Crete: Gortys

Roman statue found at Gortys.

Roman statue found at Gortys.

Gortys, also known as Gortyn or Gortyna, was the capital of Roman Crete. It was destroyed in the ninth century by Muslim Arab raiders and the area has been uninhabited ever since. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr and his team began excavating at the site of Ancient Gortys and work continues until this day. The site, which comprises some 2.000 square metres, is now split into two parts by Road 97, a provincial road that runs from Heraklion to Phaistos. To enter the northern part of the archaeological area, the visitor has to buy a ticket. Here one can find the remains of the Odeon, the Roman theatre, and the famous law code of Gortys. The southern part – by far the largest part – is accessible free of charge. There are a few fences surrounding the vulnerable remains of temples and other ancient buildings, but the visitor is otherwise allowed to wander around freely between the olive trees.

A little history

The Romans became involved in Cretan affairs in the early second century BCE. By that time, they had already become the dominant power in this part of the Mediterranean. In 197 BCE, a Roman army had smashed the forces of the Macedonian King Philip V at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly. Seven years later, the Romans decisively defeated the Seleucid King Antiochos III at Magnesia. Roman power now arguably eclipsed that of Alexander the Great’s successors and that of all other city states and kingdoms in the region. Both Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire were in decline, while the Romans had excellent relations with Ptolemaic Egypt, the kingdom of Pergamum and mercantile giant Rhodos.

Remains of the Roman Odeon.

In 189 BCE, the Roman praetor Quintus Fabius Labeo sailed to Crete when it was reported that Roman and Italian prisoners of war – presumably from the war with Antiochos – were kept all over the island. Labeo found Crete in a state of civil war, as Kydonia was fighting both Gortys and Knossos. Gortys voluntarily returned the prisoners, earning Roman gratitude, but other cities refused and Labeo had to threaten to use force before some 4.000 prisoners (a number, probably inflated, mentioned by Livius, who based his estimate on Valerius Antias) were released.

In 184 BCE, we find a Roman delegation led by one Appius Claudius settling certain affairs on Crete. We do not know the background or the precise nature of their activities, mentioned by Polybius in Book 22 of his Histories, but it is possible that the Roman intervention was requested by Rhodos. This island was a staunch ally of Rome and had aided the Romans in the naval war against Antiochos by providing warships and experienced sailors for the Roman fleet. As a trading nation, Rhodos suffered badly from attacks by Cretan pirates on its merchant ships and this may have been the reason to request Roman help. Crete seems to have been in a state of permanent war and anarchy at this time, and Polybius now mentions a violent conflict between Gortys and Knossos.

Part of the law code of Gortys.

There also seems to have been a perpetual conflict between Gortys and Phaistos further to the west. The conflict ended in the second century BCE with the defeat and destruction of Phaistos. Gortys now dominated the entire fertile Messara Plain and was arguably the most powerful city state on the island, maintaining close ties with the Ptolemies in Egypt. The Romans seem to have had little interest in annexing Crete, until Cretan pirates became a nuisance again in the first century BCE. In 74 BCE, the praetor Marcus Antonius – father to the more famous Marc Antony – tried to conquer the island, but was severely defeated in a naval battle. He received the nickname Creticus, which was obviously meant ironically (one remembers that the emperor Elagabalus was posthumously nicknamed Tiberinus when his body was thrown into the river Tiber).

Antonius’ successor Quintus Caecilius Metellus, also nicknamed Creticus, proved to be much more competent and certainly deserved his nickname. After a long and difficult war, which involved besieging many walled towns, he managed to bring the entire island under Roman control in 67 BCE. Gortys seems to have submitted to or even allied with Creticus soon after the Roman invasion, which ensured that it was spared and even promoted to the position of capital of Roman Crete. The senatorial province of Creta et Cyrenaica – Cyrenaica is in present-day Libya – was created in 20 BCE. Both Crete and Gortys prospered under Roman rule, which may have been imposed by force, but at least brought peace to an island that had suffered so badly from civil strife.

