Legend Zeus himself is associated with the island, not just in name—Mount Zas, and the former name of the island, ‘Dia’—but by a tradition relating that it was on the island’s peak that an eagle gave him the gift of thunder. Above all it is his son, Dionysos, who is most closely connected with Naxos and remained the island’s presiding spirit through out Antiquity. In one version he was committed as an infant by Zeus to the care of nymphs on Mount Koronos and grew up in a cave there. It was also on a journey to Naxos that the Tyrrhenian pirates or sailors of his boat, not recognising the god, planned to kidnap him and sell him in the slave-markets of Asia. Dionysos turned their oars into serpents, immobilised the boat with riggings of vine leaves, and filled the air with the sound of invisible flutes—so greatly frightening the sailors, that they leapt overboard and drowned.
The island is best known, however, from the story of Theseus’s leaving of Ariadne on Naxos (see pp. 51-53) while on their way back from Crete to Athens. Dionysos found her abandoned and grieving, conceived a love for her, and had a number of children by her. The story is celebrated in one of the most accomplished poems of Catullus, in a masterpiece by Titian, and in an unusual opera by Richard Strauss.
Throughout the Bronze Age, Naxos played a leading role in Cycladic culture. This had been preceded by a strong Neolithic presence on the island, both in the heights of the interior—in the cave of Zas (c. 750m a.s.l.)—and by the shore. Although there were many Early Cycladic settlements scattered around the island, as is indicated by the great number of cemeteries, the only one to survive vigorously and continuously throughout the Bronze Age was the substantial settlement at Grotta on the north shore of today’s city of Naxos . This remained the island’s main trading centre throughout later Mycenaean times, and it preserved enough population and momentum to survive the difficult centuries after the destruction of the Mycenaean world. In the 8th century bc, Naxos planted a (homonymous) colony in Sicily, and one on Amorgos (Arkesine). The island was never divided into city-states but constituted a single state, with its city on the site of the present town.
Because of its wealth of natural resources the island entered the historic period in a position of advantage. ‘Naxos was the richest island in the Aegean’ (Herodotus V, 29). Its deposits of fine sculptural marble and emery (see pp. 131 136), together with the fertility of its interior, meant that it was able to dominate the Ionian group of islands and their sacred centre at Delos . The 6th century bc sees a remark able flourishing of marble sculpting and building in which Naxos , together with Samos , led the Greek world in innovative technique and designs in both areas; evidence can be seen of this in the grand monuments built by the Naxians both on the island itself, and at Delphi and on Delos .
In 536 bc a civil war resulted in the overthrow of the landowning class and the instating of a tyrant, Lydgamis—himself an aristocrat, but a champion of the lower classes. In this period some of the island’s most signal monuments were raised. Lygdamis was overthrown in 524 bc, and after a brief oligarchy, democracy was established. In 506 bc the island successfully withstood a four-month siege by Aristagoras, Tyrant of Miletus, supported by a group of disaffected Naxiot oligarchs in exile. At the end of the century the island was at the peak of its power and influence: Herodotus suggests (V, 30) that Naxos could raise an army of 8,000 hoplites, in addition to the fleet it possessed.
Naxos ’s ‘golden age’ ended with the Persian Wars. The island was devastated and its sanctuaries burnt by the Per sians in 490 bc. It nonetheless fielded four ships to join the Greek fleet at Salamis in 480 bc, and fought at the Battle of Plataea. In 479 bc it joined the Delian League, but it was not long before it began to feel the oppressive hegemony of Athens and, recalling its own former power and glory, it attempted to secede in 473/2 bc. The Athenians firmly put down the revolt, subjugated the island, settled 1,000 cleruchs, and imposed a heavy annual tribute. Naxos never again regained its former status. In 377 bc, in the straits between Paros and Naxos , the Athenians routed the Spar tan fleet with whom Naxos was then allied, and the island was forced once again to capitulate to Athens. In 338 bc the island came under Macedonian rule, then Ptolemaic rule, and finally under the Romans in 41 bc, who used it as a place of exile.
Saracen raids in the 7th century ad, forced the abandonment of the coastal settlements; but the island had a large enough interior which was agriculturally self-sufficient to remain unscathed. The surprising number of important churches of the 6th–9th centuries with decorations—some with strictly abstract designs dating from the period of the Iconoclastic debate—suggests that there was a quality of life on Naxos not known elsewhere in the Cyclades in the same period. Historical documentation is exiguous, however, for the period of Byzantine dominion. In 1207, in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, the island was taken by the nephew of Doge Enrico Dandolo, Marco Sanudo (see pp. 22-26) who established a Venetian ‘Duchy of the Archipelago’ based in Naxos . The extraordinary renaissance of church building and decorating on the island in the 13th century is ample testimony of the prosperity and security that this brought. His descendants, and the succeeding dynasty of the Crispi, ruled over Naxos and the Cyclades for 360 years. In 1537, Khaireddin Barbarossa at tacked, but failed to take, the island; but in 1566 Naxos finally fell to the forces of Sultan Selim II. An Ottoman governor was installed, but the island was never settled by Turks. Between 1770 and 1774 Naxos was occupied by the Russians, during the first Russo-Turkish War. Much of the island’s population, perhaps still in thrall to a Latin culture, was lukewarm in enthusiasm for Greek Independence, expelling the Greek representatives from the island in 1824. In 1832, however, Naxos became part of the Greek State. Italian forces occupied the island in 1941. It was liberated in 1944.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.