Crete conquered by Rome—well, who wasn't?
Roman soldiers in action (Actual Photograph!!!)
In the second century BCE (200–100), the power of Rome made itself felt in the Greek world, as the all-conquering Roman Republic began to assemble the collection of foreign provinces that would one day be put together into the Roman Empire. After defeating the Macedonians, who had dominated Greece for two centuries, and trouncing a few independence-minded Greek city-states for good measure, the Romans’ rule over the mainland was secure by 146 BCE. Some Cretan cities had been allied with the losing side in those wars, but Rome, busy elsewhere, left the island alone for a time. (Roman armies, however, had generally been recruiting Cretan archers as hired “auxiliaries” since about 200 BCE.)
Mithridates VI, King of Pontus
During the first century BCE, however, Rome fought a series of wars with King Mithridates VI of Pontus, a realm in Asia Minor on the south coast of the Black Sea. A wily and persistent enemy, he encouraged and supported piracy in the eastern Mediterranean as an anti-Roman strategy. This is Mithridates’ head on one of the gold coins from his mint. In real life, he probably wasn’t quite that good-looking.

Already a popular pastime in its own right, piracy experienced a wartime boom. The bands of freebooters were based mainly in two places: Cilicia, a semi-independent province on the ragged western coast of Asia Minor, and Crete. Their depredations became a major annoyance to the Romans, threatening not only the safety of wealthy travelers, but also the Republic’s food supply, which depended to a great extent on wheat imported by sea.
Roman warship with troops (wall painting in Pompeii: photographer Mary Harrsch)
Eventually, in 74 BCE, the Senate sent an expedition against Crete, commanded by Marcus Antonius—not the well-known funeral orator and last boyfriend of Queen Cleopatra, but his father. The expedition was an abject failure. One historian describes Antonius as a greedy incompetent who plundered the provinces he was supposed to govern—not atypical behavior for a provincial governor in that era. But another historian says he was friendly and honest. Whatever his character, he was soundly thumped by the Kydonians of western Crete—their city is now Chaniá—who sank most of his ships. He escaped only after signing an ignominious treaty, and was made fun of when he got home.
Pompey the Great
But this humiliation was, of course, a blot on Rome’s honor as well as Antonius’, and thus cried out for military vengeance. Retribution was delayed for a few years by such distractions as the Spartacus rebellion, but eventually the legions came back, this time in 69 BCE under the command of a more competent general, Quintus Metellus. He was clever enough to take advantage of local antagonisms among Cretan cities, but even so the fighting—“bitter and brutal,” in the words of the Rough Guide—went on for three years. In 67 BCE, the Cretans were ready to give in, but they wickedly decided to snub Metellus, and instead sent delegates to Asia Minor to surrender to his military superior, Pompey. Pompey, who had named himself “Pompey the Great” and expected everybody to address him as “Great One,” was the sort of man you’d expect to go along with such a plan. He had just made himself the toast of Rome by defeating the Cilician pirates, but his thirst for glory was apparently unquenched.

Here is the Greek historian Plutarch’s version of what happened (as translated in the 17th century by the English poet John Dryden):
Pompey receiving the submission, sent letters to Metellus, commanding him to leave off the war; and others in like manner to the [Cretan] cities, in which he charged them not to yield any obedience to the commands of Metellus. And after these he sent Lucius Octavius, one of his lieutenants, to act as general, who entering the besieged fortifications, and fighting in defence of the pirates, rendered Pompey not odious only, but even ridiculous too; that he should lend his name as a guard to a nest of thieves, that knew neither god nor law, and made his reputation serve as a sanctuary to them, only out of pure envy and emulation to Metellus. For neither was Achilles thought to act the part of a man, but rather of a mere boy, mad after glory, when by signs he forbade the rest of the Greeks to strike at Hector:
…for fear
Some other hand should give the blow, and he
Lose the first honour of the victory.
Whereas Pompey even sought to preserve the common enemies of the world only that he might deprive a Roman praetor, after all his labours, of the honour of a triumph. Metellus, however, was not daunted, but prosecuted the war against the pirates, expelled them from their strongholds and punished them; and dismissed Octavius with the insults and reproaches of the whole camp.
Whether or not Plutarch’s account is accurate in its details, it was Metellus who completed the pacification of Crete. Eventually, despite delaying tactics on the part of Pompey’s political allies, Metellus was duly honored by the Senate, which granted him a triumph and the agnomen, or ‘victory name’ Creticus. (Literally ‘the Cretan,’ it means something more like ‘The Crete Guy.’ It was a Roman custom to honor victorious generals in this way. Scipio, for example, who defeated Hannibal and brought down Carthage, was Africanus, not so much ‘The African’ as ‘The Africa Guy.’)
Provinces of the Roman Empire
Once the excitement was finally over, Crete relaxed into being a Roman province, which mainland Greece had already been for nearly a century. Some decades later, in 20 BCE, Crete was joined in a single province with Cyrenaica in North Africa. (Cyrenaica included what’s now the western part of Libya, plus an adjacent bit of what’s now Egypt.) The Cretan city of Górtys, which had opportunely taken the Roman side during Metellus’ war, was made the capital of the united province, named Cyrenaica et Creta but often just called Cyrenaica. This arrangement continued when the Roman civil wars were finished and Augustus Caesar, the last man standing and the first Roman Emperor, made it a senatorial rather than an imperial province. Imperial provinces tended to be those where Roman control was most at risk and strong military forces were needed; senatorial provinces were those where there was little need for this. The Senate was entitled to name the governors of these provinces because they presented little danger that a senator with treason on his mind might be able to get control of a seriously large army.

During the long Pax Romana that followed the establishment of the Empire, Crete justified its senatorial classification; it remained peaceful and prosperous, and stayed well out of the news, although Roman armies continued for a long time to benefit from Cretan skill with the bow.

When the late Roman Empire split between East and West, Crete, like the rest of the Greek-speaking world, went with the East, and the date of this division, 395 CE, marks the beginning of the Byzantine period.