The Silk and the Blood


Power and Patronage in the Early Byzantine Era

In Roman times, the city of Gortyn was the capital of Crete. The first archaeological investigations there were carried out between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries and brought to light one of the most impressive monumental centres of the ancient world.

Capital of Crete

Systematic investigations of Gortyn in recent decades show the development of the city during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period when the city was one of the most prominent centres of the Mediterranean.

The transformation of the Byzantine city corresponds with the abandonment of pagan cults and the rapid growth of Christianity in the late fifth and sixth centuries. Even more radical changes occurred in the late seventh century, before the Arab conquest in the early ninth century.

Located at the centre of the Messara fertile plain, Gortyn was the capital of the province of Creta et Cyrenaica under the Principate (the first period of the Roman Empire, 27 BCE to 284 CE).

At the beginning of the fourth century, Gortyn included many sanctuaries such as the ones dedicated to Athena on the Acropolis, to Apollo, to the Egyptian Gods, and to a female deity close to an altar dedicated to the Theos Hypsistos.

The Graeco-Roman agora (a central public gathering space) held political, administrative and religious functions at least until the end of the fourth century. A large theatre, an odeon (music venue), shops and private houses with floor mosaics were located at the slopes of an acropolis. In the central part of the city, a Praetorium (headquarters of the provincial governor) was built after the mid-fourth century. A huge number of inscriptions and statues show that the agora was also the place for public celebrations of the local élites.

The ten holy martyrs of Crete

Ten Christians, now known as the ten holy martyrs of Crete, were executed in Gortyn for refusing to worship Emperor Decius (ruled 249-251) as a Roman god. During the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-337), the bodies of the ten martyrs were carried away and reburied. It is not known exactly where.

The modern village of Agioi Deka (meaning ‘ten saints’) pays homage to the memory of these ten martyrs. The village’s 12th century church is built at the exact centre of the site of the former Roman amphitheatre where the martyrs were executed.

The participation of Martyrios, Bishop of Gortyn, in the 451 CE Council of Chalcedon, and a letter from the Bishops of Crete to the Emperor Leo, demonstrate the importance of the local clergy in establishing the cult of the ten martyrs of Gortyn, who are declared protectors of the whole island.

The importance of Bishops

During the Justinianic period (mid-6th century), the clerical titles of Bishop and Archbishop became increasingly important in Gortyn.

The University of Bologna, in collaboration with the Byzantine Ephorate of Heraklion, recently excavated a huge building (more than 3,000 m2) in the village of Mitropolis in the western district of Gortyn.

It is one of the best examples in the eastern Mediterranean of an imposing Late Antique episcopal church. It has five aisles and a baptistery, as well as an atrium and a narthex (large porch) that precede the basilica. Colonnades on a low stylobate (base) divided the aisles from the nave (central part of the church), which, along with the presbytery (sanctuary), was decorated with mosaics.

This church was patronised by Bishop Theodoros, who is mentioned in a mosaic inscription at the entrance of the building and in other written sources between 536 and 553. According to a marble inscription, he is also responsible for the reconstruction of a wall in Gortyn, probably in another church.

Later alterations to the architecture of the church can be ascribed to Archbishop Betranios, who ruled the diocese of Gortyn in the third quarter of the sixth century. He is memorialised in a floor inscription in the central nave of the basilica and also in the monograms of two capitals (the top part of a column), one from the church of St Titus in the southern area of the agora, and the other from the basilica of Matala, Gortyn’s harbour town.

During Betranios’s time, two rooms were added to the north and south of the presbytery, which was covered with sectilia (inlaid tiles) and equipped with a synthronon (a semicircular tiered structure that combines benches for the clergy with a bishop's throne).

The episcopal church was later rebuilt and included an ambo – a raised upper platform supported by eight columns. It is likely that this imitates the famous ambo of Haghia Sophia, which Paul the Silentiary describes in detail in 563, five years after the collapse of its central dome. In Haghia Sophia, the ambo was elevated over a basement by eight columns. Cantors sat underneath it and above it was another circle of eight columns.

The floor of the main nave was covered with marble slabs and some of the walls were decorated with frescoes. Unfortunately, it is not possible to attribute this important change in the structure of the church to a particular Bishop. The church of Gortyn must have had huge economic means for this impressive rebuilding, which emphasises the role of the bishop in the local community.

However, we can see that elements of the architecture and liturgical furniture were no longer commissioned from abroad, unlike in earlier periods. Columns and other architectural pieces were reused outside of the complex as benches or were incorporated into the masonry. Decorated marble was sometimes employed as revetment (protection) on the lower part of the inner walls.

The Praetorium in decline

At the same time that this church was being rebuilt, we can see the start of a long decline in the functionality of the Praetorium.

In the early decades of the seventh century, a new judiciary basilica was built, with a change in orientation towards the north. Private occupation of buildings in this district saw monuments and areas adapting to new and different functions. In the last quarter of the seventh century, the district completely lost its character as a place of public office. Why? Perhaps as a consequence of an earthquake in 670 and maybe because of the transfer of the archon of Crete from Gortyn to Heraklion, the port of Knossos. At that time, the area started being encroached on by structures for olive oil production, for storage or for agricultural products.

In Mitropolis in the meantime, the extension of the episcopal church was maintained. A sacristy and a storehouse, linked by a corridor to the synthronon, remained in use until they collapsed and burned some time after the end of the eighth century. Clues to this timeline come from two seals from the area of the basilica, the first to be ascribed to the eighth century.

The history of the cathedral of Gortyn seems to continue until the end of the eighth century. It is particularly interesting that the first decades of the same century coincide with the pastoral activity of Andrea of Damascus, metropolitan of Gortyn between 711 and 730. His life was described by Niketas in the second half of that century, and the author is especially interested in the Bishop's activity on the island, detailing the works he realised in Gortyn. Niketas mentions the rebuilding of a church dedicated to the Theotokos of the Blachernai, and a monastery and charitable institutions, which are probably those of the complex of Haghios Titos.

The same text also speaks about a period of difficulty in the life of Crete, when it was threatened by a violent plague and an Arab attack, which would have forced the local population to find refuge with the Bishop in a safe place. This may be what caused the abandonment of the famous liturgical Treasure of St Titus.

This difficult time can be seen in the change of use of the Praetorium - workshops, poor houses, small chapels and graves reflect a new kind of settlement. The activities linked to the production of olive oil and wine demonstrate that there was some kind of centralised organisation, which could have been dependent on the ecclesiastical power – the only one still active in the city.

In 860, the bishop of Gortyn resided in Thessaloniki, but back in 787, the local Church, represented by its bishop Elijah, took part in the seventh ecumenical council (in Nicaea), along with the bishops of the other 11 dioceses of the island. This shows that not only was the local church vital and active, but that Gortyn enjoyed an enduring importance in the context of the Cretan bishoprics.