Above The Law Code of Gortyn, a large inscription at the Cretan site, details the running of the court and how to deal with a range of legal issues. It is written ‘as the ox ploughs’, with lines in alternating directions. IMAGE: Dreamstime

The Great Inscription: law and order at Gortyn

The Cretan site of Gortyn may be overshadowed by the palace-complex of Knossos, also on the island, but among its varied remains is an important legal document that offers insights into the ancient city. Diana Bentley is our guide.


A rich medley of ruins greet the visitor to Gortyn, one of the most extensive archaeological sites on the island of Crete. Many date from the Roman period, while others originated in earlier eras of the city’s impressively long life. In the centre of the ruins of the ancient city lies its most famous remnant: the Law Code of Gortyn. Hewn into pale ashlar stone blocks, it is one of the largest inscriptions in Greek ever found. Yet this is not its only claim to distinction, for the code that is today often known as the Great Code, the Great Inscription, or the Queen of Inscriptions is also among the most complete codes of laws remaining from the ancient European world.

The Law Code of Gortyn, a large inscription at the Cretan site, details the running of the court and how to deal with a range of legal issues. It is written ‘as the ox ploughs’, with lines in alternating directions. IMAGE: Dreamstime

The society that gave rise to the Code was long in the making. Occupied for thousands of years, Gortyn’s acropolis has revealed evidence of human habitation in Neolithic period (c.3000 BC) and in the Bronze Age. Homer refers to the city in his Odyssey, when some of King Menelaus’ ships were blown off course near Crete. An abundant collection of myths were associated with the site, including its founding by legendary King Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa. The Minoans settled in Gortyn and built the great Minoan palace at Phaistos and the villa at Aghia Triada, both nearby. Lying in the middle of the island, and poised between its northern and southern shores, Gortyn was perfectly placed to grow and prosper. A settlement grew up around an agora here and higher up on the acropolis. Its temple of Pythian Apollo, dating from the Archaic period, became renowned. Small towns sprang up, scattered around the surrounding valley. By the 5th century BC, the settlement was evolving into a more organised city-state, with the agora at the centre of its social and economic life. Gortyn was by then also the most populous place in Crete and it was during this period that its famed Code was inscribed. When the Romans seized Crete in 67 BC, they were quick to appreciate the strategic position of the city. Gortyn then became the capital of their province of Crete and Cyrenaica (the latter is a region in North Africa). Under Roman control, Gortyn continued to thrive and grew to cover some 200 hectares. After Christianity came to Crete, the city became especially prominent. The island’s first bishop, St Titus, lived in Gortyn and, in the Byzantine period, the city boasted six basilicas and a number of smaller churches. Finally, though, the long life of the city was said to have been ended by the Arab conquest in AD 828.

above The 6th- to 7th-century AD Basilica of St Titus. IMAGE: Dreamstime
The 6th- to 7th-century AD Basilica of St Titus. IMAGE: Dreamstime

With the decline of the city, parts of it – including the Code – found their way into later buildings nearby. But in the ensuing centuries visitors came to the island and fragments of the inscription began to emerge from obscurity. In 1577, Francesco Barozzi, an Italian mathematician and scholar born on Crete during the Venetian occupation, found some Greek lettering among the ruins at Gortyn. Later, in 1857, two Frenchmen, Louis Thenon and Georges Perrot, found a fragment of the Code in the walls of a watermill close to the site. This fragment was acquired by the Louvre, where it remains today. Study of the Louvre’s inscription in 1878 revealed that it dealt with the adoption of children. Then, in 1879, French scholar Bernard Hassoullier found that more inscriptions built into the wall of the mill related to inheritance law. The discovery of parts of the Code ignited great interest in Italy and, in 1884, the leading linguist and epigraphist Domenico Comparetti sent his talented pupil Federico Halbherr to Crete to investigate. By diverting the waters of the mill, Halbherr was able to find more columns of the Code. After the intervention of the authorities in Heraklion, the nearby field was explored and much of what remains of the Code was discovered.

