Kefalonia lies in the Ionian Sea in western Greece. It is spectacularly, breathtakingly beautiful with an enchanting coastline and a sleepy charm that survives to present day. Although it is proudly Greek in its culture, its proximity to Italy has influenced its history and almost uniquely, Kefalonia is densely wooded, particularly in the north of the island around Fiscardo.

Because of its geographic position, Kefalonia has been conquered time and time again by a smorgasbord of invaders who, once having taken possession, treated it as a private fief to be exploited and with little concern for the inhabitants. The island has changed hand by conquest been give as a gift or traded as a bargaining chip. It has never been central to the main course of history but always on the periphery, its destiny decided by whichever large power was in the ascendancy at that particular time. The long list of rulers includes the Romans, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Venetians, the Turks, the Russians, the Italians, the Germans and the British. Only very recently has it become part of modern Greece.

For most of recorded history Kefalonia has been a possession that various landlords abused; appropriating its resources neglecting or, more usually, oppressing its people.

In Greece, popular culture depicts Kefalonians as clever, isolationist and slightly crazy. It is true that Saint Gerisimos, the island’s patron saint is, amongst other duties, the patron saint of the marginally insane. Kefalonians are also known for a sharp sense of humour and a nasal accent that Athenians characterise as ‘country bumpkin’. The island has a tradition of providing seamen for the Greek shipping industry.

Saint Gerasimos, patron saint of Kefalonia


Archaeological discoveries show that Kefalonia has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times i.e. between 120 000 and 250 000 years ago. The land on which the lighthouse in the village of Fiskardo stands is such a rich source of Palaeolithic stone tools that it is still quite common to walk there and stumble across a stone hand axe or scraping tool.

Tombs have been discovered showing that, uniquely among the Ionian Islands, Kefalonia thrived around 1600 BC – during the Mycenaean period. There are two theories as to why Kefalonia should have prospered when the other Ionian Islands did not; one is it was because of significant corn production on the island and Kefalonia’s commercial contacts with Ithaka and the town of Nidri, in Lefkada. The second is that Kefalonia was introduced to the Mycenaean civilization by emigrants from the southern Peloponnese, western Greece and Attica. This is supported by archaeological findings in these areas.

How Kefalonia got its name

According to one legend, the island was named after Kefalines ruler of Kefalanes, a nation in western Greece but according to Greek mythology Kefalonia was named after Kefalos (Cephalus) who was a mixture of two mythical people and a direct ancestor of Greece’s greatest hero, Odysseus. One Cephalus was an Athenian, son of Hermes and Herse. The other Cephalus was an Aeolian, the son of Deioneus (or Deion), ruler of Phocis, and Diomede. Cephalus married Procris, a daughter of Erectheus but Eos, the Goddess of Dawn, kidnapped Cephalus when he was hunting and the pair became lovers. She bore him a son named Phaëthon (not to be confused with the son of the sun-god Helios). Some sources also say Tithonos and Hesperus are the children of Cephalus and Eos. However, after some years, Cephalus began pining for Procris, causing a disgruntled Eos to return him to her putting a curse on them when she did so. Procris had come into possession of a magical javelin, given to her by Artemis that never missed its target and a hunting hound (named Laelaps) that always caught its prey. The hound met its end chasing a fox (the Teumessian vixen) which could not be caught; both fox and the hound were turned into stone. But the javelin continued to be used by Cephalus who was an avid hunter.

Although Cephalus and Procris were reconciled, Procris remained suspicious of her husband’s fidelity. Cephalus sat by a tree one day, hot after hunting and sang a little hymn to the wind (Aura). A passerby heard him and thought he was serenading a lover. Procris found out and the next day went to listen for herself.. As he sat singing the same hymn, she thought he was singing to his ex-lover Eos. Cephalus, heard Procris stirring in the brush and thinking the noise came from an animal, threw the never-erring javelin in the direction of the sound – and Procris was impaled. As she lay dying in his arms, she told him “On our wedding vows, please never marry Eos”. Cephalus, distraught at the death of Procris, went into exile.

In his wanderings he helped Amphitryon of Mycenae in a war against the Taphians and Teleboans. He was rewarded with the island of Samos, today known as Kefalonia which then became known by his name.

Cephalus had the bad luck to have a goddess fall in love with him. Trouble ensued.

Cephalus had the bad luck to have a goddess fall in love with him. Trouble ensued.

