of the façade of the North Building #17, at least within the precinct of Ancient Corinth. Further west of the shops and to the north side of Apollo’s Temple are other remnants of a large Roman Basilica #29 (administrative building or marketplace) which was probably used as a courthouse. Rows of both Doric and Corinthian columns found nearby suggested that this was the site of a fifth Century BC Greek Stoa and marketplace.

Ancient Corinth commerce with shop ruins on western side of Lechaion Road,
Western side of Lechaion Road

The Eastern Side Of Lechaion Road

On the eastern side of Lechaion Road, closest to the Prolylaia, you will see an open space surrounded by marble Ionic colonnades. This was originally the Peribolos of Apollo #14, an enclosed colonnade reserved as a sacred place. An overview of the Eastern Side can be seen in the previous image captioned “Lechaion Road in Ancient Corinth”.

Click on the images to enlarge

Further north on the western side you will see ruins which may have been an enclosure, wall or colonnade around a sacred space such as a temple. A large bathhouse, the Eurycleus Baths #15, has been preserved to its north.

The Fountain of Peirene (#13)

Sign for Fountain of Peirene, Ancient Corinth

Lechaion Road runs north (Gulf of Corinth) – south (Acrocorinth) and when you face south near to but to the left of the Propylaia you can’t miss the impressive and beautiful Fountain of Peirene. No imagination is needed here. The remodelled Fountain has been well preserved. The fountain we see today was a remodelling circa 150 AD of a two-storied improvement made under Claudius during the first century BC.

Click on the images to enlarge

Ancient Corinth’s water was supplied by tunnels which directed water to four sizeable reservoirs. Subterranean water conduits passed beneath the shops on the Agora and each shop had well-access to the supply. Merchants could keep perishables and other food products and wine cool by lowering them into the wells. Tradesman could also access the water, as could latrine users who required water flushing of waste.

The Sacred Spring (#25)

The use of the Sacred Spring revealed Ancient Corinth's religion and culture
Sacred Spring (foreground) Ancient Corinth

The ‘Sacred Spring’ is situated between #’s 19 and 18. Continue walking along with the ruins of the Stoa on your right and the Temple of Apollo on your left until you reach a shady tree. The images below show where the Sacred Spring was situated relative to the tree. In one of the images you will see the location of the Display Board and the sign identifying the Spring. The Sacred Spring originated in the Greek Archaic period and its longevity extended to the Roman occupation. The Spring is underground now and can’t be seen but that wan’t the case in antiquity.

The vicinity of Sacred Spring, Ancient Corinth
The vicinity of the Sacred Spring at Ancient Corinth

The Corinthians obtained their water from another source and the Sacred Spring was associated with Greek religion. The ‘Sacred Spring’ was the site of a shrine for the oracle. The supplicant of the oracle was assured of the oracle’s enlightenment when after sufficient payment, the oracular priests would convert water into wine. It was not supernatural. A mechanism still exists that shows how the substances were manually exchanged.

The Ruins of the Agora of Ancient Corinth

Agora at Ancient Corinth for commercial, cultural, political and religious exchanges
The Agora (Forum) of Ancient Corinth

The Agora to the Greeks was a large, open space which served as the central marketplace and commercial area. The Roman equivalent is the Forum which was a public square used for political and religious assembly and markets. The agora/forum at Ancient Corinth is quite large, measuring 210 metres x 90 metres.

Continue past the Fountain of Peirene and enter the large open space that was once the southern aspect of the Forum with its space dominated by the Agora. It is understood that in Greek history this large area had also been used as a Stadium #5. Ancient Corinth was a bustling crossroads of commerce and politics. Whereas its wealth was enhanced by the tolls levied on the cargoes flowing across the isthmus, it was also an industrial centre. The spacious, rectangular Agora, later adapted to become the Roman Forum, was lined with monuments and colonnades. Public buildings and rows of shops occupied its centre running east-west along its length as well as along the margin between the upper and lower terraces. Remnants of the forum have retained evidence of the sale of meat and other edible products, including wine.

Pausanias reported that ‘most of the Greek sanctuaries stood in the Agora with a statue of Artemis and wooden images of Dionysus, which are covered with gold with the exception of their faces; these are ornamented with red ‘paint.’ He also recorded that ‘in the middle of the market-place is a bronze Athena, on the pedestal of which are wrought in relief figures of the Muses. Above the market-place is a temple of Octavia the sister of Augustus, who was emperor of the Romans after Caesar, and the founder of the modern Corinth.’

The remains of the Julian Basilica #12 can be seen at the eastern end of the Forum (partially seen in image). its steps leading down to the Forum. Its sign is mounted on its steps.

Sign for Julian Basilica, Ancient Corinth
The sign for the Julian Basilica at Ancient Corinth

The Julian Basilica is hardly recognisable but it is thought that it once served as a law court. Its masonry was reused to build the wall immediately adjacent to it.

