Naxos is steeped in myth. Everyone has heard of Zeus, father of the Gods, Ariadne, Dionysus, and Semele. Demeter, Persephone, and the giants Otos and Ephialtes.
In Naxos, Zeus was considered protector of the flocks. He was worshipped in a temple located on the highest mountain of Naxos Zas. A rock bears the inscription “Mountain of Zeus”. According to tradition, Zeus was born in Crete, but he grew in Naxos, from where he left in order to conquer Olympus. On the peak of mountain Zas, an eagle gave Zeus the thunder, which allowed him to become the King of Gods.
According to another myth, Zeus fell in love with Semele, daughter of Kadmus, king of Thebes. From their union was born God Dionysus, protector of wine and breeziness. Shortly after their union, Semele asked from Zeus to appear before her with his entire divine splendor. However, this was Hera’s trick. Thus, Semele’s mortal heart could not stand this splendor, and she passed away before giving birth. Zeus took the embryo and sewed it on his thighs. In no time, Dionysus was born in Naxos. Zeus handed the child to the nymphs Philia, Koronida and Kleide and bespoke them to attend to all its needs. The child was brought up in the Cave of Koronos. Since then, Dionysus was worshipped in Naxos. In return, he also adored the island and blessed it with excellent vineyards.
Another myth concerns Theseus, king of Athens. As Theseus was returning to Athens after having killed Minotaur in Crete, he stopped in Naxos. Theseus had with him Ariadne, daughter of king Minoa and half-sister of Minotaur. Ariadne had helped him to complete his difficult task. During their stay in Naxos, Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne and appeared in to Theseus in a dream, telling him to leave Ariadne on the island. Theseus left Ariadne on Naxos, fearing the wrath of Dionysus.
Then, Dionysus stole Ariadne, led her to mountain Dryos and married her. From their union, three children were born: Eonopeonas, Stafylos and Evanthe. According to the scholar Decharme, there are two Ariadnes. The first is the one that is abandoned by Theseus in Naxos and dies there, while the second is Dionysus’ wife. The ceremonies that celebrated the former were mournful, while the ceremonies that celebrated the latter were accompanied by dithyrambs and were festal. In Naxos were held the Dionysia, in honor of Dionysus, which included various sporting events and sacrifices.
However, apart from the myth and the legend, archaeological excavations have proved that Naxos was an important centre of the Cycladian civilization (4000 – 1100 BC).
A cycladian settlement has been discovered in the area “Korfari Amygdalion”, close to Panormos. Other remarkable settlements have been discovered in Grotta. Archaeologists discovered tombs made of copper, silver and gold, vases, marble pots, tools made of wood and copper, and other important finds. The most representative finds are the cycladian figurines, the marble statuettes. During this period, navigation was developed and Naxos maintained a communication with settlements of the Aegean coast and the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the Aegean Sea was dominated by the Minoan thalassocracy. After the volcanic eruption that took place in Thira around 1760 BC, the Minoan civilization collapsed and the Mycenae took over. Then, Naxos became a bridge between central Greece and the Near East, constituting a service station.
Naxos was first inhabited by Thracians and Pelasgians. Then the Kareans dominated the island, led by their king Naxos, who gave his name to the island. In antiquity, Naxos was known with the names Dia, Strogyli and Dionysias. Later, the Ionians dominated Naxos. The Ionians developed a remarkable civilization and ruled the waves. Colonists were sent to Arkesene and Anafi, and a friendly relationship was established with Thira and Chalkida. Later, Naxos and Chalkida established together the settlement Naxos in Sicily, around 734 BC.
Then there was a period of great development and affluence, which culminated in the archaic period (7th – 6th century BC). Sculpture and architecture flourished. However, there were frictions with Miletus and Paros. The well-known lyric poet Archilochus, in spite of his dislike for warfare, was killed in a battle between the people of Naxos and Paros, around 654 BC.