The use of parts of the inscription in the watermill was not the first time the law code had been relocated. In its long history, the Code survived upheaval several times. Initially, it seems the Code was installed in the walls of a circular building – possibly a bouleuterion (council house) or law court – that lay on one side of the agora in both Archaic and Hellenistic times. After the last of these buildings was destroyed, its place was taken by the Roman Odeon, which dates from the 3rd century AD, and the Code was preserved in its walls. It now lies in a specially constructed vaulted gallery built into the walls of the Odeon. Even today, viewed from behind iron bars, it makes a magnificent sight. The Code is arranged in twelve columns of text, inscribed on four rows of large, rectangular blocks. Archaeologists believe that another layer of stone and other columns may well have formed part of the Code, so what we now have is not complete. Written in the Dorian dialect with an archaic Cretan alphabet of 18 letters, it is set out boustrophedon – or ‘as the ox ploughs’ – with lines written right to left on one line and left to right on the next over a total of 600 lines.

ABOVE The Roman Odeon of the Cretan site of Gortyn. The 5th-century BC Law Code has been built into the vaulted gallery at the back of the odeon. IMAGE: Dreamstime
The Roman Odeon of the Cretan site of Gortyn. The 5th-century BC Law Code has been built into the vaulted gallery at the back of the odeon. IMAGE: Dreamstime

While the appearance of the vast inscription is striking, it is the contents that are truly remarkable. Although we celebrate the artistic, architectural, and literary legacy of the ancient Greeks, perhaps we less often consider how developed the laws that governed some of their societies were. Dating from c.480 to 450 BC, the Code provides a unique example of this, and an intriguing glimpse into the world of the city at that time. The argument sometimes made is that the Code does not conform to our contemporary notion of a law code, as it does not represent a comprehensive system of laws. Nonetheless, the Code provides for the regulation of a wide range of matters, including divorce, inheritance, debt recovery, adoption, rape, and adultery. Some scholars maintain that laws from a previous era are included in the Code along with those that have amended them or added to them. However it may have been assembled, the Code reveals that, by the time it was inscribed, the law had become a vital part of the ordering and functioning of society. Many of its provisions appear to be liberal and display an impressive concern for fairness. Cretan archaeologist Adonis S Vasilakis notes that the cities of Crete were among the first in Greece to codify their laws, which served as a model for others and earned the respect of the famed philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

BELOW Part of the sanctuary of Apollo Pythias at Gortyn, first built in the 7th century BC, with alterations and additions in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Part of the sanctuary of Apollo Pythias at Gortyn, first built in the 7th century BC, with alterations and additions in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

A marked characteristic of the legal system of the Code to our modern eyes is that the state did not prosecute matters. Instead, they were left to private citizens to manage with the assistance of the law. This notably included the operation of a court that provided a forum for the resolution of some disputes. The court had to deal with various matters, and its procedures are addressed in the Code. Proceedings were conducted by a judge, who performed his duties under oath and was assisted by a kind of secretary. Precedents had to be taken into account in the judge’s deliberations. There are provisions about the swearing in of litigants and the evidence of witnesses – rules that have a decidedly familiar ring to us today. Penalties for breaches of the law were financial.

The lack of the notion of state prosecution is clear in the opening provisions. People could take some matters – literally – into their own hands. As the Code (translated by Aliki Koutsaki-Vasilaki) states:

If someone intends to start proceedings against a freeborn or against a slave, he is not to arrest him before the trial. If he arrests him, let the judge condemn him to a fine of ten staters if he is a free man or to five staters if he is a slave – and the judge should order his release within three days. If he does not release him, he should be condemned to a fine of one stater, if he is a freeborn and one drachma if he is a slave for each day until he releases him. In addition, the judge is to decide on oath as to the number of days. However, if he denies having arrested him, and if there is no witness to testify, the judge is to decide on oath.

Later, the Code provides extra comfort to those who were arrested, decreeing that anyone at any time has the right to offer someone shelter before trial.

At times, the application of the law was clearly a very public affair. Adoptions had to be pronounced from the speakers’ tribune in the agora. This announcement was to be followed by a ceremony in which the adopted entered the new family group of the adopter. But there was a price to be paid as well, with the adopted person having to offer wine and a sacrificial victim to the family. Minds could be changed, and adoptions could be revoked by the father following the same procedure.

above The surviving inscription contains over 600 lines of text, though some are thought to be lost.
The surviving inscription contains over 600 lines of text, though some are thought to be lost.

