Classics Isthmia
Elizabeth Gebhard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0382


At the crossroads of mainland Greece, the shrine of Poseidon on the Corinthian Isthmus drew visitors throughout Antiquity. The first offerings appeared in the Early Iron Age near a Mycenean settlement attested by a recently discovered house dating at least from c. 1650 to 1425 BCE. A monumental stone temple erected in the early seventh century BCE marked the beginning of the sanctuary’s prosperity. Athletic and equestrian competitions in honor of Poseidon were formally organized as the Isthmian games that joined the contests at Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea to create a Panhellenic cycle. The name Isthmia is a modern term taken from the Greek Τα Ισθμια, referring to the games on the Isthmus. By the Classical period, musical events were added to the program, and boat races may have been included. The sanctuary hosted interstate assemblies during the Classical-Hellenistic periods, most notably in 196 BCE when the Roman consul Flamininus proclaimed freedom for the Greek states. Half a century later another Roman consul, Mummius, sacked Corinth and Sicyon assumed sponsorship of the games. With the founding of a Roman colony at the city in 44 BCE, the games returned to Corinth and a few decades later to the Isthmus, where they continued until sometime in the late third or fourth century CE. A century later the buildings of the sanctuary furnished material for construction of a trans-isthmian wall and fortress known as the Hexamilion. The fortress remained a center of activity on the Isthmus for many centuries. The principal buildings of the sanctuary included the Temple to Poseidon, a stadium, a theater, and a gymnasium. The first Isthmian stadium was originally constructed close to the altar of Poseidon. With increasing crowds in the early third century BCE, a new stadium was located in the valley southeast of the temple, where competitions continued in Roman times. For musical events that were characteristic of the Isthmia program, a small theater was provided, and near it was a hundred-foot-square bathing pool that was probably part of the gymnasium located to its west. With the Roman rebuilding of the sanctuary, a bath building replaced the gymnasium; stoas and other buildings were added, including a shrine to Palaimon, the hero of the games. A monumental gateway of the late first century CE, which was later incorporated into the Byzantine fortress, marked the entrance from Athens.

General Overviews

For a general overview, see Gebhard 1993. In relation to the topography see Broneer 1973 (cited under Archaeological Investigations), Pettegrew 2016, and Wiseman 1978. A conference celebrating fifty-five years of excavation and survey brought together the most recent research to date on Isthmia: see Gebhard and Gregory 2015. For Mycenean and Early Iron Age Isthmia, see Morgan 1999 and Balomenou and Tassinos 2015; for Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Isthmia and Corinth, see Dixon 2014. Gregory 1993 and Wiseman 1979 provide historical accounts of the Roman period, including monuments and cult. A survey and discussion of the Late Antique fortress and Hexamilion wall are presented in Kardulias 2005. Gebhard, et al. 1998 offers a discussion of the Roman period after the 1989 excavations. Gregory 2010 considers the sanctuary in Late Antiquity. Kardulias 2005 discusses the community centered on the fortress.

  • Dixon, Michael D. 2014. Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Corinth, 338–196 B.C. Oxford: Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315771809

    Historical treatment of Macedonian Corinth and its region including Isthmia, drawing on literary and archaeological sources. Useful for students.

  • Gebhard, Elizabeth R. 1993. The evolution of a Panhellenic sanctuary: From archaeology towards history at Isthmia. In Greek sanctuaries: New approaches. Edited by Nanno Marinatos and Robin Hägg, 154–177. London: Routledge.

    Overview of monuments of the sanctuary, from the Early Iron Age to the Roman period.

  • Gebhard, Elizabeth R., Frederick P. Hemans, and John W. Hayes. 1998. University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia, 1989: III. Hesperia 67.4: 405–456.

    DOI: 10.2307/148451

    Report on excavations of 1989 that gives the best overview of the central temenos in the Roman period.

  • Gebhard, Elizabeth R., and Timothy E. Gregory, eds. 2015. Bridge of the untiring sea: The Corinthian Isthmus from prehistory to Late Antiquity. Conference celebrating 55 years of excavation and survey on the Isthmus of Corinth, Athens, 15–17 June 2007. Hesperia Suppl. 48. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

    A series of essays representing the most recent work on the sanctuary and its artifacts to date.

  • Gregory, Timothy E. 1993. The Corinthia in the Roman period. Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. 8: 433–476.

    A collection of papers from a conference on the Roman Corinthia. Useful for students.

  • Gregory, Timothy E. 2010. Religion and society in the Roman Eastern Corinthia. In Corinth in context: Comparative studies on religion and society. Edited by Steve J. Friesen, Dan N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters, 449–460. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    An overview of Late Roman period eastern Corinthia based on survey. Notes absence of an Early Byzantine church at Isthmia. Of special interest to New Testament students.

  • Kardulias, P. Nick. 2005. From Classical to Byzantine: Social evolution in Late Antiquity and the fortress at Isthmia, Greece. BAR-IS 1412. Oxford: Archaeopress.

    DOI: 10.30861/9781841718552

    Discussion of the settlement based in the fortress in Late Antiquity.

  • Morgan, Catherine. 1999. Isthmia VIII. The Late Bronze Age settlement and Early Iron Age sanctuary. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

    Reference work for scholars; includes survey of Late Mycenaean settlement remains on the Corinthian Isthmus and the early cult offerings at Isthmia.

  • Pettegrew, David K. 2016. The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean world. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.5074123

    Focuses on the use of the Isthmus as a market and crossroads, and the Diolchos, a paved passage across the Isthmus.

  • Wiseman, James R. 1978. The land of the ancient Corinthians. Gothenburg, Sweden: Paul Åström.

    Informal survey of Corinthian territory in Antiquity, including Isthmia. Good introduction for students.

  • Wiseman, James R. 1979. Corinth and Rome I: 228 B.C.-A.D. 267. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.7.1: 438–548.

    An archaeologically-informed history of the city of Corinth with useful discussion for scholars.

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