Aegina: A mythological princess with history

The Nymph that Zeus fell in love with

 

According to mythology, Aegina – a Nymph – was a beautiful princess and the prettiest daughter – among  the twenty – of the river god Asopos and his spouse, Metopi.

Zeus fell madly in love with her, when he first saw her, and decided to take her with him. In order to be alone with her, he took her to this uninhabited, at the time, island. The result of their union was a son named Aiakos, who became the first king of the island of Aegina and the patriarch of the Aiakidian kindred. Aiakos stood out as the virtuous king who always took care to uphold justice.

In mythology, Aegina is also referred to as the homeland of the Thessalians, while the myths about the island were spread by the odes of Pindar and the epics of Homer.

A historically powerful naval and trading state

The island was inhabited for the first time in the Paleolithic era and played an important role in antiquity. It was at an excellent nautical location – a short and safe passage on the way to the Mediterranean – and gradually evolved into a great trading state.

In Aegina, the first silver Greek coin was minted in the 7th century B.C. the Chelone (turtle). It had a weight of about 13 grams and it featured the relief of a turtle. Chelone was the new trading platform for Aegina, which was visited by merchants from all the ports of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It was the first European common currency.

At a time when neighboring city-states faced unbearable financial problems, the island lived comfortably, since it had the control – and monopoly – of commercial shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Having its own shipyards, it founded naval stations in distant areas (such as Kydonia of Crete and Aeginetes in Paphlagonia).

Aegina was considered – justly – one of the eleven largest naval states along with Miletus, Fokaea, Samos, Lesbos, Corinth, Chios, Athens, Ephesus, Megara and Corfu. It is noteworthy that Pericles had named Aegina “Limis” (meaning “eye-gum”) of Piraeus (the port of the city of Athens).

The heroic Aegina in the Persian & Peloponnesian wars

The heroism exhibited by the Aegineans during the Persian wars and their competence in the use of warships caused great fear to the Athenians, who were increasingly realizing the potent  force of Aegina.

When the Persian wars began, Aegina initially stood on the Persian side (probably due to the rivalry with the city of Athens), so it was blamed for “Medism” (sympathy/ affiliation with Persia). Later, during the Xerxes campaign, in 480 B.C., the Aegineans fought alongside the other Greeks and took part in the victorious naval battle of Salamis with 30 triremes, during which they were distinguished for their bravery. For this reason the historical Oracle of Delphi gave the Aegineans the “prize of bravery”.

Immediately after the naval battle of Salamis, the Athenians started alienating Aegina, since, as mentioned earlier, they considered it an “eye-gum” in the eye of Piraeus. On the pretext that the Aegineans wanted to ally with the Corinthians, the Athenians attacked and destroyed their fleet during a naval battle in 459 B.C., in front of the island of Kekryfalia (nowadays called Agistri).

The hatred between the Athenians and the Aegineans was temporarily put aside thanks to the common council of the Greeks. During the Peloponnesian wars, however, the Athenians feared that Aegina would ally with the Spartans and offer them a beachhead in front of their harbor, so they attacked, conquered it and expelled its inhabitants.

The island was then settled by prominent Athenian families, including those of Aristophanes and Aristonas, the father of Plato. The Aegineans, on the other hand, resorted to Sparta and returned to their homeland with the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.

Over the years, however, Aegina lost its past glory. First, it joined the Achaean Commonwealth and later the Aetolian one. The Aetolians sold it in 210 B.C. for 30 talents (currency of the times), to the king of Pergamon, Attalus I. In 133 B.C., Attalus III bequethed the island together with the entire state of Pergamon to the Romans, who used it as a summer resort for the rulers of the Roman Empire.

 

From the pirates’ era until liberation

During the medieval period, the island of Aegina was plagued by consecutive pirate raids, culminating in the destruction of Paliachora – the then capital – by Barbarossa (1537), which was followed by numerous massacres and abductions. The Venetian and Turkish invasions ensued soon after.

In 1715, after the fall of Corinth, Aegina fell almost without a fight to the Turks and was finally assigned to them under the Passarovic Treaty (1718). During the Revolution of Orlof, when the Russians evacuated the Peloponnese (1770), the islanders, apart from the Syreans, submitted to the Russian fleet. However, the Russian occupation in Aegina was only maintained until 1772 and in 1774 the Kainartzis Treaty was signed, by which the islands returned to the Sultan’s sovereignty.

Aegina in the Revolution of 1821

The role of Aegina in the Revolution of 1821 was fundamental. Thousands of residents of Central Greece, the Peloponnese, Galaxidi, Athens, Psara and the Eastern Aegean in general, resorted to the island at that time.

On March 23, 1821, the Aegineans rebelled against the Turks at the same time as Poros and Salamis, following the brilliant example of Spetses.

According to recorded evidence, about 400 Aegineans took part in the Revolution. At the vanguard were Spyros Markellos and Giorgos Logiotatides, who maintained the army at their own expense. A local political figurehead, Markellos, sent to Karystos a brig (a type of ship) with which the Aegineans raided the beach of Karystos, stealing several artillery pieces which they returned to their island. These weapons were later used in the Akrokorinthos siege.

In the period 1821 – 1828, in Aegina lived prominent families such as those of Spyridon Trikoupis, Mavrokordatos, Petrobeis, Kanaris and others.

Aegina, the first capital of Greece

Aegina became the first capital of Greece in 1828, governed by Ioannis Kapodistrias. A period during which many refugees arrived at the island, seeking a better life.

On January 26, 1828, Ioannis Kapodistrias was sworn in at the Metropolitan Temple of Aegina and the island became the first capital of the newly established state, as well as the administrative, commercial and intellectual center of Greece.

Consequently, it attracted a large population, reaching 10,000 people (including refugees), a fact which contributed to the construction of spectacular buildings, to function as residences of local politicians and other wealthy people, as public buildings and institutions. Those buildings were named Kapodistrian.

Bonus Info

  • The first Greek newspaper was published in Aegina.
  • On the island, the first coin of the modern Greek state was struck, bearing a phoenix being reborn from its ashes.
  • The first pistachio tree, which is a main source of income for the island with a Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.), was brought by Nikos Peroglou from Syria.
  • The main sources of revenue which fuelled Aegina’s economic boom in the late 19th century were trade, fishing, pottery, the use of Aeginean limestone and sponge processing.
  • The continuous pirate raids during the Byzantine times forced the Aegineans to leave the coastal areas and establish Palaiochora (Paliachora), which was until the late 18th century the main settlement of the island.
  • The first prison in Greece was established in Aegina.
  • Three of the most famous Aeginean artists were Calon, Onatas and Anaxagoras. Their works decorated the numerous temples of Aegina dedicated to the Delphinio Apollo, Aphaia, Aphrodite and Hecate, as well as many sanctuaries in Greece and Italy.
  • Other significant works of the Aeginean School are the sculptures of Aphaia’s pediments nowadays exhibited in the Glyptothek of Munich.

Today Aegina is growing thanks to its tourism. Its carefully preserved neighborhoods, neat villages, modern facilities, its rich land and the friendly service of the locals maintain the history and culture of this island, while its ancient monuments, mythological references, monasteries and glorious buildings take you on a journey to the past…