Lyttian War

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Lyttian War
Putzger Creta.jpg
Ancient Crete
Date221–220/219 BC
Cnossian defeat, most of Crete comes under Macedonian influence
Aetolian League
Achaean League
Commanders and leaders
Plator of Illyria,
unknown Cretan forces,
1000 Aetolians,
6 Rhodian ships
unknown Cretan forces,
400 Illyrians,
200 Achaeans,
100 Phocians

The Lyttian War[1] was an internal conflict fought from 220 BC between two coalitions of Cretan city-states, led by Cnossus and Polyrrhenia respectively. The events of the war are recorded by the historian Polybius.[2] It is considered "the greatest war in Cretan history" during Antiquity.[1]


Prelude to the conflict in Crete was the commercial war between the cities of Rhodes and Byzantium about the toll introduced by the Byzantines for all ships passing through the Bosporus on their way to the Pontus Euxinus. Posing a huge threat to Hellenistic trade, the conflict was ended in 220 BC with a compromise.[3]


In Crete during the same period the allied cities of Cnossus and Gortys had reduced the whole island under their power, except for the Spartan colony of Lyttos which alone resisted. When the Rhodian navarch Polemocles returned from the war against Byzantium, the Cnossians thought that he could be helpful in their efforts against their last enemy. So they asked the Rhodians for assistance and Polemocles arrived with three decked and three undecked ships.

Soon after his arrival, however, the people of Eleutherna accused him of the assassination of their citizen Timarchus, and as a reaction they declared war on the Rhodians.

Meanwhile the Cnossians and their allies had moved against Lyttos, but then for some unknown reason the alliance broke up and the Cretans began to quarrel with each other. Thus the cities of Polyrrhenia and Lappa, along with some minor people, defected from the Cnossians and allied with the Lyttians.[4]

Civil War[edit]

In Gortys the citizens were divided on the question of alliance and a civil war broke out. The elder Gortynians remained loyal to Cnossus, while the younger Gortynians favoured the Lyttians.[5]

Aetolian Intervention[edit]

Taken by surprise by the sudden reverse, the Cnossians asked the Aetolian League for help. The Aetolians were already present in Cydonia and sent 1000 warriors in assistance.

After their arrival the elders in Gortys led the Cnossians and the Aetolians to occupy their citadel and proceeded to kill or expel their younger opponents. The young Gortynians took refuge in the ancient castle of Phaistos overlooking the bay south to Mount Ida.

Later the young Gortynians in Phaistos launched a bold attack against the port of Gortys, which they occupied, and then they used the position to besiege their opponents in the citadel of Gortys.[6]

Destruction of Lyttos[edit]

While the Cnossians were occupied at Gortys, the mass of the Lyttian warriors left their city to invade the enemy territory. The Cnossians, however, got intelligence of their plan and took the opportunity to invade the undefended city of Lyttos, capturing all women and children and razing the place to the ground. When the Lyttians returned from their expedition, they were shattered and decided to abandon their devastated homes. Thus they settled in Lappa, and the Lappians hosted them with regard.[7]

Achaean Intervention[edit]

While these things happened in Crete, on the Peloponnese tensions had risen between the Achaean League and the Aetolian League. As a result, in 220 BC the Social War (220-217 BC) broke out, in which the Macedonian king Philip V was a major ally of the Achaeans.

The Polyrrhenians then used the Aetolian interference in Crete as an argument to ask Philip and the Achaeans for assistance against their common enemy. The Achaeans and Macedonians accepted them as allies and sent a mercenary force to the island, consisting of 400 Illyrians under Plator, 200 Achaeans and 100 Phocians.[8]

With these reinforcements, the Polyrrhenians made great progress in their efforts. Moving against Eleutherna, Cydonia and Aptera they quickly forced these cities to abandon their Cnossian allies and enter the opposite coalition.[9]

Thus the Cnossians, in short time, not only lost most of their allies, but also their hegemony over the island. Nevertheless they were still able to assist the Aetolian allies with 1000 archers in their war on the continent. The Polyrrhenians on the opposite side did the same by sending 500 Cretans to Philip V.[10]


The war continued for several years, but the further narration by Polybius is lost. Generally, the war went favourable for the enemies of Cnossus. Thus the Aetolians were expelled from the island and by 216 BC Crete was more or less a Macedonian protectorate.[11] Two years later the Achaean strategos Aratus of Sicyon confirmed this outcome claiming that Philip V of Macedon enjoyed the faith of the Cretans and his ships ruled the Cretan Sea, while most of the island's strongholds obeyed his command.[12]

Among the mercenary leaders fighting on the island was a young Arcadian named Philopoemen, who acquired great fame and experience which would serve him well in his later years as strategos of the Achaean League.[13]

As a side effect of the conflict, Cretan mercenaries (the famed archers and the so-called Neocretans) are recorded all over the Hellenistic world, although none of the leaders (Cnopias of Allaria, Philon the Cnossian, Eurylochus of Crete, Zelys the Gortynian at Raphia 217 BC; Lagoras, Kambylos and Bolis at the siege of Sardis 215/13 BC) can be traced directly to the civil war.

The Lyttians eventually returned to their homes and rebuilt their city on a nearby hill.[14]

The conflict over Crete was renewed in 205 BC, when Philip V of Macedon used the island as a base for naval raids against the Rhodians. In the Cretan War (205–200 BC) Philip's major allies in Crete were the cities of Hierapytna and Olous. Toward the end, when the Romans entered the coalition against Macedon, the Cnossians sided again with the Rhodians and forced Hierapytna to surrender. As a result, the Rhodians took control over eastern Crete which allowed them to largely stamp out piracy in the area. Following the Second Macedonian War, in 197 BC, Philip V lost all former allies and all possessions outside Macedonia proper.


  1. ^ a b Chaniotis 2005, p. 44.
  2. ^ Polybius, The Histories, IV 53-55.
  3. ^ Polybius, IV 43-52.
  4. ^ Polybius, IV 53.
  5. ^ Polybius, IV 53, 7.
  6. ^ Polybius, IV 53, 8-10 and 55, 6.
  7. ^ Polybius, IV 54.
  8. ^ Polybius, IV 55, 1-2.
  9. ^ Polybius, IV 55, 3-4.
  10. ^ Polybius, IV 55, 5.
  11. ^ Teocharis Detorakis, History of Crete, p. 74.
  12. ^ Plutarch, Aratus, 50.
  13. ^ Plutarch, Philopoemen, 7.
  14. ^ Florence Gaignerot-Driessen, The 'killing' of a city, p. 285-297.


  • Polybius, The Histories, IV 53-55
  • Chaniotis, Angelos (2005). War in the Hellenistic World : a Social and Cultural History. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0631226087.
  • Florence Gaignerot-Driessen, The 'killing' of a city: a destruction by enforced abandonment, in: Jan Driessen (ed.), Destruction: Archaeological, Philological and Historical Perspectives, Presses universitaires, Louvain, 2013
  • Teocharis Detorakis, History of Crete, Heraklion, 1994