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Gortyn Code

The Gortyn code (also called the Great Code) was a legal code that was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete.

Our sole source of knowledge of the code is the fragmentary boustrophedon inscription on the circular walls of what might have been a bouleuterion or other public civic building in the agora of Gortyn. The original building was 100 feet in diameter, the 12 columns of text which survive are 30 feet in length and 5 feet in height and contain some 600 lines of text. In addition, some further broken texts survive; the so-called second text. It is the longest extant ancient Greek inscription except for the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda. Evidence suggests it is the work of a single sculptor. The inscription has been dated to the first half of the 5th century BCE.

The first fragment of the code was discovered in the 1850s. Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr found a further four columns of the text while excavating a site near a local mill in 1884. Since this was evidently part of a larger text he, Ernst Fabricius, and a team obtained permission to excavate the rest of the site, revealing 8 more text columns whose stones had been reused as part of the foundations of a Roman Odeion from the 1st century BCE. The wall bearing the Code has now been partially reconstructed.

The Great Code is written in the Dorian dialect and is one of a number of legal inscriptions found scattered across Crete, though curiously very few non-legal texts from ancient Crete survive. The Dorian language was the pervasive among Crete cities such as Knossos, Lyttos, Axos and various other areas of central Crete. The Code stands with a tradition of Cretan law which taken as a totality represents the only substantial corpus of Greek law from antiquity found outside Athens. The whole corpus of Cretan law may be divided into three broad categories: the earliest (I. Cret. IV 1-40., ca. 600 BCE to ca. 525 BCE) was inscribed on the steps and walls of the temple of Apollo Pythios, the next a sequence including the Great Code written on the walls in or near the agora between ca. 525 and 400 BCE (I. Cret. IV 41-140), followed by the laws (I. Cret. IV 141-159) which contain Ionian characters and so are dated to the 4th century.

Though all the texts are fragmentary they show evidence of a continuous amendment of the law, it has been possible to trace the development of the law from Archaic proscriptions onwards, notably the diminishing rights of women and the increasing rights of slaves, and also allows us to infer some aspects of public law. The high importance of the Great Code in illuminating pre-Hellenistic law and society has led some classicists in poeticising moments to refer to it as the "Queen of inscriptions" - Mommsen, however, used the same phrase for the Monumentum Ancyranum.

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. 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.

The Law Code of Gortyn (Crete), c. 450 BCE

The inscription is divided into 12 columns, about 600 lines in all. The writing - in Doran Greek - is boustrephedon (one line read right to left, then the next left to right).

Gortyn was the most important city on the Island under the Romans, and remained so until it was destroyed by Arab pirates in 824 CE.

In Greek tradition, Crete was an early home of law. In the 19th Century, a law code from Gortyn on Crete was discovered, dealing fully with family relations and inheritance; less fully with tools, slightly with property outside of the household relations; slightly too, with contracts; but it contains no criminal law or procedure. This (still visible) inscription is the largest document of Greek law in existence (see above for its chance survival), but from other fragments we may infer that this inscription formed but a small fraction of a great code.

I. Whoever intends to bring suit in relation to a free man or slave, shall not take action by seizure before trial; but if he do seize him, let the judge fine him ten staters for the free man, five for the slave, and let him release him within three days. But if he do not release him, let the judge sentence him to a stater for a free man, a drachma for a slave, each day until he has released him. But if he deny that he made the seizure, the judge shall decide with oath, unless a witness testify. If one party contend that he is a free man, the other that he is a slave, those who testify that he is free shall be preferred. But if they testify either for both parties or for neither of the two, the judge shall render his decision by oath. But if the slave on account of whom the defendant was defeated take refuge in a temple, the defendant, summoning the plaintiff in the presence of two witnesses of age and free, shall point out the slave at the temple; but if he do not issue the summons or do not point him out, he shall pay what is written. And if he do not return him, even within the year, he shall pay in addition to the sums stated one-fold. But if he die while the suit is progressing, he shall pay his value one-fold.

II. If one commit rape on a free man or woman, he shall pay 100 staters, and if on the son or daughter of an apetairos ten, and if a slave on a free man or woman, he shall pay double, and if a free man on a male or female serf five drachmas, and if a serf on a male or female serf, five staters. If one debauch a female house-slave by force he shall pay two staters, but if one already debauched, in the daytime, an obol, but if at night, two obols. If one tries to seduce a free woman, he shall pay ten staters, if a witness testify. . .

