Corfu history

History & Culture

Corfu has the ability to incorporate each new element without significantly altering its cultural physiognomy. In Corfu one can meet – even today – intact elements of the ancient Greek civilization like placenames, customs, vices etc.

The events and ceremonies that take place in villages on the Tyrofagos Sunday and Shrove Monday are remnants of the ancient Greek cult worshipping Dionyssos and coexist with the Corfiot Carnival, rooted in the Italia Comedia del’Arte.

Corfu’s musical tradition also constitutes a dynamic composition of ancient Greek and Byzantine elements combined with others introduced mainly by Venetians and the British. Serenades and barcaroles coexist with folk songs, the roots of which go as deep as antiquity and the quadraphonia of religious hymns.
The inclination of Corfiots to the spectacles, the music and the opera is the result of the living history and coexists with the deepest respect for the national and religious symbols.

Historical Info

Kerkyra, the island of King Alkinoos’…

Various names of the island were found in the ancient literary sources, such as Drepani (meaning ‘sickle’) or Makris (‘Long Island’), which derive from its shape, Phaeacia, Gorgo or Gorgyra, Kassopaia and Scheria (a name that Homer used in his “Odyssey” to describe King Alkinoos’ island, which is generally identified as the island of Corfu). 


The name Kerkyra – which prevailed in Greece – emanates from the ancient myth of nymph Kerkyra or Corkyra, daughter of the river Assopos. According to this myth, Poseidon, the God of sea, fell in love with Kerkyra, brought her to the island and gave it her name. The international name Corfu probably derives from Koryfo (at Byzantine years) because of the two characteristic rock-peaks of the Old Fortress of Corfu.

Mythical Past – Ancient Times

40.000-229 BC

Most archaeologists identify Corfu as the mythical island of Phaeacians. It was here that ingenious Odysseus arrived after days of straggle with the sea-waves.
Apollonius of Rhodes is referred to Phaeacians in the “Argonautica”, where Jason and the Argonauts, having stolen the Golden Fleece and pursued by the inhabitants of Colchis, found refuge in the palace of King Alkinoos. There, in the cave Makris, the marriage of Jason and Medea took place.

In the old days, Corfu was a continuation of the mountain range “Pindos” and constituted a headland of Epirus, from which it was already cut off completely – as the historians say, at the Palaeolithic Age. From that age long, Corfu was continuously inhabited, as the prehistorical findings show, spread all over the island. In the caves of the southwest Corfu, near Gardiki and lake of Korission, people lived during the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Among others, fossilized bones of animal species have been discovered. 


The great importance of the geographical position of Corfu caused the interest of the Eretrians (from the island of Euboea), who inhabited in Corfu around 750 BC.
Corinthians overthrew the Euboean city-state in 734 BC, under the leadership of Chersicrates. The island was named Korkyra and the Doric writing prevailed. 


The Corinthian colony, that was named Chersoupolis, was founded to the south of the present city, on the peninsula we know today as Palaeopolis. The new inhabitants brought from the metropolis their religious customs and political institutions. The favourable conditions for the autonomous development of the colony were obvious from the beginning and Corfu was promoted to a big commercial and naval power of the Ancient Greek world. Soon, the relations between the settlers and the metropolis of Corinth became strongly competitive.


In 664 BC according to historian Thucydides, the oldest sea battle in Greek history took place just off the Corfu coast, between Corinth and Corfu. Eventually the colony submitted to the metropolis under the administration of the Corinthian tyrant Periandros. 


During this period, great works of art were made, like the lioness on the cenotaph of Menecrates at Garitsa, the Doric temple at Kardaki, and the temples of Hera and Artemis with the famous pediment of Gorgon. The pediment is exhibited in the archaeological museum of the city and is the oldest stone pediment that has been found until today in Greece.
After Periandros’ death (585 BC), Corfu recovered its independence from Corinth and gradually reached the acme of its prosperity. Already a naval power offered 60 triremes for the war against the Persians. Around this time circulated its first coins.


Corfu\\\’s alliance with Athens, the interference at the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which broke out, having as the accession of the colony of Epidamnos at Corinth and the consequential civil war between the aristocrats and the democrats (backed by Corinth and Athens respectively), had, as a result, the gradual weakening of the island.

Byzantine Period

337-1203

After the division of the Roman Empire, Corfu fell into the Eastern section, to be ceded to the Byzantine Empire finally in 733. 


At the beginning of the Byzantine Era the first churches of the new Christian religion were built in the ancient city next to the old temples. 


Up to the 11th century Huns, Vandals, Goths, Normans and Arabs threatened and repeatedly plundered the old city of Chersoupolis. The reaction from Constantinople for this outmost point of the Empire was not always immediate. During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I in 534 AD, his renowned general Belissarius passes from Corfu on his way to Italy.


However, the occupation and the pillage of the island by the king of the Eroule Goths, Totila, in 551 AD, were decisively important for the later life of the city. During that raid the ancient city Chersoupolis was devastated and the inhabitants began gradually to abandon it  and constructed another, to the north, in a place naturally-fortified, between the two rock-peaks of the nearby peninsula, which was gradually reinforced and offered the medieval name to the city: Coryfo or Corfoi, Corfu.


In the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire was reorganised into themes and Corfu first came under the rule of Epirus and later, the theme of Kefallonia.
During the next years the Slavs made devastating raids and Corfu suffered repeated attacks. 


A few years later, when the Macedonian Dynasty reigns in Constantinople, Corfu enjoys relative safety conditions. This is deduced from the construction of the monumental church of the Saints Jason and Sosipater, at the end of the 10th century in Palaeopolis, outside the city-walls. 


This peaceful period ends permanently with the first act of the Western expansionism. Four times in a period of one century (1081 – 1185) the Normans of Robert Guiscard, soldier of fortune and conqueror of the Byzantine territories in southern Italy, occupied the island, which henceforth is of great importance for the safety of the Eastern Empire. In one of these attempts, in 1147 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos tried repeatedly and only after a ten months\\\’ siege and many difficulties recaptured Corfu. After the retrieval of the Normans, the Emperors granted many important tax-privileges to the clergy and the residents of the walled town (kastrini), but the Western expansionism was not to leave Corfu in peace.