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History and Culture of Lesvos (Lesbos) island, Greece
The Eastern Mediterranean was one of the first
cradles of mankind.
Not only modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) but his predecessors Neanderthal man (Homo
sapiens neanderthalenis) and Homo erectus settled early on the coasts, islands and inland
regions of this area of the globe, so favored by nature.
By the last phase of the Neolithic era (up to about 2000 BC), the Eastern Mediterranean
area was densely populated, in comparison to general population levels at that time, by
peoples racially akin to each other; they could be described in a word as
"Mediterraneans" and should be considered the truly indigenous population of the
Towns, large and small, have been discovered to date in Lesbos. The oldest ruins date back
to 3200-3100 BC. In Thermi, which has been systematically excavated by W. Lamb, five towns
were unearthed, one on top of the other. They represent the time period from 3200 to 2400
BC. The first three correspond to Troy I and the other two to Troy II. Only in the most
recent level have traces of fortifications been found. They were perhaps build out of the
people of Central Asia, who had begun to constitute a threat as they approached the coasts
and nearby islands.
The next thousand years could well be called a dark age, because, for the time being at
least no archeological evidence of it has come to light, nor are there any references to
it in literature. It should be noted that excavations in Lesbos are still in their early
stages: the future may, very probably, bring surprises. Nevertheless, we can safely assume
that during that time the life of the islanders did not undergo any profound change until
around 1400 BC., when Greeks from Mycenae (Mikines) made their appearance in Lesbos and
neighboring Asia Minor. This was the time of the Trojan War and the sack of Troy, which
marked the beginning of the fall of the great Trojan nation. It would seem, however, that
the Myceneans either could not or would not establish permanent settlements in
Legend has it that the Argives led by Xanthus settled on the island, followed by the
Achaeans from Olenus in Achaia (Achaea), led by Macares. But despite the influences, the
newcomers exerted on the older inhabitants, they continued to preserve the traditions of
their culture up to the Geometrical period.
Later, Aeolian Greeks arrived in Lesbos and founded colonies on the island and on the
coasts of Asia Minor opposite; they named this area Aeolia. We cannot determine exactly
when this influx occurred, but judging from legends and the more general developments of
that era, the Aeolians must have come about 800 BC. from Thessaly.
According to one myth, the first Aeolian King of the island was Lesbos, son of
King of Thessaly, and grandson of Aeolus. He sailed to the island with his family from
Thessaly and married Mithymna, daughter of the local King Macares who appears to have been
a descendent of the Achaeans, and from that time on the island, whose previous name is not
known, began to be called Lesbos in his honor.
If this myth is based on actual events as it would seem to be, it demonstrates that the
Aeolians of Lesbos and neighboring Aeolia originated in
Thessaly. This view is born out by
the similarity of the Aeolian and Thessalian dialects of those times. Studying the myth in
greater depth, scholars come to the conclusion that the Aeolians probably settled
peacefully in Lesbos and, as their civilization was rather more advanced, they absorbed
and in time Hellenised the local residents. Thus from that time on Lesbos began to be
regarded as an Aeolian Greek island and its previous history was forgotten. The Aeolians
of Lesbos were in fact so powerful that for a long time they controlled the other Aeolian
towns and regions of Asia Minor, as far as the Dardanelles.
At the outset of the Aeolian period there were six towns in Lesbos, all governed by kings.
During the 7th century BC the kings were gradually driven out and replaced by oligarchies
or tyrants. In the 5th century BC the town of Arisbe (Arisvi) was destroyed by the
Mithymnians, reducing the number of towns to five: Mytilene, on the site of the modern
town of the same name, Mithymna, on the site of modern Molivos, Antissa on the coast,
north of modern Antissa, Eressus on the shore south of modern Eressos and Pyrrha on the
deepest recess of the Bay of Kalloni.
In 570 BC, the islanders took part in the founding of Naucrate, the Greek colony in Egypt.
