Since ancient times the Peloponnese (named after the mythical Pelops) has played a major role in Greek history. When the Minoan civilisation declined after 1450 BC, the focus of power in the ancient Aegean world moved from Crete to the hill-fortress palaces of Mycenae and Tiryns in the Peloponnese. As elsewhere in Greece, the 400 years following the mysterious disruptions of the 12th century BC are known as the Dark Ages. When the region reemerged in the 8th century BC, Corinth became a powerful city-state. Then Athens’ arch rival, Sparta, rose to prominence as the major power in the Peloponnese, sparking the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC).
A period of peace and prosperity ensued under Roman rule (146 BC–c AD 250), but was shattered by a series of invasions by Goths, Avars and Slavs.
The Byzantines were slow to make inroads into the Peloponnese, only becoming firmly established during the 9th century AD. In 1204, after the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders, the Frankish Crusader chiefs William de Champlitte and Geoffrey de Villehardouin divided the region into 12 fiefs, which they parcelled out to various barons of France, Flanders and Burgundy. These fiefs were overseen by de Villehardouin, the self-appointed prince of the Morea, as the region was called in medieval times.
The Byzantines gradually won back the Morea and, although the empire as a whole was now in decline, a glorious renaissance took place in the area, centred on Mystras, which became the region’s seat of government.
The Morea fell to the Turks in 1460, and hundreds of years of power struggles between the Turks and Venetians followed. The Venetians had long coveted the Morea and succeeded in establishing profitable trading ports at Methoni, Pylos, Koroni and Monemvasia.
The Greek War of Independence supposedly began in the Peloponnese, when the Mani rebelled against occupation in Areopoli and Bishop Germanos of Patra raised the flag of revolt near Kalavryta on 25 March 1821. The Egyptian army, under the leadership of Ibrahim Pasha, brutally restored Turkish rule in 1825.
In 1827 the Triple Alliance of Great Britain, France and Russia – moved by Greek suffering and by the activities of philhellenes (the death of Lord Byron in 1824 was particularly influential) – came to the rescue of the Greeks by destroying the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino, ending Turkish domination of the area.
The Peloponnese became part of the independent state of Greece, and Nafplio became the first national capital. Ioannis Kapodistrias, Greece’s first president, was assassinated on the steps of Nafplio’s Church of St Spyridon in October 1831, and the new king, Otto, moved the capital to Athens in 1834.
Like the rest of Greece, the Peloponnese suffered badly during WWII and the civil war (1944–49) that followed. During the 1950s many villagers migrated to Athens, and further abroad to Australia, Canada, South Africa and the USA.