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The ancient name of the island was Porfiris, or Red, after a red dye once made on the island which was used to color the clothing of royalty.
Another of its ancient names was Tetrapolic, after its four ancient cities, today in various states of ruin: Vrykous, Possidion, and Nissyros. Before the 5th Century BC the island was a member of the Athenian League.
Later it came under the influence of Rhodes until, with the rest of the Dodecanese, it became subject to the Romans. The parrot fish was so abundant off its coast that Roman emperors had special fleets just to bring parrot fish to the imperial tables.
Under Byzantium it was ravaged several times by pirates. After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks it fell to the Franks under Leon Gavalas. In 1538 when it was captured by the Turks. It took part in the War of Independence in 1821 and enjoyed a brief period of autonomy until retaken by the Turk in 1832.
From 1912 onwards it was governed by the Italians until 1948 when it became part of the Greek state.