Ruins of Saint Titus’ Basilica.

A closer look at Gortys

The most eye-catching structures in the northern part of Gortys are the Odeon (see the picture above) and Saint Titus’ Basilica (see the picture on the left). The former dates back to the first or second century CE, but not much of it is left. It is most famous for something that does not seem to belong in a theatre at all. I am referring to the law code of Gortys, which is kept in a modern brick building behind the Odeon. The code (ca. 450 BCE) is virtually complete and written in Doric Greek. As the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization (2006) states, “the rationale of its creation and inscribing remains obscure”. The code mostly deals with what we would call civil law and contains provisions for inheritances, sale of property, marriages and adoption. A small part of the code deals with rape and adultery, so with criminal law. The text is peculiar in that it is written boustrophedon: “as the ox ploughs”. In other words, the first line is written from left to right, then the second line is written from right to left, and so on.

Zeus’ platanus orientalis.

Saint Titus’ Basilica is a ruined church from the sixth century. Titus was, according to tradition, the first bishop of Crete. He accompanied Saint Paul on his missionary journeys and is mentioned in the Bible, most notably in the Epistle to Titus. In Galatians 2:3, Paul writes that “neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised”. So Titus was obviously a Gentile (a non-Jew, or “Greek” in the King James version), who had converted to Christianity and was thus not subject to Mosaic Law. Saint Titus became the patron saint of Crete, and his church at Gortys was an important religious centre until the Arab raids mentioned above destroyed most of the buildings of this once prosperous and powerful city.

Also in the northern part of the archaeological area is a tree – a platanus orientalis to be exact – where Zeus is said to have made love to the Phoenician princess Europa, whom he had abducted from her motherland disguised as a bull. She subsequently bore him a son named Minos, the legendary father of the Minoan civilisation on Crete. Of course the tale is just a myth, but it is nonetheless commemorated on a sign that is attached to the tree. The fact that the tree looks quite young and certainly has not been around since early Antiquity does not add credibility to the story.

Temple of Apollo.

Crossing the road

The southern part of the area is much, much larger than the northern part. It basically runs all the way from the modern village of Metropolis in the west to the modern village of Agioi Deka in the east. When Gortys flourished during the Roman era, the city had a stadium, an amphitheatre, baths, a nymphaeum (a sacred area dedicated to nymphs), an aqueduct and water drainage network, several more theatres and many religious buildings. The most important of the latter is the temple of Pythian Apollo, the remains of which can still be seen today.

Just to the north of this temple was another religious building, called the Temple of the Egyptian Divinities. It was constructed in the first or second century. Apparently, it was the only temple on the island dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis and Anubis. The statue of Anubis seems to have been lost or destroyed, or it could still be buried somewhere deep down in the earth. The statues of Isis and Serapis, on the other hand, have been recovered and can be admired in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Isis and Serapis.

Isis and Serapis.

Serapis was a product of Ptolemaic Egypt, a syncretistic deity that combined elements of the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, with the sacred bull Apis and the Greek god Hades. The statue that is now in Heraklion actually shows him as Hades with the three-headed guard dog Kerberos. On his head is a modius (measuring jug), and he has a sceptre in his left hand. Isis is portrayed as the Greek goddess Persephone, Hades’ wife. She is partly veiled and has a crescent-shaped disc on her head. In her right hand, she is holding a sistrum, an ancient Egyptian musical instrument. Both statues are from the second century.

As Gortys was the capital of Roman Crete, it was also the seat of the Roman governor of the island. His residence, the praetorium, may have been the most splendid building in the entire city. Now it is a heap of stones and rubble, with just a section of a large wall left standing among a few broken columns. Sic transit gloria mundi.

It is quite pleasant to wander around at this charming location, daydreaming about how splendid Gortys must have been prior to its destruction in the early ninth century.

Ruins of Gortys.


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