Cephalus eventually married again, choosing a daughter of Minyas to be his wife. This woman (named Clymene, according to some sources) bore him a son named Arceisius. Cephalus never forgave himself for the death of Procris and he eventually committed suicide by leaping from Cape Leucas into the sea. Leucus is an old name for the Ionian island of Lefkada but it is not clear if Cape Leucus was in Lefkada or Kefalonia. Arceisius succeeded Cephalus as ruler of Kefalonia and became Odysseus’s grandfather.

Odysseus is the most famous figure associated with Kefalonia. He is the subject of The Odyssey, an epic poem attributed to Homer which recounts Odysseus’s wanderings when, as king of Ithaka, he attempted to return home after the Trojan war, a war in which he played a pivotal role according to ‘Homer’s’ other masterpiece The Iliad. There is heated debate among historians about whether Odysseus was real or legendary, with most suggesting he was a fantasy figure, analogous to Britain’s King Arthur. Most historians concede that some historical figures and events found their way into the two poems and so the more romantic among us can still legitimately believe in Odysseus and his kingdom. It is worth pointing out that, even if the events recounted by Homer really took place, they were not recorded until 450 years later so things could have got confused in the interim.

In spite of a series of searches, no trace of Odysseus’s palace has ever been found.  Today, the rocky island known as Ithaka is touted as being Odysseus’s home but both Lefkada and Kefalonia have put forward strong claims that the fabled kingdom of Ithaka was actually on their islands and that today’s Ithaka had another name in antiquity.


Herodotus is the first historian to refer to the island by the name of ‘Kefalinia’, while Thucydides called the island Tetrapoli (Four Cities), because of the towns of Pali, Sami, Kranea (also known as Krani) and Proni, which thrived during the Mycenaean years.

The most significant city was Sami, in the north-eastern part of the island. Pali was situated on the western peninsula, where Lixouri stands now; Krani was where Argostoli stands today, Proni was situated on the south eastern part of the island. The four cities were independent of one another with separate currency and regimes. The inhabitants worshipped the Olympian Gods and performed sacrifices to them in temples. Hesiod, an early Greek poet, who is believed to have lived around 700 AD, refers to the temple of Ainios Zeus on Mount Aino, while the existence of a second temple of Zeus is also mentioned on an islet south of Kefalonia.

Pausanias, a geographer of the second century AD who wrote ten books about Greece mentions that, circa 560 B.C., the winner of the Olympic Games guitar contest was a Kefalonia named Melambus.

Kefalonia participated in the Persian Wars, in the battle of Plataies (479 BC) and in the Peloponnesian War, supporting both Sparta and Athens, as each city supported its political preference. In 218 BC, King Philip from Macedonia attacked the island in an attempt to occupy it, but Athens helped the Kefalonians defeat him.

The Roman era

Roman ruins in Sami

In 188 BC Rome conquered Kefalonia. Livy’s account tells how a Marcus Fulvius, sailed to Kefalonia and asked the various cities in the island which they preferred – surrender to the Romans or war. All the cities surrendered and gave Rome hostages as guarantees of good behaviour. Then Sami had a change of heart, reasoning that because their city occupied an advantageous position, the Romans might compel them to live elsewhere. Livy wrote: “Whether this was an invention on their part, and their breach of the peace was due to imaginary fears, or whether the matter had been talked about amongst the Romans and so come to their ears, is quite uncertain.

Modern-day Sami.

The Roman emperor Hadrian gave Kefalonia as a gift to Athens

“What is certain is that after giving hostages they closed their gates, and though the consul sent these hostages to the walls to appeal to the sympathies of their fellow-citizens and kinsmen, they refused to abandon their opposition. As no peaceable reply was given, the siege of the city was begun.”

At first the Romans used battering rams to try and break down Sami’s walls, when stout resistance was encountered the Roman equivalent of sharp-shooters were called in. A hundred expert slingshot marksmen were imported who effectively prevented the defenders from making sorties to destroy the battering rams.  Even so it was four months before the city fell. The story has a very sad ending because the Romans sold the entire population into slavery.

Once having conquered Kefalonia the Romans proceeded to largely neglect the island and its people. As a result pirates considered the place fair game and murdered and pillaged to such effect that the population shrank and economic activity declined, a pattern that was to be repeated throughout history by wave after wave of conquerors.

In 124 or 125 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian, a noted Hellenophile who planned a resurgence of Greece, although a Greece firmly under Roman control, gave the island as a gift to Athens. This resulted in an economic resurgence, particularly in the area around Sami.

