Lesbos, sometimes referred to as Mytilini after its capital, is a Greek island located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. It has an area of 1,633 km2 (631 sq mi) with 320 kilometres (199 miles) of coastline, making it the third largest island in Greece. It is separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait and in late Palaeolithic/Mesolithic times was joined to the Anatolian mainland before the end of the last glacial period.
Lesbos is also the name of a regional unit of the North Aegean region, within which Lesbos island is one of five governing islands. The others are Chios, Ikaria, Lemnos, and Samos. The North Aegean region governs nine inhabited islands: Lesbos, Chios, Psara, Oinousses, Ikaria, Fournoi Korseon, Lemnos, Agios Efstratios and Samos. The capital of the North Aegean Region is Mytilene. The population of Lesbos is approximately 86,000, a third of whom live in its capital, Mytilene, in the southeastern part of the island. The remaining population is distributed in small towns and villages. The largest are Plomari, Kalloni, the Gera Villages, Agiassos, Eresos, and Molyvos (the ancient Mythimna).
According to later Greek writers, Mytilene was founded in the 11th century BC by the family Penthilidae, who arrived from Thessaly, and ruled the city-state until a popular revolt (590–580 BC) led by Pittacus of Mytilene ended their rule. In fact the archaeological and linguistic record may indicate a late Iron Age arrival of Greek settlers although references in Late Bronze Age Hittite archives indicate a likely Greek presence then. The name Mytilene itself seems to be of Hittite origin. According to Homer's Iliad, however, Lesbos was part of the kingdom of Priam in what is now Turkey. Much work remains to be done to determine just what happened and when. In the Middle Ages, it was under Byzantine and then Genoese rule. Lesbos was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1462. The Ottomans then ruled the island until the First Balkan War in 1912, when it became part of the Kingdom of Greece.
According to Classical Greek mythology, Lesbos was the patron god of the island. Macar was reputedly the first king whose many daughters bequeathed their names to some of the present larger towns. In Classical myth his sister, Canace, was killed to have him made king. The place names with female origins are likely to be much earlier settlements named after local goddesses, who were replaced by gods. Homer refers to the island as "Macaros edos", the seat of Macar. Hittite records from the Late Bronze Age name the island Lazpa and must have considered its population significant enough to allow the Hittites to "borrow their gods" (presumably idols) to cure their king when the local gods were not forthcoming. It is believed that emigrants from mainland Greece, mainly from Thessaly, entered the island in the Late Bronze Age and bequeathed it with the Aeolic dialect of the Greek language, whose written form survives in the poems of Sappho, amongst others.
The abundant grey pottery ware found on the island and the worship of Cybele, the great mother-goddess of Anatolia, suggest the cultural continuity of the population from Neolithic times. When the Persian king Cyrus defeated Croesus (546 BC) the Ionic Greek cities of Anatolia and the adjacent islands became Persian subjects and remained such until the Persians were defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). The island was governed by an oligarchy in archaic times, followed by quasi-democracy in classical times. For a short period it was a member of the Athenian confederacy, its apostasy from which is recounted by Thucydides in the Mytilenian Debate, in Book III of his History of the Peloponnesian War. In Hellenistic times, the island belonged to various Successor kingdoms until 79 BC when it passed into Roman hands.
Map of Lesbos by Giacomo Franco (1597).
During the Middle Ages it belonged to the Byzantine Empire. In 802, the Byzantine Empress Irene was exiled to Lesbos after her deposition, and died there. The island served as a gathering base for the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav in the early 820s.
In the 10th century, it was part of the theme of the Aegean Sea, while in the late 11th century it formed a dioikesis under a kourator in Mytilene. In the 1090s, the island was briefly occupied by the Turkish emir Tzachas, but he was unable to capture Methymna, which resisted throughout. In the 12th century, the island became a frequent target for plundering raids by the Republic of Venice.