The origin of the name ‘Ionian’ is obscure, but may derive from the goddess Io. A paramour of Zeus, she passed through what’s now known as the Ionian Sea while fleeing the wrath of Hera.
According to the writings of Homer, the Ionian Islands were important during Mycenaean times, but to date only tombs, not villages or palaces, have been identified. By the 8th century BC the islands belonged to mighty city-state Corinth, but Corfu staged a successful revolt a century later. The Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC) left Corfu as little more than a staging post for whoever happened to be controlling Greece.
By the end of the 3rd century BC, the Romans ruled the Ionians. Anthony and Cleopatra dined on Paxi the night before the Battle of Actium (31 BC), and the emperor Nero holidayed on Corfu in the 1st century AD. Later, the islands suffered waves of invaders: the Byzantine Empire, Venice, Napoleon (in 1797), Russia (from 1799 to 1807), and then Napoleon again.
In 1815 the Ionians became a British protectorate. Although the British improved infrastructure, developed agriculture and industry, and even taught the Corfiots cricket, nationalists campaigned against their oppressive rule, and by 1864 Britain relinquished the islands to Greece.
WWII was rough on the Ionians, under occupation first by the Italians and then the Germans. Further mass emigration followed devastating earthquakes in 1948 and 1953. But by the 1960s foreign holidaymakers were visiting in increasing numbers, and tourism has flourished ever since.