The Byzantine era

Kefalonia remained a possession of the Roman Empire for the next thousand years, the last 700 years or so under the banner of the Byzantine Empire, a term used to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered on its capital of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. During much of its history it was known to many of its Western contemporaries as the Empire of the Greeks because of the dominance of Greek language, culture and population. To its inhabitants, the Empire was simply the Roman Empire and its emperors continued the unbroken succession of Roman emperors.

There is no consensus on exactly when the Byzantine period of Roman history began. Many consider Emperor Constantine I (reigned AD 306–337) to be the first Byzantine Emperor. It was he who moved the imperial capital in 324 AD from Nicomedia to Byzantium, refounded as Constantinople, or Nova Roma (New Rome).  In any case, the changeover was gradual and by 330, when Constantine inaugurated his new capital, the process of hellenisation and increasing Christianisation was already under way. The Empire is generally considered to have ended after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

During the Byzantine era Kefalonia belonged to the Byzantine emperor and the island was ruled by a strategos who reported directly to him.

In the 10th Century AD, Emperor Constantine VII wrote that the island was part of the “Scheme of Kefalonia”, which was established by his father Leo VI. It was in this period that hierarchical social classes started to form on the island namely: workers, tradesmen and nobility.

The Frank years

During Byzantine rule Kefalonia was constantly under threat from raids by Arabs, Normans, pirates and Crusaders, although the latter could barely be distinguished from pirates. The latter part of Byzantine rule was extremely turbulent with Kefalonia rapidly changing hands time and time again.

The beginning of the end for Byzantine rule in Kefalonia was when the powerful Norman warlord Robert Guiscard attempted to occupy the island in 1084. After fierce fighting the islanders repulsed Guiscard. Guiscard had been in poor health when he began the campaign and he died in Fiskardo in 1085. (The name Fiskardo stems from Guiscard’s surname) His death brought the islanders a brief respite from war, as historian Geoffrey Malaterra wrote: “Freed by the departure of its enemies, Greece rejoiced in peace.”  Not for long, because Guiscard’s son Roger Borsa, Duke of Apulia, who had accompanied his father on the Kefalonian campaign took violent revenge against those who had resisted his father, although he did not manage to conquer the island.

Kefalonia formally remained a Byzantine possession although one  much ravaged by the Normans and the Crusaders, who attacked the island in 1103 and again in 1125. The island was occupied by the Normans between 1147 and 1149 after being captured by forces of King Roger ll of Sicily (22 December 1095 – 26 February 1154 under the command of George of Antioch (died 1151 or 1152). Kefalonia was not the focal point of Norman attacks, the real target was Corfu that George attacked with 70 galleys. According to Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine Greek historian, the island capitulated thanks to George’s bribes (and the tax burden of the imperial government), welcoming the Normans as their liberators. Leaving a garrison, George sailed on to the Peloponnese. He sacked Athens and quickly moved on to the other Ionian islands among them Kefalonia. He ravaged the coast along Euboea and the Gulf of Corinth and penetrated as far as Thebes, where he pillaged the silk factories and carried off the Jewish damask, brocade, and silk weavers, taking them back to Palermo where they formed the basis for the Sicilian silk industry. George capped the expedition with a sack of Corinth, in which the relics of Saint Theodore were stolen, and then returned to Sicily.

This occupation of Kefalonia was ended in 1149 when the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos, (November 281118– September 241180), defeated the Normans with the help of the Venetians. Once again Corfu was the primary focus and Manuel dispatched 500 galleys, 1,000 transports, and between 20 000 and 30000 men to recover the island. Kefalonia seems to have been taken as an afterthought, once again its fortunes turning on the ambitions of the then superpowers.

Robert Guiscard, died in Fiskardo while trying to conquer the island. Fiskardo is a corruption of his last name.

George of Antioch

Manuel I Komnenos

The Battle for Brindisi

Encouraged by his success in the Ionian Islands, Manuel dreamed of restoration of the Roman Empire at the cost of union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, a prospect which would frequently be offered to the Pope during negotiations and plans for alliance. If there was ever a chance of reuniting the eastern and western churches, this was probably it. The Papacy was never on good terms with the Normans, except when under duress by the threat of direct military action. Having the “civilised” Eastern Roman Empire on its southern border was infinitely preferable to the Papacy and having to constantly deal with the troublesome Normans of Sicily. It was in Pope Hadrian IV‘s interests to reach a deal if at all possible, since doing so would greatly increase his own influence over the entire Orthodox Christian population. Manuel offered a large sum of money to the Pope for the provision of troops, with the request that the Pope grant the Byzantine emperor lordship of three maritime cities in return for assistance in expelling the Norman William from Sicily. Manuel also promised to pay 5,000 pounds of gold to the Pope and the Curia. Negotiations were hurriedly carried out, and an alliance was formed between Manuel and Hadrian.  It was at this point, just as the war seemed decided in Manuel’s favour that things started to go wrong for him. The Byzantine commander Michael Palaiologos had alienated Byzantium’s allies by his attitude, and this had stalled the campaign as Count Robert III of Loritello refused to speak to him. Although the two were reconciled, the campaign had lost some of its momentum: Michael was soon recalled to Constantinople, and his loss was a major blow to the campaign.

