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Classical and Roman Period

After the mists of the Dark Age had cleared - from the 9th century BC onwards - a number of city-states began to evolve on Crete. These flourished through the Archaic to the Classical period, and by the 5th-4th centuries BC, Knossos and Gortys were the most powerful, independent (and rival!) cities on the island. The Gortys Legal Code was drawn up and inscribed on stones in the ‘agora’ or market place of the city of Gortys between 500 and 450 BC. Written in the old Doric dialect, the words running from right to left and then left to right - as an ox ploughs the land - it deals with every type of legal dispute in civil law; some of the pronouncements are very modern-sounding! Thanks to the Romans who arrived on Crete four centuries later, the code has survived, since they incorporated the same stones from the old agora into the walls of their theatre.

During the Hellenistic period, civil wars broke out again between the city-states, with Gortys fighting Knossos for supremacy. Cilician pirates took advantage of the chaos and established themselves in the island’s harbours, using them as bases from which to harry shipping. Later, in the 1st century BC, the Romans stopped these attacks by sending Quintus Caecilius Metellus to conquer the island (67 BC). Knossos became Colonia Julia Nobilis, a large Roman city extending from the edge of the site of the Minoan Palace of Knossos towards modern Heraklion. Gortys became the capital of Roman Crete and the province of Cyrenaica; its ruins stretch over an enormous area, and include an amphitheatre, theatre, baths, temples, and a Praetorian camp. The fertile Mesará Plain produced corn for export to Italy. Many smaller towns had amphitheatres, such as Kissamos and Hersonissos, and aqueducts, cisterns and bath complexes were built all over the island. The Apostle Paul is reputed to have landed on the south coast in 60 AD after a storm, on his way to Rome; he later returned and left his companion Titus to become the first bishop of the Christian community of Crete. When the Imperium Romanum split up into the Western and Eastern Empires in 330 AD, Crete accrued to the Eastern – Byzantine - Empire, whose capital was established at Constantinople.

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