A Brief History of Kythera

Prehistory: before 1000 B.C.

The earliest recorded archaeological evidence for human occupation of Kythera indicates that the island was inhabited by the Early Bronze Age.  Early Helladic sites have been identified so far in the northern part of the Island, at Pyreatides and at Vythoulas, between Ayia Pelayia and Potamos (Waterhouse & Hope-Simpson 1961:149). 

Early Helladic site at Pyreatides
Early Helladic site at Pyreatides

By far the most important prehistoric site, and one of the most significant archaeological sites on the island, is the Minoan colony at Kastri.  Established sometime in the Early Helladic/Minoan Period, this settlement, and the associated Minoan Peak Top Sanctuary on Ayios Yeorgios, brought the island into the wider trade and political system of the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean world (Coldstream & Huxley 1972).  The findings from these two sites have contributed greatly to the understanding of the Minoans’ mercantile activities in the middle of second millennium B.C. 

Minoan settlement does not appear to have been confined to the immediate hinterland around Kastri.  Evidence of Minoan/Mycenaean presence has been noted at Lioni, approximately 1 km north of Chora, and near the village of Kalamos, as well as further north at Vythoulas and Karavas (Waterhouse & Hope-Simpson 1961:149-152).

The Dark Age and Antiquity: 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D.

Off the coast there is an Island called Cythera – Chilon, the wisest man who ever lived amongst us, once said that it would be better for the Spartans if it were sunk beneath the sea ….

Herodotus, Book 7:234-238

Cythera is an island lying off the coast of Laconia opposite Malea.  The population is Spartan, though they belong to the semi-independent class.  …..it was the port for merchant ships from Egypt and Libya and also served as a protection to Laconia from attack by pirates from the sea …

Thucydides, Book 4:53

The settlement at Kastri, and possibly the whole island, appears to have been abandoned sometime towards the end of the Late Bronze Age; and apart from a few isolated finds of Geometric sherds there appears to have been no settlement on the island until the 6th century B.C. (Huxley 1972:37 and 309).  It was in this period that Herodotus states that Kythera was an Argive possession (Herodotus, Book 1:78-82).  Herodotus, however, alludes to a possible earlier presence on the island when he refers to the celebrated Temple of Aphrodite at Paliokastro as having been built by the Phoenicians (Herodotus, Book 1:103-108). 

By the 5th century Kythera had moved into the Spartan sphere of influence.  Like the rest of Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries Kythera was not spared in the conflicts between Athens and Sparta, when it appears to have changed hands between the two rivals no less than six times, its strategic importance centred on its excellent position to serve as a base from which to launch raids into Lakonia (Huxley 1972:37-39).  The “capital” of the island at this time was no doubt Paliokastro (Kythera), with Skandeia (Kastri) as its harbour town (Thucydides, Book 4:54).

Two pyramidal loom weights, classical period, from Vythoulas 
Two pyramidal loom weights, classical period, from Vythoulas

The Hellenistic and Roman periods seem to have been a time of peace and prosperity for the island as more sites from these periods, such as at Vythoulas, Elliniko, Gonies and Galati, near Mitata, have been located (Huxley 1972:39; Waterhouse & Hope-Simpson 1961:157).

The end of Antiquity and the Byzantine Period:
500 A.D. to 1204 A.D.

Early in the Byzantine period, Kythera underwent a major decline.  The area around Kastri, the most fertile and densely populated part of the island in Antiquity, appears to have been depopulated after the 4th century AD, with signs of intermittent habitation identified up until the 7th century.  The final abandonment of the  Kastri area seems to have taken place in the mid-7th century (Herrin 1972:43-44).  This obscure period in Kytherian history is paralleled elsewhere in southern Greece between the 6th and 8th centuries.  Byzantine central authority, centred on Constantinople and Anatolia, had been losing control along the periphery of the Empire since the end of the 6th century.  Piratical raids by Arabs based in Crete as well as possibly Slav tribesmen from the mainland, were the most likely contributors to the abandonment of Kastri and perhaps all of Kythera (Maltezou 1980:154).  The island itself however, does not appear to have been permanently settled by Slavs or Arabs, although it is always possible that there might have been an (as-yet-undiscovered) Arab base on Kythera. 