The turning point was the Battle for Brindisi, where the Sicilians launched a major counter attack by both land and sea. At the approach of the enemy, mercenaries hired with Manuel’s gold demanded huge pay rises. When this was refused, they deserted. Even the local barons started to melt away, and soon John Doukas was left hopelessly outnumbered. The arrival of Alexios Komnenos Bryennios with some ships failed to redress the Byzantine situation. The naval battle was decided in the Sicilians’ favour, while John Doukas and Alexios Bryennios (along with four Byzantine ships) were captured. Manuel then sent Alexios Axouch to Ancona to raise another army, but, by this time, William had already retaken all of the Byzantine conquests in Apulia. The defeat at Brindisi put an end to the restored Byzantine reign in Italy; a peace treaty was signed and in 1158 the Byzantine army left Italy, and never saw it again.  Kefalonia however, remained in Byzantine hands.

The islanders had a 22 year break from bloodshed until, following the death of Manuel in 1180, the Sicilian King William ll (1155–1189) took advantage of the resulting confusion and returned to war against the Byzantine Empire. In 1185 an army of 80,000 men including 5,000 knights marched upon Thessalonica, a fleet of 200 ships sailed towards the same target capturing on their way the Ionian islands of Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos. In August Thessalonica fell to the joint attack of the Sicilian fleet and army the city was put to the sword 7000 Greeks died and the city sacked.

The leader of William’s naval fleet during the invasion was one Margaritus of Brindisi (circa 1149 – 1197). His role must have been a distinguished one because William made him a Grand Admiral and the first Count Palatine of the ‘County Palatine of Kefalonia and Zakynthos.  This meant that Margaritus was the absolute ruler of the Ionian islands although he still owed allegiance to the king of Sicily.

Not bad for someone who, it is believed, started his career as a Greek pirate, before becoming a privateer and then admiral of the navy.  He also became the first count of Malta and held the titles Prince of Taranto and Duke of Durazzo.  After his death in 1197 his son-in-law inherited the County Palatine of Kefalonia and Zakynthos which continued to exist until 1479, as part of the Kingdom of Sicily.

Following the death of Margaritus three families family in succession ruled the county palatine of Kefalonia and Zakynthos.  First came the Orsinis’, then the Angevins’ and finally the Toccos’.  The Orsini rulers are as follows:

Mateo I Orsini 1195 – 1238

Mateo II Orsini 1238 – 1259

Ricardo I Orsini 1259 – 1304

John I Orsini 1304 – 1317

Nicholas Orsini 1317 – 1323

John II Orsini 1323 – 1325

Margaritus of Brindisi

Mateo Orsini was Margaritus’s son-in-law and formally inherited the County Palatine on his death, although it appears that he had actually been ruling the islands earlier than that.

The Orsini family’s rule is remembered for its brutality and the impoverishment of the islanders. The Orsini family do not seem to have singled out the islands for special treatment because their family history is bloody one. For example, Nicholas Orsini – known in Italy as Nicola d’Epiro), who was Count Palatine of Kefalonia from 1317 to 1323, became ruler of Epirus in 1318 by murdering his uncle Thomas I Komnenos Doukas. To cement control he then married his uncle’s widow, Anna Palaiologina. There is a saying that what goes around comes around and in 1323 Nicholas was murdered by his brother John II Orsini who then became Count Palatine of Kefalonia and Zakynthos and ruler of Epirus.  He was to be the last of the Orsinis’ to rule the islands. In 1324 John’s Angevin overlord, John of Gravina, stopped at Kefalonia on his way to fight the Byzantines in the Peloponnese and deposed him, annexing the island for himself.

The Angevins ruled for only 32 years.  John of Gravina (1294 – April 5 1336) ruled Kefalonia between 1325 and 1332, being succeeded by Prince Robert of Taranto (1299/1319 – September 101364) from 1332 to 1357.

