Dorian period in Crete: rise of cretan cities

Dorian period of Crete: From 1049 B-C. until 190 B.C

In 1104 BC . the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese under the leadership of the Heraclids. This invasion deeply upset Greece and gave rise to numerous and important colonies . The island of Crete, next to the coast of the Peloponnese and named for its fertility and wealth, attracted all the victims of the internal revolution that Greece suffered towards it. The first colony received by Crete was led by Polis and Delphos.

When an oracle foretold them that they would see the end of their peregrinations when they had lost both their goddess and their anchor, they looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy. When they arrived near the Cretan Chersonese, they were seized by a panicky terror and set sail again during the night. But, in the short time they had to flee, they lost the statue of Diana Brauronian; it was also then that Pollis noticed that one of the teeth of the anchor was broken.

The oracle being thus accomplished, the Tyrrhenian Pelasges come back on their steps, disembark on the coast of Crete, after having defeated the inhabitants in several meetings, took possession of Lyctos and many other cities. The cities occupied by the new settlers considered themselves to be allies of the Athenians on the one hand and of the Spartans on the other.

Althmenes, son of Kissos, king of Argos, led another Dorian colony in Crete. According to Strabo, those who composed it came from Megara. Of all the settlements that the Dorians founded in Crete, the most considerable seems to have been Lyctos (Near actual Hersonissos). The Dorian invasions had the effect of completely transforming the political and social state of Crete. The island soon had as many independent states as rival cities.

 The Dorian invasion of Crete was the consequence and counterattack of the Peloponnese invasion, but while in Laconia the conquest was carried out with unity and homogeneity, it was not the same in Crete. The Dorians arrived there and occupied it by emigrating in small groups; the settlements they formed there were isolated from each other. Thus, the Doric colonies, while dominating the whole island, did not succeed in melting into a single state the various political units that developed there.

In moments of danger they were able to put an end to their internal discord and to unite in a kind of federation known as syncretism. But this union was always a work of circumstance and remained impotent to render the services that would have been obtained from a perennial institution. Divided into a host of small independent states, the island did nothing great; its external role was reduced to providing the other states of Greece with mercenaries, particularly bowmen and slingers renowned for their skill. The medieval wars and that of the Peloponnese, which threw the disorder even in the most distant villages of continental Greece, did not make Crete leave its neutrality.


When the deputies of Greece presented themselves to claim the assistance of the Cretans against the common enemy, Xerxes, the latter sent to consult the oracle of Delphi, and took advantage of its answer to launch any kind of help. “Fools, says the Pythia, you complain of the evils that Minos sent you in his anger because of the help you gave to Menelas and because you helped the Greeks to take revenge for the abduction of a woman who made a bar in Sparta, although they had not contributed to avenge her death, arrived in Camicos, and you would still like to help them! ‘ ,

The rivalry of Athens and Sparta, the bloody and obstinate war which was the consequence did not make either Crete leave its cautious attitude.

 Crete had as many as sixteen separate and autonomous states, but the largest cities were always Gnossos (knossos) Gortyn, Kydonia and Lyctos. None of them was powerful enough to dominate the others and to achieve hegemony. On the other hand, Gnossos could not forget that in the time of Minos it had served as the seat of royal power; it aspired to regain the power it had lost, but as it did not feel that it had the strength to achieve its ambitious plans, it allied itself with Gortyne, the second city of Crete. Gnossos and Gortyne succeeded in subduing most of the island.

Lato dorian site Crete
Lato dorian city in east Crete

Political constitution of Dorian Crete

During dorian period, political constitution of Crete is partly written in the Gortyne code, a collection of laws and codes written on stone walls in Gortyne, in the middle of 5th century B.C., This codification was the legal code of civil laws in the dorian city of Gortyn,from wich remains only some fragments.

Historians have on hands a certain number of inscriptions they are treaties intervened between various States of Crete. The social and political constitution of Crete rests on the double principle of the feudal subordination or if one likes better the subjection of the greatest number and on the separation of the two castes, the caste of soil cultivators and that of the warriors.

 Indeed, in Sparta as in Crete, the Dorians formed the preponderant element; it is the Dorians who constituted the noble and sovereign race, invested with the political rights and fulfilling all the public functions. Below this privileged caste was a class condemned by birth to servitude and which included the Perioeci, the Mnoites, the Aphamiotes or Clarotes.


