Zakynthos was inhabited from the Neolithic Age, as some archaeological excavations have proved.
The ancient Greek poet Homer mentioned the island in the Iliad and the Odyssey, stating that the first inhabitants of it were the son of King Dardanos of Troy called Zakynthos and his men. In mythology the island was then conquered by King Arkesios of Kefalonia, and then by Odysseus from Ithaca.
Later on, a treaty was signed that made Zakynthos an independent democracy, the first established in Greece, that lasted more than 650 years.
The Athenian military commander Tolmides concluded an alliance with Zakynthus during the First Peloponnesian War sometime between 459 and 446 BC. 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.
Neapolitan and Venetian rule
During the Middle Ages, the island was part of the Byzantine theme of Cephallenia. After 1185 it became part of the County palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos under the Kingdom of Naples until its last Count Leonardo III Tocco was defeated by the Ottomans in 1479. The Turkish rule lasted only until 22 April 1484, when it was swapped with the Turks by Venetian secretary Giovanni Dario, negotiator of the treaty of Constantinople (1479), against neighboring Cephalonia and an annual tribute of 500 ducats. From then on Zakynthos remained an overseas colony of the Venetian Republic until its very end in 1797, following the fate of the Ionian islands, completed by the capture of Cephalonia in 1500 and Lefkas in 1684 from the Turks.
Venetian rule protected the island from Ottoman domination but in its place it put a feudal oligarchy. The cultural influence of Venice (and of Venetian on local dialect) was considerable. The wealthy made a habit of sending their sons to Italy to be educated. Good examples are Dionysios Solomos, a native of Zakynthos and Greece’s national poet, and Ugo Foscolo, also native of Zakynthos and a national Italian poet. However, both the Greek language and Orthodox faith survived intact. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was one of the largest exporters of currants in the world together with Cephalonia.
French, Ionian state period and British Rule
The Treaty of Campoformio dismantling the Venetian Republic awarded the Ionian Islands to France. General Antoine Gentili, leading a French expeditionary force with boats captured in Venice, took control of the islands on 26 June 1797. From 1797 to 1798, the island was part of the French départment Mer-Égée. A Russian-Turkish fleet captured the island on 23 October 1798. From 1800 to 1807, it was part of the Septinsular Republic, nominally under sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire but protected by Russia. In 1800–1801, Britain attempted to take control of the Ionian islands from Zakynthos after a revolt, under the leadership of James Callander Campbell but these intentions stopped after the Peace of Amiens. After a second period under French control (1807–1809) following the treaty of Tilsit, it was conquered by Great Britain on 16 October 1809, and was part of the British protectorate of the United States of the Ionian Islands from 1815 to 1864.
Union with Greece
In 1864, Zakynthos, together with all the other Ionian Islands, became a full member of the Greek state, ceded by Britain to stabilize the rule of the newly crowned Danish-born King of the Hellenes, George I.
During World War II
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos refused Nazi orders to turn in a list of the members of the town’s Jewish community for deportation to the death camps. Instead they hid the town’s 275 Jews in rural villages. Every Jew of Zakynthos survived the war. Statues of the Bishop and the Mayor commemorate their heroism on the site of the town’s historic synagogue, destroyed in the earthquake of 1953. In 1978, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel, honored Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Karrer with the title of “Righteous among the Nations”, an honor given to non-Jews who, at personal risk, saved Jews during the Holocaust. After the war, all of the Jews of Zakynthos moved either to Israel or to Athens.