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The city on the mountain

Exploring ancient Lato

The remains of the ancient city of Lato in Crete are well worth visiting. This archaeological site, located in the mountains, features the remains of houses, public buildings, and public spaces.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Nestled in the mountains in the eastern part of Crete, 3 km from the village of Kritsa and about 10 km from the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos, are the remains of the ancient city of Lato. The city is presumably named after the goddess Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. (In Dorian Greek, the ancient Greek dialect spoken in Crete in the historic era, Leto is written as Lato.)

The remains of the ancient city are exceptionally well preserved. Most of the structures currently visible date to the fourth and third centuries BC, so the Late Classical and Early Hellenistic periods. However, terracotta figurines and plaques unearthed at the site have revealed that the earliest phase of the city probably dates back to the seventh century BC. Late Minoan IIIC pottery fragments suggest that the site of the later Archaic and Classical city may also have been inhabited in the twelfth century BC.

A defensible location

The town was built in a highly defensible position, on a double acropolis, around 300 to 400 metres above sea level. Lato was protected by a strong circuit wall. To access the ancient city, you need to take a path from the entrance of the site that takes you to the main gate. This is the same route that visitors to the city would have taken in the Late Classical and Early Hellenistic periods.

The slopes of the mountain were terraced to make it easier to construct all the necessary buildings. Most of the structures currently visible are houses. The main street consists of steps that lead from the gate to a relatively large, flat area in between the site’s two peaks. This was Lato’s agora, the central meeting place of any ancient Greek city of the historic era.

Located so high up in the mountains, water was no doubt a problem for the ancient Latians. In the centre of the agora is a large and deep cistern, with steps leading from the surface down to the bottom to make it easier to access the water. The importance of this cistern is emphasized by the fact that the structure directly to the south of it was a temple, although we don’t know to which deity is was dedicated; perhaps it was Leto. Most houses also seem to have had private cisterns that were markedly smaller, and which were probably fed by rainwater.

Along the northern edge of the agora is a broad flight of steps that were used as seating for people to listen to whatever was going on in the agora. There are enough seats to accomodate around 80 people. Beyond the steps lies the prytaneion complex, which dates to the second half of the fourth century BC. This is where the prytaneis gathered, the people who were effectively in charge of the town’s government.

A view from the terrace with the temple, across the Theatral Area. Lato is located in the mountains, but the sea is close enough to be easily visible from this vantage point. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

Located not far from the main area of the agora, to the southwest, is a relatively narrow ridge where we encounter more seating. This is part of the so-called “Theatral Area”. The seats here would have afforded space for around 350 people. Whether or not this was an actual theatre is disputed: it may have been an ekklesiasterion, an assembly place for the ekklesia or popular assembly. Of course, one function doesn’t necessarily exclude another.

At a higher level from the Theatral Area are the remains of another temple, built out of large, worked blocks of stone. We again don’t know which deity was worshipped here. The Latians may also have controlled a large extra-urban sanctuary located 1.5 km south-east from the city on Mt. Thilakas. By organizing processions from the centre of town to this sanctuary, the Latians were able to demonstrate the control they exerted on the surrounding territory, where they must have had farmland and pasture.

It is clear based on the archaeological evidence that the Latians slowly abandoned their mountain city and moved to Kamara, the remains of which are currently beneath the modern town of Agios Nikolaos. Kamara was easier to reach than Lato; closer access to the coast would have helped with trade. The archaeological site can today be reached by car or you can rent a taxi from a nearby settlement.