Lato was one of the most important Doric city-states in Crete, although it must have existed before the “Descent of the Dorians”. It is built on a saddle between two hills, at a site protected by possible attacks but also with a splendid view over Mirambello Bay.
It is possibly mentioned in the Linear B tablets as RA-TO. It was named after Leto (Lato is the Doric type), mother of Apollo and Artemis, although the main goddess worshipped in the city was Eileithyia, who was also depicted on the coins cut by the city. Lato was the birth-place of Nearchos, the admiral of Alexander the Great.
From the northern acropolis of Lato on the highest hill, which has an altitude of 395 m, one could see the whole territory of Lato, which included the areas of Agios Nicolaos, Kritsa and Kroustas with the plateaus of Katharo, Kalo Horio and Prina. It bordered the city of Olous in the north, the territory of the Dririans in the northwest, the territory of the Latians in the west, the ancient cities of Malla (modern Malles), Olero (modern Meseleri) and Ierapitna (modern Ierapetra) in the south and the city of Istron (modern Kalo Horio) in the east. Around the city there were cemeteries, small fortresses for the control of the territory, temples, small towns and settlements of farmers or shepherds. The harbour of the city was Lato pros Kamara (modern Agios Nikolaos), possibly named after an arched or vaulted building.
Although the ruins of the urban centre of the Latians belong to the 4th and the 3rd centuries B.C., which was the prosperity period of the city, the excavations also brought older finds to light.An organized settlement already existed in the 7th century B.C., which is testified by the objects discovered and by the fact that the Agora and the public building that were found were considered to be a typical archaic Agora. The research also proved that the wider area was already inhabited in the Minoan period. In the nearby village Kritsa, tombs of the Late Minoan Period III (14th-13rd century B.C.) were found. Near the village two vaulted tombs were examined, which are considered to be Late Minoan or Early Geometric. On the hillock Thylakas there is a temple from the Geometric and Archaic periods and it is considered to be a “descendant” of the Minoan “Summit Sanctuary”.
There is no significant information about the history of the city and the other cities of Crete in historic years. The most important personality that is known to have come from Lato is Nearchos (about 360 – 312 B.C.), the admiral of Alexander the Great. In resolutions passed in 204 B.C. with the intervention of the King of Macedonia Phillip V, for the recognition of the temple of Dionysos and the protection of the citizens of the city Teo in Asian Minor from raids of Cretan pirates, two cities are mentioned “Lato” and “Lato pros Kamara”. This has lead to the belief that there were two independent cities with strong bonds between them. Today it is more acceptable that there was one city, Lato, the harbour of which was Kamara, falsely called Lato pros Kamara. In the end of the 3rd/beginning of the 2nd century B.C., possibly due to the great development of shipping and trade, the harbour started to become more powerful and important than the city, which was gradually abandoned and its residents moved to the harbour. This phenomenon is also known from modern years.
Inscriptions testify that a military force from Rhodes existed in the city, after the conflict between the Cretans and the Rhodians at the end of the 3rd century and the detarmination of the borders between the city and the neighboring cities Ierapetra and Lyttos in the same period. It also signed a treaty with other Cretan cities and the king Eumenes II of Pergamo. At the beginning of the 2nd century it conquered the neighboring city Istron (modern Kalo Horio) and in the second half of the same century it conflicted with Olous and Ierapetra, stabilizing its borders. The treaties determining the western and eastern borders of the city include an interesting list of place names. It was one of the last conquests of Roman General Metellus but the presence of the Romans does not seem to have been intense in the city. Life continued during the Roman period but Kamara did not become as important as other cities, like Ierapitna, Lyttos and Olous.
British admiral Th. Spratt in his work “Travels in Crete” (1865) mentioned that he spotted the ruins of the ancient city on the hill Goulas, but falsely identified the ruins as Olous or Oleros. The site was visited by archeologists Halbherr, L. Mariani and A. Taramelli, who identified the ruins as the ancient Lato. In1894-6 Α. Evans conducted small scale research in the area. Systematic research begins in 1899-1901 by the French School of Archeology under J. Demargne and is repeated in 1968 until the 1979s by P. Ducrey, O. Picard and V. Hatzimihalis.
(Author: Vily Apostolakou, archeologist)