A brief history of Corfu

A brief history of Corfu

Legend has it that the island was Scheria or Drepani, home of the Phaeacians - Alkinoos's people - in Homer's "Odyssey". Early settlers from Euboea on the mainland were displaced in about 735BC by a colony from Corinth. These people were very independent and would not obey the rulers of Corinth and around 664 BC the first naval battle in Greek history took place just off the Corfu coast. As a result the colony was eventually punished and heavily reduced by the Corinthian tyrant Periander. Over the next century or so the colony regained its independence and fought hard to become a commercial centre, benefiting from its geographical location. In 435 the island's government asked Athens to assist in a quarrel with Corinth. This request was granted, and was one of the contributory factors leading to the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC). Corfu ended its involvement in the war in 410BC, but a further alliance with Athens in 375 caused more hostilities.

After a short period of relative stability the island changed hands many times during the 3rd century BC. In 229BC, Corfu sought help from Rome in sorting out the difficult situation in the Aegean and voluntarily became part of the Roman Empire. The Romans recognised Corfu's naval significance and retained the island as a free state. They established an Aristocracy and there are several sites with Roman remains including the castle at Kassiopi. In 31BC Octavian (later to become the emperor Augustus) used it as his naval base against Mark Anthony and founded a new town at Nicopolis on the mainland. Augustus decreed that the population relocate to the new town and so began a period of decline for Corfu.

The Roman Empire split in 337AD and Corfu came under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire and thus the military and administrative jurisdiction of Constantinople or Byzantium. Dark times were to follow during the greater part of the 5th century, and in 455AD the Vandals of Genzerichou, who were basically pirates, savaged Rome and also attacked the Ionian Islands, starting with Zakinthos and then moving on to Corfu. The island was again depopulated and heavily damaged. By 535 such population as there was had strengthened themselves again and contributed ships and men to an imperial force led by Belissarius, the renowned general of the Emperor Justinian (527-565). In retaliation, the King of the Goths, Totila sent 300 ships to Epirus after which, they laid waste to Corfu and its neighbouring islands.

There follows a period of some four centuries where very little information is available about the history of the island although it is believed that raids from numerous sources continued to blight the island. 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.

In 968 there is the first reference to the islands name of Corypho, which is where the old fortress stood with it's two peaks. The name gradually spread to include the whole island.

Arab raids continued to ravage the islands during another period of unsettlement. Corfu's position between Greece and Italy continued to attract the attention of powers from east and west and in succession it fell to Lombards, Saracens, and Normans and was fought over by the kings of Sicily and the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice.

By the end of the 12th century the state of Byzantium was in a bad way due to internal and external conflicts. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade which took Constantinople and overthrew the Byzantine Empire, had passed through the island and had awarded territories including Corfu to the Venetians because of the level of support that they had shown to the Crusade. The Venetians were keen to have these territories as they recognised the commercial value that they provided. For ten years this happy compromise continued but the Despotate of Epirus had set his sights on first, Dyrrachium and then Corfu which he took in 1214. Thus Corfu became part of the Despotate of Epirus which was one of the three independent Greek States. It is believed that the Despot Michael did a great deal of building on the island, but all that remains is the castle of Angelokastro above Paleokastritsa in the north-west. Much of the ecclesiastical power of the island at this time was given over to the Metropolitan Basil Pediadites who was a champion of Orthodoxy and so the first significant hold of that branch of the church was established. The Church broke away from the control of the Pope and came under the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The island passed by force to King Manfred of Sicily in 1258 and then in 1267 was taken by the Angevins. Their rule lasted until 1386 when once again, the Venetians returned when Admiral Miani took Corfu after a long battle. Venetian rule continued until 1797 and constituted probably the most significant period of foreign rule in the island's history. You only need to walk around the elegant town to see the influence of these great traders and builders and Corfu remains, architecturally at least, a Venetian City.

The Venetian Republic was dismantled after defeat by Napoleon in 1797 and the French ruled Corfu for two periods between 1797 and 1814, separated by a brief incursion by a Russian-Turkish force. The French were responsible for building the Liston in Corfu Town and had great plans for the development of the city. However, after the emperor Napoleon's defeat in 1815 it became a British protectorate and so began 50 years of British rule which saw significant development of the city and the island's infrastructure, including the prison, roads and the mains water and sewage system in Corfu Town.. During this period some of the island's most magnificent buildings were erected including the Palace of St Michael and St George and the Mon Repos estate. In 1864 Corfu was ceded, with the other Ionian Islands, to Greece. To this day the islands celebrate their Day of Unification on 21st May.

Corfu was invaded by Italy during WWII, as part of Mussolini's grand plan to resurrect the mighty Roman Empire. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the Germans massacred the thousands of occupying Italians and sent some 5000 of Corfu's Jewish population to Auschwitz.

During the difficult years that followed the end of the war, Corfu shared the fortune of the rest of Greece. Poverty, crisis and emigration continued until the late 1960's, when tourist development gave a new impetus to the economic and social life of Greece. From the early years of the century up until the Second World War, Corfu had rivalled Capri and Mallorca as the favourite Mediterranean destination of the European elite. During the last 40 years, the explosion of mass tourism, coupled with the island's natural beauty and historic past, has made Corfu one of the most popular holiday destinations for millions of people.

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