The Corinth-Corcyra War in 435-431 began as a
dispute between Corinth and her colony Corcyra, but the Athenians were soon
dragged into the conflict, and it contributed to the outbreak of the Great
Peloponnesian War. The Corinth-Corcyra War was partly the result of the
long-standing hostility between Corinth and Corcyra. Corcyra (modern Corfu) had
originally be founded as a colony of Corinth, but for some time the younger
city had refused to pay her parent city the usual honours, something that was
greatly resented in Corinth. The relationship between the two cities had not
always been so hostile. When Corcyra decided to create a colony of her own at
Epidamnus, Corinth had been invited to provide the official 'founder' of the
city (Phalius, son of Eratocleides, from the then ruling family of the
Heraclids). Corinth also provided some of the original colonists.
The city of Epidamnus was founded on the Illyrian coast, in the territory of
the Taulantians (modern Albania). The city had prospered for some time, but in
the years before the outbreak of the war had been threatened by both internal
conflict and by the Taulantians. Things came to a head when the Democratic
faction within the city expelled the Aristocrats. The exiled aristocrats joined
with the Taulantians and launched a series of piratical attacks on the city.
Both factions from Epidamnus sought help from their mother city of Corcyra, and
the exiled aristocrats were clearly the more successful. The ambassadors from
the democrats were refused an official audience, while the exiled aristocrats,
who were able to point to the tombs of their ancestors in Corcyra, would soon
have the active support of the mother city.
When it became clear to the Democrats that they could not expect any help from
Corcyra they decided to consult the Oracle at Delphi to find out if they should
ask for help from their founder's city of Corinth. The Oracle replied that they
should hand their city over to the Corinthians. Unsurprisingly the Corinthians
accepted this offer, and prepared to mount an expedition to the city. A force
of colonists from Corinth, Ambracia and Leucas soon reached Epidamnus. When
this news reached the Corcyraeans they responded by sending a fleet to
besiege Epidamnus, operating alongside the
exiles and the Illyrians.
News of the siege reached Corinth, where work began on raising a relief force.
This consisted of a military contingent, including thirty ships and 3,000
hoplites from Corinth, and a group of new colonists. A number of Corinth's
allies also provided ships, and eventually a force of 75 ships carrying 2,000
hoplites was sent to try and lift the siege of Epidamnus. While this relief
fleet was being put together the Corcyraeans sent a diplomatic mission to
Corinth, where they demanded that the new colonists withdraw from Epidamnus,
and offered to take the issue to arbitration, with neutral cities from the
Peloponnese to serve as the arbitrators. The Corinthians responded by demanding
that the siege of Epidamnus be lifted before any negotiations could begin. The
Corcyraeans suggested that either both sides should withdraw their troops (and
the Corinthians their colonists) or both sides should stay in place while the
issue went to arbitration.
The Corinthians turned down both of these offers, and the fleet sailed. As the
Corinthians sailed north, the Corcyraeans sent a fleet of eighty ships south.
The two fleets met somewhere between the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf (the site
of the battle of Actium) and Cape Leucimme
(or Leukimme) at the southern end of Corcyra. The resulting battle ended in a
victory for Corcyra, after which the surviving Corinthians sailed home. On the
same day Epidamnus surrendered. The first phase of the war thus ended with a
clear victory for Corcyra, but the Corinthians were not ready to end the
fighting. For most of year after the battle of Leucimme the Corcyraeans were in
the ascendency, raiding Corinthian allies from the sea, but all the time the
Corinthians were building new ships and preparing to strike back.
In the summer of 434 the Corinthians occupied a series of fortified positions
around Actium, while the Corcyraeans positioned themselves around Leucimme. The
two fleets and armies then faced each other across the gulf between Corfu and
the mainland for the rest of the summer, only returning to their homes at the
start of the winter of 434-433. Up until this point Corcyra had managed to
remain neutral in the affairs of mainland Greece, not joining the Athenian or
Spartan led leagues, but as the scale of the Corinthian war effort became
obvious they decided to try and join the Athenian League.
Corinth also sent representatives to Athens, and the two sides got to put their
case to an assembly. Thucydides records speeches from both sides, and although
the wording is largely his own, the general arguments are probably the ones
used at the time. The Corcyraeans admitted that they hadn't been allies of
Athens in the past, but that this was a mistake, and they now needed help to
preserve their freedom against a powerful threat. They claimed to be the second
most powerful naval force in Hellas, and potentially a powerful ally in any
future struggle against Sparta.
The terms of the Thirty Year Peace that had ended the
Peloponnesian War expressly allowed any neutral state to join either
league. Corcyra was an important staging post on the sea routes to Italy and
Sicily, major sources of grain for Athens. Finally the Corcyraeans raised the
prospect of Corinth taking possession of their powerful fleet, leaving Athens
to face the combined fleets of Corinth, Corcyra and the Peloponnese. The
Corinthians responded by attacking Corcyraean neutrality, describing it as a
cover for the wrong-doings of their sailors; accusing them of being a disloyal
colony, that they were the aggressors in the war over Epidamnus, and that if
Athens did allow Corcyra into their league then war between Corinth and Athens
would surely follow.
The Corinthians also pointed out that they had recently defended Athens' right
to punish her allies when the Spartans had been close to declaring war over the
Athenian treatment of Samos. The Athenians need two assemblies to come to a
conclusion, but after the second one they decided to side with the Corcyraeans.
This would not be a full alliance, in which each side was bound to come to the
aid of the other in any war, but a defensive one, in which Athens was only
committed to intervene if Corcyra was attacked. Given than Corinth was clearly
preparing for just such an attack, this alliance was just what the Corcyraeans
A squadron of ten Athenian ships was sent to Corcyra, with orders to avoid
battle unless the Corinthians were attempting to land on Corcyraean territory.
The two fleets were soon facing each other close to the southern tip of Corfu,
with the Corinthian fleet anchored in a harbour at Chimerium, on the mainland
just to the south of Corfu, while the Corcyraean fleet (and their ten Athenian
allies) were a little further north, in the Sybota islands (close to the
mainland, opposite the southern tip of Corfu). The Corinthian fleet set sail on
the night before the battle, only to find the Corcyraeans already at sea. In
the resulting battle of Sybota each side's
left wing defeated the other's right, but the Corinthian victory was the more
significant. They destroyed 70 ships, the Corcyraeans only 30. After a pause in
the fighting the Corinthians were about to return to the fray when twenty fresh
Athenian ships were sighted. Fearing that they were the advance guard of a
larger fleet the Corinthians withdrew.
On the following day they sent envoys to the Athenians, who stated that they
would only fight if the Corinthians attempted to attack Corcyra. This allowed
the Corinthians to sail home, although only after erecting a victory trophy on
the mainland close to Sybota. The Corcyraens also erected a trophy, and perhaps
had the better claim to victory, having successfully defended their island
against attack by a larger fleet. After the battle of Sybota the
Corinth-Corcyra war lost its intensity, before two years later becoming part of
the wider Great Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra fought on the side of
Athens and Corinth on the side of Sparta.