Not long afterward, Lesbos had become so strong that all-powerful Croesus, king of a vast
realm, signed a treaty with its inhabitants, whom he considered his equals, although he
had subjugated all the other Greeks in Asia Minor. At about the same time the inhabitants
of Lesbos allied themselves with the Milesians against the tyrant Polycrates of
Polycrates defeated them and forced them to dig a moat around his town. Finally, the
Persian king Cyrus forced the islanders to sign a treaty agreeing to pay him taxes and
send troops to aid him in his campaigns.
At the end of the same century, after seeing all the towns of Asia Minor come under
Persian rule, the islanders capitulated without a fight. The Persians, in the way of all
conquerors, proceeded to appoint a friend of theirs, Coes of Exandrus, as tyrant of
Lesbos. When the revolt of Greek towns broke out in 499 BC, the islanders of Lesbos could
not remain indifferent. They rose up against Coes, killed him, and went to the aid of the
rebels with 70 ships. However, in the battle of Lade in 494 BC, the Persians were
victorious and the inhabitants of Lesbos, like the rest of the Greeks in Asia Minor, were
completely subjugated to the conquerors. Thus, when Xerxes began his campaign against the
Greeks in the Greek peninsula, the islanders fought on his side with 60 shops, but later,
after the Persians were defeated in the Battle of Mycale, Lesbos went over to the side of
the Athenians, and entered into an alliance with them in 477 BC.
This alliance lasted until 440 BC, when the Samians revolted against Athens,
which in many ways had proved more tyrannical than Persia; the people of Lesbos soon
followed suit. The Athenians were able to subdue once again, but during the fourth year of
the Peloponnesian War, the whole island rose up, with the sole exception of the town of
Mithymna, which remained loyal to Athenians finally managed to vanquish the remaining
towns one by one and set up garrisons in them without razing them.
In 405 BC, Lysander the Spartan, conquered all the towns of Lesbos. In 392 BC Athens
recaptured them, and in 387 BC the island gained its autonomy under the Antalcideian
peace. In 369 BC Lesbos entered the Second Athenian League, but fell to the Persians again
in 357 BC; they again placed their friends in positions of power.
When Alexander the Great began to conquer Asia Minor, the Lesbians lost no time in allying
themselves with him, after his victory at the Granicus River. It was one Memnon of Rhodes
who made them submit to the Persians once again, with very harsh conditions. The Persians
were soon driven out by Alexander's General Aegelogus, and so the island remained under
Macedonian rule up to 167 BC, the date of the first Roman invasion. The Romans settled
permanently on the island in 88 BC. At that time Lesbos was an ally of
enemy of the Romans. That was why, although they met with no resistance when they seized
the island, the Romans demolished Mytilene, its chief town, and then as now capital of the
Pompei granted the island a degree of autonomy which it kept until 70 AD, in the time of
the Emperor Vespasian. Later Hadrian gave the people of Lesbos their privileges again. The
island continued to prosper into the first centuries of the Christian era, as witnessed by
the 57 early Christian basilicas whose ruins have been unearthed to date.
The islanders' peaceful life ended just when Lesbos seemed most invulnerable. Although it
was part of the Byzantine Empire. In 769 it was raided by the Slavs, in 821, 881 and 1055
by the Saracens, by the Venetians in 1128 and in the 13th century by the Catalan pirates.
In 1204 Franks, occupied Lesbos and presented it to Baudouin I. From him it passed to the
Byzantine Emperor Ioannis III Doukas-Vatatzis in 1224 and in 1261 it became a Byzantine
Province again. That was when the first Genoese settled in Lesbos, under a special treaty
which granted them certain commercial privileges. In 1335 Ioannis V Paleologus ceded
Lesbos to the Genoese Francisco Gateluzo, who happened to be his brother-in-law. The
Gateluzzi state was gradually broken up by the Turks, who captured Lesbos in 1462. The
island regained its freedom in 1912.
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