The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete

The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete

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The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete - History

The Great Inscription lies at the same site where it was discovered 120 years ago, at the Roman Odeum within the central archaeological site at Gortyn. It is housed in a small vaulted brick construction, built by the Archaeological Service in 1889. Visitors can now view it through an iron fence.
The inscription is hewn on ashlar blocks, which were initially built into another circular building, possibly the public Ekklesiasterion (boulefterion or law-court) of the Archaic and Hellenistic period. The inscription was initially dated to the 6th century (Archaic period), but more recently scholars had revised this estimate to the first half of the 5th century BC(circa 480-450).

The Significance of the Inscription
The Great Inscription also known as the 'Queen of Inscriptions', or the 'Twelve Columns or Deltoi', includes the Law Code of the large ancient city Gortyn and is unanimously regarded as the greatest contribution of Classical Crete to Ancient Greek civilization. It is the earliest European civil code into which old and new provisions of the law were classified. Its definition as a code is in fact no more than a convention, since it does not cover the entire range of the law, as every low code is expected to do. After Athens, Gortyn is the only ancient city whose private law is known to a satisfactory extent.

The team tasked with the de-install were Kirstie Williams ACR, UCM Organics Conservator Susanne Turner, Curator at MoCA and Hannah Price, then Museum & Collections Assistant at MoCA.

What is the Gortyn Law Code?

The Gortyn Law Code, also known as the Great Code, is a legal code of the civil law in the ancient Greek city state of Gortyn in southern Crete. It exists in a fragmentary state, carved on a city wall. The inscription has been dated to the first half of the 5 th century BCE. The Museum’s replica is made up of 93 individual plaster tablets which are arranged to make the code. The code is written in the Dorian dialect, and describes the agreements with matters of disputed ownership of slaves, adultery, the rights of a wife when divorced or a widow, inheritance, sale and mortgaging of property and so on. The code makes legal distinctions between the social classes (free, serf, slave and foreigner).

MOCA’s plaster cast of the Gortyn Law Code, as hung in the lecture theatre

Why did it have to come down?

In the early 2000s the code was hung in a lecture theatre adjacent to the museum, where unfortunately wall movement, fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity have caused the 100+ year old casts to become unstable and unable to remain on the wall in its current location. This discovery of the casts’ declining condition conveniently coincides with the refurbishment of the lecture theatre. From taking down the code we have discovered at least three different mounting methods have been used to hang the code over its history: wooden split batons, metal rods set into the back of the casts and drilled holes to hang on screws in the walls.

Evidence of an an early-twentieth century rehanging of the Code: this plaque is signed on the back by Museum staff. The Museum at this time was based at Little St Mary’s Lane.

How did the code come down?

We set up two work stations to undertake the task.

Station One (manned by Susanne and Hannah): Removed the tablets from the wall, weighed and measured the casts, then ferried them individually to Station Two. (For those interested this racked up approximately 12,500 steps).

Station Two (manned by Kirstie): Photographed, metal-detected, assessed, documented and packed the casts for storage. Kirstie used 93 strips of Tyvek (totalling approximately 50 metres), 150 metres of cotton tape, and 186 cut pieces of plasterzote.

Processing station two

The casts are now stored across six shelves in two large and deep bookcases. Red dots were applied to the labels of the fragile tablets for quick identification.

Shelf locations and damage

In total the casts weigh 326.9kg.

What happens next?

The code plaques in their final storage

The code will go into storage for a while. Whilst there it will go to conservation to be cleaned, have the wooden batons removed and, in some cases, extensive repair. Then finally new bespoke mounts will be made before it is re-displayed in the future.


The code deals with such matters as disputed ownership of slaves, rape and adultery, the rights of a wife when divorced or a widow, the custody of children born after divorce, inheritance, sale and mortgaging of property, ransom, children of mixed (slave, free and foreign) marriages, and adoption. [7] The code makes legal distinctions between different social classes. Free, serf, slave, and foreigner social statuses are recognized within the document.

Bringing Suit

The Gortyn Code provides a measure of protection for individuals prior to trial. Persons bringing suit are prohibited from seizing and detaining the accused before trial. Violations are punishable by fines, which vary depending on the status of the detained individual.

Rape and Adultery

Rape under the Gortyn code is punished with fines. The fine is largely determined by the difference in social status between the victim and the accused. A free man convicted of raping a serf or a slave would receive the lowest fine a slave convicted of raping a free man or female would warrant the highest fine.

Adultery is punished similarly to rape under the code, but also takes into consideration the location of the crime. The code dictates higher fines for adultery committed within the household of the female's father, husband, or brother, as opposed to another location. These fines are levied against the male involved in the adultery, not the female. The code does not provide for the punishment of the female.

