Diolkos: An Ancient Trackway That Carried Ships Over Land

Sep 12, 2018 0 comments

In ancient times, Greek merchants sailed all around the Mediterranean Sea carrying goods from Spain to Phoenicia and from Carthage to Egypt and Italy. Even when trading between Greek towns traders preferred to travel by sea, because the country is so mountainous that transporting things by ox-driven carts, up and down the mountains was extremely challenging.

These sea-faring merchants had a particularly difficult time reaching Athens, especially from the Gulf of Corinth. Those who are not familiar with the geography of this region, here is a map of Greece and the surrounding seas.


As you can see from the map, a large peninsula called the Peloponnese hangs from the southern end of the Greek mainland by a narrow neck of an isthmus, preventing ships from reaching the all important Port of Piraeus, situated a short distance away from Athens. To reach Athens and other ports in the Saronic Gulf, ships had to take a nearly 700-kilometer-long detour around Peloponnese—a journey that was not only long but dangerous as well. Gale-force winds around Cape Matapan and Cape Maleas often troubled sailors. On the other hand, both the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf were relatively calm and the narrow strip of land—the Isthmus of Corinth—separating both the water bodies was only 6.4 km wide at its narrowest.

The idea of a shortcut through this narrow neck of land was considered at different times by different rulers. At first a canal was proposed, but when digging became too difficult the Greeks decided that they would rather drag a ship over dry land then sail around the Peloponnese.


And so a limestone trackway called the Diolkos was built. History is silent about its construction, so we don’t know when that happened, but by investigating letters and broken pottery excavated from the site, archeologists have arrived at a date in the vicinity of late 7th or early 6th century BC. This was a time when the tyrant Periander ruled over Corinth. So Periander is often attributed to its construction, but the evidence is only circumstantial.

One thing we know for sure is that the Diolkos is really old, for when the Greek historian Thucydides (460 BC–395 BC) wrote about the Diolkos, he already described it as something ancient.

The Diolkos ran straight across the narrowest portion of the isthmus, close to where the modern Corinth Canal was dug. It was about 6 meters wide and was paved of hard limestone. Ships were probably loaded unto some sort of a wheeled platform and by using muscle power, of either human or animals or both, was dragged across the isthmus. To reduce the weight of the ship, the cargo was unloaded before the ship was hoisted onto the Diolkos, and the unloaded commodities hauled separately across land. On reaching the trackway’s terminus the ship was lowered into the sea, the cargo was loaded again, and the ship continued with its journey.


Photo credit: www.corinth-museum.gr

Aside from commerce, the Diolkos played an important role in naval warfare between the 5th and the 1st century BC. In the Peloponnesian War, in 411 BC, the Spartans carted over a squadron, and in 220 BC, Demetrius of Pharos had a fleet of about fifty vessels dragged across the Isthmus to the Bay of Corinth by his men. Three years later, a Macedonian fleet of 38 vessels was sent across by Philip V, while the larger warships sailed around Cape Malea. In 31 BC, during the Battle of Actium, the first Roman Emperor Octavian advanced as fast as possible against the forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra by ordering part of his 260-strong fleet to be carried over the Isthmus.

The Diolkos remained in regular service until at least the middle of the 1st century AD, after which it suddenly disappeared from written records. It’s assumed that when Emperor Nero started digging a canal in 67 AD, the work disrupted the service of the Diolkos and parts of the trackway was possibly damaged. Nero’s men managed to dig some 700 meters when the sudden death of Nero put the canal project in limbo.

It took another 1,800 years before a canal could be realized. The Corinth Canal was opened in 1893, and was predicted to attract a great volume of marine traffic. Unfortunately, the canal was built too narrow making it unusable for anything but small cruise ships. Today, the canal is a mere tourist attraction.


Photo credit: Dan Diffendale/Flickr


Photo credit: Dan Diffendale/Flickr


The Corinth Canal. Photo credit: John Cook/Flickr

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