Many provisions of the Code govern family matters and the management of property. The laws regulating marriage appear to be more humane than those that prevailed in many Western countries up until relatively recent times. Married couples could dissolve their marriage either by mutual consent or unilaterally. A renowned feature of the Code is that women were relatively well taken care of and enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts in Athens at the time. In Gortyn, women could go about alone and largely decide on their marriage partner, although they could not adopt a child. They could own and inherit property. Parents did not have to provide a dowry for their daughters, but, if they did, the husbands had to manage it only on behalf of their wife, and they generally could not dispose of or mortgage their wife’s property.

A good example of the status of women appears in Columns II and III of the Code, which show how women’s property was protected. In the case of divorce, the wife is to keep her own property from before her marriage and half of the family’s production if it came from her property, half of her handicrafts, and – if her husband is responsible for the split – five staters.

But fairness had to prevail. If the wife took more than this decreed amount from her ex-husband’s property, she had to return it along with a fine of five staters. If accused of taking more than her legal entitlement, she did have the chance to deny it with a judge-ordered oath in front of the statue of Artemis Toxia at the temple at Amyklaion (possibly Kommos).

below A marble sculpture of Hygeia or Salus, the goddess of health, at Gortyn’s site museum.
A marble sculpture of Hygeia or Salus, the goddess of health, at Gortyn’s site museum.

Some trouble is taken over cases of adultery, which attracted stipulated fines. Those found guilty of adultery could be held by the person who discovered the adulterers until such time as the compensation was paid. Rape of a freeborn person or a serf, male or female, was also punished by fines.

Property was carefully respected and, when someone died, was passed on to relatives in an ordered line of succession. In matters of inheritance, preference was shown to men. Children inherited first, with sons gaining a larger share than daughters. If a mother died leaving children behind, the father had to administer her property, but he could not sell or pledge it unless the children consented when they were of age. If there were no children, a wife’s property was inherited by her relatives. Sons and husbands could make grants up to a certain amount to provide for their mothers and wives. If a married man died with no children, his widow could inherit part of his estate. Heiresses – or the only daughters and sole inheritors of men who died – are treated at some length in the Code. Complex rules governed who they could marry, starting with the oldest of her father’s living brothers – no doubt to preserve the father’s name and also regulate the management of the family property. Ultimately, though, heiresses had some small discretion over their own fate: ‘If there are no kinsmen of the heiress who can marry her, according to the law, she may hold all the property and be married to whomever she may wish from the tribe.’

The great concern for property also extended to ensuring that creditors were paid. If someone died owing money, or having been sentenced for debt, those entitled to the deceased’s property could pay the fine and debts. If they chose not to do so, however, the property then belonged to those who had won the trial or to whom the money was owed. A strict division between husbands and wives was made, with a deceased husband’s debts to be paid from his property, and the wife’s from her property.

Plaster casts of the Gortyn Law Code on display pre-1982 at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, in the museum’s previous Little St Mary’s Lane location. IMAGE: No.570 / Unknown photographer © Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge

Certain aspects of ancient life strike us now as chilling, such as the exposure of infants, which the Code permitted in some cases, and slavery. The Code makes legal distinctions between those who were free or enslaved, as well as serfs and foreigners, and how they were treated. Enslaved people were considered the personal property of their owners, while serfs could hold their own property and marry, though there were some legal consequences depending on who was marrying whom. For instance: ‘If a serf goes to a free woman’s house and marries her, their children are to be free, but if a free woman goes to a serf’s house and marries him, their children are to be serfs.’

As they went about their lives and business, then, the people of Gortyn had a body of rules to govern and guide their activities and they had recourse to a forum to which they could turn to help settle their grievances. Displayed in the centre of their city, these rules were available for all to see and consider.

The German scholar Ernst Fabricius and the man who uncovered much of the Code, Federico Halbherr, became the first to publish the text of the inscription. Others followed, including Ronald Willetts with a renowned edition in 1967. Various replicas of the Code exist too. The Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge has a cast of the Code (presently not on display), while a cast from the 1880s is also held at Cornell University, fittingly installed in its Law School. While the exact interpretation of some provisions of the Code have been debated, it nevertheless remains a unique part of the treasure trove of objects that have come down to us from the ancient Greek world, and one that provides a vivid insight into the life of some of its citizens.

Further reading
Translations of the Code are by Aliki Koutsaki-Vasilaki and come from The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn by Adonis S Vasilakis.