The History of the Ionian Islands: An Introduction


The history of the Ionian Islands, or Heptanese (referring to the seven main islands), is long, fascinating and peppered with surprises.

Greek settlers arrived around the turn of 1000BC and it is thought by some that Homer was born around 200-300 years later on Ithaca, a home he shared with Odysseus, the hero of one of his great epic poems.

In 146BC, the Romans invaded and stayed for around 400 years, during which time, in 31BC, one of Rome’s defining moments was played out off the coast of Lefkada: the Battle of Actium, fought between Mark Antony (with Cleopatra at his side) and Octavian to decide who would rule Rome. The former lost and fled to Egypt, leaving Octavian to rule Rome for the next 40 years as Emperor Augustus.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines ruled the archipelago for around 600 years before the powerful Maritime Republic of Venice began to acquire the islands one by one in 1204. The Venetians exerted a western European influence that meant the Ionian Islands would always be somewhat different from the rest of Greece, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

The Venetians exerted a western European influence that meant the Ionian Islands would always be somewhat different from the rest of Greece...

With the end of the Napoleonic wars, the islands became British protectorate: the United States of the Ionian Islands. After Greek independence in 1830, the British were under pressure to cede the Ionian Islands, though this did not happen until 1864.

During the 2nd World War, in 1941, Greece was invaded by the Axis powers and the Ionian Islands were occupied by the Italians until 1943. The Germans took over and deported the centuries-old Jewish community of Corfu to their concentration camps in northern Europe.

The islands were liberated in 1944 only to be caught up in the Greek Civil War between 1946 and 1949. Then, after a few years of relative calm in 1953 a terrible 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Cephalonia, Zakynthos and Ithaca, razing entire towns and villages to the ground.

Two bestselling books, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956) and Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corellli’s Mandolin (1994), made the islands famous around the world, attracting many visitors and contributing greatly to the Heptanese becoming a popular holiday destination.

A timetable of historical events in the Ionian Islands

1200BC - first Greek settlers arrive

700BC (approx.) - Homer writes The Odyssey. The hero’s home was based on Ithaca or Lefkada

4th century BC - the islands invaded by Macedonia

146BC - the islands come under Roman rule

31BC - the Battle of Actium off Lefkada

4th century AD - Byzantine rule commences

1185 - William II of Sicily invades and occupies Cephalonia and Zakynthos

1204 - the Venetians invade and over the course of 200 years all the Ionian Islands become overseas colonies of the great maritime power

1797 - Napoleon defeats Venice and the Ionian Islands come under French rule

1809 - the islands pass under British protection after Napoleon’s navy is defeated off the coast of Zakynthos

1815 - the United States of the Ionian Islands is created, formalising the archipelago as a British protectorate

1830 - Greece wins its independence from the Ottoman Empire

1864 - Britain cedes the Ionian Islands to Greece

1921 - Prince Philippos of Greece and Denmark (aka Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh!) is born on Corfu

1941 - German and Italian forces invade Greece. The Ionian Islands come under Italian rule until 1943 when the Germans take over. The Germans deport the centuries-old Jewish community to the concentration camps of central Europe

1944 - Greek resistance groups reclaim the islands

1953 - an earthquake of over 7 magnitude hits the islands

1956 - Gerald Durrell publishes My Family and Other Animals about his childhood growing up in the islands

1994 - Louis de Bernières publishes Captain Corelli’s Mandolin set on Cephalonia. It becomes an international best seller and the subsequent film helps puts the island firmly on the map

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