As is well-known, the island of Aegina has been an enduring historical presence in the Greek lands. This can be attributed both to the nature of its soils and to its geographical location.
The composition of the soil, the climate, the water reserves, the configuration of the coastline, all create the conditions for support of a permanent population of between five and six thousand inhabitants. Its geographical position, virtually at the centre of the Saronic Gulf, makes possible a great increase in this demographic potential.
As a result, Aegina, unlike the rest of islands of the Saronic Gulf, has been continuously inhabited since 3500 B.C. and so possesses important monuments from all historical periods. It could therefore be an ideal centre for studying Greek civilization as a whole.
The mythical tradition of Aeacus and the Aeacidae reflects the political, economic and cultural significance of Aegina at its zenith. Particularly emphasized is the notion that the Aeginetans were descended from the island’s ants, making them a people indigenous to the island.
In its long history, Aegina has gone through periods of great prosperity. Especially during the Archaic age (734 B.C. – 459 B.C.) it became an important naval and mercantile power due to its geographical position. It conducted transit commerce with all of the ports of the Mediterranean and accumulated great wealth. Furthermore, the Aeginetans were the first people in the Greek lands to employ silver as a medium of exchange, minting a silver state coin, the chelona, from metal mined from the island’s own deposits.
The same period saw a flourishing of the arts of architecture and sculpture. The school of Aegina comprised a number of great artists who received commissions from far and wide. Significant activity is also to be noted at the same time in the field of athletics. Aeginetans emerged victorious in over thirty Panhellenic and local games, many of which were extolled by Pindar, the great Theban poet, who numbered among Aegina’s closest friends. These victories were achieved mostly by children and adolescents, as the adults were busy with commerce and seafaring.
This activity laid the foundation for a prosperous civil society, creating a remarkably powerful class of capital-holding ship owners, which reigned supreme. Numerous struggles by supporters of democracy failed to topple it.
Starting at the end of the 6th century BC, the social and political changes in Athens generated sharp conflict between the oligarchs in Aegina and the democrats in Athens. The latter seem to have secretly supported the democratic forces on the island in their struggle to topple the oligarchy.
The social and political conflicts, along with Aegina’s commercial interests in the Dardanelles, go towards explaining the fact that the Aeginetan oligarchs made an offering of earth and water, tokens of subjugation, to Darius, King of Persia, on the eve of the Greco-Persian Wars. When Xerxes later launched his campaign of conquest of Greece, however, the Aeginetans fought alongside the other Greeks, and distinguished themselves in combat. Pytheas, son of Ischenoos and an Aeginetan, fought so bravely in the naval battles around Artemision that he inspired the admiration of even the Persians themselves . In Salamis, Aegina came first among the Greek city-states and Polykritos, son of Krios, was decorated as the bravest fighter.
After the wars the conflict between Athens and Aegina sharpened even further. The Athenian democracy, inaugurating its imperialist policies and claiming its naval supremacy, programmed the eradication of the Aeginetan state, which was closing the gates of the Saronic Gulf, having formed close ties with the rival Dorian coalition. The oligarchs in Aegina relied on their naval tradition and superiority and did not update their naval power. The result was defeat, military and economic devastation (468 B.C.) and, with the start of the Peloponnesian war (431 B.C.), the removal of the entire population and the installation of Athenian settlers on the island. The Aeginetans who managed to survive returned to their homeland after the end of the war (404 B.C.) with the support of the Spartans, who in turn expelled the Athenian settlers.
Nevertheless, there were also Aeginetan democrats, who were friendly towards Athens. Many of them helped the Athenians dispose of the thirty tyrants and, as can be inferred from a relevant tablet, some later took up residence in Piraeus.
In the 4th century B.C. a politically and economically weakened Aegina took part in the Corinthian war on the side of Sparta. The Spartans used the island as a base for surprise attacks on the port of Piraeus and operations in the Saronic Gulf in general. In the second half of the 4th century B.C. the island was relegated to the status of a luxury resort where the rich would spend their summers and winters.
In the Hellenistic period the island was sold by the Aetolians to Pergamon, later passing together with Pergamon into the possession of the Romans. It was used at that time as a naval base, where Roman and Pergamine fleets would anchor and often winter. The Pergamine period seems to have been a time of considerable prosperity for the island, to judge by the number of remaining rock-hewn tombs, monuments and other finds.
