BMCR 2023.12.02

Change and transition on Crete: interpreting the evidence from the Hellenistic through to the early Byzantine period

, , Change and transition on Crete: interpreting the evidence from the Hellenistic through to the early Byzantine period. Papers presented in honour of G. W. M. Harrison. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 226. ISBN 9781803270562.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


The first research on Roman and Late Antique Crete, long neglected in favor of the Minoan period, was undertaken in the 1970s by Ian Sanders.[1] Since then, Roman Crete has become an integral part of the new historiographical trends in Classical Studies, thanks to the work of several researchers, many of whom have contributed to the volume under review.[2] George Harrison’s 1993 monograph, The Romans in Crete, is also a major contribution, though sometimes overlooked.[3] The present volume, dedicated to him, does justice to the work of a scholar who has also devoted a great deal of time to Greek and Latin literature.

Recent work on Crete from Hellenistic to Byzantine times has built in particular on the reinterpretation of documents (including inscriptions and coins) in light of new research on the Greek world under Roman rule; the results of past or recent surveys in the regions of Vrokastro, Pseira, Sphakia, Galatas, Gournia, Akrotiri, and Kavousi; and archaeological excavations which are giving greater prominence to Roman and Byzantine remains. We are now beginning to have sufficient data to start thinking afresh about these periods of the island’s history, which are above all moments of transition marked by the Roman conquest and by the historical developments of Late Antiquity (including Christianity). The present book contains eleven papers that shed light on these disruptions, making it another milestone in recent research on Roman Crete.

The contributions can be grouped into three main themes, which in part structure current research on Roman Crete. The first is trade, which has been the subject of intense interest among  historians of ancient Crete[4] . The previously assumed existence of a clear break between the Hellenistic and the Roman periods is now being questioned,[5] while the idea of a boom in Cretan trade from the 1st century BC/AD onwards is being supported. Based on observations of Cretan whetstone exports to Italy, Nicholas Sekunda sheds new light on the economic dynamism of Crete in the Hellenistic period, the role of Italian negotiatores (gens of the Annii settled in Olous[6]), the integration of the island into Mediterranean trade networks, and the links between coastal towns and their hinterland. Anna Kouremenos focuses on a medicinal plant endemic to the island, the origanum dictamnus well known in ancient literature, which was one of the renowned local herbs that were exported and contributed to the expansion of the Cretan economy, alongside wine, for example. This article also shows that the study of Crete’s natural resources is an interesting diachronic research prospect.

Jane Francis, Eleni Nodarou and Jennifer Moody present a useful and up-to-date overview of Cretan amphora production. Twenty-two amphora-production centers are now identified as well as 18 types of amphorae that were produced over a millennium, from the 3rd–2nd century BC up to the 7th century AD. The Sphakia survey—currently under publication—evidenced several of these types, and this amphora assemblage, as well as the preliminary results of the study of the Sphakiote fabrics, is described in the article, giving an idea of the region’s trading networks. Scientific analyses show that the same clay sources were used during the whole period, despite changes in amphora shapes and contents. The authors however underline the limited number of studies of kiln sites and petrographic analysis of fabrics, which makes it difficult to assign vessels to a specific workshop: in the case of the studied sample, the authors identify a previously unknown ceramic production center in SW Crete but most probably located outside the surveyed zone. Reuse of vessels for beekeeping is also noteworthy, as well as the different distribution patterns between Early–Mid Roman and Late Roman–Early Byzantine amphorae, demonstrating a wider distribution of the latter group in the Sphakia area.

