Ancient Times

Ancient Times

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Over the years, Greek tribes from the hinterland gradually migrate to the island of Crete. The Minoan civilization entered its final stage of decline around 1300 BC and the island of Crete was plagued by natural disasters and destructive earthquakes.

Doric period and Archaic years

Around 1100 BC, new invaders arrived on the island of Crete. This time it is the Dorians who manage to occupy Crete, utilizing their military power and excellent organization. Between 1100 – 900 BC, Doric tribes migrate to the island en masse and displace the Minoans (Eteocretes) to the most mountainous, barren and inaccessible areas of the island, mainly in the East. According to legend, the leaders of the first Dorians, who landed on the island from Sparta – in present-day Gournes and Hersonissos – were Pollis and Delphos. The new rulers established an aristocratic form of government and society was essentially divided into three social classes. The highest class is that of the free citizens and consists of only the conquerors and perhaps a few locals that worked for them. The second class is for the farmers, who kept their lands but were forced to pay heavy taxes to the conquerors. The third class consisted of slaves, mainly Minoans who did not manage to escape. The rest of the former inhabitants, known as the Eteokrites, were forced to take refuge in the inaccessible mountains of eastern Crete and build new cities there.

Knossos palace - Crete island, Greece

The famous Gortyn law code clearly shows the unquestionable and cruel power exercised by the rulers on all aspects of life on the island. Politically, Crete was divided into provinces, with various independent city-states, which led to frequent civil wars and unrest. Some characteristic examples of such city-states, which required fortified citadels, are ancient Falassarna – with its impressive harbor – and Polyrrenia in the west, Gortyna and Phaistos in the south, Lyktos in the central part, and Driros and Praisos to the east. One notable exception is Knossos, which was never fortified. When an external enemy threatened the island, the cities stopped quarreling with each other and held a meeting, in the Palace of Knossos, to organize their united defence of the island. The laws and policies adopted by Crete during the Doric period were highly regarded by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The Dorians wanted to raise their children to be great warriors and they didn’t focus much on letters and music; they were taught to obey laws and dance the Pyrrhichios, as part of their war training.

The cultural foundation of the Dorians was in direct contrast to the Minoans, nevertheless, the Eteocrites managed to maintain their customs, traditions, religion and language for many centuries, mainly in secret. The Minoan civilization continued to survive in isolated areas of the island and especially in its eastern part, away from the major centers of power in western Crete. Villages like Karfi in the mountains of Lassithi were inhabited primarily by Minoans who called themselves Eteocretans, meaning “real Cretans” and preserved the cultural wealth of the Minoan civilization. Other large cities, such as Praisos, gradually consolidated Minoan and Doric culture. Praisos also maintained its own language and remained strong and prosperous until the third century BC.

Classical and Hellenistic period

For a short period of time during the 7th century BC, Crete regained its position as an important cultural centre. However, it quickly faded into obscurity again, since the most important centers of culture and trade at that time were Athens, Sparta and Macedonia, as well as other cities in the Greek mainland. The strategic importance of Crete was appreciated again much later during the Hellenistic years, by the new powers of the time. From its ports, they controlled the sea routes crossing the Aegean and established prosperous settlements. The city-states of Lato, Gortyna, Praisos, Kydonia, and Aptera, were in constant conflict and so the island was continually plagued by civil war. Impressive archaeological finds have been discovered in the cities of Eleftherna, Lato, Gortyna, Phaistos, Polyrrinia, Prinia, Arcades, and Itano, that visitors can admire nowadays, either on-site or in the archaeological museum of Heraklion and archaeological museum of Chania.

What characterizes Crete in the Classical and Hellenistic period (500 – 67 BC) is its obscurity and the fact that it is cut off from the rest of the Greek city-states. The fact that Crete did not take part in the pan-Hellenic wars against the Persians, is indicative of that relationship. Much later, Crete takes an active role again, in the campaign of Alexander the Great. As the years go by, the internal conflicts on the island intensify and chaos prevails until 200 BC. Later, pirates from Cilicia will settle on the island, and use it as a base for their raids in the neighboring Roman provinces.


In the last centuries before the birth of Christ, the situation on the island of Crete was tense. The great cities of Knossos, Gortyna and Kydonia competed fiercely for dominance over the island and for control of the “Cretan public”. Knossos and Gortyna were constantly at war, while Kydonia frequently changed sides, creating further imbalance. As can be expected, external forces tried to take advantage of the situation and gain a foothold on the island. Egypt was first in the 3rd century BC and acquired a base in Crete, in the city of Itano at its eastern end. Soon, the Macedonians did the same by allying with Gortyna, as did the Spartans later. The interests of many external powers began to clash. At the same time, the inhabitants of the island were growing frustrated with the miserable conditions; some became mercenaries and fought in war camps, while many indulged in piracy. This slowly eroded the character of the island’s inhabitants as more Cretan cities formed collaborations with city-states outside of Crete and began to systematically engage in piracy.

Disturbed by this development, Rome, as the great power of the time, found the right moment and opportunity to gain access to the island. In 74 BC, Markos Antonios was given military command and started a campaign against the island. The Cretans, however, had enough time to prepare a counterattack and fought Antonios’ fleet before it managed to arrive in Crete, capturing many of his ships and killing the prisoners. Antonios managed to escape at the last moment, after signing a treaty with the Cretans and returned to Rome disgraced. The Romans, however, were not discouraged, and tried again in 69 BC, under the guidance of the supreme Roman General Cointos Kaikilios Metellos, who landed in western Crete with his Roman legions and managed to quickly occupy the whole island. The united response from the Cretan city-states, with 26,000 men under the guidance of Generals Panaris and Lasthenis, proved unsuccessful. Despite the heroic effort, the Roman legions, better trained, well organized and equipped, took control of the island, The final stage was the occupation of Ierapytna in 67 BC.  The city of Gortyna became the centre and capital of the Romans at the time as they moved to defeat the pirates of the Mediterranean. Other cities that flourished during these years are Kydonia, Polyrrinia, Aptera, Eleftherna, Axos, Hersonissos, Itanos, and Ierapytna. The sanctuary of Asclepius, established during the late Classical period, also prospered; as a Roman colony, Knossos only had a minor role.

The Roman rule influenced the island but did not manage to significantly alter its Greek character. Most of the traditions, customs, language and religion of the people were preserved. However, the planning and administrative organization of the Romans also contributed to the development of the island. During this period, Crete was densely populated and the villages multiplied and shifted closer to each other; the population also increased. At the same time, the Romans took advantage of all the arable lands and pastures. Large farmhouses were built in many places as well as theatres, conservatories, aqueducts, baths and temples in all the major cities. During this period, the Apostle Paul arrived on the island and spread the new religion of Christianity.