The Corinthian Shortcut

The Corinthian Shortcut

In the first century, Corinth ranked with Ephesus, Alexandria, and Athens as one of the Roman empire’s greatest cities. Why? One of the main reasons was its geography. The southern half of mainland Greece connects to the northern half near Corinth. The connection is a narrow neck of land, called the Isthmus of Corinth, which is less than four miles wide. In ancient times, mariners traveling between Asia and Rome could avoid about 200 miles of dangerous seas by portaging through this isthmus.

A port was on each side of the Isthmus of Corinth. The eastern port was Cenchrae, Phoebe’s hometown in Phoebe’s Journey. Cenchrae is on the Saronic Gulf, leading to the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. The western port, just north of Corinth, was Lechaeum in the Corinthian Gulf leading to the Ionian Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Western Mediterranean.

The Isthmus of Corinth was often called the bridge of the sea. Small ships were guided by slaves across the four mile isthmus on rollers. Larger ships would be unloaded in one port, their goods transported across the Isthmus, then the ships would be reloaded in the other port.

For centuries there was one plan after another to create a canal from Lechaeum to Cenchrae. It wasn’t until 1893 that a canal was finished. Even though it’s an east/west connector, cutting off more than 400 miles, the canal is still of limited use because it’s only 58 feet wide—too narrow for modern ocean freighters which range from 100 feet to more than 200 feet in width. By contrast, the Panama Canal, was expanded in 2016 from 110 feet to 230 feet. Today, the Corinthian Canal is used mainly by small tourist ships.

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