During the first centuries AD and on into the Middle Ages, Crete passes from one hand to another, increasingly a target to different peoples because of its key position in the Mediterranean.
As a result, the islanders are constantly struggling for their freedom, despite (or because of) the often harsh and brutal conditions visited upon them by their conquerors. The island passed successively into the hands of the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Byzantines again and the Venetians: but even so it continues to safeguard its cultural autonomy.
In the first Byzantine period, Crete became an important Christian stronghold. In 824 AD the Saracens occupied the island: Chandax (today’s Heraklion) was their base for piratical raids in the Mediterranean. In 961 AD, the future emperor Nikephoras Phocas drove them out, so inaugurating the second Byzantine period. In the years that followed once more Crete is a strong Christian centre – and advances to a great cultural height.
After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the ‘Franks’ on crusade, Crete passed to the control of the Venetians (with a little initial interference from the Genoese). The Venetian period sees exceptional economic and intellectual prosperity: they built huge fortifications, large cities and monuments of outstanding beauty. The Cretan Renaissance gifts us with the magnificent Cretan School of painting. Music and theatre flourished and have bequeathed to us the wonderful creations of the Erotokritos and the Erofili.
During the 7th century AD, however, and indeed beginning even earlier in the 8th, pirate raiding (chiefly on the part of the Arabs) brought about a loss of population and the abandonment of almost all coastal sites. Finally the Saracen Arabs, operating out of Egypt, landed on the south coast in 824 AD (some say 828 AD), burning their boats to compel them to remain – or die: Crete was a land ‘running with honey and milk’ as they put it.
The end of the second Byzantine period was a troubled one generally – one of decline in the Empire and its provinces. After the 1204 AD sack of Constantinople, the island of Crete was offered first to Count Boniface of Monferrat, the leader of the Crusade. Unable to stamp his authority on the large island he sold it to the Venetians for 1000 silver pieces.