The resurgence of the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century led to the stabilization of the situation in southern Greece.  This culminated with the re-conquest of Crete in 961 AD, which resulted in the dramatic diminishment of pirate activity in the Aegean.  It is not surprising therefore, that in these favourable conditions, Kythera became an attractive location for renewed sedentary occupation. 

The initial re-settlement of the island was undertaken by one man.  According to his biography, Osios Theodoros is said to have arrived on the abandoned Island sometime during the middle of the 10th century (Herrin 1972: 45; Leontsinis 1987:43).  Theodoros chose the remains of the earlier church of Sergius and Vacchos, situated somewhere near Logothianika, in which to settle (Herrin 1972:45).  The saint lived in very difficult circumstances and his original companion almost immediately left Kythera, but Osios Theodoros lived for some time on the island, apparently in isolation.  The saint’s example for holiness and his courage in defying the wild circumstances on the island, however, attracted some attention and after his death Kythera began to attract other settlers from the Greek mainland. 

It is in this period that the shadowy figure of Georgios Pachys emerged.  Alternatively described as either the Despot of Sparta or a Monemvasian citizen, Pachys seems to have encouraged the initial re-settlement of the island with Lakonian immigrants (Herrin 1972:46-7; Leontsinis 1987:34).  For reasons that are unclear, Pachys handed over his interests to the powerful Monemvasian family, Eudaimonoioannis, and retired to Mitata where he appears to have acted as their agent until the arrival of the first Eudaimonoioannis “governor” (Herrin1972: 46-7 and Ince, Koukoulis, & Smyth 1987:97).  The “governor” established himself at the site of present day Potamos, where he built a tower, which has only recently been demolished (Ince, Koukoulis, & Smyth 1987: 97).  By the end of the 12th Kythera was more or less under the complete control of the Eudaimonoioannis family (Herrin 1972:47). 

That settlement across the Island in this period must have been rapid and this is reflected in the number of churches  dated to the 10th to 12th centuries, among them: the monastery of Osios Theodoros near Logothianika, Ayios Demetrios (Pourko), the Spelaion of Ayia Sophia and Ayios Nikolaos (Milopotamos), Ayios Nikon (Zaglanianika), Ayios Vlasios (Friligianika), Ayios Andreas (Livadi) and Ayios Petros (Areoi) (Herrin 1972:46).

 Ayios Demetrios, Pourko
Ayios Demetrios, Pourko

The Venetian Period: 1204 to 1797

The eye of Crete

Quote from a report by the general proveditor of Candia, 1602, in Maltezou, 1980:GET PG NO

The strategic position of Kythera has never been more apparent than in the division of the Byzantine Empire amongst the victors of the Fourth Crusade (1204), when the island was awarded to the Venetians.  The possession of Kythera was of critical importance to the Venetians, serving as a staging post between Venice and its possessions in the Levant (Leontsini 1987:33). 

In 1207 Marco Veniero was appointed Marquis of Cerigo (Herrin 1972:48).  The political condition of Kythera throughout the 13th century was unsettled.  The primary reasons for this were the preference of Marco Veniero and his descendants to reside in their more lucrative estates in Crete and the continued maintenance of a strong presence on the island by the Eudaimonoioannis family (Herrin 1972:49).  In 1238 the Venieri gained some measure of control by forming a marriage alliance with the Eudaimonoioannis family, only to lose the island to the adventurer knight Licario in 1269.  Licario handed control of the island back to the Byzantines, who in turn returned the island to the Eudaimonoioannis family (Leontsini 1987:36).

The situation stabilized in 1309 when another marriage alliance between the Venieri and Eudaimonoioannis families gave the former greater control over the Island.  Kythera was divided up into a feudal system of 24 “lots,” of which the four grandsons of Marco Veniero took six each.  The areas around Kastri and Kapsali, however were exempted from this division (Herrin 1972:49).  It appears that the Venieri initially adopted a conciliatory position towards the inhabitants of the island, acting quite independently of Venetian authority (Maltezou 1980:151).

