The Evolution of a Pan-Hellenic Sanctuary: From Archaeology towards History at Isthmia

(This article originally appeared in Greek Sanctuaries, New Approaches (1993, pp.154-177), and is made available electronically with the permission of the editors.)

The sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth (Figure 1) was the major extramural shrine of the Corinthians, their most important religious foundation outside the city. Its central location beside one of the main roads linking the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece made the shrine a natural assembly place.It was one of four sanctuaries where Greeks from all parts of the Mediterranean came to compete in pan-Hellenic games. Oscar Broneer discovered the temple of Poseidon in 1952 and then conducted systematic excavations of the central plateau that contained the temple, altar, surrounding buildings, and a Roman hero shrine. He also cleared the theater, two caves used for dining, and two stadia for the Isthmian Games. In the autumn of 1989 new excavations produced further information about the stages in the shrine’s development and their chronology. 1 The following account of the sanctuary should be understood as a preliminary overview that combines the results of Broneer’s excavations with the new finds from the 1989 season.2 The first part is concerned with the monuments and related features of the central area from the period of earliest sacrificial activity until the Hellenistic period; the second section examines evidence for the ways in which the sanctuary was used during those centuries. In the third part the relationship between the sacrificial area and the Early Stadium is discussed,and at the end there is a short account of the hero, Melikertes-Palaimon,who was associated with the games.

As its principal deity, Poseidon presided over the Isthmian shrine, accompanied by Amphitrite and Melikertes-Palaimon. Other gods worshipped with him include Poseidon’s children, the Cyclopes, whose altar is mentioned by Pausanias (2.2.1) and Demeter, a divinity frequently linked with Poseidon in cult.3 Two dedications inscribed to herin the fourth century were recovered in an area about 300m west of the temple of Poseidon.4 A list of benefactions from the second century AD (IG 4, 203) provides us with the names of other deities who had shrines at the sanctuary, but their cult places have not been located. According to the inscription the temples of Demeter, Kore, Dionysos and Artemis were grouped within a single walled area called the Sacred Glen (Hiera Nape). The other divinities named are the Ancestral Gods, Helios, Eueteria and Kore, and Pluto.5 Their association with Demeter and the harvest supports the notion that fertility was a major concern for worshippers at the sanctuary. A full discussion of the Isthmian cults, however, must await a future work in which the votive offerings are considered. The role played by Melikertes-Palaimon is briefly surveyed at the end of this chapter.

The temple and altar of Poseidon stood on a small plateau that was the ceremonial heart of the Isthmian sanctuary. It is located in an area riven by valleys, about 1.5km from the Saronic Gulf and 16km due east of Corinth. The triangular plateau lay at the foot of a ridge known today as the Rachi, and the road linking Corinth and the Isthmus ran along a gully at its northwest side (Figure 2). 6 When the Isthmian Games were founded in the early sixth century, a stadium was added to the shrine, and a century later a theater and bathing facilities were built on a lower plateau to the north of the temple.7 In the Hellenistic period the racecourse was moved to the south-east valley where the natural slopes provided space for the increasingly large crowds who attended the popular festival.8 These monuments occupied the centre of the sanctuary, but there are indications from surface remains and the inscriptions mentioned above, that the entire sacred complex (the Hieron tou Poseidonos) stretched some distance to the west, probably reaching the spring at the head of a great ravine about 560m from the temple of Poseidon. All water used in the rest of the shrine seems to have been piped down from that spring, and it must have been in this area that the Sacred Glen was located.


The Early Iron Age

Evidence for the first ritual activity at the site comes from cups and bowls that were found mixed with ash and burnt animal bones at the south-eastern side of the central plateau. The earliest fragments show that eating and drinking began at this place in the Early Protogeometric period (late eleventh to tenth century BC), and the unbroken sequence of drinking vessels in succeeding centuries bears witness to the continuity of the practice.9 The burnt bones came from sheep, goats and cattle that had been sacrificed to Poseidon. The custom, as described by Homer and Hesiod, was to cut off the thigh pieces, wrap them in fat, and burn them for the god. The worshippers feasted on the remainder of the meat accompanied by plenty of wine.10 Many layers of ash and burnt bones mixed with fragments of pottery cups were recovered in excavations along the eastern edge of the plateau where the long stone altar of Poseidon stood from the seventh century onwards. The material had been used in terracing that, from the eighth through the fourth centuries, enlarged the space along the altar.11 The worshippers seem to have left their cups, along with pitchers and bowls for mixing wine with water, near the place of sacrifice, possibly after having deliberately broken them in an act of consecration.12

