The Historical Period

The time of the legendary Minos is over. Now, in a manner still not fully understood, the early Iron Age ushers in a great social change - out of which by 900 BC begins to emerge an island of city-states with strong constitutional and social similarities to the so-called Dorian Way seen on the Greek mainland.

Even so, the east of the island remains different in certain ways: these Eteo-Cretans (‘Pure-blooded’ Cretans) considered themselves somewhat apart.

The Dorians and the Archaic Period

The traditional view to account for the Doric-bias in the newly emerged Cretan society is that over the years Greek tribes from the back areas of the mainland gradually moved across to the island: with new weapons of iron and militarily effective they gradually transformed the areas they settled in – socially and politically.

Ancient Times in Crete. Collapse of the Minoan Civilization

The new tribal way of life suited an aristocratic style of government: people were basically divided into three social classes. At the top – the free citizens (aka the newly arrived conquerors, and maybe those locals who threw in their lots with the same); the second class are the perioikoi (those living nearby), farmers that kept their land but were forced to pay heavy taxes to the first set; the third and lowest rank are ‘slaves’, probably the remnants of the original populations.

Those of the old stock who lived or moved to the east of Crete formed the Eteo-Cretans, but even their life-styles were affected by the new social realities.

Politically Crete was divided into the spheres of influence of the different city-states; continuous internecine wars devastated the island.

When an external enemy threatened the island, the cities ceased their internal feudings and set up what is known to history as the Syncretismos (the Union of Cretans): with its centre at Knossos, and now united, they set about the defence of their island.

In the Dorian era there was strict and just government – so it is said: Plato and Aristotle admired the Cretan Legislation. There were right to do so, as the Great Inscription of Gortyna (6-5 c. BC) makes plain.

Crete during the Classical Times. Gortina laws

However, culture per se did not flourish, as the new peoples were not very interested in it.

They raised their (male) children with the one aim of making them great warriors. They taught them a little lettering and music, taught them to respect the Law and to perform the Pyrrhikios, a martial dance.

Nonetheless the Eteo-Cretans managed for many centuries to keep their own customs, religion and language: some sort of diminished Bronze-Age lifestyle continued to survive in isolated areas of the island, especially the east – away from the new centres of power.

Classical and Hellenistic Crete

For a while in the 7th c BC, Crete was again a major player in the Greek world, but it rapidly went back into obscurity and decline: the important centres of culture and trade were Athens, Sparta and later Macedon, amongst other key players on the Greek mainland.

Crete’s strategic position was valued later on again in the Hellenistic world by the new powers – the successor states to Alexander the Great’s conquests. Its position ensured that Cretan ports were critical to controlling the sea-routes in this part of the Mediterranean.

Ancient Times in Crete. Crete during the Classical Years

The larger Cretan states, however, continued their tradition of constant conflictLato, Gortyna, Praisos, Cydonia, Knossos and Aptera are some of the bigger players. The island was constantly plagued by civil wars. 

As time passed, this internal strife intensified - as city state sought to eliminate rivals, banding together into small alliances of convenience. Anarchy was such that by 200 BC, pirates from Cilicia had set up shop on the island - using it as a forward base to raid and loot the neighbouring Roman provinces. A mistake!

Roman Crete

History of Crete. Romans in Crete In the final century or so BC, the situation on Crete was miserable. The larger cities such as Knossos, Gortyna, Cydonia (Chania) and Aptera competed hard for sovereignty – and what each could control.

Foreign powers exploited this situation, trying to get a foothold on the island: eg. the Ptolemies (from Egypt) established garrisons (under treaty) in some places, including Itanos on Crete.

The interests of these external competitors begin to impact on the island. The natives, unable to put up with the wretched conditions, begin to hire themselves out as mercenaries (their archers were especially prized) – or engage in a bit of piracy for themselves.

Indeed many Cretan city-states, in conjunction and cooperation with others outside of the island, were becoming systematic free-booters. This fast annoyed the Great Power of the time, Rome, which so found occasion and opportunity to get a grip on the island.

In 74 BC Marcus Antonius launched a campaign, but was defeated by the Cretans. He just managed to get away, by signing a treaty that was not at all favourable to Rome.

The Romans were not put out by this reverse – and so in 69 BC the consul Metellus landed in force in West Crete. The alliance the Cretans put together in opposition fielded 26,000 men. But despite their heroic efforts, the Roman legions – better trained, organized and equipped, advanced slowly across the island. The final moment in the conquest is signalled by the capture of Ierapytna (Ierapetra) in 67 BC by the Romans.

Roman Crete. Apollo's sanctuary in Levin

Roman rule affects the island, but did not seek to alter its Greek character. The customs, manners, language and religion all remained essentially unchanged.

With their architecture and administrative organization, the Romans contributed greatly to material progress on Crete: they built theatres, odeons, aqueducts, baths and temples in all the major cities of Crete.

In due course, Paul the Apostle, on his way to trial and martyrdom in Rome, spends some time here on the south coast: he begins to spread the new religion of Christianity to the locals. His disciple, Titos, takes on his mantle and founds the first churches on Crete.

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