Zakynthos (Zante) is considered in mythology to be the first settler of the island, who was the grandson of Zeus and Helectra, son of Dardanos the founder of Troy and brother of Ericthoneous King of Troy. From Phrygia where Zakynthos was born, he went to his half-brothers Ilos and Deimas, who were kings of Psophida. He remained there for a short period of time, and then, taking men with him from Psophida, that ancient city of Arcadia, he sailed, around 1500 or 1600 BC, to the nearby Ionian island, the Zakynthos of today, occupied it and gave it his name. The name Zakynthos means ZA = a lot, plus Kynthos = hill, or ZA = a lot, plus KA = fruit, plus YNTHOS = place. Another etymological analysis of the name of the island is given by the words ZA = a lot, plus KYNY = bearing wine. From Herodotus and Pleinius we get the information that the oldest name of Zakynthos was Iria. The contemporary village Gyri, possibly still carries that old name, which had its origin in the name of the hero from Arcadia Iriea. Zakynthos is first mentioned by Homer who describes it as full of forests, and attributes its settlement to the Acheians of the Peloponnese, as Thucydides ascertains later on. The same customs as Arcadia in Zakynthos, such as the adoration of Artemis and Apollo, the love for music and celebrations and the main Arcadian name places in the island prove the truth of the above and contradict the view that the first settlers of the island were Beoteans from the town of Iria.
In the meantime, before the settlement o f the island by the Arcadians indigenous inhabitants had existed in the island from the Paleolithic era, as is evident from the human bones found in the bay of Laganas. There have also come to light posterior finds of the neolithic era at the areas, Geraka, Lagana, Alikes and Vassilikos, which ascertain the continuity of human existence in the island.
In prehistoric times, there arrived and occupied Zakynthos and Cepahlonia, Amphytrion the grandson of the Perseus the King of Myceneae, who appointed his ally Cephalos as the leader of the area. The successor to the throne is Arkaesious, after Laertes, and then Odysseus the famous King of Ithaca, who was ruling Zakynthos, Lefkada, Cephalonia, and part of Arcania as well. When Odysseus involved himself in the Trojan war, Zakynthos was on his side and manned a part of his twelve part navy.
But when Zakynthian participation was not mentioned and the sacrifice made by Zakynthian warriors during the Trojan war was ignored, plus the fact that Odysseus among other things killed all the twenty suitors of Penelope, then Zakynthos revolted and asked for its independence. Neoptolemos was the one who offered his services for contacts and negotiations between Odysseus and the Zakynthians, who also intervened for the signing of the treaty, which defined that Odysseus had to resign from the throne, so that the islands under his hegemony would be independent, maintaining only tax obligations to Ithaca. With the treaty of Neoptolemos, Zakynthos was freed from custody, it established an independent state and ruled its own destiny, and it made stable the flourishing and famous state, with a democratic rule.
The acropolis, the stadium and the city of Zakynthos – Zante were spreading on the eastern side of the island where today stand the castle and the area Bochali, while the port was on the bay which was created by the shores of this area. The Zakynthians established a famous colony on the shores of Spain, Zakantha.
Another colony which the Zakynthians had established was the city Kydonia in Crete, where they built the temple of Aphrodite. The city Fokis, or Parnassia, on the peninsular of Pyrrenea in Spain is also considered as a colony of the Zakynthians, who followed there the Fokieians and cooperated with them in the establishment of the city. The area of the Aegean did not stay out of the colonial interests of the Zakynthians. Paros is the island which they chose to establish one more city of theirs. During the first years of the historical period, Zakynthos did not participate in the political evolutions outside its areas, and it abstained from the events of the Persian wars, despite the fact that it was already a rich merchant island, thanks to its geographical position. The only known fact relating to that time is that the Lacaedomonian King Demaratos, found refuge in Zakynthos, and from there he was helped to flee to Asia, near King Darius.
During the historical controversy between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, for the first role in Greece, the Zakynthians initially stood at the side of the Spartans. But when the Athenian commander of the ships Tolmides arrived, menacing and destroying Zakynthos in 456 BC, they were then obliged to participate in the Athenian league.
During the Peloponnesian war, Zakynthos, already an ally of Athens, sent a thousand hoplites to Corfu, who stood by the side of the Corfu soldiers and participated in the sea battle in Lefkimi, which took place in 434 BC. The Lacaedemonians, full of wrath about the fact, sent the Knaemos with a thousand hoplites who disembarked in Zakynthos and tried to occupy it. Fearful war scenes took place and the city was delivered to the flames. The issue of the battle though was not favourable for the Lacaedemonians, who departed as losers. During their second attempt to occupy Zakynthos, the Lacaedemonians found themselves facing the Athenian ships, led by General Formion.
And so, in reciprocation for this benefit, the Zakynthians fought for the Athenian General Demosthenes in his campaign against Lefkada.
After the victory of the Athenians in the naval battle of Pylos, peace was concluded between the combatants, which dissolved after a short while. Then the war enterprises were repeated which, after the failure of the Athenian campaign in Sicily, gave the opportunity to the Lacaedemonians to impose the treaty of 371 BC with humbling terms for the Athenians. The repercussions of the defeat of the Athenians also weighed on Zakynthos, which was obliged to accept ten governors, the so-called Dekarchoi. These exercised oligarchic and tyrannic authority in Zakynthos, imprisoning or banishing the inhabitants. The Zakynthians then revolted, expelling them and regaining their liberty.
The expelled leaders from Zakynthos sought support from the Athenian fleet which delivered them and disembarked them again on the island, since they had distorted their enterprises and misinformed that they were unjustly expelled. The Zakynthians then complained to the Lacaedemonians seeking re-establishment of order. For this reason the Athenian and Spartan fleets set sail under Ktisikleas and Alkidas respectively. There then occurred the paradoxical phenomenon of the Athenians supporting the Dekarchoi, and the Lacaedemonians fighting them. Ktisikleas helped the Oligarchs and then he went to Corfu where a revolt had broken out. There he defeated the Lacaedemonians and imposed an end to the war.
In the meantime, the Zakynthians had involved themselves with the politics of Syracuse, helping the democratic Dion against the tyrant Dionysius. Dion, having been persecuted, fled to Zakynthos where they welcomed him with honours by issuing a silver coin with his face. From Zakynthos, Dion started his campaign against the tyrant of Syracuse and re-established democracy.
When the city states of Greece were threatened by the Macedonian occupation, then the Zakynthians participated in the common defense front and contributed together with the Aetolians in the organisation of a naval force, which confronted King Philip. ,But finally he prevailed and he occupied Zakynthos. In 214 BC after a deathly battle the island fell into the hands of the Romans, who had made an alliance with the Aetolians against Philip. In 210 BC the prevailing authority reoccurred and Zakynthos was given as a present to various leaders at different times, until in the end in 191 BC it was sold to the Aecheans and was obliged to follow them in their affiances and wars.