Then came the Tocco family. Once again the machinations that led to their accession are unclear: the first Tocco Count Palatine was Leonardo I, the son of Guglielmo II Tocco, who governed Kefalonia between 1328–1335, when Robert of Taranto was the Count Palatine. I am not sure of the relationship between governor and Count Palatine.  Did the governor report to the Count? How did it happen that the governor’s son became the Count?  The Toccos’ certainly had strong family links with the Orsinis’, Guglielmo’s mother was Margherita Orsini, sister of Nicholas Orsini and John II Orsini both previous Count Palatines.

Here is a list of the Tocco rulers:

Leonardo I Tocco 1357 – 1376

CarloI Tocco 1376 – 1429

CarloII Tocco 1429 – 1448

Leonardo III Tocco 1448 – 1479

Carlo I succeeded his father Leonardo I as Count of Cephalonia and Duke of Lefkas in 1376. He shared power with his brother Leonardo II, who was given the island of Zakynthos as apanage in 1399.  Although Carlo I had several illegitimate children, when he died on July 4 1429 he was succeeded by his nephew Carlo II Tocco, the son of Leonardo II.

When Carlo II died in October 1448, Leonardo III Tocco, while still a minor, inherited all his titles and possessions. Gradually the warring Ottoman Turks reduced his holdings until he was left with only Kefalonia, Lefkas and Zakynthos.  These the Turks captured in 1479. Leonardo then fled to the Kingdom of Naples, where he was invested with several fiefs by Ferdinand I of Naples. He died  c.1499.

In a document called the Chronicle of the Tocco family of Kefalonia or the Chronicle of the Toccos’ which covers the period between 13751425, the author describes the Toccos’ as fair governors, who cared for the rights of their people.  I wouldn’t rely on this as being necessarily a fair reflection of the true state of affairs, the writer was probably paid by the Toccos’ to write the chronicle and paint the family in a suitably favourable light.

Once again a victim of events in the wider world, the island was soon to get another new ruler. In 1479, the county palatine was broken up and divided between them by Venice and the Ottoman Turks: Zakynthos became the property of Venice; the Turks got Kefalonia and true to the practice of most of Kefalonia occupiers, proceeded to rape the island and its people. One story tells how Ahmed Pasha raided “chopped up all the nobility, burnt the castle of Kefalonia and transported many of the peasants to Constantinople. There, the sultan separated the men from the women and forced the men to marry women from Ethiopia and vice versa, in order to create a race of people to use as slaves.”

Venetian Rule

Turkish rule was short.  In 1500 the Venetians and Spanish violated the peace treaty and attacked and conquered the island. To assist in this process, the Venetians enlisted the support of Kefalonian nobles who were granted a number of privileges in return.

The result was a measure of stability which saw Venetian rule last 300 years.  Kefalonia was a strategic stepping stone to the east and provided important shelter for the Venetian fleet. Venetian culture influenced architecture, fashion, arts, music, letters, education, health systems and laws.

It was also the Venetians who were responsible for planting many of the olive trees found on Kefalonia by rewarding islanders with money for each tree planted. Under the Venetians the nobles prospered while the common people lived in poverty and constant fear of pirates.

They had good reason to be fearful because in one instance alone a Turkish pirate called Hayreddin Barbarossa attacked Kefalonia in 1538 and took 13000 of its people as slaves. Even so there must have been some attractions to living on the island because Kefalonia gradually attracted settlers from the Greek mainland in such numbers that the island developed a strong identification with Greece that exists until today. During the last years of Venetian Rule, there were severe disputes between the rich families of the island which led to bitter vendettas that resulted in considerable bloodshed.

In 1538, the pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa took 13 000 Kefalonians as slaves.

A series of rulers

Venetian Rule ended on 28 June 1797 when troops of Napoleonic France occupied the island. French rule of the Ionian Islands became official with the Treaty of Campo Formio on 17 October 1797 and the islands became part of the French State on 1 November that year. Napoleon promised liberation for the Ionian Islands and in a telling gesture publicly burnt in Argostoli’s square amid much celebration by the local people, the Libro d’oro, a book created by the Venetians listing the names and the privileges of the nobles. Soon however, and despite several progressive measures adopted by the French administration, the population became disenchanted because of heavy taxation and the undisciplined behaviour of French soldiers. This discontent was used as an excuse by a joint Russian-Ottoman force under Admiral Fyodor Fyodorovich Ushakov, the most illustrious Russian naval commander and admiral of the 18th century, to oust the French from the Ionian. In 1800 an allied fleet of Russians, Turks and English defeated the French at Abū Qīr.