The affluence, wealth and power of Naxos, as well as the flourishing of arts, are obvious in the lavish gifts that were presented to Delos. The House of Naxians, the Lion statue that was dedicated to God Apollo, a female statue given by the wealthy Naxian Nikandra, the Colossus of Naxos, etc. were among these lavish gifts.
The regime was oligarchic and the ruling class was called “Pacheis”. During the 6th century BC, the centre of Cyclades is transferred from Paros to Naxos. The oligarchic regime contributed to the collapse of the democratic regime in Paros. Generally, during this period, oligarchic and democratic regimes were in constant battle. Of course, the frictions between Paros and Naxos went on for many years.
In 501 BC, the island is attacked by the Persians. This attack was successfully repelled. Later, the aristocrats of Naxos (which were defeated by the democrats), took refuge in the Persians, who offered to help them. A Persian armada and army, led by Megavatis, arrived in Naxos, in order to re-establish the oligarchic regime. Thus, in the year 490 BC, the Persians enforced their rule in Naxos. In actuality, after this, Naxos never regained its former glory. During the Graeco-Persian wars, the people of Naxos joined the Greek army in Salamis and Plataea. The Greeks inflicted defeat on the Persian army. Then, Naxos entered the Athenian League. In 479 BC, Naxos enters the Delian League, but soon it apostatizes. For a while Naxos was subjected by Athens. However, when the Peloponnesian War ended, Sparta conquered the island. In 376 BC, Naxos was again ruled by the Athenians, and latter was subjected by the Macedonians. After the death of Alexander the Great, it is subjected by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and latter by the Rhodians. In 41 BC it was subjected by the Roman Empire, which dominated in the Aegean Sea and whole Greece. The island became a Roman prefecture and constituted a place of exile.
Christianity soon took roots in Naxos. During the Byzantine Empire, many churches and monasteries were built, in many orders and styles, with remarkable murals. Thus originated the expression “Byzantine surprise of Naxos”. Initially, Naxos was part of the archbishopric of Rhodes, but in 1083 AD, it housed the chair of Eparchy of Paronaxia.
In the 7th century AD, Saracens were seeking to dominate in the Aegean Sea. This was disastrous for the economical and cultural development of the islands. In order to protect themselves from the invasions of the pirates, the people of Naxos moved to the interior part of the island, towards the castle of Apalyros. This became the capital of Naxos during this era.
In 1207 BC, the Venetian Marcus Sanudus, nephew of the doge Eric Dandolus, conquered Naxos and other islands of the Cyclades (18 in total) and established the Aegean Dukedom, whose capital was Naxos. The people of Naxos resisted the Venetians entrenched in the castle of Apalyros, but finally were unable to prevail. Sanudus built the castle in the place where the ancient acropolis stood, using materials from the ancient city. He divided the island to 56 states, which he apportioned to his dignitaries, and enforced feudalism. During the Middle Ages, the locals were very poor, as they were subject to predatory taxation. The locals did not have the right to own land. They only cultivated the land for the rich. For about 3 centuries, the Dukedom constituted a power not to be sneezed at.
In 1564, the Turks conquered Naxos. However, in actuality, the island was still under the Venetian rule. The Turks ruled the island from a distance, and cared only for the collection of taxes. This was due to the fact that they feared the Greeks and the pirates. Thus, they avoided inhabiting the island, and their presence was not felt. Many churches and schools were established in this period. The school of Ursulines and the Commercial School of the Castle, where Nikolaos Kazantzakis studied, were established during this period.
Naxos was officially part of the Ottoman Empire until 1829. In May 1821, the island regains its independence after bloody battles fought in the context of the Greek Revolution. With the signature of the protocol of February 3rd, 1830, Naxos became part of the infant Greek nation.
In later times, Naxos played its own role, in the challenging events that took place. Many Naxians migrated in Athens, seeking a better life and an escape from poverty. Others migrated to foreign countries, but none forgot his birthplace. Naxians always love their island, always care for the well being of their island, and are unfailingly proud for their descent.