Zakynthos or Zante, is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. It is the third largest of the Ionian Islands. Zakynthos is a separate regional unit of the Ionian Islands region, and its only municipality. It covers an area of 405.55 km2 (156.6 sq mi) and its coastline is roughly 123 km (76 mi) in length. The name, like all similar names ending in -nthos, is pre-Mycenaean or Pelasgian in origin. In Greek mythology the island was said to be named after Zakynthos, the son of a legendary Arcadian chief Dardanus.
Zakynthos is a tourist destination, with an international airport served by charter flights from northern Europe. The island’s nickname is “The flower of the Levant”, bestowed upon it by the Venetians who were in possession of Zakynthos from 1484–1797
Zakynthos has been inhabited from at least the Paelolithic and later Neolithic Age as some archaeological excavations have proven. The island was important during the Mycenaean period, being mentioned three times on Linear B tablets from Pylos, Messenia. There were also Zakynthian rowers present in the Mycenaean Messenian state. The Mycenaean presence is further attested by the monumental Mycenaean built and tholos tombs that have been excavated on Zakynthos. Most important is the Mycenaean cemetery that was accidentally discovered during road construction in 1971 near the town of Kambi.
The ancient Greek poet Homer mentioned the Zakynthos in the Iliad and the Odyssey, stating that the first inhabitants of it were the son of King Dardanos of Arcadia called Zakynthos and his men. Before being renamed Zakynthos, the island was said to have been called Hyrie. Zakynthos was then conquered by King Arkesios of Kefalonia, and then by Odysseus from Ithaca. Zakynthos participated in the Trojan War and is listed in the Homeric Catalogue of Ships which, if accurate, describes geopolitical situation in early Greece at some time between the Late Bronze Age and the eighth century BCE. In the Odyssey, Homer mentions 20 nobles from Zakynthos among a total of 108 of Penelope’s suitors.
The Athenian military commander Tolmides concluded an alliance with Zakynthos during the First Peloponnesian Warsometime between 459 and 446 BC. In 430 BC, the Lacedaemonians made an unsuccessful attack upon Zakynthos. The Zakynthians are then enumerated among the autonomous allies of Athens in the disastrous Sicilian expedition. After the Peloponnesian War, Zakynthos seems to have passed under the supremacy of Sparta because in 374 BC, Timotheus, the Athenian commander, on his return from Kerkyra, landed some Zakynthian exiles on the island and assisted them in establishing a fortified post. These exiles must have belonged to the anti-Spartan party as the Zakynthian rulers applied for help to the Spartans who sent a fleet of 25 to the island.
The importance of this alliance for Athens was that it provided them with a source of tar. Tar is a more effective protector of ship planking than pitch (which is made from pine trees). The Athenian trireme fleet needed protection from rot, decay and the teredo, so this new source of tar was valuable to them. The tar was dredged up from the bottom of a lake (now known as Lake Keri) using leafy myrtle branches tied to the ends of poles. It was then collected in pots and could be carried to the beach and swabbed directly onto ship hulls. Alternatively, the tar could be shipped to the Athenian naval yard at the Piraeus for storage.
Philip V of Macedon seized Zakynthos in the early 3rd century BC when it was a member of the Aetolian League. In 211 BC, the Roman praetor Marcus Valerius Laevinus took the city of Zakynthos with the exception of the citadel. It was afterwards restored to Philip V of Macedon. The Roman general, Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, finally conquered Zakynthos in 191 BC for Rome. In the Mithridatic War, it was attacked by Archelaus, the general of Mithridates, but he was repulsed.
Byzantine Greeks (330–1185)
The introduction of Christianity on Zakynthos is said to have occurred when either St Mary Magdalene or St Berenice visited the island in the 1st century AD on their way to Rome. In 467 AD, the Vandal King Genseric pillaged Zakynthos and captured 500 Zakynthian members of the local elite. Later in 533 AD, the island was used as a naval station for the troops of Byzantine general Belisarius in his campaigns against the Vandals in Italy.
The Ionian Islands including Zakynthos remained largely unaffected by the Slavic invasions and settlement of the 7th century AD; however, they did suffer raids from Arab pirates in 880 AD and the Pisans in 1099. During the beginning of the Middle Byzantine era, Zakynthos formed a base for the re-establishment of the imperial control and the re-Hellenization of the mainland coast. Zakynthos became part of the Byzantine Theme of Cephallenia, a military-civilian province located in western Greece comprising the Ionian Islands. It was extant from around the 8th century until partially conquered by the Normans of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1185.
There was a close relationship between the Theme of Cephallenia and the Byzantine holdings in southern Italy as the Ionian Islands served as a key communication link with, and staging base, for operations in Italy and defended the maritime approaches of the Ionian and Adriatic seas against Arab pirates. However, Zakynthos was not a central part of the Theme as its strategos was based mostly at Cephalonia. The Theme was also frequently used as a place of exile for political prisoners.
Following the collapse of Byzantine control in southern Italy in the mid-11th century, the Theme of Cephallenia’s importance declined and was subsequently headed by civilian governors. Kerkyra and the rest of the Theme except for Lefkada were captured by the Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185. Although Kerkyra was recovered by the Byzantines by 1191, the other islands including Zakynthos remained lost to Byzantium. They formed a County palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos under William II’s Greek admiral Margaritus of Brindisi.