On the basis of ritual continuity, we can suppose that the early sacrifices were performed along the eastern edge of the plateau where the altar was later built. Although most of the early remains were cleared away in later times, some soil containing ash and burnt bones mixed with Early Iron Age sherds was found along the west side of the altar.13 We cannot know what led the first people to choose precisely this place for their offerings to Poseidon, but it was not unusual for sacrifices at that period to be made on a rock surface without an altar.14 Mountain-tops were the scene of sacrifices to Zeus, the sky god, and their remains in the form of ash, burnt bones and broken cups are comparable to what we find at Isthmia. In some places the material survives to this day.15

A change in the sacrificial area and perhaps in the festival itself took place in the second half of the eighth century. The first large, sloping terrace was laid down along the eastern edge of the plateau, shown by dots in (Figure 2). The thin layer of fine red soil appears to have been used more to define the sacred area than to modify the natural slope of bedrock. 16 Only one portion of the terrace along the southern edge shows sign of activity. It is indicated by hatching in (Figure 2). The surface, c. 8m wide and 28m long, is covered by a compact layer of small stones, between which we found fragments of dining wares. In a depression at the south edge of the floor more vessels including storage jars were mixed in a dark, soft soil that betrays a garbage dump. It appears, then, that feasting took place on the stone surface and refuse was discarded to one side. The west end of the floor next to the plateau and place of sacrifice lacks the stones and compact surface of the eastern section, and fewer sherds were recovered there although they were of fine fabric and broken into small pieces (most under 0.01m). The difference in quantity and quality of pottery at the two ends of the terrace suggests that some division may have existed among the worshippers, possibly of rank. If so, the less numerous but more privileged persons may have dined next to the plateau where the sacrifices took place. In the same place there are traces of a small feature, marked X on (Figure 2) and shown in greater detail in Figure 3. The remains, not fully excavated, consist of a curved groove and a number of postholes that were covered by three pieces of charred wood (Figure 3).17 The wood may have belonged to a table or container for offerings; the holes could have held supports for a small shelter or tent.18

The offerings of the Early Iron Age are simple and few in number, most of them belonging to the eighth century. In addition to these are the drinking cups that may themselves have been left as gifts to the god. Of the other objects most numerous are small, handmade terracotta bovoid figurines, that seem to be unique to the sanctuary.19 By the end of the century a few richer dedications appear in the form of bronze tripods, arms and armour, but most gifts to Poseidon were simple offerings of Corinthian manufacture that are more likely to have been left by the common man than by aristocrats for the purpose of display. This is in marked contrast to the votives of the same period dedicated to Zeus at Olympia, to Apollo at Delphi and to Hera at Perachora.20

Homer’s description of the sacrifice to Poseidon at Pylos seems to reflect the kind of occasion that took place at early Isthmia (Od. 3.1-384). From the poet’s narrative we draw the conclusion that, after completing the burnt offerings, they spent the day drinking and feasting and returned to the city at nightfall. No temple, built altar, or votive dedications are mentioned, and we are given the impression of an open place where an assembly of citizens made public sacrifice to the sea god. There is no indication in the poem whether this was a regular festival or an offering made for some special purpose. If the place of sacrifice at Pylos had ever existed and were now excavated, the remains would be much the same as those found at Isthmia, burnt animal bones and terracotta cups mixed with ash.21

The Archaic sanctuary

The construction of the first temple with its altar and lightly built temenos wall marks the beginning of the architectural development of the sanctuary (Figure 5). Although these monuments had been known from Broneer’s excavations, the 1989 season brought to light new evidence for their construction date, for the plan of the temple, and for the course of the temenos wall.22 Within the temple the foundation trenches for the north, east, and west colonnades and for a portion of the south wall of the cella were found to be largely intact. In spite of earlier doubts, we can now be certain that the peristyle was part of the original building.

