Corinth sits on the Isthmus of Corinth, the sole link between the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland. The isthmus narrows to only five miles wide and the city occupies this strategic point. The heart of the city is a huge monolithic rock, on top of which sits the Acrocorinth containing the key temples and oligarchs' palaces. The ports of Leachaeum on the ismthus' western edge and Cenchreae on the east link the city to sea.
The city thrives on trade and its fleets dominate in the Mediterranean as far as Sicily. A great deal of silver is earned by controlling the isthmus, a short-cut saving traders a dangerous journey around the Peloponnese. Goods can be unloaded at one port, carried over the isthmus to the other side and then loaded on to a ship. There is a road made of grooved stone that can carry an entire ship on a special cart across the isthmus.
Authority is held by a council of oligarchs made up of the richest merchants and nobles, but there is a strong democratic movement growing in the city. The city has the most powerful navy in Greece but also fields a strong army. They wear the distinctive Corinthian helmet now being adopted by other Greek states.
The nearby city of Isthmia is home to the Isthmian games, a panhellenic championship set up by Sisyphus to honour his nephew who died in a divine machination. Events held there mirror the Olympic games but they include poetry and musical competitions. Like the Olympics they draw in competitors and spectators from throughout the world. The games are devoted to Poseidon instead of Zeus, in hope of protection for the vital Corinthian fleets.
Corinth's largest temple is similarly dedicated to Poseidon and is the god's largest in Greece. The city also boast the largest temple to Aphrodite which is famous for its temple sex workers (hetairas). Most Greek sex workers are marginalised but these men and women enjoy a high status and their trade is part of worshipping Aphrodite.
Elis is a second tier power in Greece but not to be dismissed. As the the leading city in the west of the Peloponnese it controls the surrounding lands indirectly through treaties and pacts. The fame of Elis derives from its control of Olympia, the site of the Olympic games. Since this is where worship of Zeus reaches its climax, the god favours the city and keeps it from harm.
Much of Elis' considerable wealth comes from the visitors and pilgrims to the games' site. This income makes Elis much richer than any other city its size and it enjoys paved plazas and fine stone buildings. When the games are not running, Elis is the centre for local trade and is connected to a harbour by the river it sits on.
Elis is built at the bottom of a wide river valley and is dominated by the large theatre at its heart. The city is walled, but more effort was placed into constructing the theatre and the huge market that surrounds it. Gymnasia and other training buildings adjoin the market, along with the House of the Hellanodikai who judge the games themselves.
The oligarchy of Elis comprises a few noble families who squabble over the games' revenue. There is an open council of citizens who decide on civic matters.
Many victors of the games come from the city. The very first winner of any game was Coroebus, a humble Elean baker who won the stadion race. The city also gave the world Troilus, who gained infamy by winning two chariot races whilst being the referee. Other famous names include the philosopher Phaedo of Elis, who runs the Elean School of philosophy and was a close friend of Socrates. Yet Phaedo is no friend of Plato and the two spar when the Athenian comes to visit the games.
The dialect of Greek spoken in Elis is hard to understand for other Greeks, who call them barbarophones or the ones who sound like barbarians.
Sparta lies on the banks of the Evrotas River, in the east of the Peloponnese. The river valley it occupies is surrounded by high mountains, providing Sparta with superb natural defences. The city itself is quite small and houses about thirty thousand Spartans and many more slaves. Sparta is one of the very few cities that has no walls, relying instead on its armies for defence.
Sparta was until recently the pre-eminent power in Greece until it was brought low by the Boetian League, led by Thebes and Athens. The city has been stripped of its full political might and has lost most of its slaves. However, Spartan diplomats are already building a new league, the army is still intact and the city itself was never attacked. There is great potential to rebuild its power.
The city is ruled by an oligarchy of rich men and women, with influence wielded by the most powerful warriors. Unusually, Sparta has two kings. Whilst both claim descent from Herakles, the Agiad family is superior to the Eurypontid family. The current kings are Agesipolis II and Agesilaus II.
Civil power has slowly moved from the kings to the oligarchs and they are now a kind of permanent general, with military power and little else. Citizenship is restricted to those who can trace their lineage back to the first inhabitants of the city and only citizens can undergo the famous agoge training programme. For political purposes a small number of foreigners are allowed to go through the training as "foster children".
Sparta is unique as it divides it citizens into two castes - warriors and land-owners. Citizen warriors are full-time soldiers trained from the age of seven, but they may not own land or property. This focus on military training makes the Spartans the strongest fighting troops in the known world. Citizen land-owners control property, lead households and receive basic military training so they may defend their lands when the warrior caste is away fighting wars.
Spartan citizens avoid manual labour which is the job of the Helot serf caste. The Helots are a conquered people from Messenia brought to Sparta centuries ago. Compared to slaves elsewhere in Greece the Helots have a better lot, being allowed to marry, worship and keep half of their earnings. There are fewer Helots in the city for the time being because victorious Thebes released them as an economic attack on Sparta.
Spartan citizens are forbidden to trade and manufacture so they leave this to a another caste, the perioikoi. Their trade is hampered by Sparta's lack of precious metals and its disdain for currency. They rely on barter - the nearest Sparta has to coins are large iron ingots, which most other cities will not trade in. Like the Helots the perioikoi are a conquered people but they are granted freedom to do business and are the only people allowed to travel to other cities. Perioikoi fight supporting the true Spartans and are growing more powerful in the city.