It has been said that Zakynthos was named after the multitude of Hyacinths that covered the island but many historians dispute this view and it is more widely accepted that the island owes its name to Zacynthus, son of Dardanus (A son of Jupiter and Electra who built the city of Dardania and was reckoned the founder of the Kingdom of Troy) and Batea (Daughter of Teucer, King of Teucria). It is said that after spending some time in Phokida with the Kings of Arcadia (the sons of Dardanus from his first marriage), Zacynthus gathered a group of men and sailed to the closest island, occupied it and named it after himself (in circa 1475 BC).
Although the remains of a pre-Mycenaean vaulted grave have been found in Alikanas (east coast of Zante) and Mycenaean graves were discovered near the village of Kambi, there has been no systematic archaeological survey of the island and the history of Zakynthos can only be traced through the writings of various classical writers. Zante was first mentioned by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey and later by Herodotus, Thucydides (471 to 401 BC) and Pausanias.
From the early years of Christianity, Zakynthos began to have links with Western Europe and, in particular, Italian civilization.
Because the island was situated on the western border of the Byzantine Empire, it was often subject to barbaric invasions up until the twelfth century, and one of the first eastern conquests of the Western Europeans.
The Orsini family, governors of the Province of Zakynthos and Kefalinia, held the island for three centuries until about 1357 when it passed to the Tokkous, another Western family. The Tokkous practiced wise administrative and economic policies that greatly improved the standard of living of 25,000 people. In 1435, following a brief period of Turkish occupation, Zakynthos was added to the Venetian conquests in the Ionian Sea and, being the southernmost Venetian port in the Ionian Sea, rapidly gained prominence.
The Venetian Sovereignty of the island marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Zakynthos. The island was re-organised administratively, socially and economically.
Under the protection of a strong Venice, the “Serenissima”, a long peaceful period for all the Ionian Islands commenced. Stability on Zakynthos stimulated the immigration of Greek refugees from the Peloponnese and of Western European soldiers from the Venetian conquests that were taken over by the Turks.
Thus, by 1770, the island’s population had reached 30,000 people whose basic source of income was agriculture. Administrative and economic stimuli raised the productivity of Zante’s olive groves and initiated the cultivation of black currants (imported by refugees from the Peloponnese).
Zante’s economic prosperity resulted in the creation of new jobs and the emergence of an urban class of merchants, craftsmen and scientists who, together with the nobility, sought better and wider education in Italian universities.
The economic, social and cultural factors mentioned above resulted in the intellectual blooming of all the Ionian Islands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This blooming was so remarkable that it is often referred to as the “Greek Renaissance”.
After four centuries of Venetian occupation, Zakynthos was taken over by the French for a short while and then by the Russians until 1815 when all the Ionian Islands became part of the British Empire. The British occupation lasted until 1864 when the Ionian Islands joined the rest of Greece.
The British intensified agricultural production and built many roads and bridges some of which still form part of the island’s transport network. The standard of living of the rural population rose and the hierarchical class structure was somewhat relaxed.
The beginning of the twentieth century found Zakynthos in general decline. Only the Venetian-style buildings were left to remind people of the island’s past glory. But even these were, unfortunately, destroyed by the devastating 1953 earthquake.