Along the outer edge of the foundation for the cella wall we discovered a series of ten regularly spaced pits, c. 2.26m apart on centers, from which blocks had been removed after the destruction of the building. The sequence had originally extended along the entire wall. Their purpose became clear when we examined the heavily burnt wall blocks from the temple and saw that many of them have strips of unburnt surface crossing the outer face. Evidently an upright member, 0.32-0.37m wide, had protected the wall from fire when the temple was destroyed.23 The foundations along the wall, then, supported a series of uprights or piers that were standing against the wall at the time of the fire.24 Since they were probably related to the support system for the roof, their spacing would have corresponded to that of the colonnade and thus gives us the interaxial distance between the columns. Hemans restores a colonnade of 7 by 18 columns. The overall length of the temple was c. 39.25m and its width 14.10 to 14.40m; the cella was c. 32.28m long by 7.90m wide.25 In the absence of any suitably large stone columns despite the large percentage of other blocks preserved, it seems likely that they and the entablature were made of wood. There is no apparent evidence for Doric features, such as triglyphs and metopes. A construction date for the temple between 690 BC and 650 BC is revealed by pottery in a construction layer beneath the first floor of the colonnade.26 Two upper floors show that there were subsequent remodellings, one in the middle of the sixth century and another toward the end of the century. The date of the disastrous conflagration that destroyed the temple can be placed around 470 BC on the basis of the latest pottery vessels that are heavily burnt.27

The walls of the cella between the piers were covered with white stucco, traces of which still adhere to the surface along the edges of the unburnt strips. Broneer also recovered small pieces of heavily burnt stone on which there is stucco with painted designs that he restored as panels filling the space between the piers on the outside wall of the cella.28 Most of the chips are too small to reveal what subject had been represented, but evidently Geometric patterns, animals and probably human figures were included. The one recognizable element is the mane of a horse belonging to a beast that would have been about 0.32m high. It might thus be more likely that the painted decoration took the form of a frieze with a single row of figures and a border at top and bottom. The total height of such a frieze would have been about 0.64m. If it had decorated the outside of the building, it would have run between the piers in panels 1.94m long.29 On the other hand, none of the painted stucco was found on a wall block, so it is not certain that the painted decoration belonged to the Archaic Temple. If it did embellish the temple, it was very likely on the outside of the building because the inside surfaces of all the wall blocks were completely destroyed by the fire.

At the time of the fire the inside of the temple and its deep eastern porch were filled with offerings, most of which were badly damaged in the blaze. They included figurines of bronze and terracotta, chariots and horse trappings, small oil containers of clay and bronze and large storage vessels whose charred interiors reveal that they too contained oil. It is fortunate that perhaps the most elaborate dedication stood outside the cella in the northeast corner of the peristyle, well away from the center of the fire.
The monument is a great marble basin (perirrhanterion) supported on an elaborate stand, the base for which is still in place (Figure 4).30 Broneer recovered many fragments of the stand and basin from the debris of the temple, and the restored monument is now on display in the Isthmia Museum.31 The bowl, 1.24m in diameter, rests on a ring supported by four women, each standing on the back of a lion and holding in one hand the lion’s leash and in the other its tail. The ring between the women is decorated with rams’ heads. The exquisite stone carving is further embellished by paint on the hair, face, and clothing of the figures. The worn surfaces of its handles and rim bear witness to the many people that reached into it, presumably for water to purify themselves before entering the cella. The style of the carving makes the monument contemporary with the temple, or a little later. We cannot be certain where it originally stood, however, since its base was moved when the third floor was put into the peristyle, but the absence of weathering tells us that it was never exposed to the elements. Although basins of this type were popular in the seventh century, the Isthmian perirrhanterion is outstanding in the intricacy of its design and quality of execution. I think we can safely conclude that it was a major dedication.

The thin temenos wall enclosing the temple and altar appears to have followed the contours of the plateau (Figure 5). Broneer uncovered remains of it at the north side, and more traces were found in 1989 that showed it bordered the Corinth-Isthmus road and the east side of the altar.32 At the south, where the temple lay close to the original base of the Rachi, the wall ran along the bottom of the slope within a few feet of the peristyle.33 At the west no trace of the wall remains, but it may have followed the same line as the Early Roman temenos wall (Figure 1a) . When the games were begun and the stadium built in the early sixth century, a section of the wall was removed along the east side of the altar to make way for a ramp leading to the stadium.34 Later in the century expansion of the eastern terrace moved the limits of the temenos still farther east. At that time two formal gateways were built at the entrances to the temenos: one on the north for those who approached the sanctuary along the Corinth-Isthmus road, and another on the east, opposite the temple, for those going directly to the altar and stadium (Figure 5). Broneer uncovered the foundations belonging to the north propylon, and we identified the bedding for the east gateway in 1989.35

The principal construction of the sixth century was the stadium. In its placement close to the altar it seems to have been modelled on the early stadium at Olympia (Figure 5). In both shrines the place of sacrifice and the contest area were linked by an open space that may have been used for ceremonies.36 At Isthmia, however, locating the stadium near the altar entailed much greater effort than at Olympia. Since the ground at its southeastern end lay over 5m below the starting line at the west, the Corinthians, in order to create a moderately level track of the appropriate length, were forced to alter the landscape by cutting back the lower slope of the Rachi and hauling in earth for terracing.37 A construction date in the second quarter of the sixth century is suggested by the traditional date of the first games and by deposits cleared in l989.38 We also found that, as part of the same project, a terraced walkway with a concave face was built between the track and the altar.39 We may imagine that processions of officials and athletes moved along it from the place of sacrifice to the stadium.

