Even today, the Cretan town of Lissos can only be reached by sea or a seemingly endless hike across the stunning landscape and mountains that surround it. Despite previous excavations uncovering abundant discoveries, its isolated location has complicated access over the years, as well as protecting Lissos from the incursions of modern-day tourism. Nevertheless, excavations at Lissos have resumed after decades, bringing to light the ruins of a Roman theater which may have been used for musical contests, lectures and even city council meetings.
The Valley of Lissos on the island of Crete. ( ksl / Adobe Stock)
The Ancient City of Lissos
Located across the Mediterranean Sea from Cyrene, a major ancient Greek city in present-day Libya, Lissos was probably an important Mediterranean trading port on the island of Crete. Located within the fertile Ai Kyrkos Valley, the port of Lissos was protected by mountains and faced the southwest Sea of Crete. An independent city and a religious center, Lissos also had powerful trading and fishing fleets during the third century BC, according to the Greek Reporter .
Inscriptions and coins from that time reveal that the city allied with King Magas of Cyrene and was a member of the League of Oreians. The League included the cities of Lissos, Syia, Poikilassos, Tarrha, Yrtakina and Elyrus.
First excavated in the 1950s by archaeologist Nikolaos Platon, excavations of the ancient port have revealed relatively well-preserved structures from various time periods in history. These include a rare temple to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, a remarkable Greco-Roman necropolis with two-story tombs, Roman baths, a residential area, and Christian churches, reports Live Science .
Ancient Roman theater discovered at archaeological site of Lissos. ( Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports )
Exciting New Discovery Emerges Sixty Years Later
Over six decades after the first excavations, archaeologists have unearthed an east-facing structure that appears to be either an odeon (or odeum), a type of theater where musical activities took place, or a bouleuterion, where members of the assembly met, according to the Greek Reporter .
Katerina Tzanakaki, deputy head of the Department of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities and Museums at the Ephorate of Antiquities of Chania, was the lead archaeologist for the new excavation. She explained in an email to Live Science that odeons “were used for lectures, literary and musical contests or theatrical performances.”
In the first phase of the excavation, part of the stage, 14 rows of seats and two vaulted side chambers were uncovered. The odeon belongs to the Roman period which spans the first to fourth centuries AD. This period also saw the temple of Asclepius turned into a political center that had a mosaic floor and portraits of the Roman emperors Tiberius and Drusus adorning its walls.
View of the Roman theater unearthed at the archaeological site of Lissos in Crete. ( Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports )
Historic Damage Caused by Deadly Earthquake
Most of the intact seats are in the south and southwest of the theater. The northwestern part, on the other hand, is quite badly damaged by boulders brought by the adjacent torrent that went through the building diagonally toward the east. The rocks were probably swept towards the building due to a deadly earthquake that shook Crete in 365 AD.
The earthquake lifted up the entire city by several meters. The town would have been larger than it is today before the havoc wreaked by the earthquake. The theater would also have been closer to the sea. The restoration work on the building will depend on whether the archaeological team is able to find traces of an outer wall supporting the odeon.
Byzantine church of Panagia on Lissos beach is located next to the Roman theater. ( Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports )
Alternative Uses of the Roman Theater Unearthed in Lissos
The theater’s proximity to the city center makes it likely that it also doubled as a bouleuterion, a building where meetings of the city council were held. In an email exchange, Jane Francis and her husband George W. Harrison, Canadian classical archaeologists not involved with the excavations, told Live Science that going by the size and date of the building, it was most likely an odeon. But because “it was designed and used as a covered theatre does not preclude secondary use as a council house.”
Whatever the purpose, a statement from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports emphasizes how exceptional the new find uncovered in Lissos really is: “The discovery of a public service building at a central point of the ancient city, near the temple to Asclepius, adds new information to the archaeological and historical horizon of the area.” Francis and Harrison concur, adding that “there aren’t many well-preserved theaters on Crete and even fewer bouleuteria.”
Top image: Roman theater unearthed at the archaeological site of Lissos on island of Crete. Source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports
By Sahir Pandey