Thursday, December 15, 2016


Jane E. Francis, Anna Kouremenos (ed.), Roman Crete: New Perspectives. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2016. Pp. ix, 246; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9781785700958. $65.00.

Reviewed by Dylan Kelby Rogers, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (

Version at BMCR home site

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

The story of Roman Crete is finally beginning to receive its due. Often dubbed the 'poor cousin' of Minoan Crete, the Roman presence there has not received a great amount of attention in modern scholarship. Despite early site-specific excavations, particularly that of Gortyn by the Scuola Archeologica Italiana di Atene, and works on specific artifact groups (e.g., numismatics), archaeological work on the Roman Crete has been hit-or-miss since the 1900s. It was only in 1982, with the posthumous publication of Ian Sanders' Roman Crete: An Archaeological Survey and Gazetteer of Late Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Byzantine Crete, that a systematic approach was taken to the settlement patterns and the sites themselves of Roman Crete. Nearly 35 years later, the present volume picks up on the work of Sanders and the subsequent generations of scholars working on Crete in order to begin to narrate the important history of the island during the Roman period.

The introduction by Jane Francis neatly situates the volume in its historiographical context, while also outlining its intended goals. Many new (and even old) archaeological projects across Crete include time periods beyond the Bronze Age—which is providing new primary data for scholars to mine, including pottery, inscriptions, sculpture, mosaics, and survey results. All of this evidence is now allowing for synthetic accounts of the history of the island in the Roman period. And this last point is crucial, since Crete was an important part of the Roman Empire for a number of reasons, whether as a source for agricultural or medicinal products, or as the capital of Crete and Cyrenaica. Thus, works like the present volume will allow scholars, not only of the eastern Mediterranean, but across the Roman Empire, to begin to understand Crete's role therein.

François Chevrollier's chapter investigates what we know about the unification of the provinces of Crete and Cyrenaica. Contrary to previous scholarship, he argues that the unification of the two probably took place closer to the conquest of Crete by Metellus Creticus in 67 BCE, rather than a date closer to Actium, particularly because Marc Antony created a Cretan confederation between 43 and 31. Further, there was a strong desire to unite the two small provinces (themselves not economically viable independently), for economic, defensive (i.e., against pirates), and geographic reasons (given the proximity of Cyrene to Crete). Chevrollier then proceeds to examine the economic activity of the province through ceramic, numismatic, and prosopographic evidence. Only in his conclusions does he concede that the paucity of evidence does not allow for a complete picture. It is clear, however, that there is a marked importance of trade between Crete and Cyrenaica—and throughout the Empire—from its unification in the first century BCE until the end of the first century CE.

The presence of Italian Sigillata stamps is explored by Martha Baldwin Bowsky in Chapter 4. Baldwin Bowsky, through an examination of the stamps found subsequent to Sanders at Knossos and beyond (numbering at least 155, compared to Sanders' five), is able to show that Italian Sigillata was a marker of local cultural identity across the island, from major to minor urban centers, although the matter is a complicated one. Baldwin Bowsky also presents an appendix of the potters attested on Crete—an invaluable reference for those working on Roman ceramics.

Anna Kouremenos examines the iconography of the double axe (λάβρυς) in Roman art—attempting to find meaning in a post-Minoan context. By the Roman period, Kouremenos argues that the labrys, divorced from its meanings in Minoan contexts, took on a symbolic significance across media, namely that of apotropaic functions across the Empire. Having presented an interesting exploration of the double axe, Kouremenos attributes its latent symbolism to what she terms 'emulative acculturation,' which sounds oddly like Romanization.

Until fairly recently, the nature of the Roman climate, especially in the southwest Aegean, has been unclear; this is the subject of Jennifer Moody's chapter. Drawing on wide variety of scientific data (including tree-rings, pollen, microshells, stable isotopes, lake levels, and geomorphology), Moody is able to demonstrate that Crete, especially in the first two centuries of the Empire, was wetter and hotter than before or after. Moody effectively presents evidence that is not always accessible to the classical archaeologist or historian, laying out her findings in digestible discussion and tables.

Jane Francis examines apiculture in Roman Crete in Chapter 7. While there is still a lack of complete archaeological evidence, there is enough data to show that in western and central Crete, during the Roman period, ceramic beehives can illustrate both subsistence and commercial honey and wax production. Although it still unclear how honey was transported, Cretan honey was widely known throughout the Mediterranean, and Francis suggests that medicinal honey from Crete was exported.

Sculpture is treated in two different chapters: Pavlina Karanastasi presents an overview of Roman sculpture throughout the island, while Michael Milidakis and Christina Papadaki publish a marble table support from Kissamos. Karanastasi illustrates a number of statues ranging from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE, with lavish photos—many of which scholars would not have seen previously, unless intimately familiar with the collections of the museums of Crete. She is able to demonstrate, despite the fact that most Roman sculpture in Crete is found as chance finds, that there were probably local marble workshops (in addition to imports from afar) that tended to replicate the same iconographical sculpture types, along with a regional proclivity to produce incorrect proportions. Milidakis and Papadaki bring to light a marble table support that depicts a boar (perhaps depicting the Calydonian Boar Hunt), paralleling the object with similar examples found in luxurious villas of the Italian peninsula.

The preliminary report of the excavations surrounding the theater at Aptera, by Vanna Niniou-Kindeli and Nikos Chatzidakis, shows that the theater was originally constructed in the Hellenistic period, with two subsequent phases in the Roman period.1 While we await the final publication of the structure, it is clear that the theater (with a seating capacity of almost 3700 in the Roman period), the other large-scale buildings in the city (e.g., impressive vaulted cisterns), and strategic location on Souda Bay would have made Aptera an important center in the Roman period.

