Crete's Roman Past

By Bingham, Annette | History Today, November 1995 | Go to article overview
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Crete's Roman Past

Bingham, Annette, History Today

Roman Crete is almost `modern' compared to the timescales studied by archaeologists steeped in the island's 4,000 year old Minoan prehistory. Yet current work is rekindling interest in the long era which began in the second century BC when Rome tried to impose the Pax Romana on Crete's warring city states.

Dr Colin Macdonald, leader of the British School team working at Knossos, told History Today: `The late Hellenistic period was certainly a very colourful time on Crete. Piracy flourished and the city states were entangled in feuds and intrigues. Rome's involvement was possibly an attempt to suppress piracy and to impose peace.'

Knossos, site of the central Minoan palace, was the greatest Cretan Hellenistic city, but its supremacy was challenged by Gortyn, Kydonia (Chania) and Lyttos. Regional powers joined the intrigue and a series of convoluted coalitions involved Sparta in western Crete, Egypt (ruled by Macedonian Ptolemics) and Itanos in the extreme east, as well as Macedonia, and Macedonia's enemy, Rhodes. In 1937 a French archaeologist found part of an inscription from around 200 BC showing that Rhodes, which was attempting to counter piracy and gain influence in eastern Crete, was aligned with Olous, a flourishing port city on the northern coast of Crete.

As Rome gathered in the eastern Mediterranean it annexed the whole Greek mainland and then Pergamon in Asia Minor. In 88 BC mithradies of Pontus, whose territory was on the Black Sea, went to war to halt the Roman advance. On the pretext that Knossos was backing Mithradiets, Marcus Antonious attack Crete in 71 BC. The attack was repelled but Rome redoubled its efforts and sent Quintos Matellus and three legions to the island. After a ferocious three-year campaign he finally took control of crete in 67 BC.

`It would be interesting to know how the Romans imposed their authority on Knossos', Macdonald says. `We have not found the destruction level and are not even sure that Rome did destroy the city. Roman buildings have foundations two metres deep and they ruin much of the evidence of earlier occupation. We know one important home was razed, but may speculate on whether this was because the owner resisted Rome'.

`To date we know very little about the transition between Cretan Hellenism and Roman domination. We hope to have a better picture within the next four to six years as Professor Ken Wardle and a team from Birmingham University have started to excavate'.

The Roman city lies to the north of the Bronze-Age palace on a triangle of land purchased by Sir Arthur Evans almost a century ago. The first official excavation in 1935 found a statue of Hadrian and the trail then led to the Villa Dionysius which has fine Roman colonial mosaics.

At Gortyn, on the fertile Mesara plain, the Roman buildings are scattered across an area which has yielded rich finds. The city was pro-Roman and became the capital of a large Roman province which included Crete and Cryrenica (Libya).

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