4 – Crete in ancient times

The history of Crete (Part IV) from the Protogeometric Period through the Archaic Periods and the classical Hellenistic Age to the reign of Rome (1,100 B.C. to 330 A.D.).

Stairway-shaped access road to the mountain town of Lato
Stairway-shaped access road to the mountain town of Lato of the Dorians.

t arrow2Here to Part III: Fall of the palaces.

Protogeometric period (1,100-900 BC)

During this period, Greece itself experienced important events such as the gradual decline of the Mycenaeans and the so-called ‘Descent of the Dorians’, a Greek race that descended from the mountains of Macedonia and Epirus to Greece.

The Dorians knew how to process iron and reached Crete together with other pre-Greek and Achaean peoples. They were led by Tektamos or Teutamos, the son of Doros.
This age is also known as ‘sub-minoic’ and marks the end of the most brilliant prehistoric civilizations that the Minoans once had.

Crete was in decline and its population shrank markedly through military operations, but it still offered strong resistance.

View from Karfi
View from Karfi to the sea.

The indigenous population was subjugated. However, many of the inhabitants who did not want to give up fled to the mountains of central and eastern Crete, where they founded new settlements and continued the Minoan tradition.
Settlements from this period were found in Karfi on the Lasithi Plateau, in Kavousi, in Vrokastro Merabellou and in the area around Praisos, which was called the land of the Eteokreti, i.e. the land of the ‘true Cretans’.

By the end of the 12th century BC, however, the mass of the island had been taken over by the Dorians. This could have been done by a real invasion, but it looks more like it was a slow process, with one settlement after another falling under Dorian rule.

Many Minoan elements survived in art, along with the new ones that came to the island with the conquerors. The use of iron and the custom of cremation became widespread. Weapons and jewelry were only made of iron.
Clothing was no longer sewn, but stuck with iron fibulae. In ceramics, however, the variety was reduced to a few forms and decorations.

The ‘Great Goddess’ of vegetation continued to be worshiped, but over time many of her attributes were distributed among the female deities of the Greek pantheon (the gods of the ancient sanctuary).
Above all, a male goddess reigned, while the vegetation goddess continued to be worshiped in local cults as Dictynna or Britomartis.

Geometric-orientalizing Archaic Period (900-500 BC)

Birds from the Temple of Zeus in Amnisos
Birds from the Temple of Zeus in Amnisos

This whole period can be described as an outstanding period of Cretan civilization. The population grew, new cities like Driros, Lato near today’s Aghios Nikolaos, Rizenia, Axos and others emerged, while the old cities continued to exist.
With the collapse of the monarchy, the model of the Greek mainland was adopted as a state organization and ‘city states’ were created, similar to the old Sparta.
The Doric conquerors divided the subjugated indigenous population into three classes: First, the ‘Periooikoi’, who lived near the cities but had no political rights. Then there were the ‘Minoites’, who had no land of their own and were used as slaves in public works and in the fields. Finally, the ‘Klariotes’, who were personal slaves.

 Exedra of Lato
The Exedra (tribune) on the south side of the Agora of Lato.

The Dorians were the ruling class, besides the ‘free’ the important ones were the knights. From these the so-called ‘Kosmoi’ were chosen, the leaders in times of peace and war. The Senate had a purely consultative character and the Agora was only a formal institution.
But even for the rulers it was a hard, warlike life, similar to the classic Spartans.

In addition to agriculture and livestock breeding, trade was also conducted with Egypt and the Near East, which can be clearly seen from the Oriental influence in metal processing, such as the Koureten shields from the Idaic Grotto and ceramics.


Crete also developed a high reputation in the jurisprudence and so Solon is said to have received his suggestions for his own legislation here. The most important preserved legal text are the law tables from Gortys. These specimens date from about 450 B.C., but the laws listed there were largely in force for centuries.

law tablets of Gortys
The law tablets with the city rights of Gortys.

The art of the geometric period is characterized by austerity and self-control in form and decoration. However, at the end of this period, under strong influences, both on the island and from the east, the Daedalic or Archaic art of the 7th century B.C. emerged.
From 650 B.C., under Egyptian influence, clear compositional elements were created, which also made smaller sculptures and reliefs appear larger, for example the equestrian frieze from Prinias.
The styles developing on Crete were even transferred to the Greek mainland.

Fabulous collections of ceramics have been found in the cemeteries of Knossos and Arkades on the plains of Afrati. Eastern influences can be seen in metalworking and miniatures, with beautiful examples of bronze work from the Zeus Cave and the Symi Sanctuary in Viannos.
There is also gold and silver jewelry from the tombs of Knossos and Rizenia (Prinias). Sarcophagi and faience figures point to the close relationship with Egypt and there are brilliant examples of temple architecture in Prinias (ancient Rizenia), Lato, Driros and Gortys from the end of the 7th century BC. At the same time, the first early statues of ancient Greek art emerge.

bronze shields
The bronze shields from the Idean Grotto, dated from the late 9th century to the middle of the 7th century BC.

It is no exaggeration to describe the art of these epochs as the last peak of independent Cretan art, which began to decay from the 6th century BC onward. Its main causes were the absolute rule of the Doric warriors, the decline of trade, the wars between the Cretan city states, the simultaneous rise of the Ionian cities in Asia Minor and the flight of the Cretan artists and intellectuals from despotic rule on the island.

Classical and Hellenistic Age (500-67 B.C.)

The flourishing, preceding age was now followed by stagnation and decline. Crete missed the outstanding developments of classical Greece and was not involved in the massive political and military events such as the Persian Wars, the Peloponnese Wars, and Alexander the Great’s campaign in Asia.

