BMCR 2024.05.19

Corcyra: a city at the edge of two Greek worlds

, Corcyra: a city at the edge of two Greek worlds. Meletemata, 83. Turnhout: Brepols, 2022. 2 vols. Pp. 747. ISBN 9789607905970.

The two volumes of the monograph on Corcyra by Selene Psoma achieve the author’s purpose of offering a synthesis of the history of the island, from the time of the first colonists to the end of the ancient world, based mainly on literary sources with additional epigraphical, numismatic, and archaeological evidence. The island’s strategic geographical position—at the edge of two Greek worlds, as the title emphasizes—is key to a new reading of the historical events and to major themes such as its αὐτάρκης θέσις, vocation to neutrality, and relations to motherland, territories of the peraia and the West.

The wealth of material, for the first time collected in one comprehensive work, unfolds in 18 chapters organized in chronological and thematical order, often addressing long-standing scholarly issues and introducing new perspectives and interpretations. Volume 1 comprises 15 chapters covering major topics such as geography, colonization, Corcyra’s relationship with Corinth, wealth and economy, coinage, the Kerkyraika (i.e., the Thucydidean passage, 1.24–55), staseis, history till the Roman period, institutions, myths, cults. Volume 2 comprises thematic chapters on prosopography and onomastics followed by tables with Corcyrean names; appendixes on hoards of coins and the etheloproxenos Peithias. Finally, a bibliography, useful indexes with literary sources and a modest iconographical apparatus with one single map and two plates with coins complete the volume.

The “History of research” in the introduction summarizes the most significant studies from the 17th century till today; the first corpus of Corcyrean inscriptions, by the eminent 19th century scholar Andreas Moustoxydis, stands out for its attention to the context of discovery. Regarding the excavations, Psoma draws attention to the historical, but mostly military, reasons for the plundering of building material from the ancient city by the Venetians in the 17th century and during the Italian occupation in World War II. Similar consideration would have been desirable for the unprecedented clamor aroused by the discovery in 1911 of the temple of Artemis, and the involvement of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the cost of its discoverer Friderikos Versakis.

According to Psoma, the strategic position of the island on maritime East-West and North-South routes (Chapter 1) is key to explaining the Thucydidean mention of the αὐτάρκης θέσις of the island, almost a literary topos. It is not only crucial for trade but also for the ability to prevent travel between the East and West and to control the channel through the fortified territories of Corcyra’s peraia, from Bouthrotos to Sybota, in Strabo’s definition. Interesting is the hypothesis that the sanctuary of Athena at Bouthrotos, stylistically similar to Corcyra’s Kardaki temple, might have functioned as a frontier at the border of the Corcyrean chora.

In Chapter 2, Psoma draws information from archaeology and literary sources to discuss the issue of colonization and the first colonists before Corinth. The lack of a Mycenaean presence is posited, although the tholos in Parga, opposite to Corcyra, and several Mycenaean pottery sherds might be worth further evaluation. Strabo’s isolated information that the Liburnians were the first colonists is considered very plausible, notwithstanding the lack of archaeological evidence; Psoma favors a Liburnian origin for the name Korkyra, supporting a recent scholarly shift, even though the Liburnians were regarded as barbaric enemies by the Corcyreans.[1] Conversely, more substance is given to Plutarch’s testimony on Corcyra’s colonization by the Euboeans through archaeological evidence, such as Euboean pottery recently found on the island (yet to be published), epigraphy, numismatics (coin issues with calf and cow found on a limited territory intensely frequented by Euboeans, see Chapter 5), and onomastics. Regarding the well-known identification of the island with the Homeric Scheria, land of the Phaeacians, bibliography is provided in notes, and discussed in Chapter 14 on the Corcyrean legendary tradition.

Based on ancient sources, and the island’s early sea power and wealth attested by archaeological remains of shipsheds from the early 7th century BC and a major building program, in Chapter 3 Psoma examines the conflicting relationship of Corcyra with her motherland and argues convincingly for a political reading of the most important episodes of enmity and cooperation between Cypselid Corinth and Bacchiad Corcyra. The tensions after the murder of Periander’s son by the Corcyreans, the subsequent Corinthian attack on the island and Herodotus’ account of the 300 paides sent by Periander to Sardis for castration are interpreted as attacks against Corcyra’s citizen body. Conversely, communal hostility towards tyrants resulted in collaboration to defend Syracuse (492 and 344 BC).

