Several theories exist regarding the origin of Ithaca’s name. According to one of them, the name derives from Ithakos who was the first inhabitant of the island along with his two brothers, Niritos and Polyktoras.
Another version supports that the name comes from the Greek word “Ithi” (which means “merry”) or from “Ithis” (meaning “abrupt”). It is also believed that “Ithaca” could derive from the Phoenician word “Utika” (which means “colony”).
Generally the name of the island has remained intact since the ancient times. According to ancient documents that have come to light, though, and refer to different periods of time, the island has must have had other names too.
For example, from the Middle Ages till the end of the Venetian period the names “Val di Compare” (“Valley of the Bestman”), Piccola (“Small”) Kefalonia, Antikefalonia, Thiaki and Teaki were used.
In the Byzantine period it was called nisos (island) Ithaki, Thrakoniso, Thakou, Thiakou while during the Turkish Occupation the island was known under the name Fiaki.
The island has been inhabited since the Neolithic Period (4000-3000 B.C.), as proved by a number of remnants discovered including traces of buildings and walls, but there is not sufficient evidence on the origin of the inhabitants. There are also findings in the settlement of Pilikata and at Loizo’s Cave in Polis settlement dating back to the Early Hellenic era (3000–2000 B.C.).
During the Mycenaean period (1500–1100 B.C.), the island reached great prosperity as revealed by the findings from that period. Based in Homer’s epic poems it is believed that Ithaca ruled the surrounding islands and part of the opposite mainland. “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are believed to have been composed in the 8th century B.C., so information we have now concerning the political geography, customs and the structure and mechanism of the society of that period is deducted through those two masterpieces.
The findings that were brought to light from the excavations in the areas of Aetos and Alalkomenes date back to the Hellenistic period (800–180 B.C.). Among the objects found were a number of coins with the scribe “Ithaca”, the image of Odysseus and a temple of God Apollo which suggest that an organized way of living and an autonomous state existed during that period.
Roman Era - Venetian Era
During the Roman Era (180 B.C. – 394 A.D.), Ithaca was an Illyrian province and right after, in the Byzantine years (394–1185 A.D), Christianity was established. From 1086 the island was raided by the Vandals, the Goths and the Saracenstill it was eventually reigned by the Normans in 1185.
During the Middle Ages, the population of Ithaca remarkably decreased due to pirate raids and the locals were forced to leave the coast and establish settlements on the mountains.
In 1200 Ithaca is granted to the Roman family Orsini and in 1357 king Richard of Naples grants it to Leonard Toque until 1479.
In 1479 the Turks conquered the Ionian islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia, Zakynthos and Ithaca and the local population abandoned the island to escape slavery or death.
In 1499 the Venetians got interested in the Ionian Sea and begun a war against the Turks which they won with the help of the allied forces of Spain. With the treaty of 1503, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Zakynthos remained under the Venetian rule while Lefkada was under the Turkish. The Venetians tried to develop the economy of Ithaca and granted tax exemptions to the locals. The population increased and Vathy became the capital of the island while the main agricultural product of the island was the raisin.
Piracy was also successfully fought by building ships and gradually Ithaca created a strong and significant fleet which eventually participated in many naval combats such as the Orlov Revolt (1768-1774) between the Russians and the Turks.
A few years after the French revolution the Ionian Islands came under the rule of the French (First French Republic). They formed the French department of Ithaca which included Kefalonia, Lefkada and a part of the Greek Mainland along with Ithaca which was the department’s capital.
The Russians and the Turks succeeded the French at the end of 1798 and they formed the Ionian states with the island of Corfu as its capital. The government was democratic and Ithaca had one representative in the senate which was formed by fourteen members.
In 1807 until 1809 the Ionian islands came under the French rule again, after an agreement with Turkey. They built a fort in Vathy and prepared to combat the British fleet.
In 1809 the British conquered the Ionian islands including Ithaca and formed the United States of the Ionian Islands. Ithaca was then represented by one member in the Ionian Parliament.
The Greek Revolution of 1821
During the Greek Revolution in 1821 against the Turks many locals participated in the war and twenty Ithacans were among the founding members of “Filiki Etairia”, which was the organization behind the Revolution. The island was also a refuge for civilians and fighters during the Revolution and it finally joined the Greek State in 1864.
During the First World War many locals migrated to the USA, Australia and South Africa. During the Second World War all the Ionian Islands came under Italian occupation until 1943 and under German occupation until 1944. Due to the wars, occupation, migration and the catastrophic earthquakes in 1953 the population of Ithaca was reduced dramatically.
Today the natural environment is preserved in a great degree despite the fact that tourism is a pillar of the local economy, mainly because of the geomorphology of the island. Ithaca’s architecture has also been influenced and affected by the Venetians and the French which ruled the island in the past.