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Basic Information

The Diolkos of Corinth was the world's first train tracks, a huge overland portage for boats and cargo across Ancient Greece. Built in the 7th Century BC, it was maintained until at least the 1st Century AD and possibly much later.

Greece has over 8,000 miles (13,000 km) of coastline, and includes 3,000 islands dotting multiple seas. On it's Western shore is the Ionian Sea, on the Eastern is the Aegean Sea, and to the south is the Sea of Crete and the Mediterranean Sea. Traveling from the Aegean to the Ionian (or vice versa) by water is arduous and dangerous, involving circumnavigating the Peloponnese peninsula, with its rough waters and notorious storms at Cape Matapan and Cape Malea. The Diolkos allowed for transit across the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, cutting the distance significantly and skipping the most dangerous parts of the journey.

The tracks, built in the time of Periander the Tyrant, were in the form of a curving limestone ramp with two ruts carved into it. At the head of the tracks on either shore of the Isthmus were huge cranes and other mechanical devices to lift cargo and vessels onto essentially flatbed train cars. Once loaded, these cars would be pushed and pulled along the tracks by huge teams of men and/or draft animals. The overland route of the Diolkos was probably around 5 miles (8 km) in length, running over the narrowest portion of the Isthmus. It's thought that the rail transit probably took about 3 hours once everything was loaded on the carts.

The Diolkos was used both for regular frequent commercial shipping (presumably a toll was charged) and for sporadic epic military ventures. The Empire- and monument-building of Greece and Rome were greatly enabled by the Diolkos opening up shipping from quarries, forests, and markets that would have otherwise been inaccessible. Trireme ships of up to 121 feet (35 meters) in length could be transported by way of the Diolkos. It was used repeatedly by Sparta to threaten Athens during times of unrest between the Greek city-states. Later, when Octavian pursued Marc Antony to Egypt in 31 BC, he kept up the pressure by sending part of his fleet through the Diolkos while the largest warships went the long way around.

Perhaps because it was functional rather than aesthetic, the Diolkos never made the lists of 7 Wonders of the World, but it certainly hauling 100-foot warships overland on rails was an engineering marvel worthy of such accolades. There is some evidence that the Diolkos might not have been a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, which could explain why it was rarely singled out for greatness. A handful of classical authors and historians making passing references to other "Diolkos" structures elsewhere in the ancient world, including one in Alexandria and another at a silted-up "false mouth" of the Nile in North-Eastern Egypt.

Today, a modern canal sits in roughly the location where the Dioklos once stood.


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Game and Story Use

  • Similar structures could be used in your campaign world to open new trade routes, provide military surprises, or just to characterize a particular culture as inventive or creative.
    • And if the PCs go there, it's a chance for some jaw-dropping background color. You watch as a 100-foot battle ship is hefted into the air on a crane. It's loaded aboard a 130-foot train car, then towed by a team of 180 slaves.
  • Capturing the Diolkos could be a major military objective, since it would monopolize speedy transit between two seas.
    • …or it could be a diplomatic blunder that draws a formerly neutral or allied power into conflict as an enemy.
  • The PCs are on a lengthy naval voyage. They can pay the toll to take the shortcut, or have to pass between Scylla and Charibdys (or some other threat on the longer coast).
  • An ambush at the Diolkos could be devastating. You can't easily flee since your boats are out of the water, and it's entirely possible a large portion of your armament is bundled up on train cars.
  • Steampunk or other quirky genres that turn technological assumptions on end could look to the Diolkos for inspiration.
    • Imagine a world that instead of cutting canals, builds giant conveyor belts.
    • Or where the ships are hybrid vehicles, part boat and part locomotive. They roll right up out of the water and onto the tracks.
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