In a treaty signed in Constantinople, the Septinsular Republic was established in the Ionian Islands under nominal Ottoman sovereignty. In Kefalonia, a government was formed headed by K. Horafas. It was the first time Greeks had been granted even limited self-government since the fall of the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in the mid-15th century. In practice the Republic existed as a Russian protectorate. In Kefalonia political power, such as it was, was exercised through a senate membership of which was restricted to the aristocracy leading to discontent among the other islanders.

In 1807,  the Treaty of Tilsit, ceded the islands back to Russia from Napoleon’s French Empire, and incorporated them in the Illyrian provinces.

British rule

On October 2 1809 the British defeated the French fleet in Zakynthos and captured Kefalonia, Kythera and Zakynthos. They went on to take Lefkada in 1810. With the Treaty of Paris the “United States of the Ionian Islands” was formed and the Ionian Islands placed under the command of a British Lord High Commissioner. Altogether 17 British governors were to rule Kefalonia and under their rule a considerable infrastructure was created. Kefalonians have never been fond of their rulers but acknowledge that of the 17 governors one man stands out for his obvious desire to help the islanders. He was Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853). After a distinguished military career Napier was appointed governor of Kefalonia in 1822, where he remained for eight years as governor and military resident. He built roads, a courthouse and a library and offered mainland Greece support in the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, despite Britain’s official opposition. His affection for the island was such that he named his daughter Emily Kefalonia Napier.

Britian’s Charles Napier was among the better Kefalonian rulers.

It is said that the sea-side area called Lassi, near to Argostoli, now a major tourist destination, was named by Sir Charles because he said the area was as ‘bonny as a lassie’.  Lassie being a Scots word for a girl.

In 1827 Napier quarrelled with Sir Frederick Adam, the new high commissioner of the Ionian Islands, and in 1830, when Napier was in England on leave, Adam seized his papers and forbade him to return. Napier thereupon, refusing promotion to the residency of Zakynthos, retired in disgust, living for some years in the south of England and after the death of his wife in 1833, in Normandy.

One of the most famous supporters of the Greek War of Independence, Lord Byron, visited the island in the early 1820s and while living at Metaxata, a sleepy village in the south of the island he composed Don Juan generally regarded as his masterpiece. While living in Metaxata Byron composed over sixteen thousand individual lines of verse. Byron completed 16 cantos, leaving an unfinished 17th canto before his death in 1824. When the first two cantos were published anonymously in 1819, the poem was criticized for its ‘immoral content’, though it was also immensely popular.

Yet another constitution, the Constitution of 28 December 1817, imposed a series of unpopular measures and led to a series of insurrections.

Union with Greece

Although Kefalonia remained under English rule, the islanders actively participated in the Greek revolution against Turkish rule. Constantinos and Andreas Metaxas, Gerasimos and Dionissios Fokas, Demetrios Hoidas, Gerasimos Orfanos and Loukas Valsamakis were among the freedom fighters from Kefalonia. The most significant event in which Kefalonia participated was the battle of Lalas, in Helia. There, with the help of the Peloponnesian army, Andreas and Constantinos Metaxas defeated the Turks who invaded the village on 24 June 1821.

On 14 September 1848, in the light of popular demand, Ionian Commissioner John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton, granted the islanders significant privileges. Another series of insurrections forced Queen Victoria to proclaim elections in 1850, after which the first parliament was established. In November 1858 the British appointed William Ewart Gladstone as High Commissioner Extraordinary to determine the political future of the Ionian Islands. He recommended the Ionian Islands remain under British protection. However, when the Bavarian-born King of GreeceOtto I, was deposed and replaced by an AnglophileGeorge I, the Ionian Islands were ceded to Greece in the London Protocol which states “The islands, Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkas, Ithaka, Kythira, Paxos and the other little ones are united with the kingdom of Greece in order to be its part forever, in one and only state. On 23 September 1863, the Ionian Parliament voted in favour of union with Greece and on 21 May 1864, Thrasivoulos Zaimis officially received the Ionian Islands from Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Storcks.

Lord Byron lived on Kefalonia and composed a masterpiece there.

World War 1

Greece remained neutral during World War l but this did not stop the British and other Entente powers occupying Kefalonia along with Corfu and Milos, on the grounds that the Greek government was following a pro-Axis policy.