Julian Basilica at Ancient Corinth
The Julian Basilica in background, its sign visible

The Northwest Shops (#19)

Sign for Northwest Shops, Ancient Corinth
Sign for Northwest Shops

You saw the ruins of the Northwest Stoa which lie opposite the Temple of Apollo when you entered the site. You are now looking at the same area of the shops and its Stoa from the Forum. The Northwest Shops define the northern margin of the Agora.

Click on the images to enlarge

Ancient Corinth was also an industrial centre, famous for its pottery and bronze ware. Its paintings, its sculpture work and especially its castings in bronze were done with the greatest of skill. The Agora was a thriving market.

The Bema (#4)

You will see the Bema immediately in front of the Julian Basilica within the Forum.

Quote from scripture at the Bema, site of Paul's trial, Ancient Corinth religion
The Bema in the Forum of Ancient Corinth and Reference to Paul’s Trial

The Bema was an elevated public rostrum of carved blue and white marble on which the Proconsul stood to address the crowd in the Forum. Adjacent to the rostrum were two waiting rooms with marble benches and mosaic floors. Tradition has it that Paul was tried at this location before Proconsul Gallio when charges were brought against his theology. Gallio dismissed the charges without their being heard so the crowd maliciously beat Sosthenes instead. Sosthenes was the presiding officer of the synagogue and later converted to Christianity.

Paul and What We Learn about Ancient Corinth from His Letters

Paul arrived in Corinth about 50 AD and remained for 18 months. He may have lived in or near the port of Cenchreae. This can be inferred from two pieces of information. Firstly, when Paul left Corinth he departed from Cenchreae. Secondly, he supported himself financially as a tent maker. Perhaps this work also involved sewing sails for the many ships that would have docked at the port. Nevertheless, we do read that Paul ‘preached in the synagogue every Sabbath’ which reinforces the evidence that some of the Corinthian population was Jewish.

We ran our eyes over the two letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians and found several references that tell us a little bit about the culture and religion of Ancient Corinth and about Paul himself.

The first is that if we accept Paul’s letters as a historical record, they confirm that meat was sold in the market place, that food was offered to idols, and that Corinthians ate inside the temples. The latter was a departure from pre-Christian practice where it was generally accepted that only the God and perhaps oracles and priests could occupy the Greek temple. There were also three themes that seemed omnipresent. The first theme was Paul’s call to reject the perceived and prideful wisdom that was embodied in the philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics. The second theme was to reject Corinth’s moral climate and behaviour. The third theme was to reject Corinth’s omnipresent idolatry. Taken together, these three themes build a certain perception of the city, but it must have been difficult for anybody in Paul’s time to buck the trend.

Many are aware of Corinth’s reputation for its lack of morality; Paul listed the offending behaviours in his first letter. But it did not mean that the Corinthians were not capable of drawing a line in the sand. For example, Paul reported on a Christian Corinthian who was having a relationship with this father’s wife, apparently the man’s step-mother. Paul stated that it was ‘unchastity as there is not even among the heathen’. So it would appear that the non-Christian Corinthians were not totally disengaged from morality.

The second way Paul contributes to our knowledge of the culture and religion of Ancient Corinth is related to his skilled use of metaphor. Paul reinforced understanding by referring to readily identifiable structures and activities within the city. Here are a few examples we found.

Paul resided in Ancient Corinth circa 50 AD and would have observed the results of the building and restoration of Corinth started under Caesar. He likened the Christians at Corinth as ‘God’s building’ and himself as a ‘skilled builder’, metaphors that surely would have resonated with his readers.

Ancient Corinth abounded in temples and most of us have heard the expression, ‘your body is your temple’. The little fledgling Christian movement in Corinth probably didn’t have anywhere other than a house to meet, but would have seen Corinthians coming and going from their grand temples, particularly the Temple of Apollo. It must have been uplifting for them to read Paul’s words that, ‘your body is God’s temple‘, and ‘you are a temple of God’. What need of a building?

Not only did Corinth abound in temples, but its riches and the wealth of its temples was unsurpassed. Paul seized on this imagery and again reinforced the comparative value of his group by referring to them as, ‘treasure in earthen vessels’.

Paul not only used metaphor in respect of structures, but also enhanced understanding by referring to activities that were common in Corinth. We found three examples.

Paul used metaphor in respect of the theatre in Corinth, advising his readers that they are a ‘spectacle (theatre) unto the world’.

Paul also used the imagery of Roman processions, some of which would have originated at the Corinthian port of Lechaio. The Roman units, following disembarkation, would have marched along Lechaion Road into the Forum. Paul implied, that like the Romans, the faithful will be ‘led in triumph’.

Paul also alluded to the presence of the Bema in the Forum when he referred to Corinthians presenting ‘before the judgement seat’.

There are also several examples drawn from Paul’s knowledge of the Isthmian Games. Paul often referred to the games in both his letters to the Corinthians, in his letters written from Corinth, and in letters away from Corinth where he still borrowed on the imagery of the games to reinforce his messages.