They were, according to him, the cultivators of the soil, responsible for providing for the subsistence of the free men. When they settled in Crete, the Dorians landed and drank part of the soil, but left the rest to the first inhabitants or natives. However, the title of property enjoyed by the Perioeci was not absolute, since they were obliged, according to Aristote, to pay tribute. Although the Perioeci were deprived of political rights, their situation does not seem to have been unhappy. According to Aristote, they never revolted and this fact seems to indicate that the yoke which weighed on them was relatively light. Agriculture was not the only field of activity open to them; the laws forbidding the Dorians to practise trade or industry, the Perioeci could enrich themselves and emancipate themselves by the exercise of professions that the victor disdained. In addition, the Perioeci enjoyed an essential prerogative, that of living according to their ancient customs and to maintain their primitive legislation when it was not in opposition to Dorian law.


The Mnoites belonged to the defeated race, like Perioeci ,but they were probably reduced to a harder condition for having been seized with weapons in hand or for having revolted against the conquerors. When Dorians invaded Crete, every city sized some public land. Part of the product of these lands was devoted to their buildings and to the worship of the gods; another, to common meals. It was necessary to have arms to cultivate this public domain and it seems probable that the Mnoites were assigned to this service. The Mnoites were therefore exclusively the servants and slaves of the State.

Clarotes or Aphamiotes

The condition of the Aphamiotes was most wretched, since they depended on the whim of one master. Their nickname (parèques) seems to indicate that they lived on the lands of their masters. In spite of their enslavement, the Aphamiotes maintained their national cult.

Free men

According to the Dorian ideas, the conqueror not only had the right to rule, but he was called to it by his birth. The inhabitants of the conquered country had no other destiny than to bow under the yoke and they were completely excluded from the city. The Dorians and those who had associated themselves with their expeditions formed the free population alone; the former inhabitants of the land were their subjects or their slaves. All the civil and political institutions of the Dorians derived from the principle that any man who has not learned to die for his freedom and for the independence of his country is not worthy of enjoying these goods. The main occupation, even the only one, of the citizens must be the use of arms and military practices.  The states founded in Crete by the Dorians, as essentially military states, had no other goal than to maintain the domination of the conquering people.

Gortyne law code dorian Crete
Gortyne (Gortys) law code wall stones

Magistrate and public function in dorian period  in crete

In each of the Cretan cities or republics, the executive power, i.e. the highest of all political offices, belonged to ten magistrates who bore the characteristic name of Cosmes – the Cosmes are taken from some privileged families. As they succeeded the royal authority, the Cosmes had the prerogatives: they commanded the troops, concluded treaties, sovereignly administered the city, the Cosmes took all the decisions and decrees that interested the community, they received foreign ambassadors and followed the negotiations. They had arbitrary power over people and things. When the Cosmes displeased with their conduct some of their colleagues or individuals, they were expelled. They could also, at their convenience, abdicate power.


 the Gerontes were called upon to lend the Cosmes the help of their experience in serious or difficult circumstances. The Gerontes (or Ancients) formed, according to Ephore’, a collegium, and Aristotle gives this collegium the name of senate. The Gerontes were chosen among those of the ancient Cosmes who had earned this honor by their services.

The senators, who were invested with judicial power, did not judge according to written laws, but simply according to their conscience. If there was no written law in Crete, the old customs and practices were faithfully preserved in the form of songs or poems which the youth learned by heart. The Gerontes made their decisions in this common fund, fruit of the experience and patrimony of all the people.



 All those who belonged to the realis, that is to say to the conquering race, whether they were of pure Dorian race or of any other race, had the right to attend. The People’s Assembly does not seem to have had any political initiative at the beginning; it was obliged to accept without discussion what was proposed to it. It was only open to it to ratify the decisions taken in the last resort by the Cosmes and the Gerontes.


Within the city, the entire power was concentrated in the hands of the magistrates and the functions were accessible only to a small number of privileged families; outside the city, the obscure crowd of subjects and slaves, all deprived of political and civil rights, vegetated.

 democratic transformation

We do not know under what circumstances the transformation of the Cretan constitution took place. Was it by means of violent and radical revolution or by means of slow evolution and gradual progress? History is silent on these questions. There are monuments dating back to about two centuries before the Christian era which attest to the profound change that took place in the institutions.

