Gortyn – largest and one of the most important archaeological sites in Crete


The largest and one of the most important archaeological sites in Crete. The remains of the former capital city of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrene (Libya) are strewn across 420 hectares – more than 1,000 acres – of the fertile Messara plain.

The city had humble beginnings as a Minoan (possibly even pre-Minoan) village. According to legend, it was here that Zeus brought Europa after abducting her from the Levantine coast in the guise of a Bull.

Their union, under an evergreen plane-tree beside the river, resulted in the birth of Minos himself, and his brothers Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who may all have been early Minoan kings.


Despite its divine connections, Gortyn was overshadowed by the great settlements at Phaistos and Knossos; but as the sun sank on the first great European civilisation, Gortyn’s star was starting to rise.

After the Dorian invasion (around 1100BC) Gortyn became a major city, served by the ports of  Matala and Lendas and, according to one theory, enriched itself through piracy. As one of the numerous city-states scattered across the island, Gortyn participated actively in the intrigues and internecine wars that plagued post-Minoan, pre-Roman Crete.

In the 3rd Century BC, the Gortynians defeated and occupied Phaistos, establishing unquestionable primacy over the plain.

Around this time, in far-off Italy, the city of Rome was establishing its dominance over its neighbours. In the following one-and-a-half centuries, Roman interests in Sicily would lead to a series of wars with the Phoenician city of Carthage in modern Tunisia that were to have a profound impact on world history.

When the Second Punic war ended with the destruction of Carthaginian influence following the battle of Zama in 202BC, Rome inherited control of most of the Mediterranean including several important Carthaginian port cities.

Hannibal, Carthage’s great one-eyed general, fled eastwards, to Antiochus III of Syria, who asked him to raise a fleet against the Romans. As Hannibal was a general, not an admiral, he failed to distinguish himself and, defeated off Side, Paphlygonia, was forced once again to flee. He made his way – by one account – to Crete, where he lived a while in Gortyn, before heading back to the mainland.

We don’t know for sure that Hannibal came here but there is another reason to bring up the Punic Wars. Having won control of the western Mediterranean, it was natural for Rome to look east, to parts of “Our Sea”, as they called it – that were not under their control.

The rulers of Gortyn saw which way the wind was blowing and allied themselves to the Romans ahead of the invasion of 69BC. They were probably Rome’s allies even before Marcus Antonius’s ill-fated adventure of 74BC, when the Cretans annihilated the Roman fleet and forced humiliating terms on Antonius (which the Senate refused to ratify). After that, Rome rejected Cretan efforts to make peace preferring to send Quintus Caecilius Metellus to do the job that Antonius had bungled.  If Gortyn had helped in the destruction of Antonius’s expedition, the Romans would probably not have accepted it as an ally by 69.

To reward its loyalty, Gortyn was made the capital of the new Roman province of Crete and Cyrene and enjoyed  favoured status within the Empire. Its population is believed to have reached 300,000.

As Christianity spread into the Greek world, the great city of Gortyn was a natural base for the mission to Crete. St Titus, a friend and follower of St Paul, is believed to have established the first Cretan Christian community here in the middle of the 1st century AD.

However, the Basilica of St Titus at Gortyn, one of the oldest and most magnificent Christian edifices on Crete, dates from much later – the 7th Century, though perhaps it replaced an earlier building.

Gortyn continued to thrive under Roman and Byzantine rule until the Arab invasion of 824. Four years later, it was utterly destroyed.

Naturally, Gortyn is an archaeologists’ paradise. It has been being excavated for decades but most of the city is still unexplored.

Gortyn Basilica
Gortyn Basilica

One of the earliest discoveries, made in 1884 by Italian archaeologist and epigraphist Federico Halbherr, was the Law Code.

This legal text is more than 600 lines long and is engraved in the walls behind the Roman Odeum. The Code is from the 5th or 6th centuries BC and is written in an obscure form of ancient Greek. It provides a list of penalties for various offences, the punishments being adjusted according to the rank of the criminal and the victim. For example, a free man who raped a slave was liable to be fined between one and 24 obols, according to circumstances; a slave who raped a free person would have to pay 2,400 obols. Yet the law was essentially humane and did not prescribe death or torture as statutory punishments.

The Code is the earliest European law code known and the only near complete (and comprehensive) one to have survived from ancient Greece. It provides a broad picture of the state of social relations in a 6th Century BC Greek City. In our ever-changing world, we must surely stand in awe of a society that was so certain of unchanging continuity that it carved its laws in stone.

  In the first century AD, a new law court and performing arts centre was erected incorporating the wall containing the inscription – it is the Odeum, where visitors can still sit today.

Other sights include the Acropolis, where some pre-Roman walls still stand, the governors’ palace, or Praetorium, the temple to Pythian Apollo, the remains of an aqueduct, a second century AD amphitheatre and a temple to the Egyptian gods, Isis and Seraphis.

Unfortunately, large parts of the ancient city are being damaged by farmers’ ploughs and in some cases there are indications that treasure-hunting may have taken place. Even some of the designated architectural areas are inadequately guarded and have only flimsy fencing.

Buses run between Gortyn and Iraklion.

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