A second theme addressed in the book is the evolution of landscapes. Nadia Coutsinas studies the impact on settlements patterns in eastern Crete of integration into the Roman Empire. This rich study, which ranges from the plain of the Hierapytna isthmus to Itanos via the basin of Zakros and the corridor of Praisos, highlights two important aspects. On the one hand, it shows that there was a much finer hierarchy between settlements than has hitherto been perceived, for example between the islet of Kouphonisi and that of Chrysi, with the latter playing second fiddle. On the other hand, it demonstrates that, from an economic point of view, the Roman period saw the development of trends that already existed in the Hellenistic period—Coutsinas’ study is in line with what was said above about trade. Therefore—and this conclusion is taken up by Francis in the afterword—it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the abrupt ruptures that occurred with the Roman conquest, and the slower changes, for instance in settlement patterns, as Crete tried to accommodate the new political order, and to acknowledge the continuums as well. These observations also refer to the variability in the adoption of Romanness on the island, a debated topic that is addressed by Martha Baldwin Bowsky in her chapter on Roman names appearing on Italian sigillata stamps, synthesizing her previous work on the subject. These are essential questions if we are to understand Roman Crete: the conquest brought about neither a sharp break nor a slow transition, but both at once, depending on what we are looking at (imposition of new taxation and administration vs. material culture, for example). Further case studies should help to better understand this dual and parallel dynamic. Scott Gallimore’s article tackles one of them. He strongly qualifies the generally accepted idea that the earthquake of AD 365 caused a violent rupture on the island, as its consequences are barely visible in the archaeological record or in the material evidence. This major event in the history of the eastern Mediterranean certainly had serious immediate effects (collapse of buildings, uplift of the coast of western Crete, etc.), but not all sites on the island suffered substantial destruction; as Francis (p. 202) states, the earthquake “did not end Roman Crete, but altered it”. Archaeologists should therefore not rush to attribute any destruction or stratigraphic anomalies to the earthquake, as is sometimes done for the sake of convenience.

The evolution of Crete’s maritime landscapes and seascapes between the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD, as well as the importance of the island’s ports and harbors, are highlighted by Michael Curtis, who might however be too categorical (p. 104) about Crete’s weak involvement in trade before the period under consideration. Tackling the question of the global networks Crete was involved in during Hellenistic and Roman times also requires a reassessment of the Archaic and Classical ‘gaps’ that have long been thought to have characterized the island in scholarship: it is now proven, for instance, that Cretan pottery was indeed exported from the end of the 7th up to the 5th century BC.[7] Adam Pałuchowski’s chapter on the history of Phaestos, which underwent a succession of status changes in the Hellenistic period (independent/dependent city, sympoliteia with Gortyn), also shows that the economic importance of the ports (here Matala) played a full part in the political struggles which, in turn, modified the rural landscapes (here in the Messara plain).

The third topic addressed is funerary archaeology, which is studied from two angles. First, Calliope Galanaki, Christina Papadaki, and Kleanthis Sidiropoulos present the results of an emergency excavation at the Embasos necropolis in ancient Rhytion, which in its Hellenistic–Roman phase comprised 13 individual adult burials (the skeletons, which have no specific orientation, are often positioned supine and are quite well preserved), 3 secondary cremations in Hadra hydriai, and 8 pit tombs with ceramic covers. Overall, the quantity of grave goods is fairly poor.[8] Second, Anna Moles offers a study of human skeletal remains to explore how the social, political, and economic factors affected the health, diet, and lifestyle of the Knossians from the Hellenistic to Late Antique periods, based on bones from 109 tombs excavated by the BSA from the 1930s to the 1970s, in correlation with the urban development of the city as suggested by the Knossos Urban Landscape Project. Osteoarcheological research into demography (by studying age at death, sex determination, and accounting for the minimum number of individuals), diet (through stable isotope analysis and dental disease) and activity (through the study of bone disease and entheseal changes) has provided preliminary results showing, for example, that life expectancy was higher in the Roman era, but that dental disease had also increased at that time. This could very well be due to a change in eating habits resulting from modifications in agricultural production and climate change. Social differences can also be detected, with Roman-era individuals appearing to have had less physical activity, and thus certainly belonging to higher social statuses—on this matter, comparative study of the bones and archaeological material contained in the tombs could provide new answers. In my opinion, however, it seems risky at this stage to link these anthropological data directly to political changes (e.g., the donation of part of the Knossian territory to Capua) or economic changes, particularly in view of the author’s somewhat dated interpretations of the Cretan economy (subsistence economy in Hellenistic times vs. export-oriented, market-driven economy in Roman times, a concept that is now widely questioned, see above). This is compounded by the relatively small number of skeletons and a lack of comparisons in other parts of the island.[9]

Current historiography therefore nuances the conclusions of Chaniotis, who identified the Roman conquest of the island as the greatest change since the fall of the Minoan palaces.[10] But the opposite conclusion, which would be to regard the conquest as insignificant, should not prevail either. The papers of the book under review illustrate well that there are contradictory but complementary dynamics at work in the short- or long-term, in all transitional periods. It is now the task of specialists in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Crete to define them with greater precision. From this perspective, the studies presented in the book, which contextualize the period of change induced by the Roman conquest on the island and the different rhythms of transformation—this is also the case of Vassiliki Stefanaki’s paper on coins—are entirely relevant. Continued archaeological exploration, a renewed approach to old and new sources from a multi-disciplinary perspective and the publication of excavations will provide in the future a better overview of these transitional periods on Crete.