World War 2

At the beginning of World War ll, the prime minister of Greece was a Kefalonian, Ioannis Metaxas, who was premier from 1936 until his death in 1941. Metaxas has been described as a quasi fascist whose policy was to keep Greece out of the war and have strong economic ties to Nazi Germany.  However, the Italian dictator Mussolini had expansionist ambitions and after conquering Albania turned his attentions to Greece. Metaxas won a place in the Greek pantheon of heroes on October 28th 1940 when Mussolini sent a minister to Metaxas with a written ultimatum demanding the Greeks let the Italian army enter and occupy the country or face their wrath. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and a few hours later Italian troops poured into northern Greece from Albania. Metaxas’s rejection of the Italian ultimatum is celebrated every year in Greece as a national holiday on October 28th as ‘Ochi Day’. (Ochi means ‘No’). After a brief period of success, the Italian offensive which had been poorly coordinated was repelled by a Greek counterattack. This resulted in the loss of one-quarter of Italian-controlled Albania. The Italian forces in Albania were stalled, and Mussolini asked Germany for assistance. Hitler committed forces to the Balkans while the Allies hurried to defend Greece.

Kefalonia was occupied first by the Italians in 1941 and then by the Germans in 1943. Until late 1943, the occupying force was predominantly Italian — the Acqui division plus Navy personnel totalled 12,000 men — but about 2,000 troops from Nazi Germany were also present. The island was largely spared fighting, until the armistice with Italy concluded by the Allies in September 1943 which resulted in Italy changing sides. The German high command issued an order on September 15, 1943 explaining what should be done with disarmed Italian soldiers. The motto was simply: “Whoever is not with us is against us.” Three groups were identified: those who were loyal to the alliance and continued to fight alongside Germany; second, those who no longer wanted to fight; third, soldiers who aided the resistance or had entered into a pact with the enemy. The officers of the last group were to be shot, and the rest were to be used as workers, or else deported to the Eastern Front.

On Kefalonia many of the Italians were hoping to return home, but German forces did not want the Italians’ munitions to be used eventually against them; Italian forces were hesitant to turn over weapons for the same reason. As German reinforcements headed to the island the Italians dug in and, eventually, after a referendum among the soldiers as to surrender or battle, they fought the new German invasion. The fighting came to a head at the siege of Argostoli, where the Italians held out. Ultimately German forces prevailed, taking full control of the island, On September 18, 1943, the German high command overrode the order of September 15, and ordered that no more prisoners be taken on Kefalonia. As a result 5170 of the 9000 surviving Italian soldiers were executed as a reprisal by German forces. In all 9,500 Italian soldiers lost their lives on Kefalonia.  Costa (alas I never did learn his last name), who drove a taxi driver in Fiskardo during the 70s’ recalled how walking to school as a ten year old he smelt something bad and when he went to investigate found the terrain dotted with the corpses of Italian soldiers who had been executed and left to rot.

Other prisoners were transferred to the mainland in overcrowded ships that were not marked as prisoner of war transports. Another 13,288 Italians died when enemy fire sunk the ships and the Germans refused to initiate rescue procedures.

Irene Vrionis from Fiskardo, who was a young woman during the war, perhaps summed up the islanders’ feelings during that time when she told me:  “first the Italians came … and they were invaders, but somehow it was all right; they were like us, they helped in the fields, it wasn’t so bad…then the Germans came and they killed people!”

Throughout the war, the people of Kefalonia were actively involved in the Greek Resistance.  This period is the subject of a famous book by English author Louis de Bernières titled Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which was subsequently made into a successful movie, sparking a tourist boon to the island which continues to this day.

The war ended in central Europe in 1945 butKefalonia remained in a state of conflict because of the Greek Civil War in which communists and non-communists fought for control of the country. With heavy backing from first the British and then the Americans, the non-communists prevailed; peace returned to Greece and the island in 1949. The civil war is a pivotal event in modern Greek history because victory cemented the nation into the capitalist Western alliance.

Mussolini told Greece to surrender, the prime minister of Greece Ionnis Metaxas, a Kefalonian, famously said “ochi” (no).

The great earthquake of 1953

Kefalonia is just to the east of a major tectonic fault, where the European plate meets the Aegean plate at a slip boundary – a similar situation to that existing in the more famous San Andreas fault in California. Kefalonia has a long history of major earthquakes.  In August 1953, a series of four earthquakes hit the island causing widespread destruction, the only exception being Fiskardo. The third and most destructive of the earthquakes took place on August 121953 at 11:24 and had a magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter scale. The epicentre of the quake was directly below the southern tip of the island. As a result of this quake the entire island rose by 60 centimetres; coastal rocks around the island clearly display marks where the previous water level had been.

Six hundred people died and damage was estimated at tens of millions of Euros; however the worst damage was to the economy which literally collapsed. It is estimated that 100,000 of the population of 125,000 left the island driven away by economic hardship. Many of the 365 villages on the island before the quake were deserted forever as Kefalonians moved in droves to Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States and Zimbabwe. The island entered a period of poverty, where a small population survived by subsistence farming and fishing. It is only the relatively recent influx of tourists that ended this poverty.  Even today it is possible to find ruined villages whose entire inhabitant left the island after the earthquake.

