Lato was one of the most important Doric city-states of Crete; its port was at Kamara, on the site of the present-day town of Agios Nikolaos. It was built on a mountainous spot, 3 kilometres north of the village of Kritsa, at the north-east foot of Mount Dikti. Its privileged, naturally secure location was considered ideal, since it facilitated the control of the pass from Central to Eastern Crete, the whole surrounding area and a large part of the bay of Mirambello.
The territory of Lato included the current areas of Agios Nikolaos, Kritsa, Katharo plateau, Kalo Chorio and Prina. Cemeteries used by its residents, as well as smaller settlements and small fortresses, built for the control of the area, were to be found around the city.
The name Lato is most likely related to the goddess Leto who, according to the myth, gave birth to Apollo and Artemis and was worshipped in the Doric city, as were the goddess Eileithyia and the god Hermes. It is also worth mentioning that Nearchos, admiral in the service of Alexander the Great, originated from Lato.
From the 3rd century BC and on, the seaport of Lato progressively became more and more powerful and, due to the increase in trade, the city high on the hill was gradually abandoned. In the 2nd century BC, Lato invaded the neighbouring town of Istron (modern-day Kalo Chorio), and also fought with Hierapytna and Olous (current Elounda), securing its boundaries. Next, it was invaded itself, being one of the last conquests of the Romans, the presence of whom, however, in the area, does not appear to have been very strong.
The archaeological site is quite remarkable and is considered as one of the best preserved urban areas from the Classical and the Hellenistic period in Greece. Lato was built on terraces, and it featured an agora, a prytaneum (prytaneίon = government house), a few temples and a theatre.
Fortifications, a large part of the city, including the city centre and the agora, have been unearthed, as well as the city walls, which survive to an impressive height; in Antiquity, there were sturdy towers placed at intervals between them.
Lato is accessed from its western side, where the city gate was also located in Antiquity; this gate could be closed down, just like in the walled Medieval cities. An uphill road began after the gate, which passed through the commercial and workshop districtand ended up at a pentagon-shaped plateau, where the agora existed. A sanctuary was situated at the centre of this area, as well as a large hypostyle water cistern, the roof of which was supported by two Doric columns. The city was supplied with water via such water reservoirs, which were to be found scattered throughout the city.
Somemonumental stepscan be seen north of the reservoir, which were probably used as seats during political or religious gatherings. Behind this area there is the prytaneum, which is regarded as the most significant building of Lato; there, the nobles of the city (known as kosmoi) used to hold their meetings. South of the agora was the main temple of the city, behind which the base of a cult statue can be seen today. Somewhat lower than the temple, to the east,the city theatre stood, carved into the rock.
Even though the buildings that survive today are dated to the 4th and the 3rd century BC, the layout and the architecture of the agora and the other public buildings suggest the continued existence of a thriving, powerful city at least since the Archaic years.
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