Chapter 4, based on the author’s 2015 contribution to the volume Prospettive Corciresi,[2] focuses on the prosperity which made the Corcyreans “in wealth equal to the richest of the Hellenes” (Thuc. 1.25.4), and represents the basis of the island’s sea power and renowned αὐτάρκης θέσις (Thuc. 1.37.3). Psoma questions the expression’s conventional interpretation as “self-sufficiency” and advocates for a connection to Corcyra’s role as a significant trade center for commodities, moving to and from the West, the North Adriatic, and the mainland, and its capability to impose exchange rates and silver coinage well before the end of the 6th century BC.

Corcyrean coinage (Chapter 5) is mostly of local use and based on Corinthian standards, but displays a debased alloy and a characteristic iconography; it is interpreted as evidence of the island’s autonomy and contrasting relationship to Corinth. In this regard, this chapter could have benefited from closer attention to the contraposition between the earlier issues with Pegasus adopted by Corinth and all its colonies except for Corcyra.[3] Psoma’s new interpretation of the issue with calf and cow as an Homeric simile alluding to Corcyreans as descendants of the Phaeacians appears questionable. In Od. 10.410–415, Odysseus at the court of the Phaeacians describes his comrades, liberated from Circe’s spell and weeping like calves: it is unclear how the episode might be representative of the island.

An in-depth thematic focus on Corcyrean naval power and building program opens Chapter 6 and leads to the discussion on Corcyra’s ambiguous position during the Persian Wars. Corcyra’s navy, with its 120 ships second only to Athens, was impressive, yet the 60 ships promised to Athens during the Persian Wars never arrived: the excuse of the Etesian winds casts doubts on Corcyra’s real intentions. Psoma, questioning Herodotus’ accusations, considers the justification reasonable, due to lack of experience in faraway seafaring by a fleet whose original purpose was to fight pirates. The section on the island’s building program (fortifications and sanctuaries) would deserve larger discussion, especially on the pediment of the temple of Artemis.[4] Psoma rejects the common association of the building program with tyranny and favors a date for the construction of the temple at the end of the Cypselid rule, given that the polis disposed of large resources and would not have needed the tyrants’ involvement. Furthermore, the Cypselids are not mentioned in the ancient sources on building programs and the presence of architectural elements with a local style is a sign of autonomy.

The following three chapters reconstruct in detail the complexity of the Peloponnesian War: Psoma, going through the 32 chapters of Kerkyraika (Chapter 7), challenges Thucydides’ interpretation of the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth as the main direct cause of the war, and investigates Corcyra’s role in the war from the triple point of view of real intervention of warships, Athenian use of Corcyrean naval power and geographic position. The issue of the epimachia/symmachia with Athens and the naval battle of Sybota is also discussed as the background of the events that followed. Corcyra’s dubious intervention during the Archidamian war, the lack of a strategic policy by Athens in the northwestern areas, and the failure to prevent Sparta from moving to Sicily, lead to the conclusion that real Corcyrean support for Athens was minimal. Psoma emphasizes how Thucydides dedicates little space to the increasing aggressiveness of Athenian policy in the north, and distracts his audience with Corcyra, Potidaea, and their relationship to the motherland, Corinth. According to Psoma, Kerkyraika and the entire Book I of the History is “a masterpiece of deception and cunning” (p. 190), averting attention from events such as the Megarian decree, the foundation of Amphipolis and the military colony at Brea.

