Set in stone

The law code of Gortyn

One of the longest extant ancient Greek inscriptions is found in Gortyn, an ancient city in Crete. The text was inscribed in the fifth century BC, but some scholars purport that parts of it are reflective of an earlier era.

Josho Brouwers

By necessity, students of ancient Greek law usually focus on texts and inscriptions from Classical Athens. Standard books on the subject include A.R.W. Harrison’s two-volume work The Law of Athens (1968-1971) and S.C. Todd’s The Shape of Athenian Law (1993), as well as Douglas M. MacDowell’s Athenian Homicide Law in the Age of the Orators (1963) and The Law in Classical Athens (1978).

We simply don’t have a lot of information when it comes to the laws of city-states other than Athens. Douglas MacDowell wrote a small book, Spartan Law (1986), that deals with the presumed laws of ancient Sparta, based mostly on the writings of authors of the Classical age and beyond. None of those ancient writers, by the way, were actually from Sparta. As a result, MacDowell’s book on Spartan law is a bit of a hogdepodge of information gleaned from sources that aren’t always very trustworthy, including the notorious purveyor of questionable information Plutarch.

Another limiting factor is that the evidence that we do have regarding ancient Greek law tends to be dated to the Classical period, so from the fifth century BC onwards. The evidence for laws in Archaic Greece was collected by Michael Gagarin and published in book form under the title Early Greek Law (1989). The material focuses on Homer, Hesiod, and a few other early writers, as well as inscriptions.

The Great Code of Gortyn

When it comes to inscriptions, pride of place goes to the so-called “Great Code” of Gortyn. Gortyn is an ancient city in Crete; the archaeological site is extensive, and includes the remains of a large early Christian church. The law code is inscribed on a circular wall of what may once have been Gortyn’s bouleuterion, where the council of citizens – the boule – convened, located in the city’s agora.

The wall with the inscription is locked away behind gates, so that you can only see them from a distance. The texts are generally written boustrophedon, i.e. “as the ox ploughs”: once the end of a line, written from left to right, had been reached, the sentence would be continued immediately underneath it, written this time from right to left, and then back again for the next line, and so on.

If you look around the area, you’ll find blocks in walls that also feature inscriptions. Unfortunately, there are no explanations on site for what these blocks have on them, but they appear to be more law texts. They were probably used to repair the walls during the Roman era; some are quite worn and the texts in those cases are barely legible.

A view of the agora of Gortyn. The semi-circular area is part of the city’s small theatre; like most of the visible remains, it dates to the Roman era. The small building behind it, with the arches, houses the law code. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The law code at Gortyn isn’t the only example of a legal inscription in Crete. They have also been discovered at a number of other Cretan sites, too, including Dreros and Prinias. The inscriptions from Dreros are also early, probably dating to the seventh century BC, based on an analysis of the shape of the letters. But these other inscriptions tend to be short, whereas the Gortyn law code is very extensive, if incomplete.

The Great Code touches on a wide variety of legal matters, including the city’s governance, the oaths taken by judges in court cases, rules regarding procedure, various details concerning property laws, issues of rape and adultery, as well as the rights of women. As such, it offers a good source of information for anyone interested in learning what laws looked like outside of Athens.

If you want to read the law code online, check out this page on the website of Fordham University, which offers selections of the text in translation. You can also check the original Greek text on this webpage from the Packard Humanities Institute.

The date of the inscription

The text of Gortyn’s Great Code was inscribed around the middle of the fifth century BC. But many scholars hold that the text, or at least parts of it, somehow reflects conditions of an earlier age. About the Gortyn law code, Gagarin writes in his Early Greek Law (p. 96):

Although this code was inscribed around 450, it probably contains considerable material that had earlier been inscribed elsewhere, and so may be used to shed light on the legislation of archaic Gortyn.

You may wonder how a text from ca. 450 BC can be used to shed light on an earlier age. Indeed, healthy scepticism is warranted here. The problem is summarized by S.C. Todd in his brilliant book on Athenian law, cited earlier (p. 35):

The most important point here concerns the date of this text: it is generally held to have been inscribed around the mid-fifth century, although many scholars maintain that older regulations are embedded within it. Bonner and Smith [in the 1930s] even claim that because the island of Crete (and therefore the city of Gortyn) suffered “arrested development”, the Gortyn Code represents a state through which Athenian law had passed in the seventh or sixth centuries BC.

The general assumption is usually that Athens was well ahead of the rest of Greece. But that’s exactly what it is: an assumption. As Todd explains:

This belief, however, rests on the false assumption that the legal system of every Greek city developed along the same route (though at a different speed) from the starting-point (represented apparently by the “shield of Achilles” [from the Iliad]) to the ultimate destination (the system revealed in fourth-century Athens or perhaps even in Hellenistic papyri). This model can of course be sustained, but only illegimately, by labelling as “advanced” or as a “primitive survival” any element within the legal system of any polis at any date which fails to match the reader’s expectations.

It may well be that some of the laws recorded in the inscription remained in use, largely unchanged, from the Archaic period onwards. The problem is that we cannot know for sure. As is so often the case when it comes to the ancient world, the evidence is simply insufficient.