Previously the Cosmes, supported by the Gerontes, enjoyed almost absolute power; under the new regime, this power has passed into the hands of the People’s Assembly; the center of gravity has now shifted and we see direct democracy blossoming in its most varied forms. The sovereign, not only de jure, but de facto, is the people. The Cosmes and the Gerontes are now only its agents, its proxies who have no other right and duty than to faithfully carry out the will of the Assembly. It is to the Assembly that the ambassadors of foreign states address themselves; it is the Assembly that regulates foreign relations, that makes alliances and concludes treaties. The role of the Cosmos is now very much reduced. Servants of the people, they report directly to the people, and their power is nothing other than a temporary delegation. They are responsible for their actions towards the people and they can be brought before the common court that the Confederate States have instituted. In short, the Cosmes formed a kind of Council of State, subordinate to the People’s Assembly.

Morals and customs of the Cretans. Among the Dorians, private life did not exist strictly speaking; the citizen took precedence over the man, the State came before the family. From the cradle to the grave, the Dorian belonged to the community and the smallest details of his life were regulated by the laws or consecrated by the customs. To tell the truth, in the Dorian city, the citizen lived only to serve the State.

Dorian cretan society


 According to the Dorian ideas, the young man did not belong to himself, nor did he belong to his parents, but to the state. However, until the age of seventeen, the child usually remained in the family circle. After the meal, the heads of the family would deliberate on public affairs; the deeds of the ancestors would be recounted, and those who had distinguished themselves by virtue or courage would be praised.

It was only at the age of ten to eight that they joined these juvenile companies; these associations were directed and commanded by a young man of the same age, belonging to one of the richest and most considerable families of the city. The heads of the companies led their subordinates to hunt, run and wherever they pleased; they enjoyed an authority over them about equal to that of a father and had the right to punish recalcitrant ones. The development of physical strength played an essential role in the Cretan people, and gymnastic exercises played an important part in the education of children and young people. In the gymnasiums, the young men practiced running, weapons handling and the famous military dance called Pyrrhic.

The Dorians did not limit themselves to developing the physical strength of the young man; they also and above all aimed at strengthening his soul and developing his moral energy. To this end, they hardened the child to suffering and tiredness. They learned to read and write, then they were taught music and they learned to know, in a rhythmic form, the laws of their country, the hymns dedicated to the gods and the poems which retraced the deeds of heroes and great men.


 The meals together seem to date back to an ancient Cretan baute in Crete. This institution was willingly attributed to Minos. The citizens were divided into small societies called τα ανδρεία οι εταιρίαι and each of these small societies had a separate table. They were all placed under the special protection and invocation of Zeuss Etairios. The meal began with prayers and offerings to the gods and then the food was served. An equal share was given to each of the elderly guests; only the archon or chef of the meal was given four portions. The children or young men were given only half a portion of meat and did not touch any other food. The guests were served first, even before the Archon, and one can judge by this circumstance the hospitality with which foreigners were welcomed. After the meal, the guests deliberated on public affairs, and the exploits of the ancestors were told


 Crete, while remaining the classical land of the cult of Zeus Kretagenes, while remaining stained with the old rites of the Curetians (minor Cretan gods), did not distinguish itself from the rest of Greece, where all Hellenic gods were worshipped.

dorian period in crete. pyrrhic dance
A pyrrhic dance, painting from Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1869, oil canvas


  Among the Cretans, as among all primitive peoples, the origin of music and dance was intimately linked to that of worship. From the earliest phases of Cretan civilization, music and dance supported religion and its representatives. When Rhea succeeded in removing his new son from the ferocity of Kronos, the Priests covered the sound of the child’s moaning by performing dances accompanied by songs during his retreat, thus instituting a kind of armed dance, at the same time warlike and religious, the use of which was perpetuated under the name of pyrrhic in Dorian Crete. It is said that, braving the ages, it has been preserved in modern times, among the Sphakiotes.

 If music and dance played an important role in the early phases of Cretan civilization, they only became true arts under the powerful influence of the genius of Thaletas. Thaletas, who invented the Cretan rhythm, was a native of Gortyne.

According to tradition, the wonderful influence of Thaletas extended beyond the inner circle of his island. Called to Lacedemona, after an oracle by Apollo Pythian, he stopped by the harmonious chords of his lyre the ravages of the plague that was desolating the city.

. The primitive dances of the Cretans had, it seems, some renown outside, since the great poet Homer represents on the shield of Achilles the choruses and dances of the young men and girls of Crete (. * Iliad, Liv. XVIII, v. 592, 593)..

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