Within a few years more space for spectators was provided by a larger terrace along the track and an extension of the sacrificial area that incorporated the original walkway into a much larger platform stretching across the entire east side of the plateau (Figure 5).40 The Isthmian stadium seems to be an early example of a racecourse that was composed almost entirely of earth terraces, over 100 cubic metres of soil just for the track alone. The labour required to move that amount of soil and rock represented a major investment in the facilities of the sanctuary.

The Classical and Hellenistic sanctuary

After the Archaic temple was destroyed by fire in c. 470 BC, a larger temple of the Doric order and Classical proportions was soon built on the same place. Although the building was destroyed in Late Antiquity, Broneer was able to restore its plan. The temple had a peristyle of 6 by 13 columns, a pronaos and opisthodomos with two columns in antis, and, in the fifth century, a highly unusual, single row of columns through the centre of the cella.41 Fire struck again in 390 BC, apparently causing extensive damage.42 When the temple was rebuilt, it received a new roof, sima, and probably many new columns. The interior colonnade was changed to a conventional double row of supports (Figure 6). The long altar was rebuilt and enlarged to conform to the wider proportions of the new building.43

The fifth century was a period of great building activity at Isthmia. In addition to the Classical temple and its new altar, the spectator embankment of the stadium underwent a major expansion and the broad terrace along the east side of the altar was raised to make it level with the plateau.44 The spectator area now encroached well into the space in front of the altar that previously would have been reserved for activities connected with the sacrifices. Two separate entrances were built leading from the altar to the stadium, and the opening to one of them was evidently restricted since it was closed by a special gate. More will be said about these entrances in the discussion of the temenos boundaries. Most visitors reached their seats by means of ramps built against the outside retaining wall of the spectator embankment.45 An elaborate system of starting gates controlled by ropes embedded in a triangular pavement was an early experiment in providing a clean start to the races, but it appears not to have been a success and was replaced in the next century by a conventional starting line.46 Monument bases, presumably for statues, lined the south-western edge of the track (Figure 6).

An early type of simple, rectilinear theater was built on the lower plateau of the sanctuary some time before the fire of 390 bc.47 The auditorium was remodelled towards the end of the fourth century in a form that combined a curved centre section with straight rows of seats at either side (Figure 6). The wooden, two-storey scene-building of that period included a proskenion with 11 movable panels between the uprights. Each panel was provided with a pivot that enabled it to swing open.48 The second auditorium had perhaps 12 rows of seats that would have accommodated approximately 1,550 persons. To judge from the later programme, the theater served as a place for musical rather than dramatic contests.49 Their popularity is attested in the Hellenistic period by the fact that a branch of the performers’ guild known as the Artists of Dionysos had its base at Isthmia and Nemea.50

The main crowds, however, were attracted to the athletic events, with the result that by the end of the fourth century a larger stadium was constructed. The new racecourse, located in a valley at some distance to the south-east of the central plateau, was much larger than its predecessor. Instead of earthen embankments, the sides of the valley provided natural slopes on which the spectators sat to watch the games (Figure 1b). The stadium remains largely unexcavated, covered today by orange groves, but through sinking deep trenches and tunnelling between them Broneer exposed enough of the curbs and starting lines to reveal the plan.51 The terracing for the old stadium was moved away, and it seems likely that some of the fill was used to build up the slopes along the new track.

The principal change in the sacrificial area was the construction of a new, monumental gateway to replace the Archaic propylon at the outer edge of the eastern terrace (Figure 6).52 Only the massive foundations of the portal are preserved, but their size is impressive. The side of the gate facing the temple was 10m long, and it appears to have been free-standing. The location of the new construction towards the south side of the temenos is interesting. We might imagine that it would have been more appropriate to move it northward, opposite the centre of the Classical temple, but instead the entrance was built next to its Archaic predecessor. Although the passage in the absence of the stadium was now turned to face the temple, the position of the gate remained fixed. Even in Roman times after the Hellenistic propylon had been demolished, another gate was built in the same location, using the same foundations. Perhaps it was the eastern approach to the plateau that called for the gate to continue in the same place, or the entrance itself was felt to be part of the unchanging tradition of the sanctuary.

