Ancient Corinth

Legendary Origins

According to legend, the Fountain of Peirene was initially formed by the great winged horse Pegasus who struck the ground with his hoof, cracking the earth open. The cavern was filled by the water nymph, Peirene, who wept so much after the loss of her son that she simply dissolved into the spring, creating an eternal source of water.

Sometime later, Bellerophon, the son of the king of Corinth, was tasked with killing the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster with the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. Knowing he could not defeat this creature alone, Bellerophon decided to sleep in the Temple of Athena, hoping for inspiration. That night, the goddess visited him in a dream, bringing Bellerophon a golden bridle and telling him to tame Pegasus, who had returned to Corinth to drink from the Fountain of Peirene. After a successful capture, Bellerophon and Pegasus defeated the Chimera by flying above it and dropping a great block of iron into monster’s throat.

To celebrate its legendary origins, each successive culture that ruled Corinth built its own increasingly elaborate enclosure for the fountain.

Layers of History

The Greek city of Corinth was founded in the Neolithic Period sometime between 5000-3000 BCE. It became a major city in the 8th century BCE and was known for its architectural and artistic innovations including the invention of black-figure pottery. One of the most famous style of ancient Greek vase painting, black-figure ware depicts human and animal forms in black silhouettes on a cream or red background. During this time, the Corinthians excavated the fountain grotto and embellished it with a six chambered structure.

In 146 BCE, the Corinthians were defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Corinth. Taking this victory as a starting point, Rome soon controlled all of Greece. Declaring Corinth the capital of Roman Greece in 44 BCE, Julius Caesar ordered his people to rebuild the city and its famous fountain. The Romans decorated the Fountain of Peirene lavishly, painting lively frescoes of aquatic life around the walls of the original Greek grotto and adding an elaborate facade in the 3rd century CE that is still in evidence today.

Around the year 400, as the Western Roman Empire was in sharp decline, Corinth came under the political control of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire centered in Constantinople. Subscribing to the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, the Byzantines built a small chapel in one corner of the Fountain of Peirene in the late 10th century. By the 14th century, after years of neglect and earthquakes, the columns of the fountain had sunk into the ground.

Americans began excavating the Fountain of Peirene in 1896, digging through the many layers of later occupation to find the ancient Roman and Greek architecture beneath. Today, the Greek people view the Fountain of Peirene as a national treasure.

The Roman Touch

Most prominent at the site today are the later Roman modifications of the 3rd century CE. The Romans decorated the original Greek grotto with vibrant fresco images of ocean creatures like fish, shrimp, and lobsters. They also added marble sculptures of the goddess Venus, venerating her watery aspect; she was believed to have been born from sea foam.

The Romans also constructed a massive facade in front of the grotto featuring all three of the ancient Greek architectural orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The most elaborate of the columns were those made in the Corinthian style, which was characterized by a slender column topped with an ornate capital featuring carved acanthus leaves and scrolls. Many ancient writers associated this luxurious type of column with Corinth, then the wealthy capital city of Roman Greece, despite the fact that the style was first used elsewhere.

Lastly, the Romans built an enormous swimming-pool sized reservoir in front of the spring capable of holding over 81,000 gallons of water. Using murals, statuary, and engineering know-how, the Romans transformed the Fountain of Peirene from a simple source of water into an architectural wonder.

Preserving the Past

Due to ongoing excavation efforts, the Fountain of Peirene in Corinth is not currently open to the public. Digital documentation allows visitors to tour the site virtually, giving them unprecedented access to an ancient architectural marvel. Cataloging the site, which is under constant threat from earthquakes, also preserves what remains of the ancient Greek and Roman architecture for future generations.

In collaboration with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, CyArk used several state-of-the-art technologies to document the fountain. The frescoes were surveyed with an Artec scanner using structured light, which measures the 3D shape of a surface using pulsating light and a camera system. To survey the remainder of the site, CyArk relied on photogrammetry, both terrestrial and aerial (using the unmanned DG1 Phantom 3 camera) and laser scanning with the FARO X330 to capture a detailed 3D picture of the Fountain of Peirene. This captured data is useful not only to visitors and scholars today, but will be vital to preserving this national treasure for the people of Greece.


00:30 / 01:00