The book is well edited, with color photographs and an index but several references cited in the body of the text are missing from the final bibliographies of each chapter.


Authors and Titles

  1. “Foreword: G. W. M. Harrison and the Study of Roman Crete”, Jane E. Francis
  2. “Introduction”, Michael J. Curtis
  3. “The Export of Whetstones from Hellenistic Crete”, Nicholas V. Sekunda
  4. “La dernière ligne droite dans la rivalité acharnée et séculaire entre Phaistos et Gortyne”, Adam Pałuchowski
  5. “Onomasticon and Social Identity on the Cretan Coins in Late-Hellenistic and Roman Periods: A Case Study”, Vassiliki E. Stefanaki
  6. “Τάφοι και ταφικές πρακτικές στο αρχαίο Ρύτιο”, Calliope Galanaki, Christina Papadaki and Kleanthis Sidiropoulos
  7. “Did Rome Really Change Anything? Settlement Patterns of Far Eastern Crete in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods”, Nadia Coutsinas
  8. “Beside the Sea: Unravelling the Maritime Landscape of Hellenistic and Roman Crete”, Michael J. Curtis
  9. “Becoming Roman: The Cretan Evidence of Augustan Stamps in Italian Sigillata”, Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky
  10. Origanum dictamnus (Dittany of Crete): Testaments, Uses, and Trade of a Sacred Plant in Antiquity”, Anna Kouremenos
  11. “The Fabrics of Roman to Early Byzantine Cretan Amphorae from the Sphakia Survey”, Jane E. Francis, Eleni Nodarou and Jennifer Moody
  12. “Health, Diet and Lifeways at Knossos during the Hellenistic, Roman and Late-Antique Periods”, Anna Moles
  13. “Hazard, Risk, Vulnerability and the AD 365 Earthquake on Crete”, Scott Gallimore
  14. “Afterword”, Jane E. Francis
  15. “List of Scholarship on Crete by George W. M. Harrison”



Cantilena, Renata and Federico Carbone, (eds), Monetary and Social Aspects of Hellenistic Crete, Athens, 2020.

Chaniotis, Angelos (ed.), From Minoan Farmers to Roman Traders. Sidelights on the Economy of Ancient Crete, Stuttgart, 1999.

Chaniotis, Angelos, “What Difference did Rome Make? The Cretans and the Roman Empire”, in B. Forsén, G. Salmeri (eds), The Province Strikes Back. Imperial Dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean, Helsinki, 2008, p. 84–101.

Erickson, Brice, Crete in Transition: Pottery Styles and Island History in the Archaic and Classical Periods, Princeton, 2010.

Francis, Jane and Anna Kouremenos (eds.), Roman Crete. New Perspectives, Oxford, 2016.

Gilboa, Ayelet et al., “Cretan Pottery in the Levant in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. and its Historical Implications”, American Journal of Archaeology 121, 2017, p. 559–593.

Harrison, George W. M., The Romans and Crete, Amsterdam, 1993.

Livadiotti, Monica and Ilaria Simiakaki (eds.), Creta romana e protobizantina. Atti del congresso internazionale, Heraklion, 2000, Padova, 2004.

Moles, Anna, Urbanism and its Impact on Human Health. A Long-Term Study at Knossos, Crete, Oxford, 2023.

Sanders, Ian, Roman Crete. An Archaeological Survey and Gazetteer of Late Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Byzantine Crete, Warminster, 1982.



[1] Sanders 1982.

[2] Livadiotti and Simiakaki (eds.) 2004; Francis and Kouremenos (eds) 2016. The most recent International Congresses on Cretan Studies have also featured papers and workshops on Roman Crete.

[3] Harrison 1993.

[4] Chaniotis (ed.) 1999.

[5] Cantilena and Carbone 2020.

[6] A new rock inscription from the Spinalonga peninsula mentioning a member of this family is published in the chapter.

[7] Erickson 2010; Gilboa et al. 2017.

[8] A new Archaic inscription is published on p. 68.

[9] More precise data must be found in Moles’ recently published monograph, which the reviewer has not yet been able to consult (Moles 2023).

[10] Chaniotis 2008.