On the north side of the sacred precinct we find the same sense of continuity. A large heavily built, T-shaped platform of suitable size and Classical date (marked M5 on Figure 6) appears to have supported a gateway that replaced the north propylon after a shift in the Corinth-Isthmus road.53 The orientation of the foundation with respect to the temple is similar to that of the earlier gateway, but it lies a few metres closer to the temple. No new temenos wall seems to have been constructed, but there may have been horos stones such as were found at Nemea.54 The bases that lie on either side of the foundation would have supported monuments lining the road.

The Corinth-Isthmus road continued to be heavily used by wheeled carts, their drivers moving ever farther south onto the temple plateau in search of a firm surface. To aid their passage, two ramps were constructed: one just west of the Archaic propylon for the Corinth-Isthmus route; the other for a branch road that separated from the main track and descended from the plateau at the north-east corner of the sacrificial area (Figure 6). In 1989 we uncovered the well-built bedding and four surfaces belonging to the latter ramp. The depth of the ruts and cement-like consistency of the lower layers attest to the amount of traffic that it carried during the fourth century, at least some of it probably related to the reconstruction of the Classical temple after the fire of 390 BC. The road continued in use in later centuries, moving southward after the sanctuary was destroyed in 146 BC, SO that it crossed the foundations of the long altar. When the sanctuary was rebuilt again in the first century AD, the road was moved back again to the north side of the plateau where, in the final phase of the temenos, it was allowed to pass through the sacred precinct.


To anyone sailing westward in the Saronic Gulf or travelling on the old Scironian Road from Athens to the Peloponnesus, the temple of Poseidon, seen with Acrocorinth in the distance, would have been a landmark. The sanctuary itself lay immediately adjacent to the road on the first high ground after the coastal plain. In fact, in all periods of its history the road continued so close to the temple that the sanctuary was a roadside shrine. It seems inescapable that a shrine in this location, easily accessible by land and sea, would have been a natural meeting place. A brief summary of the evidence for foreigners (i.e. non-Corinthians) coming to the shrine will show to what extent natural advantage was indeed utilized in practice. For the early periods we are limited largely to pottery and dedications to reveal who visited the sanctuary, and we can only suppose that they may have come there for regional gatherings. We are on firmer ground for later times, from the fifth century on, when some of the assemblies that took place there are mentioned in the historical records.

Although Isthmia was certainly a Corinthian shrine and everything in the archaeological record points to Corinthian control at all times, at most periods in its history some portion of the vessels that were used and left at the shrine were brought there from outside the Corinthia.55 In the earliest years of sacrificial activity the imports came from the eastern side of the Isthmus from as far away as Attica. They grew most numerous about 900 BC and continued in lesser quantities throughout the eighth century. Although several possible explanations for them come to mind, it may well be that visitors brought their own cups, bowls and pitchers for use at the sacrificial feast and then left them as dedications. Most of the worshippers, to judge from the simplicity of the pottery and other offerings as described above in the section on monuments of the Early Iron Age, were not aristocrats desiring to make a show but common men. Perhaps on the day of Poseidon’s festival the Corinthians joined their neighbours for a celebration at the shrine, or it may be that travellers simply halted their journey to make offerings. If there were organized gatherings, Poseidon was the appropriate divinity since he seems to have been especially associated with assemblies. The Ionian League met at this period in his sanctuary on Mt Mycale, and his shrines were the scene of later regional gatherings on Calauria (modern Poros) and at Onchestos in Boeotia.56

Only towards the end of the eighth century did Poseidon begin to receive a few dedications that represent a higher level of investment in the shrine. The armour and weapons are of particular interest in that they were very likely part of soldiers’ booty awarded to them after a successful campaign.57 Isthmian Poseidon was second only to Zeus at Olympia in dedications of arms and armour. During the seventh century the amount of arms and armour increased, and it reached its peak between 550 BC and the temple fire in c. 470 BC. Since the greater part of the fragments was found at the north-west edge of the temple plateau, we can imagine that dozens of helmets, shields and cuirasses were conspicuously set up along the Corinth-Isthmus road. This prominent position suggests that the Isthmian shrine and festival had a political aspect that made it a place for the Corinthians to display their superiority in battle.58 Such a message would have strengthened the impression of wealth and authority that was conveyed by the Archaic temple.