View of the two hills of the mountain town of Driros (on the upper left is the small chapel on the top) seen from the north.

Instead, the small civil wars between the Cretan cities continued until the weaker city was subdued by the stronger. Therefore, the cities of Crete at that time were characterized by their strong defenses, with Gortys being one of the most powerful.
In this climate of constant small wars, art did not develop any further, but adopted the styles of the Greek mainland. This is documented by the gravestones from the 5th century from Agia Pelagia in the Archeological Museum.

Daylight falls into the Zeus Cave.
Daylight falls into the Zeus Cave.

Nevertheless, Cretan cities still benefit from trade. Also, many sanctuaries and caves are still in use, from Minoan times to Roman times, and the Zeus Cave on the Lassithi Plateau is an outstanding example.

During the Hellenistic period, more powerful empires interfered from the outside with the internal affairs of Crete. During this time there was also some progress in building democratic structures. Now alliances were formed between cities on the island, which together continued the civil wars against other city alliances.

This included the Confederation of Orei, which was founded around 300 BC between Elyros, Lissos, Hyrtakina, Tarra, Szia (the modern Souyia) and Pikilassos. All six settlements were located in the now sparsely populated southwest of Crete and later joined the Confederation of Gortys and Cyrenaica in North Africa.

In the course of the last centuries of this age, attempts at reconciliation were made, probably out of fear of enemies outside Crete and some federations between cities of the island resulted.

Argetic Alphabet
Alliance contract between Knossos and Tylissos in the Argetic Alphabet.

From 200 B.C. more and more pirates were operating from Crete, which began to disrupt Roman trade. Cretan mercenaries were also recruited in large numbers by other empires because they had incomparable guerrilla tactics.

Roman Age (67 BC – 330 AD)

Since the Punic Wars the power of Rome increased, which was now also involved in wars on the Greek mainland. The use of Cretan troops on both sides during these conflicts and the regular raids of pirates from Crete on Roman merchant ships brought the island more and more into the attention of Rome.

The defeated great Carthaginian general Hannibal fled to Gortys and already around 188 BC the Romans tried to pacify the island for the first time. But it took more than another century with only minor interventions before Rome could turn all its attention to Crete, which was the last part of the Greek world not under her rule.

In 74 B.C. Marcus Antionius Creticus, the father of Marcus Antonius, attempted an invasion of the island, mainly to punish the pirates. However, he was severely beaten in a naval battle by the Kydonians.
Therefore, Quintus Metellus, who subsequently received the honor name Creticus, made a further attempt in 69 BC. This time it succeeded to form a bridge head on the island, because the Romans sowed skilfully discord among the Cretan cities. Thus, Metellus was supported at the beginning of the campaign against Kydonia by the rivals from Polyrinia.

Roman coins on Crete
Roman coins on Crete (67 B.C. to 330 A.D.)

The strategy of playing the Cretans off against each other helped him tremendously. Nevertheless, a three-year, cruel and bitter war was necessary before Crete was completely subdued in 67 BC. This campaign was marked not only by the Cretans fighting each other, with Gortys fighting on the Roman side, but also by the Romans fighting each other. For an unsuccessful attempt to stop Metellus’ excesses on Crete and his increasing power, Rome sent later more troops against him to the island.

Finally, at the end of the fighting the island became an independent Roman province. The plundering and destruction during the war led to a decline in population and was a severe blow to the island’s agriculture and trade.
But this setback was only temporary, as the Romans wanted to take advantage of Crete’s excellent location to strengthen their trade with Egypt and Phoenicia, build new ports and take other measures to strengthen the economy.

Also, the Romans made few changes to the local administrations, which were simply subordinated to Rome. As in other conquered provinces, they built wonderful buildings in the new provincial capital of Gortys, especially in the first and second centuries AD, such as an Odeon, two theaters, two nymphs, baths, an amphitheater, the Pytheio, military headquarters and other civilian buildings. New theaters and other buildings have been built in many other places.
The architecture was mainly Greek and only the aqueducts, reservoirs and baths had Roman elements. The same was true for the sculptures. In the other art forms there were Roman and Eastern elements.

Praetorium of Gortys
A view of a section of the former Praetorium of Gortys.

After the conquest there was quick peace on the island and was hardly disturbed in the rather turbulent years by Julius Caesar’s ascent and end.
At the same time, the end of the civil wars brought a significant increase in wealth. Crete was merged with Cyrenaica in North Africa to form a common province, whose capital became Gortys. Although there was little direct contact between these two parts of the province separated by the Libyan Sea, they were important sources of grain and other food for Rome.
During this long period of peace, the population of Crete rose to around 300,000.

Roman sculptures

In 58 A.D., on his journey to Rome, the apostle Paul appointed his disciple Titos as the first bishop on the island, where Christianity quickly found followers. Titos organized the spreading of the faith and the construction of the churches before being executed in Gortys in 105 AD.

Titos church in Gortys
The ruins of the Titos church in Gortys. It was probably built there, where Titos, first bishop of Crete, was executed by the Romans.

During the persecution of Christians around 250 AD under Emperor Decius, ten other Christians were beheaded in Gortys, the ‘Holy Ten’ or Agii Deka.

In the years of late antiquity, Crete was closely linked to the fate of the Roman Empire. When it was divided into two parts, Crete became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. This marked the beginning of a new period under the rule of the Christian Byzantine emperors of Constantinople.

t arrow1 Here to Part V: Byzantine and Venetian rule.

Please share this:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top