III. If one be taken in adultery with a free woman in her father's, brother's, or husband's house, he shall pay 100 staters, but if in another's house, fifty; and with the wife of an apetairos, ten. But if a slave with a free woman, he shall pay double, but if a slave with a slave's wife, five. . .

IV. If a husband and wife be divorced, she shall have her own property that she came with to her husband, and the half of the income if it be from her own property, and whatever she has woven, the half, whatever it may be, and five staters, if her husband be the cause of her dismissal; but if the husband deny that he was the cause, the judge shall decide. . .

V. If a man die, leaving children, if his wife wish, she may marry, taking her own property and whatever her husband may have given her, according to what is written, in the presence of three witnesses of age and free. But if she carry away anything belonging to her children she shall be answerable. And if he leaves her childless, she shall have her own property and whatever she has woven, the half, and of the produce on hand in possession of the heirs, a portion, and whatever her husband has given her as is written. If a wife shall die childless, the husband shall return to her heirs her property, and whatever she has woven the half, and of the produce, if it be from her own property, the half. If a female serf be separated from a male serf while alive or in case of his death, she shall have her own property, but if she carry away anything else she shall be answerable.

VI. If a woman bear a child while living apart from her husband after divorce, she shall have it conveyed to the husband at his house, in the presence of three witnesses; if he do not receive the child, it shall be in the power of the mother to bring up or expose. . .

VII. The father shall have power over his children and the division of the property, and the mother over her property. As long as they live, it shall not be necessary to make a division. But if a father die, the houses in the city and whatever there is in the houses in which a serf residing in the country does not live, and the sheep and the larger animals which do not belong to the serf, shall belong to the sons; but all the rest of the property shall be divided fairly, and the sons, howsoever many there be, shall receive two parts each, and the daughters one part each. The mother's property also shall be divided, in case she dies, as is written for the father's. And if there should be no property but a house, the daughters shall receive their share as is written. And if a father while living may wish to give to his married daughter, let him give according to what is written, but not more. . .

X. As long as a father lives, no one shall purchase any of his property from a son, or take it on mortgage; but whatever the son himself may have acquired or inherited, he may sell if he will; nor shall the father sell or pledge the property of his children, whatever they have themselves acquired or succeeded to, nor the husband that of his wife, nor the son that of the mother. . . If a mother die leaving children, the father shall be trustee of the mother's property, but he shall not sell or mortgage unless the children assent, being of age; and if anyone shall otherwise purchase or take on pledge the property, it shall still belong to the children; and to the purchaser or pledgor the seller or pledgee shall pay two-fold the value in damages. But if he wed another, the children shall have control of the mother's property.

XI. If a slave going to a free woman shall wed her, the children shall be free; but if the free woman to a slave, the children shall be slaves; and if from the same mother free and slave children be born, if the mother die and there be property, the free children shall have it; otherwise her free relatives shall succeed to it.

XIV. The heiress shall marry the brother of the father, the eldest of those living; and if there be more heiresses and brothers of the father, they shall marry the eldest in succession. . . But if he do not wish to marry the heiress, the relatives of the heiress shall charge him and the judge shall order him to marry her within two months; and if he do not marry, she shall marry the next eldest. If she do not wish to marry, the heiress shall have the house and whatever is in the house, but sharing the half of the remainder, she may marry another of her tribe, and the other half shall go to the eldest. . .

XVI. A son may give to a mother or a husband to a wife 100 staters or less, but not more; if he should give more, the relatives shall have the property. If anyone owing money, or under obligation for damages, or during the progress of a suit, should give away anything, unless the rest of his property be equal to the obligation, the gift shall be null and void. One shall not buy a man while mortgaged until the mortgagor release him. . .

XVII. Adoption may take place whence one will; and the declaration shall be made in the market-place when the citizens are gathered. If there be no legitimate children, the adopted shall received all the property as for legitimates. If there be legitimate children, the adopted son shall receive with the males the adopted son shall have an equal share. If the adopted son shall die without legitimate children, the property shall return to the pertinent relatives of the adopter. A woman shall not adopt, nor a person under puberty.

XVIII. Whatever is written for the judge to decide according to witnesses or by oath of denial, he shall decide as is written, but touching other matters shall decide under oath according to matters in controversy. If a son have given property to his mother, or a husband to his wife, as was written before these writings, it shall not be illegal; but hereafter gifts shall be made as here written.