The decision to celebrate pan-Hellenic games at the Isthmian festival could have been politically motivated, and it certainly attracted more visitors to the shrine. There is some reason to believe that the Corinthians were the first to establish international contests modelled on the famous games at Olympia. The date was 582 BC, the second year of the 49th Olympiad, and within a few months the Amphictionic League held the first pan-Hellenic Pythian Games in honour of Apollo at Delphi.59 The cycle of games was complete when, some years later (573 BC), the little city of Cleonai, backed by Argos, established international games to Nemean Zeus. The custom that victors in the three new festivals, like those in the venerable Olympic Games, received no prize of value but only a wreath, led to their being known as the holy or crown games. For their wreath the Corinthians selected a crown of pine in memory of Melikertes-Palaimon, for whose funeral, they said, Sisyphos celebrated the original contests.60 The previously-established role of the Isthmian sanctuary as a central meeting place for neighbouring cities may well have contributed to the early success of the festival.

During the last part of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth the routes across the Isthmus saw ever greater use, largely by armies marching between the Peloponnesus and mainland Greece. The area was fortified in 480 BC as the final line of defence against a Persian advance into southern Greece, and after the Battle of Salamis in the following year, the victorious Greeks sent Poseidon a captured Phoenician warship as a thanks-offering (Herodotus 8.121).61 They then gathered at the Isthmian Sanctuary to decide who should be awarded the prize for excellence. Each general placed his vote on the altar, but they found no one had obtained first prize, since each had voted for himself, but all had given Themistocles second place (8.123).62

This was perhaps the last grand occasion witnessed by the venerable Archaic temple before the fire. Little is recorded about events during the rest of the century, although the games continued through the troubled years of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath. In the ensuing conflicts between Argives and Spartans, each supported by a Corinthian faction, control of the prestigious sanctuary and its festival became a prize that was coveted by both sides. Xenophon records an attempted takeover that resulted in a double celebration of the games in 390 BC (Hellenica 4.5.4). The Spartan king, Agesilaus, at the head of an army marching towards the sanctuary, surprised the Argives and their Corinthian supporters just as they had completed the sacrifices. After the Argives departed in haste, the Spartans watched their Corinthian allies begin the rites anew and carry out a second performance of the festival. Whether the political strife surrounding the games was connected to the fire that broke out in the temple at the same time is impossible to tell, but the reduced amount of pottery and other objects belonging to the years following the fire suggests a decline in prosperity at the shrine.

Philip II inaugurated a new era. After the Greek defeat at Chaironeia in the winter of 338 BC, he called representatives from the cities to assemble at the Isthmian Games in the following spring to hear the common peace settlement. Shortly afterwards he again assembled them at the sanctuary to gain support for his intended expedition against Persia.63 His subsequent assassination ended Philip’s appearances at the sanctuary, but in the next two years Alexander called two meetings at Isthmia. The use of the sacred festivals for pan-Hellenic assemblies seems to have brought with it renewal of old buildings and construction of new ones. At Isthmia the temple of Poseidon was restored, the theater extensively remodelled, and a new and larger stadium was provided to accommodate the ever larger crowds. If we are to judge from the pottery and the existence of a flourishing community of dyers and weavers nearby, the sanctuary entered a period of prosperity at the end of the fourth century that was to last for the next 100 years. Although there is no mention of particular occasions when the League again convened at Isthmia, the sanctuary seems to have continued to function as a place of public display since inscriptions recording treaties between the Hellenic League and the Macedonian King, Philip V, were erected at the north side of the temenos along the Corinth-Isthmus road. At the end of the third century, however, the sanctuary was caught in the middle of some unrecorded military skirmish, and the temple sustained considerable damage.64 When Philip was defeated by a combined Roman and Greek army, the victorious Roman general, Titus Quinctius Flamininus, called (in 196 BC) the most famous of all Isthmian assemblies to announce a proclamation of freedom for the Greek cities.