The first example was Paul’s metaphorically likening Christian exertion to a race; ‘Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one gets the prize?’ Paul was encouraging the same determination for his followers as a competitor in the games who was aware that only the victor was honoured.

In the second example Paul relates the need for his followers to divest themselves of anything superfluous in order to be successful spiritually. He writes, ‘lay aside every weight’. Clearly this text refers to the custom during the games when athletes removed their clothing for the athletic contests. The athletes would therefore not carry any unnecessary weight which would result in wasted energy. Paul continued, ‘and the sin that beset us’. The athletes removed their clothing to prevent them from being caught up in it when they ran and having their effort impeded.

In the third example Paul refers to the very strict entry conditions of the games. Each athlete would be presented to the crowd and would not be permitted to compete if he were charged by any of the spectators with any criminality or depravity. Paul refers to this introduction made at the games and the strict rules of the contest by, ‘And even in the games, anyone who competes is not crowned unless he has competed according to the rules’.

The letters to the Corinthians help us to become more familiar with the man himself. Paul’s description of ‘love’ at 1Cor 13 is quite remarkable and transcends religion and culture, and his resilience as described at 2Cor 11:23-27 would make him a modern day legend!

Finally, Paul’s efforts in Ancient Corinth were against formidable religion invested in the Greek gods. What may have been Paul’s view of the origin of all these Greek gods? Did he think of them as an intellectual creation of the Greeks? or a product of suspicion or fear? How did these gods assume their personalities? We consider these questions in our post describing the Paul’s trial on the Areopagus in Athens. This was another important Greek venue visited by Paul and a venue populated with so many statues of the Gods that even he found it confronting. Why?

The South Stoa #9, Basilica #11 and Fountain

Acrocorinth lies to the south of Ancient Corinth and so the ruins along the southern side of the Agora are those of the South Stoa and its host building, the South Basilica.
The South Stoa dates to the late fourth Century BC and was extremely large, covering an area of about 0.4 hectares. It was beautifully ornamented with Doric columns and an extensive internal colonnade. The ground floor rooms made use of the subterranean water system through Ancient Corinth to keep their products cool.

West Shops #22 and West Terrace Temples #20

The western margin of the Agora (opposite end to the Julian Basilica) features a series of remnants which are believed to have been temples. Behind the temples is the location of the West Shops.

West shops at one end of the agora
West shops of the Agora at Ancient Corinth

Temple of Octavia #24 and Temple of Hera Acraia #26

In the area behind the West Shops is the Temple of Octavia, a first Century A.D monument to the sister of Emperor Augustus, and the Temple of Hera Acraia.

Temple of Octavia, Ancient Corinth religion
Temple of Octavia, Western Terrace

The Ruins of the Theatre and Odeon

The Roman Odeum #30 and Ancient Theatre #31

When outside the main site the Theatre and Odeum occupy a large area to the the north-west.
The Odeum was a small covered theater or roofed hall for musical competitions and rhetorical displays. The original Theatre of Ancient Corinth was built on a natural slope with stone seats and wooden stage. It had been successively rebuilt maintaining a capacity of about 18,000 spectators

The structure and evolution of the ancient theatre would have been very similar to the many other outdoor theatres in the Peloponnese. The primary example, famous for its acoustic properties, is the theatre at Epidaurus (The Theatre at Epidaurus Including its Acoustics), but other theatres which are very comparable and would have been constructed similarly are those at Delphi (The Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi) and Athens (Explore the Athens Acropolis and What Surrounds It).

The Museum at Ancient Corinth

The museum is located in the main administrative building. Entry into the site is through one door and return from the site is through another and leads to the museum. Below is a random selection of images taken from the very ample museum.

Click on the images to enlarge

Final Thoughts on the History, Culture and Religion of Ancient Corinth

At the end of the day stand back to assemble a coherent interpretation of what was just observed and experienced. It doesn’t come easily for Ancient Corinth is rich in its history, culture and religion. It’s for that reason we have written this post. We tried to imagine Ancient Corinth as a thriving, bustling city two thousand years ago and although it was not a small city, the central area is smaller than we had expected. We realised how living in giant, modern megacities can distort perceptions of what existed in the past.
We can see the market places where Paul would have preached. The number of very early Christians must have been quite small – perhaps only a few families to start with. They were surrounded by political, cultural and religious forces in an environment dense with temples and monuments. They would have been different to those around them but stood up for what they believed. Whether religious or not one has to acknowledge that they were courageous.

Corinth was also known for its particular brand of morality. Young men would venture to Corinth to be ‘corinthianised’. This explains why Paul’s letters attended to issues of morality. We are persons of faith and in that respect our visit here has been very rewarding. Our understanding and perceptions have been changed. In addition, we have enjoyed exploring and deciphering the archaeology. These two reasons alone, and there are obviously others, made Ancient Corinth worth visiting for it provided the sort of memories we wanted to take away with us.