A windswept saddle between two rugged and rocky peaks in Eastern Crete, overlooking a deep blue bay far below to the East and lush upland valleys filled with olive trees to the Southwest. All over the peaks and saddle, ancient walls built of massive stones can be seen, some well-preserved, others crumbling, some excavated to their foundations, others barely sticking out of the ground between the roots of feral olive trees and countless wild flowers.
This is Lato, one of the “Hundred Cities” of ancient Crete, Greece's largest island. Last week, Nota and I had the pleasure of showing our guests on Exploring Crete around this superbly beautiful and profoundly significant site. Lato is well worth a visit just for its stupendous setting, one of the most striking even in an island that appears to consist nearly entirely of great vistas. But of course, we go there not merely to admire the scenery, but to tell our guests the story of the place, to reveal the meaning of the old stones and bring a long-lost city back to life for a fleeting moment.
Discovery and excavation
When the ruins of Lato were first noted by 19th century travellers, their identification and date renamed unclear. Thus, Arthur Evans, who was later to gain worldwide fame for his discoveries at the great Bronze Age palace of Knossos, was misled by the monumental walls and terraces into suggesting that the site was a prehistoric citadel. Other scholars correctly recognised that what they saw was a historical Greek city, but placed the remains in the Archaic period, the 7th or 6th centuries BC.
Eventually, excavations began in 1899 and gradually revealed the true facts. Inscriptions clearly showed that the site is the ancient city of Lato, one of the key city states in this part of Crete, and careful analysis of the excavated remains indicated that the city as it is visible today was only constructed in the late 4th century BC.
Only a very small part of Lato has been excavated so far, comprising a city gate, one of the main streets, lined by private homes, the agora or central square that was the focus of civic and probably also religious and commercial life, and a fairly large sanctuary, one of several that must have existed in the city. In spite of that limited extent, the remains are remarkable, not just for the sense of bucolic beauty and serenity they exude today, but for the immense clarity with which they exemplify the structure and nature of an ancient Cretan city.
Early history and urban (re)organisation
It is somewhat unclear what role the site of Lato played before the 4th century. Inscriptions and historical existence indicate beyond doubt that Lato had existed as a political entity and actor for several centuries by that time, and that at least its temples had been used and visited since the 8th or 7th centuries BC, but nothing so far indicates the presence of an earlier city. Perhaps the location initially served as a place of worship and gathering for a scattered community, with its two peaks functioning as acropoleis, sites of refuge in times of trouble.
What is clear is that the construction or reconstruction of Lato in the late 4th century represents a major communal effort. Its public buildings, such as the enormous cistern cut into the bedrock under the agora, the well-constructed stepped main street and the simple but effective city walls, are great and unmistakable illustrations of that fact. Importantly, the same applies to the extraordinarily solid construction of the individual homes, many of them set on truly enormous terrace walls. It is also evident that the street and houses were all constructed at the same time, as part of a coherent plan.
Architecture and identity: politics and cult
The buildings on the northern side of the agora are a clear reflection of the typical political structure of such a city. Greek writers, including Plato and Aristotle, considered the Cretans as pioneers in state formation, ascribing to them the development of the first civic constitutions long before mainland Greece adopted them. Broadly speaking, Cretan city states were based on a fairly rigid aristocratic system, with a strong emphasis on the equal rights and even representation of the free citizens. Cretan states tended to have three main organs of government: the civic assembly (ekklesia), the council of elders (bola), and the actual executive of civil servants (kosmoi), delegated by one of the city's tribes (numbering up to ten) in yearly rotation.
At Lato, a set of theatre-like steps by the agora appears to be the location of the full assembly. Above it stands a large and unusual building with two main rooms, both lined with benches. One of which was open to the sky while the other contained a huge hearth. They are usually interpreted as the council chamber and the common dining room for the given year's set of civil servants, a notion supported by the discovery of various inscriptions reporting laws and state contracts in the same area.
The central role of worship as an identity-building focus within state and society for the city state in Crete and throughout ancient Greece is also neatly underlined by the presence of a major temple in the agora, as well as a separate sanctuary complex with a fine temple and altar nearby. Inscriptions tell us that among the gods worshipped by the Latians were Leto (for whom the city was named), Apollo, Zeus, Demeter, and so on, but we cannot allocate either of the sanctuaries with certainty, not least as more are to be expected elsewhere in the city. The fact that human activity at the sites of these shrines, and indeed their very construction, appears to predate the city itself is of great interest in this regard.
My home is my castle?
Another feature made tangible by Lato's ruins is the important role of the individual oikos, a term standing for house, household and family at the same time. The private homes excavated so far, all roughly of the same size and each comprising an open courtyard and a covered area for living and working, are directly adjacent to one another, but form very clearly defined separate units. The presence of large rock-cut cisterns under their courtyards, and of various economic activities, such as grain-grinding and weaving, within them, suggest that each household maintained a certain degree of independence both in terms of its economy and its identity.
Finally, Lato is very warlike in aspect. The southern wall of the row of excavated houses functions as the city wall at the same time, with a small but formidable triple gate as its main access. The terraces lining the main street look very much like bastions, and each of the houses has a massive lintelled doorway that would have presented a major obstacle to an attacker even after entering the city. Additionally, the city walls contain two rugged peaks that would have made for excellent and eminently defensible points of retreat when necessary. No wonder: One thing the Cretan states were famous for throughout Greek antiquity, was the extraordinary extent of infighting within the island. In a constantly changing set of alliances, Cretan city states kept making war upon their neighbours on and off for centuries. During more peaceful periods, Cretan specialities included mercenary service elsewhere and piracy in the Aegean Sea. The physical properties of Lato strongly support the impression suggested by the historians: Those who built this city were prepared to – and expected to – defend it from attack on a regular basis.
Abandonment and preservation
It was the rise of Rome and the pacification of Crete and the East Mediterranean that led to the end of Lato. Its inhabitants appear to have gradually abandoned the site for their harbour town at Lato pros Kamares, modern Agios Nikolaos, after little more than three centuries, around the turn of the first millennium, only returning occasionally for worship at their ancestors shrines – until the advent of Christianity put an end to that. What they left behind is a place of beauty and serenity now, but also one where the glories, achievements and struggles of the past are very tangible.
If you would like to see Lato, you should join us on Exploring Crete, a fascinating tour on which it forms part of the great story that is the long and colourful history of that fascinating island.