The ancient city of Aptera lies on the northwest coast of the Greek island of Crete, on a low hill dominating the Souda Bay. According to the findings of the excavations, Aptera was founded in the Geometric period (8th century BC) and reached its peak during the Hellenistic period as one of the most important and powerful city-states of ancient Crete. With its two ports, Minoa and Kastelli, Aptera continued to be an important city during the Roman period and during the early days of the Byzantine Empire before being destroyed by two earthquakes in the 4th and 7th centuries and then by the Saracens in 823 AD.
Comforted by the finding of coins bearing the legend APT, the 19th-century English traveller Robert Pashley was the first to establish a link between the remains discovered on the hill of Paliokastro and the city of Aptera. The name “Aptera” might have been linked to the cult of Artemis Aptera since it was not uncommon for a city to derived its name from a god or a goddess. At Aptera, the city might have, rather unusually, chosen the goddess’ epiclesis (epithet) rather than the actual name of the goddess. However, according to Pausanias, Pteras, the founder of the second temple of Apollo at Delphi, gave its name to the city. The ancient city of Aptera is also mentioned in Greek mythology. It was the site of a contest between the Sirens and the Muses. The Sirens were defeated and as a result, lost their feathers and cast themselves into the sea. Aptera means “without wings”.
Given the lack of texts mentioning Aptera, what is known of the city mainly comes from excavations. Pausanias tells us that hundreds of skilled archers from Aptera were fighting as mercenaries in various places outside Crete, bringing wealth in their home city. Silver, imported from Egypt and Cyrenaica, allowed the city to mint its own coins and thus strengthened its independence and economic power. In the 5th century BC, like all Cretan cities, Aptera did not take part in the Persian wars and the city prospered. During the Cretan civil wars of the 3rd century BC, Aptera became a great ally of Knossos.
During the conquest of Crete by Metellus, Aptera surrendered without a fight as did Kydonia and Gortyn. This act enabled the city to get the favours of the Romans who lowered the taxes it had to pay. Aptera experienced a new period of peak during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, according to the impressive public and private buildings that have come to light. From the 3rd century AD, the city’s influence started to fade away, its decline being accelerated by the earthquake of 365 AD that destroyed several cities in Crete. A second earthquake in the 7th century, along with the invasions of the Saracen pirates, marked the abandonment of the city. A Late Byzantine monastery dedicated to St. John the Theologian was built amidst the ruins and continued in operation until 1964.
The most impressive of the preserved ancient buildings are the two Roman cisterns that served the needs of the city and supplied the facilities of the public and private baths. The city walls still standing are made of large polygonal stones and echo the walls of Tiryns and Mycenae. One can also see the remains of a small 5th century BC Doric temple dedicated to Artemis and his brother Apollo as well as the preserved ruins of a small theatre. Excavations at the site are still ongoing.
The archaeological site of Gortyn (or Gortyna), 45 km away from Heraklion, is the largest in Crete and one of the most fascinating. The ancient city was an important settlement throughout antiquity and became the capital of the Roman Province Creta et Cyrenaica in the late 1st century BC. Gortyn is located in the middle of the Mesara plain in south central Crete. According to tradition, it is where Zeus, in the guise of a bull, brought the princess Europa from her home in Phoenicia. Gortyn is mentioned by Homer in the Iliad as “having walls” and in the Odyssey as the place where Menelaus and his fleet of ships, returning home from the Trojan War, were blown off course to the Cretan coastline. Nowadays, Gortyn is particularly well known for its Law Code, the longest extant ancient Greek stone inscription in Greece.
The region of Gortyn has been continuously occupied from the Neolithic era (5000-3300 BC) to this day. During the Minoan period, a small settlement established itself under the control of the Minoan palace of nearby Phaistos. Gortyn later developed around a fortified acropolis surrounding the Temple of Athena Poliouchos (city protector), as shown on a clay idol of the armed goddess found on the site. From the 8th century BC, the city expanded towards the south and began to spread to the foot of the hill and along the banks of the Lethaios river where, in the 6th century BC, the agora was laid down. At the same time, other small settlements started to appear further down the plain like the site of the Temple of Apollo Pythios. In the Archaic era, a second centre was added to the city around the Temple of Apollo which became the new official temple of the city.
During the Classical period, Gortyn continued to grew and to prosper but very little remains of this period except for the twelve stone blocks carrying the famous law code discovered in 1884. The 600 lines written in a Dorian dialect and dating to the first half of the 5th century BC were the earliest law code in the Greek world. The inscription, inscribed in the boustrophedon system of writing (alternate lines in opposite directions), provides important information on the laws of the city and specifically its civil law. The code deals with matters surrounding the family and inheritance laws, adoptions, divorces as well as with crimes against morals (rapes, adultery) and the rights of women and slaves.
When the Romans invaded Crete, Gortyn sided with the conquerors and the city became the island’s capital. It enjoyed great prosperity and was endowed with lavish public buildings including a majestic praetorium, an amphitheatre, a hippodrome (unique in Greece), a third agora, baths and temples. At its peak, over 100,000 people are believed to have lived here.
From the 3rd century AD, during the early Christian years, Gortyn was the first Cretan city to welcome the new religion. The nearby village of Agii Deka (Ten Saints) was named after the ten Christian martyrs who were killed in the amphitheatre in 249 AD. One of the first Christian churches was built at Gortyn and the remains of an important 6th century Byzantine church can still be seen today. It was dedicated to St. Titus, the first Bishop of Crete who was appointed by the Apostle Paul and who undertook the task of disseminating the Christian religion throughout the island. The city was finally destroyed by the Saracens in 824 AD.
The ruins of Gortyn occupy a two-kilometre long square area, making this archaeological site the largest in Crete and one of the biggest in the whole of Greece. Sadly most of the buildings are not easily explored and have been fenced off. The only structure fully accessible is the Odeum with the Law Code. Finds from the site are on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and in the Sculpture Gallery at the site.
SCULPTURES found at gortyn
Large relief plaque of poros stone depicting naked Goddesses wearing the polos crown, from the Archaic Temple of Athena in Gortyn, mid-7th century BC.
Clay figurine of the goddess Athena, she wears a helmet made separately she would have hold a spear and a shield, the body is wheel-made and the face is molded, about 660-650 BC.
Portrait of emperor Caligula.
Portrait of emperor Tiberius.
Portrait of emperor Antonius Pius.
Portrait of emperor Marcus aurelius.
Small marble statue of the goat-like Pan, 2nd century AD.
Small marble statue of Asclepius, god of medecine, early 2nd century AD.