One of the most important Roman urban centers on Crete is Gortyn, whose development is traced in Chapter 11 by Enzo Lippolis. Drawing on a rich history of excavations, especially under the supervision of the late Antonino Di Vita, Lippolis presents an adept and easily digestible overview of both the historical and urban development of the city. Using early evidence from the site, particularly the Archaic period settlements on the Acropolis, Lippolis demonstrates the continuous renovation projects, particularly in the third-first centuries BCE—and how that leads to Roman construction and expansion in the Augustan, Hadrianic, Severan, and Late Antique periods. While the chapter does not offer overarching conclusions about Gortyn, especially since work is still ongoing and the bibliography now is vast, Lippolis encapsulates crucial and important details about the growth and importance of this urban center.

The final three chapters deal with the later history of Roman Crete. Scott Gallimore, in Chapter 12, challenges the long-held view that after the third century, Crete's economy failed. Analyzing a variety of sources, especially Cretan amphorae, Gallimore concludes that the focus of Cretan exports went from the west to the east, especially to supply the annona militaris of the Black Sea, along with reasserting the fact that many products that were exported leave no archaeological trace (e.g., dyes). George Harrison explores the nature of the third-century crisis on Crete in Chapter 13, particularly through entertainment. Drawing on literary and archaeological evidence (although often from earlier periods), Harrison demonstrates that Crete before the great earthquake of 365 benefitted from previously built civic infrastructures and instilled cultural institutions. Finally, Anastasia Yangaki examines fourth-ninth century ceramics found in Crete, in Chapter 14. With a wealth of new data in the last three decades, she is able to show that during the third-fifth centuries, there was a great deal of local Cretan manufacture of cooking wares, amphorae, and lamps, while by the sixth century there was a shift in manufacture, given new tastes, technologies, and historical circumstances.

The volume will be an important one for various audiences—including specialists of Roman Greece to those of the wider Roman Empire —who wish to include Crete in Empire-wide trends. Instructors will also see the benefits of singling out chapters, which can stand alone, with bibliographies at the end of chapters, to upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level courses. The use of English throughout the text makes accessible for the first time new data and scholars to the Anglophone community, especially bibliography in Greek. The production value is high, with ample black-and-white and color photographs, despite the poor quality of the photos included in Kouremenos' chapter. There are very few typographical or bibliographic errors throughout the text. The modest price is also incentive enough to obtain a copy of this volume.

These brief summaries of the contents of the volume should illustrate a number of issues and trends regarding the study of Roman Crete. There are reasons that Roman Crete has been neglected in the scholarship—not simply being the 'poor cousin' of the Minoans. Oftentimes, Roman settlements are underneath modern cities, making it difficult to excavate those sites. The materials that we do have are chance finds or products of rescue excavations, which, due to time and economic constraints, cannot provide all of the information that we want. The wide breadth of studies included in the present volume, however, employing many different types of evidence, show that there is a trend to revise old assertions that have sometimes become scholarly dogma—thus illustrating a more nuanced historical account of Roman Crete. It is also clear that since Sanders, there has been an large amount of work on Roman Crete, which is only now starting be synthesized. That being said, there can still be a paucity of evidence, which clearly is a thread in some of the chapters, indicating that we still need to await the full picture, unfortunately. Yet it is clear from this volume and other works that Roman Crete is beginning to receive more attention, including by scholars working outside of Greece. The editors of the volume should be commended for bringing together such a rich discussion about Roman Crete.

Table of Contents

1. Foreword, L.H. Sacket
2. Introduction, J.E. Francis
3. From Cyrene to Gortyn. Notes on the relationship between Crete and Cyrenaica under Roman domination (1st century BC—4th century AD), F. Chevrollier
4. A context for Knossos: Italian Sigillata stamps and cultural identity across Crete, M.W. Baldwin Bowsky
5. The double-axe (λάβρυς) in Roman Crete and beyond: the iconography of a multi-faceted symbol, A. Kouremenos
6. The Roman climate in the southwest Aegean: was it really different?, J. Moody
7. Apiculture in Roman Crete, J.E. Francis
8. Roman imperial sculpture from Crete: a re-appraisal, P. Karanastasi
9. An Attic marble table support (τραπεζοφόρον) in relief from Roman Kissamos: preliminary remarks, M. Milidakis and C. Papadaki
10. The Roman theatre at Aptera: a preliminary report, V. Niniou-Kindeli and N. Chatzidakis
11. Roman Gortyn: from Greek polis to provincial capital, E. Lippolis
12. Crete's economic transformation in the late Roman Empire, S. Gallimore
13. Theatres, plays, and the '3rd century crisis', G.W.M. Harrison
14. Pottery of the 4th—early 9th centuries AD on Crete: the current state of research and new directions, A.G. Yangaki
15. Afterword: putting Crete on the Roman map, A. Kouremenos


1.   The new work on the theater at Aptera is part of a renewed interest in theaters throughout the Greek world, such as the Diazoma Association in Greece. For more on Greek theaters being adapted for new uses during the Roman period, see Valentina Di Napoli, "Architecture and Romanization: The Transition to Roman Forms in Greek Theaters of the Augustan Age," in The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theatre, edited by Rune Frederiksen, Elizabeth Gebhard, and Alexander Sokolicek, 365-380, Athens (Danish Institute), 2015.

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