Livy (32.33) introduces his account of the event by explaining that the Isthmian Games were the meeting place and the market of Greece and Asia.65 At that particular festival, however, not only did the Greeks gather from many places as was customary, but they came full of expectation about what was going to happen to Greece. When they took their seats in the stadium expecting the commencement of the games, the herald with a trumpeter came into the middle of the racetrack and announced that the Greek states would be free from taxes and free to be governed according to their ancestral laws. Plutarch (Vita Flaminini 10.3-11) adds that the audience afterwards paid no attention to the contending athletes but shouted so loudly that ravens flying overhead fell to the track. It was this glorious occasion that the emperor Nero tried to recreate at the same festival 263 years later.66

From this brief overview of the evidence for inter-state gatherings we can see the extent to which the Isthmian sanctuary served as a meeting place. The small area of its temenos enclosing the temple and the apparent absence of elaborate monuments such as are found at Olympia and Delphi emphasize the importance of the stadium as the focus for these gatherings. The connection that Livy made between assembly place and market place is probably significant in explaining the popularity of the Isthmian Games and of the sanctuary as a venue for international meetings. The harbour at the eastern of the Isthmus (Schnoinous) and the paved roadway of the diolkos that facilitated trans-shipment of goods and sometimes ships, attracted commercial activity to the Isthmus. As was suggested at the beginning of this section, the presence of imported pottery from the Early Iron Age may be an indication that the meetings are as old as the shrine itself. When a leader, such as Philip II, desired to arouse pan-Hellenic spirit for a campaign against the Persians, a general, such as Flamininus, to make an impression on the Greeks, and an emperor, such as Nero, wanted to recreate past glories, they called an assembly at the Isthmian Games.

Sacred space

The scene of Flamininus’ proclamation was the Hellenistic stadium, and we can imagine that an avenue (as yet undiscovered) linked the racecourse with the temenos of Poseidon. In earlier periods, however, the stadium lay so close to the temple plateau that the spectator embankment, in the second half of the fifth century, extended to within 9m of the altar. At that juncture the Corinthians apparently felt the need to devise a way to separate the stadium from the temenos while still allowing free movement between them. From the solutions they adopted we can see something of the honour they accorded the space around the altar and how they sought to provide boundaries for it that would restrict but not exclude passage between the ritual and athletic areas.

Two walkways led into the stadium from the space immediately surrounding the altar. The smaller of the two was a ramp with its entrance only 5m from the temple and its floor sloping down to the north-west corner of the stadium behind the starting pavement (Figure 6).67 Stone walls enclosed the sides of the passage, and at the top sockets cut into bedrock received three wooden posts that formed a double gateway. The ramp’s proximity to the temple and altar, narrow width (less than 2m) and gate a~ the top suggest that it was not open to the public but was reserved for special persons. A clue to their identity comes from a similarly placed passage to the later stadium at Olympia that Pausanias calls the ‘Hidden Entrance’ through which, he says, officials and athletes entered the stadium (6.20.8).68 The Isthmian ramp very likely had a similar function.

The second entrance passage leading to the stadium was discovered in 1989. When we found a base with a posthole cut into the upper surface Iying opposite the north-west corner of the stadium and saw two similar base excavated by Broneer, we realized that there had been a line of bases along the outside of the spectator embankment (Figure 6). The bedding for fourth base was uncovered next to the racecourse, showing that the series had extended all the way to the track, and there were very likely more than four in the original row. The blocks would have held tall wooden posts set in place at the time of the festival to separate the space along the altar from the passage into the stadium. The northernmost base is the largest, about 0.75m on a side, with a cutting in the top (0.21 by 0.20 by 0.32m deep) that would have held a wooden post perhaps 3m high. To steady the post and prevent wear on the soft limestone, a collar of hard wood or metal was fitted into a recess in the surface. There is even a notch for a wedge to be fitted into one side of the hole to keep the pole from swaying.69 Thus, along the entrance to the stadium we can imagine a series of wooden posts that were perhaps decorated with garlands and fillets at the time of the festival. The decorative barrier separated the passage from the space around the altar. The width of the passageway was about twice that of the walled ramp, but only a limited number of persons could have passed through it at any one time. It is likely, therefore, that it too was not open to the general public, but was reserved for a certain group of persons.

At the edge of the racecourse the line of posts turns westward and runs along one end of the starting area. The four bases here are smaller than those bordering the embankment, and the posthole in the top measures only 0.08 by 0.10m and is without a collar.70 The posts would have been correspondingly slighter and shorter than the other set, but they continued the barrier surrounding the southern end of the altar. The line is completed by the eastern wall of the ramp. Through these arrangements separate entrances into the stadium were provided for special groups of people. Officials and athletes would have processed from the altar to the starting line through the walled ramp, entering it by way of the double gate at the top. The wider and more open passage may have been used by those of lesser rank who enjoyed special seating privileges. Both walkways were carefully set apart from the sacred space surrounding the altar, but each was entered from the area immediately next to it. The temporary installation of wooden posts may be an indication that there were ceremonies at other times for which the posts were unnecessary and perhaps an impediment.

