History of Aegina

Statue of Laomedon from the temple of Aphaia east pediment.
The statue is on display at the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.

The island of Aegina is located in the middle of an area that hosted some of the most productive cultural centers of antiquity, and as such it flourished from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic eras of Greek civilization. Archaeological evidence puts the islands earliest habitation around the 4th millennium BCE.

According to the Greek mythology the island was inhabited when Zeus had a romantic interlude with the Nymph Aegina there and produced a son, Aecaus. Zeus, at the request of Aecaus populated the island so Aecaus would have subjects in his kingdom.

“The Myrmidons
These were men created from ants on the island of Aegina, in the reign of Aeacus, Achille’s grandfather, and they were Achilles’ followers in the Trojan War. Not only were they thrifty and industrious, as one would suppose from their origin, but they were also brave. They were changed into men from ants because of one of Hera’s attacks of jealousy. She was angry because Zeus loved Aegina, the maiden for whom the island was named, and whose son, Aeacus, became its king. Hera sent a fearful pertinence which destroyed the people by thousands. It seemed that no one would be left alive. Aeacus climbed to the lofty temple of Zeus and prayed to him, reminding him that he was his son and the son of a woman the god had loved. As he spoke he saw a troop of busy ants. “Oh Father,” he cried, “make these creatures a people for me, as numerous as they, and fill my empty city.” A peal of thunder seemed to answer him and that night he dreamed that he saw the ants being transformed into human shape. […] So Aegina was repopulated from an ant hill and its people were called Myrmidons after the ant (myrmex) from which they had sprang.”
(Hamilton, Edith, Mythology, Warner Books, New York, 1969)

The island had considerable power in the Bronze Age and was mentioned by Homer as one of the contributors of troops in the Trojan War in his long catalogue.

“Then men of Argos and Tiryns with her tremendous walls and Hermione, and Asine commanding the deep wide gulf, Troezen, Eionae and Epidaurus green with vines and Achaea’s warrior sons who held Aegina and Mases—Diomedes lord of the war cry led their crack contingents flanked by Sthenelus, far-famed Capaneus’ favorite son.”
(Homer, The Iliad, Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, New York, 1990)

The island was abandoned between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE but was colonized again around 950 BCE, probably by settlers from Epidaurus and by the end of the 6th c. BCE Aegina was a major commercial and cultural center. Strabo cited the ancient historian Ephorus as stating that Aegina was the fist Greek polis to mint coins. The Aeginetan coins were minted of silver, and are known as “turtles* because their relief design resembled a turtle. These coins have been found in many places around the Mediterranean, a testament to Aegina’s formidable commercial prowess.

Temple of AphaiaThe beautiful Late Archaic temple of Aphaia is testament to Aegina’s contribution to the Arts. The temple, and the sculptures that adorned it is a prime example of the transition from the Archaic to the Classical ideals. Aegina also produced many local artists, most famous of which are Anaxagoras, Callon, and Onatas.

In the fifth century BCE Aegina took part in the Persian wars, and as a major naval power she contributed forces to the Greek defense of Hellas. In the battle of Salamis the Aeginetans contributed a large contingent of triremes and fought next to the Athenians with valor.

“The most distinguished service at Salamis is admitted to nave been that of the Aegina; and next after Aegina was Athens. The greatest individual distinction was won by Polycritus of Aegina [...]”
(Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin Classics, London, 1954)

Later in the fifth century however, during the Peloponnesian war Aegina suffered the wrath of powerful Athens that expunged the island’s population for allying with the Peloponnesian League.

“During the summer [431 BCE] the Athenians also expelled the Aeginetans with their wives and children from Aegina, on the ground of their having been the chief agents in bringing the war upon them. Besides, Aegina lies so near the Peloponnesus that it seemed safer to send colonists of their own to hold it, and shortly afterwards the settlers were sent out. The banished Aeginetans found asylum in Thyrea which was given to them by Sparta, not only on account of her quarrel with Athens, but also because the Aeginetans had laid her under obligations at the time of the earthquake an the revolt of the Helots. The territory of Thyrea is on the frontier of Argolis and Laconia, reaching down to the sea. Those of the Aeginetans who did not settle here were scattered over the rest of Hellas.
(Thucydides: Strassler B. Robert, The Landmark Thucydides, Touchstone, New York, 1996)

The exiles were later in 404 BCE to return to Aegina, but the island’s power never reached its previous glory henceforth.

In the centuries that followed, the fate of Aegina was parallel to the events and invaders that affected mainland Greece. Romans, Franks, Venetians, Catalans, and Turks all occupied the island for varying lengths of time.

During the Byzantine era the island flourished as evident by the church construction. The most well known personality of the era was the medical scholar and physician Paul of Aegina who formed wrote many respected treatises on surgery and medicine. At the same time Aegina also suffered from repeated pirate raids. In the 9th c. CE the devastating raids of Saracens forced the Aeginetes to move their capital further inland in Paleohora. In 1537 however the terrible pirate Barbarossa raided the new capital, razed it,  and enslaved the inhabitants. The town was repopulated by Albanians until it was finally abandoned in 1826 after the Greek war of independence.

In 1654, Aegina island was captured by the Venetians before it was ceded to the Turks with the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. After the war of independence Aegina served briefly as the capital of Greece when the first governor of modern Greece was sworn into office in April 1827. Aegina town served as the capital of Greece from January 1828 until December 1829 and the neoclassical buildings at Aegina harbor are testaments to this era.


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