Lesbos has a predominantly bucolic character, uncommon for an Aegean island. The central valleys and slopes carpeted as far as the eye can see with olive trees, the unusually tranquil waters of its two sea-gulfs that flood the heart of the island like large lakes, the self-sufficiency of its stately villages, and the relative beneficence of its mountain peaks, all contribute to give the island a feel of domesticity, spaciousness and calm. In Sappho and her contemporaries, Alcaeus, Arion and Terpander—all from Lesbos—the island can justly consider itself to be the cradle of Ancient Greek lyric poetry and music. The hot waters of Lesbos, whether in settings historic or bizarre or intimate, are one of the island's greatest and most unusual attractions.
For its size and wealth in Antiquity, Lesbos has proportionately less to show in archaeological terms than its neighbours—Thasos, Samothrace and Lemnos to the north, or Chios and Samos to the south. The beautiful Hellenistic mosaic floors, exhibited in the New Archaeological Museum, are for the visitor perhaps its most vivid relic. But from the Middle Ages on, the island's heritage is rich: the grandly conceived Gattilusi castles, in Mytilene and Molyvos, in particular; a number of Byzantine rural churches; important monasteries of different periods; many Ottoman buildings, religious, military and domestic; some interesting 19th century industrial architecture from the island's large olive-oil production; and—most conspicuous and widespread of all—the beauty and rich diversity of its villages. All have quite different architectural personalities; but all are examples of rural settlements, in which the building materials of the houses, the paved and cobbled streets, and the stone walls are at one in texture, spirit and colour with the landscape and vegetation which surround and interpenetrate their spaces, representing a historic harmony in the Greek landscape between man and nature—irreplaceable and fast disappearing.
Myrina, Queen of the Amazons, in her conquering campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean, seized Lesbos and ‘founded the city of Mytilene, which was named after her sister who took part in the campaign', writes Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheke, III. 55), intimating the origins of its conspicuously feminine history. The island's geographical situation and many harbours always made Lesbos a centre for trade and communication from earliest times. Prehistoric finds, which indicate occupation from c. 3300 BC until the end of the Mycenaean period, relate closely to those found at ancient Troy. According to Homer, Lesbos, siding with Troy, was invaded by both Achilles and Odysseus. The early inhabitants were probably Pelasgian, but in the 10th century BC the island and the mainland opposite were colonised by Aeolians under the leadership of the Penthelides clan, the last of whom was murdered in 659 BC.
The island was divided in Antiquity between five competing cities: Mytilene, Methymna, Pyrrha, Antissa, and Eresos. A struggle developed between Methymna and Mytilene for the leadership of the island, and although Mytilene predominated and has remained the capital, a tradition of independent resistance was fostered in the west part of the island, which was to recur at critical moments. Lesbos was governed oligarchically with increasing chaos until the statesman and lawgiver, Pittacus, considered one of the Seven Sages, calmed the island. As supreme ruler or ‘aesymnetes' (a kind of elected dictator or referee, according to Aristotle, appointed in some of the early city states in times of internal crisis) for ten years from 589 to 579 BC, he ushered in its greatest period of prosperity and cultural importance. A large fleet and wide mercantile interests (especially in Egypt) were combined with a high standard of education and a comparative freedom for women—two traditions still noticeable today. Terpander (of Antissa) the father of Greek music, and Arion (from Methymna), who invented dithyrambic poetry, had already made Lesbos famous in the 7th century, but it was with Alcaeus (of Mytilene) and Sappho (of ? Eresos), both aristocrats and opponents of Pittacus, that the island reached its cultural zenith. The 4th century BC philosopher and scientist, Theophrastus, was also from Eresos on Lesbos.
The islanders founded colonies in the Hellespont and in around 600 BC challenged Athens for control of her first overseas possession, Sigeum, a settlement close to Troy at the mouth of the Hellespont. In 527 BC Lesbos fell under Persian domination and was not freed until 479 BC when it joined the Athenian League. In 428 BC, soon after the Peloponnesian War started, Mytilene tried to break away with Spartan help, but the plan was betrayed by Methymna to Athens. The Mytileneans were severely punished (Thucydides, III, 36–50). This was the dramatic occasion when a second galley with an official reprieve was sent, after a first had left with the orders of the Athenian council for the wholesale massacre of the male population, and managed miraculously to arrive in time. In 405 BC Lesbos fell to the Spartans and thereafter changed hands frequently, being ruled by Persia, Macedonia, and the Ptolemies, until Mithridates occupied it in 88–79 BC, only to be ousted by the Romans. According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar ‘won his spurs' during the Roman storming of Mytilene. The city was much favoured by Pompey. St Paul, on his way back to Jerusalem from Greece (c. 58 AD) spent a night at Mytilene before passing by Chios and Samos. By the 5th century AD Lesbos had many fine basilicas, with bishops at both Mytilene and Methymna.
As a Byzantine dominion, the island was used as a place of exile, notably for the Empress Irene in 809. It suffered Saracen invasions in 821, 881 and 1055, which prompted the inhabitants to leave the coast for the mountains of the interior. In 1085 it fell to Zachas, the Seljuk Turkish emir of Izmir, although Alexius Comnenus retook the island, which then remained under Byzantine control until 1128, after which it passed for a time to the Venetians. In 1204 Lesbos became part of the Latin Empire, but returned in c. 1225 to the dominion of the Byzantine Emperors who were then in exile in Nicaea. At the end of the 13th century it was devastated by Catalan mercenaries; and in 1335 the Latin army of Domenico Cattaneo, the Genoese lord of Phocaea, captured the island but was forced to surrender it again to the Emperor of Byzantium, Andronicus III, the following year. In 1354 it was given to Francesco Gattilusio, a Genoese adventurer, as a dowry when he married Maria, the sister of Emperor John V Palaeologus. The island then enjoyed a century of untroubled prosperity under the Gattilusi dynasty who established an important trading principality in the North Aegean.
After 12 years of paying a substantial tribute to Sultan Mehmet II, Lesbos fell to the Turks in 1462 and, despite attempts to free it by Orsano Giustiniano in 1464 and by a Frankish-Rhodian fleet in 1501, remained under Turkish domination until 1912. The island enjoyed considerable privileges in the 19th century, in spite of an orchestrated revolt in 1821. The quantity of grand, 19th and early 20th century industrial architecture around the island and large mansions in Mytilene and Plomari is evidence of the island's prosperity from olive production, leather tanning and ouzo distilling before the World Wars; and the many Ottoman remains still visible today bear witness to the islanders' innate tolerance. After 1912, when the island became part of the Greek State, Lesbos received large numbers of refugees from Asia Minor. Between 1941 and 1944 it was occupied by German forces.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)