History of Crete, Part 4 – Roman, Byzantine, Venetian to Ottoman

As the Roman Empire disintegrated and the Byzantines grew in power the newly-named city of Constantinople (latterly Byzantium) became the capital of the Eastern Empire. Her system of government would last for hundreds of years and Crete fell within her jurisdiction. Crete entered a period of stability under the Byzantine rule and, Christianity being an important feature of life, many Churches were built – the most important being the basilica of Aghios Titos in Gortyn. The island was largely unaffected by the the more northerly attacks, from the Germanic tribes, on the Byzantine Empire.

After centuries of this relative stability Crete found herself used as a stepping stone as the Arabs attempted to conquer Constantinople. In 824 both Crete and Sicily were lost to the Byzantines and taken by the Arabs who used the island ports as bases for their piratical activities. For the island’s Christians even worse was to follow. Churches and monuments were destroyed and the people persecuted for their beliefs. Gortyn was destroyed and, once again, the native islanders retreated into their mountain fastness. Relief came just over a hundred years later, in 961 when a Byzantine army, led by Nikiforas Fokas, retook Crete from the Arabs and returned her to Byzantine rule and Christianity.

Stability returned once again and Crete enjoyed a period of comparative prosperity, in which architecture and art flourished, as overseas trading increased. This sea trade was largely in the hands of Genoese businessmen. However, by the early 13th Century, change was in the air yet again and Crete, along with other Byzantine holdings, was gifted to Prince Boniface of Montferrat, the leader of the Fourth Crusade, in an attempt to avert the sacking of Constantinople. The ploy didn’t work and, after the fall of Constantinople, Crete’s future was sold into Venetian hands. The Venetians’ first priority was to remove the Cretan power base of their old rivals, the Genoese. This was largely accomplished by 1210 but the remaining Genoese supporters remained a thorn in the Venetian side by supporting and fomenting any local unrest. Despite this, almost 500 years of Venetian rule would follow.

Over the centuries the Venetians suppressed a large number of serious uprisings on the island by strong and dictatorial government but they also developed the island’s economy and transformed the way of life to accomodate Venetian ideals. The Roman form of Christianity became the official religion in place of the old eastern orthodoxy, towns were given new names and many new buildings appeared. Some parts of the island had some degree of success in resisting Venetian influence and there was even a degree of tolerance afforded to those followers of the eastern form of Christianity, although this only came about after the ‘bloody’ suppression of the ‘Republic of St. Titus’ by the Venetians in 1363.

In 1453 Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks and many Byzantine artists and scholars found their way to the safer shores of Crete, making a significant contribution to the cultural life of the island. This new influence can still be seen in their capital city, Heraklion. At this time the powerful Ottomans were also giving the Venetians cause for concern and this persuaded the Venetians to build massive defensive fortresses around the island. These can still be seen, today, in towns and cities such as Heraklion, Hania and Rethymnon and were effective in defending Crete from further invaders.