In the early Christian years, the Gothic and Herulian raids in mainland Greece and the Peloponnese forced the residents of the neighbouring coastal areas to seek shelter in Aegina. The island’s population increased sharply and the refugees’ needs for housing and fortifications resulted in the destruction of almost all the ancient city’s monuments. But prosperity returned to the island during this period. The city grew populous. The traces of three large parish basilicas—in Panagitsa, close to the Metropolis (Cathedral), in Agios Nikolaos, and in Vardia, along with a synagogue in Karantina—testify to the extent of the city and the existence of a large Jewish community.
From the 8th century A.D. until the 10th century A.D., extensive Saracen pirate raids forced part of that population to emigrate. The rest retreated to the island’s interior and built a new capital, known today as Palaia Hora (Old Capital).
The year 1204 ushered in a protracted period of subjugation to various occupiers: the Franks (1204 A.D. – 1417 A.D.), the Catalans (1317 A.D. – 1451 A.D.), the Venetians (1451 A.D. – 1540 A.D. and 1687 A.D. – 1715 A.D.) and the Turks (1540 A.D. – 1687 A.D. and 1715 A.D. – 1821 A.D.). In each case it was the port of Aegina that served as the occupier’s naval base. The people suffered from exploitation by the foreign rulers, from the Turkish-Venetian wars and the from successive pirate raids. Thousands of Aeginetans were imprisoned or slain.
The greatest disaster took place in 1537 A.D. Hayreddin Barbarossa, an admiral under the Sultan Suleyman II, occupied Aegina, which was a Venetian base at the time, and captured a large number of inhabitants—estimates range from 4,000 to 7,000, depending on the source. The destruction was so extensive that the impression was left of the island having been depopulated completely, as a result being resettled later by Albanian-speaking Greeks from the surrounding areas. On closer scrutiny, however, this idea has been shown to be false. Despite the successive disasters, the Aeginetan people did manage to survive and preserve their language, their orthodox tradition and their customs. Immigrants to the island, as well as the occasional refugees who elected to stay, were not numerous and assimilated into the local culture. Of course, due to the various disasters, the island became degraded both demographically and economically. The population declined and commerce and shipping contracted. Under these circumstances, unlike Hydra and Spetses, Aegina failed to benefit from the favourable conditions of the 18th century and grow wealthy. Another contributing factor to this was that the residents had the option of living off agriculture and were not obliged to seek a livelihood exclusively in commerce or seafaring. At the beginning of the 19th century the island was therefore predominantly agricultural, with limited seafaring activity.
From the end of the 18th century, when some degree of safety began to return to the Saronic Gulf, the Aeginetans abandoned Palaia Hora, went back to the coast and settled where the ancient city used to stand, next to the old ports.
Around 400 Aeginetans took part in the Greek Revolution of 1821. In its course, Aegina sheltered thousands of refugees and became the seat of government in 1826 and 1827. In 1828 and 1829 it became the capital and the centre for governor Capodistrias’ political, administrative, economic and cultural activity.
As the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century approached, the development of sponge diving initiated another economic boom period, which ended, however, with the decline of sponge diving in the mid-20th century. The Aeginetans did not apply themselves to finding an alternative. In the meantime, there had been an intense wave of migration to North America, prompted by the sponge diving and culminating in the founding of Tarpon Springs, Florida, the only modern-day Aeginetan community outside of Aegina. It was also around this time that the great two-story neoclassical and bourgeois residences in the town and in Kypseli were built, giving Aegina its contemporary architectural character.
Today Aegina lives off its pistachio cultivation and its heavy tourist traffic. Demand for houses and hotels has brought about intensive but chaotic and unplanned construction, which has degraded the environment, e.g. in Agia Marina. Thankfully, the pistachio cultivation has put something of a brake on more total predomination by real estate speculation.
The Aegina of today has, as in the past, a great deal of potential. A more systematic approach to agriculture together with modern planning; the development of cottage industry and artisanship; proper organisation of voluntary associations; the protection of pistachio production; utilisation for scientific and social purposes of the Capodistrian buildings, which have been allowed to fall into ruin, and proper touristic development of the South-Eastern parts of the island, such as Mt. Ellanion and the traditional villages in the surrounding area, would lead to a more balanced and stable social and economic progress, all without neglecting maritime development, commerce and tourism, which are the foundations of the island’s economic life. The basic condition is that the environment and sea be protected. Without its beautiful shores and clean seas Aegina cannot survive, economically or in any other way.
(Translation by Dimitris Hall)