Ancient Gortyn, Roman Capital of Crete and Interesting Minoan City

Gortyn city is one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Greece. In 1884 the first archaeological studies started by the archaeologists Federico Halbherr and Stefanos Xanthoudides, when they discovered the “Great Inscription of Gortyn”. The excavations which started in 1898 are continuing till this day.

Saint Titus Basilica in Gortyn archaeological site in Crete, Greece
Saint Titus Basilica in Gortyn archaeological site in Crete, Greece

How old is Gortyn city?

Gortyn, the Roman capital of Crete, was first inhabited around 3200 BC, and was a flourishing Minoan town between 1600-1100 BC. There is evidence of human occupation in Gortyn as far back as the Neolithic era (7000 BC). Many artifacts have been found from the Minoan period, as well as some from the Dorian (approx. 1100 BC).

Where is Gortyn city?

Map of Heraklion region in Crete – Find Gortis next to Agii Deka – Click to enlarge map

You will find the archaeological site of Gortyn city (or Gortyna, Gortis) in the valley of Messara, 45 km south of Heraklion, not far from the villages Metropolis and Agii Deka, next to where the road connects Agii Deka with Mires. The ancient city found at the riverbanks of Mitropolianos River, also known as Litheos. Till this day it is surrounded by the ancient olive grove of Gortyn. It is just south of Mt Psiloritis near the Libyan Sea.

History of Gortyn

This area of Crete was inhabited since 3000 B.C. and during the Minoan era it developed into one of the most important cities of Crete. Later in the 2nd century B.C. it extended its power to the harbour of Matala after the destruction of Phaistos while still retaining its port at Levina (today Lentas) and Lassea (today Chrysostomos). Allying itself with the Romans it avoided the destruction which happened to many other Cretan cities. It had its peak during the Roman Empire, when the Romans moved the capital of Crete to Gortyn. Finally, in 828 AD the city was destroyed by the Arabs, after more than ten centuries of prosperity.

Monuments in Gortyn

The heart of Roman Gortyn is the Praetorium, the seat of the Roman Governor of Crete. The Praetorium was built in the 1st century AD, but it was altered significantly over the next eight centuries.

Archaeological site in Gortys, Gortina, Crete, Greece with a little amphitheatre
The Roman Odeion at the archaeological site in Gortys

In the same area, between the Agora and the temple of Apollo are the ruins of the Roman baths (thermae), as well as the temple of Apollo, an honorary arch, and the temple of the Egyptian deities with the worship statues of Isis, Serapis and Anubis. Parts of the Roman settlement, such as the theater (2nd century AD), have been unearthed during excavations. The theater has two entrances and a half-circular orchestra, the outline of which may still be seen today. Behind the Roman Theater are what has been called the “Queen of the Inscriptions”. These inscriptions are the laws of the city of Gortyn, which are inscribed in the Dorian dialect on large stone slabs and are still plainly visible.

The Law of Gortyn

Inheritance regulations, fragment of the 11th column of the Law Code of Gortyn, Louvre.
Inheritance regulations, fragment of the 11th column of the Law Code of Gortyn, Louvre

Among archaeologists, ancient historians, and classicists Gortyn is known today primarily because of the 1884 discovery of the Gortyn Code which is both the oldest and most complete known example of a code of ancient Greek law. The code was discovered on the site of a structure built by the Roman emperor Trajan, the Odeon, which for the second time, reused stones from an inscription-bearing wall that also had been incorporated into the foundation of an earlier Hellenistic structure. Although portions of the inscriptions have been placed in museums such as the Louvre in Paris, a modern structure at the site of the mostly ruined Odeon now houses many of the stones bearing the famous law code.

Enlèvement d'Europe (Abduction of Europe) by Nöel-Nicolas Coypel, c. 1726

The myth of Europa and Zeus

According to the classical Greek mythology Gortyn was the site of one of Zeus’ many affairs. This myth features the princess Europa, whose name has been applied to the continent, Europe. Disguised as a bull, Zeus abducted Europa from Lebanon and they had an affair under a plane tree (platanus), a tree that may be seen today in Gortys. Following this affair three children were born, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who became the kings of the three Minoan Palaces in Crete. The identification of Europa in this myth gives weight to the claim that the civilization of the European continent was born on the island of Crete. Many coins were found with Europa representations on the back, showing that the people honored Europa as a great goddess.

The port and caves of Matala

The caves in the cliff of the Matala bay were created in the Neolithic Age. Matala was the port of Phaistos during the Minoan period. In the year 220 BC.

Travel to Matala Beach, Crete, Greece
Tomb cave at Matala Beach

Matala was occupied by the Gortynians and during the Roman period Matala became the port of Gortys. In the 1st and 2nd centuries the caves were used as tombs. One of the caves is called “Brutospeliana” because according to the legend it was frequented by the Roman general Brutus.

In newer history Matala was a fishing village. In the 1960s the caves were occupied by hippies who were later driven out by the church and the military junta. Now Matala is a small village living mainly from tourism.
Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell’s experiences with the Matala hippies were immortalised in her 1971 song “Carey”.

Travel to Matala Beach, Crete, Greece

South Crete – Private Tour


Interesting links

Young woman reading a book at the beach while the sun rise, Hersonissos, Crete Greece

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Weather and climate in Gortyn

Average monthly day and night temperatures in °C at Gortyn