In the year 1204, during the 4th crusade, the Frankish and Venetian crusaders conquered Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which thus ended, almost 900 years after its foundation. The victors divided the conquered empire among them: France was given most of the mainland, Venice the islands. At that time, many of the islands were still in the hands of the Greeks or under the rule of pirates. Therefore, the Venetian government declared that any of its citizens who conquered an island would be made the ruler of that island under Venetian supremacy.
Venetian coats of arms above a door in the Kastro (Chóra)
In 1207 the Venetian crusader Marco Sanudo sailed with his fleet to the Cyclades and conquered the south-eastern islands. Naxos was at that time in the hands of Genoese pirates who retreated together with the Greek population to the Byzantine fortress of Apalírou when the Venetians approached the island. Marco Sanudo, who was a capable and brave warlord, burned his ships after landing on Naxos, thus depriving his men of their means of retreat. After a siege of five weeks, the Venetians took the castle and thus the island of Naxos.
Quite a few remains are still preserved of the Byzantine castle of Apalírou.
Marco Sanudo established a Venetian dukedom, appointed himself Duke of the Aegean and built his seat of government on the then abandoned site of the present capital, the Chóra, on the ruins of the ancient town. He built a strong, fortified castle with a Catholic metropolis and fortified the harbour as landing place for his ships. The castle of Apalírou and the nearby settlement, then the biggest town of the island, were detroyed and abandoned. Over the course of time, Marco Sanudo conquered several neighbouring islands, expanded his duchy and consolidated his rule.
the Venetian castle in the Chóra
Only one of the defense towers of the castle is still intact.
However, the Venetian was not loyal to his home town, but placed himself under the Frankish emperor Henry of Constantinople. When he was delegated by the Venetians to help them conquer the island of Crete which was still in Greek hands, he soon defected to the Greek side and tried unsuccessfully to make himself master of the island. Later, the duke undertook campaigns to the coast of Asia Minor and conquered Smyrna, but this led to conflicts with the Greek ruler of Nikaia, Theodor Laskari. Laskari defeated Marco Sanudo with his far superior fleet and captured him, but he admired the brave Venetian so much that he not only released him but also gave him his sister for wife.
The descendants of Marco Sanudo reigned as dukes over Naxos until 1371. Marco Sanudo had divided the island’s territory among his fifty companions and appointed them feudal lords. These ruled over the Greek population with great severity, especially in the later centuries: Not only did they claim for themselves a third or even half of the harvest, but they also demanded additional taxes with every occasion, for example when their Greek subordinates were building a house. They slaughtered the animals that strayed onto their land (and were driven onto it on purpose if necessary) and assigned the Greek farmers to all kinds of forced labour, such as constructing public buildings and roads, but also rowing their ships. They also had unlimited rights over the wives and children of their subordinates.
fortified Venetian tower in Chalkí
Venetian tower near Agiá
As a result, the relationship between the Catholic lords and the Greek population was very bad. Under Marco the Second, grandson of the first duke, the Catholics tried to prevent the Greek population from practicing their religious customs, which caused such indignation among the population that the duke, in order to prevent an uprising and to intimidate the Greeks, built (or restored) the castle of Apáno Kástro on the hilltop between the fertile valley of Potamiá and the Tragaía. This later also served as a refuge during pirate raids: The island was still frequently threatened by Genoese, Catalan, Turkish and Arab pirates. Several times, large parts of the population were taken into slavery and the island became impoverished and half deserted. Many Greeks emigrated to the safer Crete. The dukes were almost constantly involved in battles against the pirates or against their Greek, Frankish or Venetian neighbours.
The ruins of Apáno Kástro lie on the top of a barren granite mountain.
Not much remains of the castle.
The last duke of the Sanudos, Nicolo dalle Carcere, son of a Florentina Sanudo, tried to conquer the city of Chalkida in Euboea, which was under Venetian rule. In doing so, he upset the rulers of Venice so much that they had him assassinated in 1383 by Francis Crispi whom they then appointed Duke of Naxos.
The rule of the Crispi family did not bring any improvement for the island. The Catholic rulers exploited the Greek population so excessively that many Greeks even emigrated to the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor. In 1537 the Turkish pirate Barbarossa conquered the neighbouring island of Paros, and the Duke Johann Crispi had to pay tribute to him. Finally his son Jacob was expelled in 1566 by the revolting Greek population and imprisoned by the Turkish Sultan. This put an end to the Venetian rule over Naxos, and the island was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.