The Ionian Islands extend from the coast of southern Albania to the northwest coast of the Peloponnesus. The group, combined by administrative rather than geographic logic, includes many uninhabited rocks and islets as well as four large islands--Corfu (Kerkira), Leucas (Lefkada), Cephalonia (Kefallinia), and Zacynthus (Zakynthos)--each of which, together with the smaller islands surrounding it, is governed as a separate province. Altogether, the Ionian Islands comprise 1.8 percent of Greece's land area.
The largest island, Kefallinia (746 square kilometers), is due west of the Gulf of Patras, which separates the western Peloponnesus from the mainland. Mountainous and rocky, Cephalonia and its smaller neighbor Ithaca (Ithaki) grow mainly olives and currants. Thirty centuries ago, Ithaca was the homeland to which the legendary Homeric voyager Odysseus sought to return after the Trojan War.
Corfu (Kerkira) is the northernmost of the main islands, lying off the coast of Albanian Northern Epirus and Greek Epirus. Corfu, with an area of 593 square kilometers, is dominated in the north by a mountain range that virtually severs its northern coastal plain from the territory to the south. The fertile southern lowland is cultivated intensively to grow olives, figs, citrus fruits, and grapes.
Settled by colonists from Euboea in the eighth century B.C., Corfu had a sporadically independent existence during the citystate era, participating on various sides in the wars among citystates in the fifth century and fourth century B.C. In the two millennia that followed, the strategic location of Corfu between Greece and Italy caused it to change hands many times; the capital city, Kerkira, contains a citadel built by the Venetians in 1550. The island was finally ceded by the British to Greece in 1864.
The third-largest and southernmost island, Zakinthos (402 square kilometers), lies off the northwest coast of the Peloponnesus. The island has a wide, fertile interior plain that provides more cultivated land than the other Ionian islands; currants are the main crop. The plain is enclosed on the east and west by limestone hills, which form steep seaside cliffs on the western shore.
Zakynthos (Zacynthus), which was named after an ancient chief of Arcadia in the central Peloponnesus, was colonized by people from the Peloponnesus in the fifth century and fourth century B.C. The island was used as a base by the Athenians, then the Romans. After being sacked repeatedly by Vandals and Saracens and being fought over by Italian city-states between 1185 and 1484, Zakynthos was held by Venice until 1797. The years of British occupation ended with the cession of the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1864.
Lefkada (Lefkas, Leucas), smallest of the major Ionian Islands (303 square kilometers), hugs the coast of the southern Greek mainland, north of Cephalonia. The island's inland terrain is hilly, and the population is concentrated in the valleys and forests close to the east coast. The coastal lowlands are the main agricultural area, although higher basins farther inland also have fertile soil. The main crops are olive oil, red wine, and currants. A number of severe earthquakes have damaged populated places on Leucas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A smaller island, Meganisi, lies off the southeastern shore and is administered together with Lefkas.
Lefkas was first colonized by Corinthians in the seventh century B.C. They dug a canal across the marshy isthmus that originally connected Leucas with the mainland. In the second century B.C., the Romans then built a stone bridge to reestablish the connection. Rome made the island's capital, Lefkas, a free city in A.D. 167, but the island was subject to periodic invasions and changes of jurisdiction during the millennium that followed. In 1718 Venice gained control of the island, then France and Britain alternated possession in the nineteenth century until Leucas was ceded to Greece in 1864. A modern canal was dug across the isthmus in 1903.