The events of the stasis of 427 BC between Corcyra’s demos and hoi dynatoi, analyzed on the basis of Thucydides’ account in Book III, represent the epitome of civil war and become a model for future events: from that moment we find the demos siding with Athens and the oligarchs with Sparta. Psoma highlights how Thucydides focuses on Corinth and its will to regain control on Corcyra through the return of the Corcyrean captives of the battle of Sybota from Corinth, instead of concentrating on Athenian hostility and lack of tolerance of the neutrality pursued by Corcyreans throughout. Consequently, the intervention of Athens and Sparta are presented as reflexive to Corinthian actions. Appendix III on the figure of the democratic leader Peithias, the etheloproxenos, an unofficial proxenos not recognized by Athens, offers further support to this interpretation: Psoma argues that Thucydides’ emphasis on Peithias’ unofficial status, which would hamper Athens from intervening in the events after his murder, is another means to ascribe the stasis only to Corinth.

Amongst the wealth of information and arguments relating to the history of the island from the 4th century to Roman times, some topics are particularly remarkable. The analysis of IG II 96 and 97, a decree and a treaty between Athens and Corcyra, puts into question the denial of Corcyra’s participation in the Second Athenian League. The Athenian intervention in 361 BC in favor of the Corcyrean plousioi is discussed in the light of Athenian grain shortage.

The thematic chapters at the end of volume 1 deal with the city’s Doric nomima (calendar, cults, institutions etc.). Chapter 14 attempts a contextualization of different legendary traditions (Homeric, Corinthian, Euboean) essential for the construction of Corcyrean identity aside from the motherland Corinth. However, discussing the Corinthian tradition, the assumption that the content of the Titanomachia of Eumelus of Corinth is depicted on the Artemision, does not consider the ongoing scholarly debate on the subject.[5]

Regarding the order and structure of material and argumentations, Chapters 3 and 8, for example, could have benefited from a different organization of the historical narration to avoid fragmentation due to returning to earlier topics or anticipating arguments and occasional repetitions.

Volume 2, besides tables and appendixes, will be useful for further research thanks to the “Onomastikon” listing 407 names, mostly common to the rest of the Greek world, except for some rare names occurring only in Corcyra; and to “Prosopography” with the names of generals, Olympic victors, and names on bronze coins and tiles. “Society” provides information on upper class landowners, traders and slaves, who fought beside their masters in Kerkyraika and 5th century staseis. From the numerous Corcyreans abroad (Panhellenic athletes, visitors to sanctuaries, proxenoi) comes new evidence against the alleged isolationism of Corcyra.

In conclusion, this is overall a fine and well-informed contribution based on an impressive amount of material. It fills the gap of a comprehensive up-to-date study on the history of Corcyra and develops challenging insights and fresh readings of ancient sources. Provided with accurate references, the volumes will be a useful tool to scholars.



[1] Čače, Slobodan. “Corcira e la tradizione greca dell’espansione dei Liburni nell’Adriatico orientale.” In Nenad Cambi, Branko Kirigin, and Slobodan Čače, Greek Influence Along the East Adriatic Coast, Proceedings of the International Conference Held at Split From September 24th to 26th 1998, pp. 83–100. Split, 2002.

[2] Claudia Antonetti, Edoardo Cavalli eds., Prospettive corciresi. Pisa, 2015, reviewed BMCR 2017.02.25.

[3] Cigaina, Lorenzo. “Il frontone dell’Artemision di Corcira (Palaiopolis): contenuto religioso e possibili riferimenti politici alla tirannide dei cipselidi.” Hesperia: Studi sulla grecità di Occidente 32 (2015), pp. 41–98. Mertens-Horn, Madeleine. “Corinto e l’Occidente nelle immagini. La nascita di Pegaso e la nascita di Afrodite.” In Corinto e l’Occidente: Atti del trentaquattresimo convegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia: Taranto, 7–11 Ottobre 1994, pp. 257–289. Taranto, 1995.

[4] Psoma bases her interpretation on Claudia Antonetti. “Die Rolle des Artemisions von Korkyra in archaischer Zeit. Lokale und überregionale Perspektiven. In Klaus Freitag, Peter Funke, and Matthias Haake, Kult – Politik – Ethnos: Überregionale Heiligtümer im Spannungsfeld von Kult und Politik, Kolloquium (Münster, 23–24 November 2001), Historia Einzelschriften 189, pp. 55–73. Stuttgart 2006.

[5] See notes above.