Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity

Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity

Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity

Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity


From 1211 until its loss to the Ottomans in 1669, the Greek island we know as Crete was the Venetian colony of Candia. Ruled by a paid civil service fully accountable to the Venetian Senate, Candia was distinct from nearly every other colony of the medieval period for the unprecedented degree to which the colonial power was involved in its governance.

Yet, for Sally McKee, the importance of the Cretan colony only begins with the anomalous manner of the Venetian state's rule. Uncommon Dominion tells the story of Venetian Crete, the home of two recognizably distinct ethnic communities, the Latins and the Greeks. The application of Venetian law to the colony made it possible for the colonial power to create and maintain a fiction of ethnic distinctness. The Greeks were subordinate to the Latins economically, politically, and juridically, yet within a century of Venetian colonization, the ethnic differences between Latin and Greek Cretans in daily material life were significantly blurred. Members of the groups intermarried, many of them learned each other's language, and some even chose to worship by the rites of the other's church. Holding up ample evidence of acculturation and miscegenation by the colony's inhabitants, McKee uncovers the colonial forces that promoted the persistence of ethnic labeling despite the lack of any clear demarcation between the two predominant communities. As McKee argues, the concept of ethnic identity was largely determined by gender, religion, and social status, especially by the Latin and Greek elites in their complex and frequently antagonistic social relationships.

Drawing expertly from notarial and court records, as well as legislative and literary sources, Uncommon Dominion offers a unique study of ethnicity in the medieval and early modern periods. Students and scholars in medieval, colonial, and postcolonial studies will find much of use in studying this remarkable colonial experiment.


Crete is Greek, despite the variety of imprints on its landscape and population made by Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, and the people of western Europe, the Latins. No one would deny that Cretans speak demotic Greek, or a dialect of it, and have done so for centuries. the legendary ferocity of the Cretan people came to stand for the Greek nation as a whole during the Second World War, when the army of the Third Reich invaded the island and met furious, bloody resistance. the image of Zorba the Greek, jubilantly dancing on the Cretan shoreline, drawn vividly by the Cretan author Nikos Katzanzakis and brought cinematically to life by Cacoyannis, furnished another side of the stereotype of the quintessential Greek man. Even Eleutheros Venizelos, who became in the early part of the twentieth century the first prime minister of a united Greece that included the island, was a Cretan. in the West, and to a certain extent in modern Greece itself, the island of Crete became a metonym of the modern Greek nation.

A little less than four centuries before the enosis, the proclamation of the Union of Crete with the mainland issued by the Assembly of Crete in 1908, and well before the founding of the Greek state in 1821, the Ottoman Turks had wrenched possession of the island from Venice after a protracted war that ended in 1669. in 1211, 458 years before that, Venice sponsored its first settlement of Crete. the Byzantine emperor’s grip on the island had already been lost by that date. the so-called Second Byzantine period had lasted for only one hundred and fifty years, from the time that the military general and subsequent emperor Nicephorus ii Phocas managed to expel the Muslims, who themselves had previously captured Crete in the midtenth century. Prior to the Muslim period, the first Byzantines, the heirs of the Roman world, ruled the island.

Measuring the impact of conquerors on a conquered people simply by comparing the number of years each power’s occupation lasted would be to simplify grossly the process whereby people become acculturated to one another. Nevertheless, it gives a twentieth-century student of history pause when the over four and a half centuries of Venetian rule are placed alongside the three hundred and ninety years of Ottoman rule, the one and a half . . .

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