History of Crete

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The rule of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire - Crete

In 67 BC, the Roman Empire began to rule the island of Crete, followed by the East Roman or Byzantine Empire (from the 4th century AD to 1204). During the Byzantine occupation, Crete temporarily fell into the hands of the Arabs (between 824 and 960).

Roman domination

In 67 BC, the Roman Empire took over the island of Crete. Under Roman rule, Crete formed a province together with Cyrenaica and the city of Gortys (today's Gortina) became the capital of Crete, while its main rival, the palace city of Knossos, was razed to the ground. Crete was a relatively prosperous power during this period, but no longer stood at the centre of the major maritime powers.

In the 1960s, Christianity comes to Crete and the first Christian church is founded in the town of Gortys by Bishop Titus. Chersonissos was also a well-known Roman town, where even today we can find the ruins of several early Christian basilicas.

East Roman / Byzantine Empire

When the power of the Roman Empire declined at the end of the 4th century AD, Crete became part of the Eastern Roman (later Byzantine) Empire and was controlled by Constantinople (today's Istanbul). The Byzantine Empire was based on Christian foundations and its culture was close to that of Greece. A huge number of churches were built in Crete at this time.

But few contemporary sources describe this "first Byzantine period". Crete was at this time a rather quiet province on the fringes of the Greco-Roman world, and was not even invited to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (unlike the neighbouring islands of Rhodes or Kos). With the exception of vandal attacks and a few major earthquakes that destroyed some towns, Crete remains a prosperous area. This is evidenced by the many historical monuments that often survive to this day. You can visit, for example, the beautiful monasteries of Agia Triada, Kardiotissa, Koudouma or Aretiou, dating back to the Byzantine Empire.


In the 8th century AD, a large group of exiles from Muslim Spain attack Crete. The Arab invaders destroyed Gortys and other towns, burned basilicas and churches, and ravaged the entire island, taking control of Crete in 824. They subsequently founded the city of Chandax (today's Heraklion), which became the capital of the Muslim Emirate of Crete. Chandax (or also Kandak) means "moat" in translation and refers to the city's fine fortifications, including a moat.

The Arabs benefited from Crete's strong trade links, formed across the eastern Mediterranean, as well as its well-established agriculture. Unfortunately, Arab piracy and the slave trade from the eastern Mediterranean also began to flourish. Crete under Arab rule thus posed a constant threat to the Byzantine Empire.

Return of Byzantine Empire

In 960, Byzantine soldiers succeeded in destroying the main Arab city of Khandak and Crete returned to the rule of the Byzantine Empire. A new admistrative centre was built on the ruins of the old city and the city was renamed Handakas. Then, in the 12th century, settlers from Constantinople came to Crete and a new Cretan aristocracy was formed on the island. After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Crete was sold to the Venetians in 1204.

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