Like the majority of the islands throughout the Mediterranean, Meganisi has been controlled by numerous sovereign nations during its history and has always been closely linked to its larger neighbour, the island of Lefkada as well as the other Ionian islands.
The first evidence of human habitation dates from the Neolithic era but some of its earliest recorded history comes from Homer. In The Odyssey, Homer wrote of the island of Taphos, the original name for Meganisi, and the chief Anchialos, who was succeeded by his son Mentes. The Taphians were accomplished seamen and merchants, and were trading metals at the same time as the Phoenicians, who are perhaps historically more widely known for such activity. Some Latin writers also suggest that the influence of the Taphians extended to the Italian island of Capri.
In the 7th century BC, Meganisi fell under the control of the mighty Corinthians. The Corinthians connected the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea beyond, not by the canal they originally desired and failed to achieve, but by an overland portage road over which ships could be towed. This allowed them to cross the Isthmus of Corinth and avoid the longer and potentially treacherous passage around the Peloponnese, helping them to assert their power over the region and its important trading routes.
Meganisi remained a Corinthian colony until its conquest, along with other Greek city-states, by Rome in 197 BC during the Second Macedonian War. Local administration was largely left in the hands of the Greeks, but the Romans carried out many construction projects combining their admiration of Greek architecture with their own innovative building techniques.
During the Fourth Crusade, Venetian and Western European crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, with the subsequent treaty distributing the various territories among the victors, resulting in Meganisi coming under Venetian control, thus extending their extensive maritime empire.
Meganisi and Lefkada fell briefly under Turkish rule when the First Ottoman-Venetian War saw the Venetians lose control of many territories to the Ottoman Empire. Control by the Venetians was later re-asserted in 1684.
The turbulent history of Meganisi continued with possession being passed in 1797 to the French following Napoleon Bonaparte's victorious campaigns in Italy and then falling under Russian-Turkish rule just a year later.
In 1800, the Eptanesian State was formed, giving Meganisi and the other islands some autonomy, satisfying their desire for more democratic rights, but with Russian-Turkish protection remaining.
Following the Russo-Turkish War, Meganisi and its neighbours were again handed back to the French but captured during an invasion by the British in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. This British resolve to invade these tiny islands was to not only deny them from the French, but to encourage the Greeks to gain complete independence from the Ottomans. The inhabitants of Meganisi and the other Ionian islands, with a reputation as rebels, brigands and enemies of the Turks, were gathered under British commanders, founding the 1st Greek Light Infantry. This military unit, the first independent Greek army in modern times, played a significant role in fostering Greek nationalism, building toward the ultimate success of the Greek Revolution which wrested control permanently away from the Ottoman Empire and gave Greece its independence.
The spirited Meganisi forces fought actively throughout the Revolution and one of the most competent leaders, Demos Tselios (Demetrios or Demos Ferentinos) is remembered in the traditional rebel song 'Ghero Demo'. The success of the Revolution and the end of British occupation saw Meganisi and the other Eptanesian states united with the rest of Greece, and they subsequently celebrated their first Greek Independence Day on the 21st May 1864.