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 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.