Divorce and Marriage Rights

The Gortyn law code grants a modicum of property rights to women in the case of divorce. Divorced women are entitled to any property that they brought to the marriage, as well as half of the joint income, if derived from her property. The code also provides for a portion of the household property. The code stipulates that any children conceived before the divorce, but born after the divorce, fall under the custody of the father. If the father does not accept the child, it reverts to the mother.

Property Rights and Inheritance

The Gortyn law code devotes a great deal of attention to the allocation and management of property. Although the husband manages the majority of the family property, the wife's property is still delineated. If the wife dies, the husband becomes the trustee to her property and may take no action on it without the consent of her children. In the case of remarriage, the first wife's property immediately comes into her children's possession. If the wife dies childless, her property reverts to her blood relatives.

If the husband dies with children, the property is held in trust by the wife for the children. If the children are of age upon their father's death, the property is divided between the children, with males receiving all of the land. In the event that the husband dies without any children, the wife is compelled to remarry.

Adopted children receive all the inheritance rights of natural children and are considered legitimate heirs in all cases. Women are not allowed to adopt children. [5]

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Law is our Passion

This entry about The law code of Gortyn has been published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0) licence, which permits unrestricted use and reproduction, provided the author or authors of the The law code of Gortyn entry and the Encyclopedia of Law are in each case credited as the source of the The law code of Gortyn entry. Please note this CC BY licence applies to some textual content of The law code of Gortyn, and that some images and other textual or non-textual elements may be covered by special copyright arrangements. For guidance on citing The law code of Gortyn (giving attribution as required by the CC BY licence), please see below our recommendation of "Cite this Entry".

The myth of Europa and Zeus

Classical Greek mythology has it that Gortyn was the site of one of Zeus' many affairs. This myth features the princess Europa, whose name has been applied to the continent, Europe. Disguised as a bull, Zeus abducted Europa from Lebanon and they had an affair under a plane tree (platanus), [ 8 ] a tree that may be seen today in Gortys. Following this affair three children were born, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who became the kings of the three Minoan Palaces in Crete. The identification of Europa in this myth gives weight to the claim that the civilization of the European continent was born on the island of Crete. [ citation needed ] Many coins were found with Europa representations on the back, showing that the people honored Europa as a great goddess.

Recht van Gortyn

Het recht van Gortyn was een Dorische wetgeving, met pre-Dorische elementen (zie Minoïsche beschaving) in verband met sommige godsdienstige tradities. De stad Gortys lag op het Griekse eiland Kreta.

Het gaat om een inscriptie op de muur van een regeringsgebouw of gerechtshof dat in de 1e eeuw werd omgebouwd tot odeum. De tekst was boustrophedisch geschreven: afwisselend van links naar rechts en van rechts naar links, omkerend zoals een os die het land ploegt.

Het beeld dat we krijgen van de maatschappij in Gortyn is typisch Dorisch: een sterk hiërarchisch gelaagde maatschappij, met onderscheid tussen vrijen, "horigen" en slaven. De tekst bevat wetten betreffende personen- en familierecht (onder andere adoptie, scheiding), zakenrecht, verbintenissenrecht (waaronder ook erfrecht) en strafrecht (onder meer in verband met verkrachting en overspel). Opvallend is dat een vrouw goederen in eigendom kan hebben en zonder voogd voor de rechtbank kan verschijnen.

Odeon, or Roman musical theater

When the Romans took power in Crete, they introduced their rule, culture and architecture. One of the most magnificent buildings was erected in larger cities and is still enchanting today.

Since Gortyn was the capital of the island, it had its own musical theater. It was a very important cultural facility, hosting theater and music performances, as well as meetings in large groups. The shape, benches and lines for the actors have survived to this day. At the back of the theater there are the above-mentioned Law Code plaques.

Writing Greek Law

This book has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Online publication date: September 2009
  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online ISBN: 9780511482779
  • DOI:
  • Subjects: Ancient History, Classical Studies, Legal History, Law

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Book description

The use of writing in the development of Greek law was unique. In this comparative study Professor Gagarin shows the reader how Greek law developed and explains why it became so different from the legal systems with which most legal historians are familiar. While other early communities wrote codes of law for academic or propaganda purposes, the Greeks used writing extensively to make their laws available to a relatively large segment of the community. On the other hand, the Greeks made little use of writing in litigation whereas other cultures used it extensively in this area, often putting written documents at the heart of the judicial process. Greek law thereby avoided becoming excessively technical and never saw the development of a specialised legal profession. This book will be of interest to those with an interest in the history of law, as well as ancient historians.

Watch the video: GORTYN Γόρτυνα Drone 4K Gortys. The Roman Capital of Crete Γόρτυς Γόρτυν (January 2023).

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