The Venieri involvement in the Cretan uprising of 1363 against Venetian rule gave the Venetian government the opportunity to impose greater control over the strategically important Kythera.  Following the suppression of the revolt, the Venetians expelled the Venieri from their positions and established direct rule over the island by appointing a governor (Herrin 1972:50). 

The island’s defensive and agricultural capabilities were enhanced during the 14th and 15th centuries but these efforts came to nought in the Turko–Venetian War of 1537-40 (Herrin 1972:50 and Chatham 1981:253).  During this war many of Venice’s Aegean possessions were ravaged by the Turkish Admiral, Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa.  In the first year of the war Barbarossa (trans. “Red Beard”) swept through the Frankish and Venetian controlled islands of Amorgos, Astypalaia, Ios, Anaphe, Seriphos, Antiparos, Paros, Skyros, Skiathos and Skopelos (Chatham 1981:253 and Kem, 1988:57).  Kythera in that year also felt the fury of Barbarossa’s armarda.  The island was attacked and the town of Ayios Demetrios sacked.  According to local tradition seven thousand islanders were either killed or taken away as slaves (Leontsinis 1987:43), a number that is certainly an exaggeration but still an indication of the seriousness of the attack..  .  In a census taken eight years later the population of Kythera was recorded at only 1,850 (Maltezou, 1980:156) and the attack apparently  had a significant effect on the development of the island for centuries.  Again according to local tradition, survivors of the sack  founded the modern villages in the Paliochora region, while others apparently  contracted to the southern half of the island where the forts of Milopotamos, Chora and Avlemonas afforded some measure of security.  The re-population of the island was painfully slow and did not reach its pre-1537 levels until the start of the 19th century (Leontsinis 1987:Table 1). This period, coupled with the neglect affected by the continuing decline of the Venetian Republic throughout the 16th and 18th centuries was yet another ”Dark Age” for the island.

The Venetian castle at Chora  
The Venetian castle at Chora

The Modern Period: 1797 to present

The end of Venetian rule on the island came with the collapse of the Republic in 1797 and was followed by nearly a decade of instability.  After Venice’s defeat by the French, Kythera and the other Ionian Islands were ceded to the victors  (Leontsinis 1987:19).    The French occupation was short-lived, however:  a Russo–Turkish co-dominion was established over the Ionian Islands in 1800, in the form of the Septinsular Republic.  This political entity did not survive long, as the French regained possession of the Islands in 1807, only to lose them shortly after to the British  (Leontsinis 1987:20). 

At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Kythera and the Ionian Islands were formally acquired by the British Empire.  This period was one of peace and prosperity for Kythera, as the British occupiers went to considerable effort to promote education and agriculture, as well as establish a transport infrastructure of roads and bridges, many of which are still in use today.

Ayia Pelagia from the sea 
Ayia Pelagia from the sea

In 1864 the Ionian Islands were ceded to the Greek Government and henceforth the fortunes of Kythera have followed those of the modern Greek State.  The incorporation of Kythera into a large and relatively stable State did not insulate it from the most recurring feature of the island’s history, depopulation. AS mentioned previously, many inhabitants of the north of Kythera sought their fortunes in trade and business abroad, especially in Asia Minor and Egypt.  From the end of the 19th century until the 1970s thousands of Kythereans migrated to countries such as Australia and America in search of better life.  By the 1970s the permanent population of the island had been reduced to 3000, a quarter of what it had been a century before (Leontsinis 1987:Table 1).  Foreign exchange, funds sent back to the island from immigrants abroad, have played a large role in the economy of the island and, in the past decade there has been an important reverse migration, as Kytherians living in North America and, especially, Australia have come back, either for a long vacation, or to live permanently on the island.  Tourism, based primarily on Kytherians living in the Athens area and Australia, is a growing industry, as is the building trade, focused on the reconstruction of family village homes or new summer residences.

Modern oil-press machinery, Karavas 
Modern oil-press machinery, Karavas

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