I spent my weekend in Corinth, a lovely little city located on the isthmus that connects Attica to Peleponnese. The city itself is not particularly exciting, as it was rebuilt after it was struck by an earthquake. It is organized in a grid-like fashion (I can finally use blocks as a metric again!) and is right by the sea. The canal of Corinth is a pretty popular picture place (we stopped for 2 minutes to look at it) and bungee jumping is available there as well (thanks, but no thanks).
Ancient Corinth is located south-west of the city and is definitely worth a visit. In the 5th century BC, Corinth was one of the major powers (city-states) in Greece, and took part in all battles against the Persian Empire. When the Persians were no longer a threat, Corinth was embroiled in a rivalry with Athens, which reduced it to a secondary position. It had been an ally of Sparta during the Peleponnesian War, but then switched sides to wage war against Sparta with Theben. This was the Corinthian War.
The weakened and warring city-states were then united during the Hellenistic Period. Eventually, it was refounded as a Roman city by Caesar in 44 BC. Characteristic of the Roman urban planning style, Caesar built two large roads (avenues) in Corinth: the Lechaion running north-south, and the Kenchraie running east-west. These avenues intersect in the center of the ancient city, where the Corinthian “Forum” is ideally situated. The forum is the Roman version of the Greek “agora”: the religious and cultural/social center of the city, surrounded by colonnades, temples and stalls.
Something interesting: Corinth also went through a biblical phase. Paul the Apostle settled in Corinth around AD 51/2, and built the Church of Corinth there. This is where he wrote the First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians.
Corinth is also the setting for a famous myth containing the mythical horse Pegasus:
Bellerophon was a prince of Corinth who, after being embroiled in a fight that lead to another’s death, was sent away from Corinth to be pardoned by another king, as per Greek tradition.
Thus, Bellerophon journeyed to the city of Tiryns, where the king Proetus and queen Anteia/Stheneboea ruled. Proetus pardoned Bellerophon, however when his wife took a liking to the young prince and he rejected her advances, she twisted the story to make him look like the initiator. Enraged but bound by the laws of Greek hospitality, Proetus devised a plan to send Bellerophon to king Iobates of Lycia (present day Turkey), carrying a letter that instructed the king to kill the bearer.
Since king Iobates could not straight out murder his guest, he came up with a brilliant plan: he gave Bellerophon the mission to kill the Chimera. The Chimera was a mythical beast, with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a snake, that had been ravaging Lycia for a very long time. Iobates was sure that Bellerophon would fail and die in the process.
Bellerophon knew that the Chimera could not be killed by normal means, so he went to the temple of Athena to pray for help. He fell asleep at the altar, and in his dream, the the goddess appeared before him and handed him a golden bridle, telling him to go find Pegasus at the Fountain of Pereine. Pegasus was a magnificent horse: white as milk and with a pair of beautiful wings. It was the “child” of Poseidon and the Gorgon Medusa, and had sprung our of her neck after the hero Perseus had severed her head.
When Bellerophon woke up and saw the bridle actually lying in front of him, he knew that the Gods were on his side. He traveled to the fountain like the goddess had instructed him, and found Pegasus there, drinking water. With the help of the magic bridle, he managed to tame Pegasus (a feat never accomplished before) and win its trust – the beginning of a successful partnership.
With Pegasus’s help, Bellerophon managed to defeat the Chimera, and receive king Iobates daughter’s (Philonoe) hand in marriage and half of his kingdom.
After many more adventures, Bellerophon settled down to become king of Corinth. Unfortunately, even glorious, great Greek heroes have their flaws: Bellerophon’s was hubris (excessive arrogance), which grew along with his fame. Being the rider of Pegasus and having killed the Chimera, he felt that he deserved a place among the Gods. He tried to fly up to Mt. Olympus on Pegasus, by Zeus was not amused and sent a gad-fly to sting Pegasus and throw Bellerophon back down to Earth. Pegasus was used by Zeus as a pack horse for his thunderbolts, and Bellerophon was left to wander the Earth alone, until his death.
I had completely forgotten that Bellerophon and Pegasus were associated with Corinth, and only remembered when we drove through the city and passed by a giant statue of Pegasus in a square. It’s a very realistic one: it looks as if he is about to fly away any second. Pegasus is also present in other places of the city as well: on coins, engraved into the street and is the namesake of the coveted main prize at the Corinthian-Peleponnesian Film Festival.
As for Bellerophon, he is a classic example of a tragic hero: born of noble blood and a hero in every sense, but destroyed by his own hubris in the end. Alongside Perseus and Cadmus, he was one of the earlier heroes and slayer of monsters. His story reminds me of the plot of the movie Prometheus: humans travel to a distant planet to meet their creators and seek answers, but their arrogance and curiousity is rewarded with death and destruction. Bellerophon was not the first one to challenge the Gods, and certainly won’t be the last.
The Fountain of Peirene still stands in ancient Corinth – visitors used to be able to go into the fountain complex, but it is off limits now. Nonetheless, it is synonymous with the architectural genius of the Corinthians and Romans, as well as the myth of the legendary Pegasus: artists and poets used to drink from the fountain for inspiration.