Greece joined the European Community on January 1, 1981 Greece’s entry into the European Union has been a boon to Kefalonia with EU funds helping to create an infrastructure. The Greek economy grew continuously from 1994 and fasterthan the EU25 average from 1996 to 2006. A part of this was sustained by the investment in infrastructure in the run up to the Summer Olympic Games 2004 that were held in Athens. As a result, real incomes rose from 85% of EU27 average in 1997 to 97% in 2006 (revised data, source Eurostat, Oct 2007).

This happy state of affairs did not last. In October 2008 a global recession struck and Greece became unable to service its debts. It was revealed that Greece had lied about its financial situation in order to join the EU and continued to lie thereafter. The EU stepped in with a series of financial bailouts demanding structural reforms in return, which resulted in widespread hardship throughout Greece. Fortunately, Kefalonia was spared the worse of this largely thanks to its tourist industry. Tourist numbers are increasing steadily and the island is being serviced by more and more airlines.

Psithlithrias, near Fiskardo, one of the many villages that fell into ruin after the 1953 earthquake.

Tectonic plates meet near Kefalonia and earth tremors are common. Occasionally they are more serious. This house was damaged in 2014.

EU regulations entitling any EU citizen to own property in Greece has also created a minor boom with a steady trickle of mostly British buyers purchasing holiday homes on the island.

As an interested observer for nearly 40 years, I have seen Kefalonians rise from poverty so severe that in winter malnutrition was a serious problem, to a well-fed, well-housed and generally prospering community. Greece’s entry into the EU has seen the growth of an expatriate community that has brought skills, capital and literally new blood to the island, as more children are born. Most of these people come from Britain with a large sub-set of Albanians and a sprinkling of Russians, Italians, French, South Africans and Zimbabweans. (South Africa and Zimbabwe may seem surprising. It is largely explained because many Kefalonians emigrated to South Africa and Zimbabwe after the 1953 earthquake and now as uncertainty plagues those countries, their descendents are returning).

Selected Bibliography and an explanation

I started this history with the intention of telling our guests a little about the island.  When I began my research I discovered a mountain of contradictions and confusions that have been difficult to unravel. I am sure that tehre are mistakes but I have done my best to be accurate and from time to time, I update the document as I get more information. I guiltily acknowledge that I have not been as diligent as I might have been in listing all my sources.

I am deeply indebted to the following:


The Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia

The Annales Barenses and the Annales Lupi Protospatharii: Critical Edition and Commentary, by William Joseph Churchill (University of Toronto PhD dissertation, 1979).

Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms

Livy’s History of Rome Book 38

Norwich, John Julius. The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194. Longman: London1970.

The Genoese Annals of Ottobuono Scriba (pdf)

Annales Ianuenses Otoboni Scribae, in Annali Genovesi di Caffaro e de’ suoi continuatori, ii (1189-1196). ed L. T. Belgrano and C. Imperiale di Sant’Angelo (Fonti per la storia d’Italia, 1902), pp. 38-41, 45-53.

Garufi, C. A. “Margarito di Brindisi, conte di Malta e ammiraglio del re di Sicilia,” in: Miscellanea di archeologia, storia e filologia dedicata al prof. Antonino Salinas, Palermo 1907, 273-282.

Online Encyclopedia

Cronaca dei Tocco di Cefalonia; prolegomeni, testo critico e traduzione, by Giuseppe Schirò, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 10. (Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1975)

Kefalonia, the Wild Isle by Jennifer Gay

The Napoleon Series

Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural RelationsBy Donald MacGillivray NicolCambridge University

Classic Encyclopaedia

The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of Duke Robert Guiscard his brother. By Geoffrey Malaterra

World Socialist Web Site an article based on two books that appeared in the 1990s: Friedrich Andrae’s Auch Gegen Frauen und Kinder—Der Krieg der Deutschen Wehrmacht Gegen die Zivilbevölkerung in Italien 1943-1945 [Against Women and Children—the German Wehrmacht’s War Against the Civilian Population in Italy, 1943-45] (Piper Verlag München, Zürich, 1994); and Gerhard Schreiber’s Deutsche Kriegsverbrechen in Italien—Täter, Opfer, Strafverfolgung [German War Crimes in Italy—Perpetrators, Victims, Punishment] (Becksche Reihe, Verlag C.H. Beck, München, 1996).