The central portion of the sanctuary in Classical and later times is a space where people gathered for sacrifices but where few monuments, other than the temple, were erected. The popularity of the Isthmian Games, the market at the Isthmus, and the political assemblies held in conjunction with the festival may have overshadowed the ritual activities devoted to Poseidon.


When a new institution was established, the customary account was that it had originally been founded by a hero or god but had fallen into disuse and was now being revived. The traditional stories surrounding the beginnings of the pan-Hellenic festivals follow this pattern. For Isthmia, the earliest reference to the founding myth occurs in an ode of Pindar that is unfortunately only partially preserved in a later work.71 The Nereids, sea-nymphs of Poseidon, address the king of Corinth: ‘Sisyphos, son of Aeolos, raise up a far-famed prize for the child, Melikertes, who has perished.’ Although brief, the fragment makes it clear that Pindar was making Sisyphos the founder of the Isthmian Games as funeral games for the infant Melikertes-Palaimon. Later commentators on Pindar give a fuller account of the story and several variations. Plutarch, in one of his after-dinner conversations, includes a discussion of the Isthmian wreath in which he quotes a number of earlier authors who mention Melikertes and the games.72 The hero thus appears to have been firmly associated with Isthmia by the first half of the fifth century, and it seems likely that his is the myth that the Corinthians told at the time they started the games.

One founding myth for the Nemean Games was similarly focused on the death of an infant, Opheltes-Archemoros, and his funeral games, in that case celebrated by Adrastus, leader of the fabled expedition against Thebes.73 At Olympia Herakles was said to have celebrated the first Olympic Games next to the tomb of Pelops (Pindar, Olympian Ode 10.2477); at Delphi, however, Apollo founded his own games after slaying the Python.74 Heroes at Isthmia, Nemea and Olympia then became patrons of the games and received offerings at the sanctuary. The shrines for Pelops and Opheltes that have been excavated take the form of an open, five-sided peribolos located not far from the central area. Since the earliest material associated with them belongs to the sixth century, it is probable that they owe their foundation to the institution of the games and do not represent an earlier cult.75 At Isthmia we have not yet found a similar enclosure for Melikertes in the Greek period, but, since not all of the central plateau has been cleared, it may yet come to light in a future season.76 It is probably right, on analogy with the shrines at Nemea and Olympia, to infer that one existed, although it may have been located farther from the central temenos than they were.

Melikertes-Palaimon, a child drowned at sea whose body was rescued by a dolphin and deposited on the Isthmus for burial, was a suitable companion for Poseidon. Although his own fate casts a somewhat dubious light on his qualifications as a saviour of sailors, he is invoked as ‘protector of ships’ in Euripides (Iphigeneia in Tauros 270-1). His mother, who became the sea nymph Ino-Leukothea, had a similar function, and her cult was more widespread. In a famous exploit she gave Odysseus her scarf to save him from drowning (Odyssey 5.333-5). Another aspect of Melikertes-Palaimon may have been his connection with the fertility of the earth and with the underworld.77 Poseidon himself had a similar side through his relation to earthquakes, springs and other aspects of the ground, and, as noted earlier, at Isthmia he was associated with Demeter as well as with Kore, Pluto, Eueteria, Artemis and Dionysos.78

An alternative myth made Theseus the founder of the games, either in emulation of Herakles at Olympia or in expiation for killing Sinis, the Pine-bender.79 This story may have been circulated later than the one about Sisyphos and Melikertes, since Theseus was primarily an Athenian hero and the sanctuary, on the basis of the pottery and architecture, appears always to have been firmly under Corinthian control.80

In conclusion, we have seen that the Isthmian sanctuary, while the oldest of the pan-Hellenic shrines, seems to have remained relatively simple in terms of its architectural development. The temple of Poseidon stood at its centre, the focal point of the place throughout its history. To travellers by land and sea it was a marker of Corinthian territory, wealth and power. The centrality of the shrine and its location beside the Corinth-Isthmus road made it a natural place for pan-Hellenic games, for a market and for interstate assemblies. The mass of dedications of arms and armour in the Archaic period reveals its early importance as a political centre, where the symbols of Corinthian achievement were displayed. When the Isthmian Games were founded in the sixth century, they soon attracted crowds that rivalled the famous Olympic festival. Sacrifices, feasting and contests characterized the sanctuary; travellers, embassies and finally the great pan-Hellenic assemblies made it ‘the meeting place and market of Greece and Asia’.

GREEK SANCTUARIES New Approaches Edited by Nanno Marinatos and Robin Hagg First Published 1993 by Routledge