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Ancient Greek Roadway of Diolkos Undergoing Reconstruction

The Isthmus of Corinth, showing the modern canal. The ancient Diolkos roadway ran nearly parallel with the canal, linking the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf. Credit: NASA. Public Domain.

The ancient Diolkos, the cobblestone roadway upon which the ancients transported ships from the Corinthian Gulf to the Saronic Gulf, is now being restored.

The sturdy pathway, running roughly parallel to the modern Corinth canal, considered one of the greatest technological feats of antiquity, can still be seen clearly in some areas.

The ancient cobbled road once bore ships which had been constructed on land from the Corinthian Gulf to the Saronic Gulf (and vice versa).

Diolkos ancient roadway
The ancient stone roadway Diolkos is being restored to its former glory. The marvel of ancient technology ran roughly parallel to the Corinth Canal. Credit: Dan Diffendale -Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Iconic roadway negated necessity of sailing around the Peloponnese

During the past year, reconstruction works have been carried out by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Corinth in order to protect and promote the ancient roadway.

Once they are completed and as soon as the pandemic conditions allow, the iconic roadway will once again be ready to welcome the general public through on-site tours.

Following a gradual s-shaped curve but with a grade of no more than 1.5%, the cobbled road had a total length from one coast to the other of about 8 kilometers (five miles), while its imposing width ranged from approximately 3.4 meters (11.15 feet) to 6 meters (20 feet).

First systematic attempt to transport ships from Corinthian to Saronic Gulfs

Archaeologist Georgios Spyropoulos, who is the deputy head of the Ephorate of Corinth, told the press on Thursday that “The Diolkos of Corinth has been recorded in the research as the first systematic attempt to transport goods and warships from the Saronic Gulf to the Corinthian Gulf and vice versa, in order to avoid rounding the Peloponnese by sea  — a distance of about 190 miles.

“Its construction is placed by the first excavator of the monument, archaeologist Nikolaos Verdelis, at the end of the 7th century BC or at the beginning of the 6th century BC,” he added.

“The idea for ​​its construction is attributed to the ruler of Corinth, Periandros, whose reign is characterized as one of great economic and artistic prosperity for Corinth,” Spyropoulos noted.

He heads up all the organizations taking part in this major restoration, which include the Ephorate of Corinth, the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and the Region of the Peloponnese.

Panagiota Kasimi and the archaeologist Aglaia Koutrombi are also spearheading the efforts at restoring the Diolkos to its former glory. The monument is located on the borders of the municipalities of Corinth and Loutraki-Perachora-Agios Theodoros.

Western side of the Diolkos already uncovered

Asked what remains of the ancient road, so painstakingly made so that giant ships could traverse it safely, Spyropoulos explains “On the road surface, there are not only two main rails, about 1.5 meters wide, but also several secondary ones.

“A total of 1,100 meters (.6 miles) have been uncovered and the course of Diolkos has become known on the one hand at the western end, west of the Canal, on the side of the Peloponnese and on the other hand at the School of Engineering, on the side of Central Greece.

“However, there is no evidence today of its eastern end on the Saronic side, which is placed by the springs in the area of ​​ancient Schinounta (today’s Kalamaki),” Spyropoulos notes.

The Diolkos, which was used to transport ships and goods from antiquity up to and including the Roman period, has long been known as a stunning and innovative technical achievement. Its development negated the necessity of having to sail from the Ionian Sea to the Aegean Sea by rounding the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

Not only was that a long journey — it was a dangerous one. Gale-force winds often crop up at Cape Matapan and Cape Maleas, which has an especially treacherous shoreline.

Ancient writers referred to the stone roadway as far back as the time of Aristophanes, who lived between 446 BC and 386 BC. Scholars even believe that his phrase “as fast as a Corinthian” referred to the Diolkos, meaning a Corinthian’s ability to get from Corinth to Athens quickly via the road.

But it wasn’t only newly-constructed ships, but also ships carrying goods, as well as ships bound for war, which could cross the Isthmus of Corinth via the Diolkos.

Slaves pulled wheeled structures and ships along roadway

Spyropoulos painted a picture today for reporters, bringing us back to those ancient days, when it is not difficult to imagine massive wooden ships making their way across the stones of the road.

“According to the first excavator of the monument, the ships arrived at the northwestern end of Diolkos, at the current location of Poseidonia, Corinth, where there was a paved platform for their towing on land.

“They were then placed — with the help of cranes — on wheeled structures, which were pulled by slaves. Thus the ship was transported from one end of the Corinthian Gulf to the Saronic or vice versa,” he says, conjuring up scenes reminiscent of the slaves pulling the massive blocks of the Pyramids in ancient Egypt.

“The route was not easy and there was always the risk of derailment due to the turns that Diolkos had. For this reason, additional walls were constructed, in dangerous places, such as the one inside the School of Engineering, in order to ensure the safety of movement and to avoid accidents,” Spyropoulos concluded.


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