The ancient site of Isthmia was a religious sanctuary dedicated to Poseidon, and administered by the city-state of Korinth. Isthmia, along with Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea made up the four Panhellenic Sanctuaries. Panhellenic sites were revered by all Greeks, not just those local to the site.
As one of Four Panhellenic Sanctuaries, Isthmia had special importance in the Greek and Roman periods. Its athletic and religious festival was second in importance only to Olympia. The traditional date of the founding of the Isthmian Games is 584 BC. Every two years, the Isthmian games took place, and contestants from all over Greece would travel to the sanctuary at Isthmia to participate. Athletic contests took place at the games along with drama and poetry competitions. Originally, these competitions held great religious significance; however, as time passed they came to acquire a more secular nature. Although the games at Olympia and Delphi were perhaps more well-known, the site at Isthmia drew many famous visitors including, Alexander the Great, the apostle Paul, and the Roman emperor Nero. Part of that importance was a direct result of Isthmia's important geographic location.
The location of Isthmia in Greece
In antiquity, the Isthmian sanctuary of Poseidon was established near the ancient road between Athens and Korinth, two of the largest and wealthiest cities in Classical Greek times. This gave Isthmia a very central location which would have attracted travelers between the two major cities, as well as merchants or travelers crossing the isthmus. It is safe to say that the site would certainly have attracted the attention of most people traversing the area. This importance continued into the Middle Ages when Isthmia became the main bastion in the Byzantine defenses of southern Greece.
The isthmus lies between the Korinthian Gulf to the west, and the Saronic Gulf to the east. The Panhellenic site at Isthmia lies directly on the Isthmus, near the Saronic Gulf.
A Brief History of the Site:
A large Doric temple to Poseidon was built at Isthmia around 700 BC. The site at the Isthmus was a natural spot for the structure, since many travelers passed through on land and there were many ports nearby that served maritime traders. Both the temple and Isthmia prospered because of the Isthmia Games. Around 480 BC the archaic temple was destroyed by fire. A new, larger temple was constructed about 465, and the games continued. Throughout the next decades there were several conflicts in Greece but the games were held uninterruptedly. However, in 390 the games were disrupted when a Spartan Army marched on the Isthmus. The temple was damaged again by fire, and because of economic trouble in Korinth, the damage took some time to repair.
Throughout most of the third century the Macedonian kings used Korinth as one of their most strategic garrisons. The Macedonians lost control over Korinth in 243 BC to the Achaian league, but regained it in 228. In 225-4 the Macedonians brought an army through the Isthmus to face another Achaian force trying to take Korinth. Since the Isthmus was the crossroads of Greece, armies would continue to march through it, often with disastrous consequences to Isthmia and the Temple.
Rome arrived in 200 BC to liberate Greece from Macedonian control; one of the garrisons they took was Korinth. The war against the Macedonians concluded in 196 with a complete Roman victory. Before withdrawing his troops the Roman General Flamininus chose to make a political statement and a demonstration of Roman goodwill: he would announce the complete liberation of Greece. It should come as no surprise that the place he chose to make this announcement was the Isthmian games. By now Isthmia had had a long history as a symbol of Greek freedom, Greek unity, and Greek resistance to outsiders.
Fifty years later the Romans were less magnanimous to Greece. After declaring war on the Achaian League, the General Mummius decided to make another political statement in Korinth. In 144 BC Mummius ordered Korinth to be destroyed. Isthmia was not spared. The Altar of Poseidon was destroyed, and the Isthmian Games were transferred to the control of Korinth's neighbor Sicyon. The games probably moved there too. Korinth was later rebounded as a Roman Colony by Julius Caesar in 44BC, and the city-state regained control of the games about forty years later; however archeological evidence suggests that the games did not return to Isthmia until about 50 AD. At that time, the temple and the facilities for the games were repaired, and in 67 AD the Emperor Nero took part in the panhellenic games.
By the end of the fourth century Christianity would be the only legal religion in the Empire, and it is almost certain that no more games were given in honor of Poseidon. By 400 the sanctuary to Poseidon was an abandoned relic to a bygone era. In the reign of Theodosius II a wall was constructed across the Isthmus. The Hexamilion (six-mile) wall required an enormous quantity of stone to construct, and many abandoned buildings were plundered for stone. The temple was torn down to its foundations. Isthmia itself may have been sporadically abandoned between the late 7th century and the 11th or 12th century AD. However, the Isthmus continued to be an important strategic location during the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods.
The Sanctuary Today:
Isthmia is not as immediately "appealing" as some other sites primarily because it continued to be used intensively in the Middle Ages. As a result, most of the architecture of the Sanctuary was stripped from its original setting, and used in construction of the Hexamilion fortifications in the fifth century after Christ. The excavations at Isthmia have taken place nearly continuously since the mid-1950's. Work by teams from the University of Chicago has been responsible for construction of a museum and maintenance of the central part of the Sanctuary, while Ohio State has worked in the outlying areas of the site, including the Roman Bath and the East Field.
Conservation of the monochrome mosaic, summer 1995
Although Isthmia was an important athletic center, most of the athletic buildings remain undiscovered today; of these, only the stadium (in three separate phases) has so far been excavated. Most of the athletic buildings that certainly existed at Isthmia remain unknown and unexplored. Isthmia thus holds out the promise of providing new information about sports in ancient times.