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                                                        History of Gortyn
The Gortyn law code

One of the most important cities of Crete, a very important center in prehistoric and historic times, south of the Mt. Ida, near the Lithaios river.

Sometimes called Elotis, Kremnia and Larisa, but took its name from the mythical hero Gortys, son of Radamanthys.

In the Minoan period, when thriving Knossos and Phaistos, Gortyn was rather insignificant, but later, due to the fertility of the valley of Messara, became rich and prosperous.


Homer mentions Gortyn as one of the major cities of Crete and says that had a strong wall around. Plato says that Gortyn had the most organized law system in Crete, which was confirmed by the inscription-law which found there.

The town was fortified with walls in the age of Ptolemy IV and during the Roman period was established as the capital of the province of Crete and Cyrene. This favor of the conquerors to Gortyn was due to the fact that Gortyn did not resist in the the Roman possession of the island.

Gortyn made many wars against Knossos and Phaistos for the Crete's hegemony. In the 3rd century BC defeated the army of Phaistos and conquered it's fertile plains, and the port of Matala. Later allied with the Achaean Confederation, and at the early of the 2nd century BC. accepted Philopoemen as a general.

Became the capital of the Roman Governor of Crete, fine and magnificent buildings were built, and was the richest city of the island, as showing the ruins that survived. Apart from the inscription mentioned, found many coins with Europe representation on the back of the bull, some others with a lion's head etc. It seems that the people honored Europe as a great goddess. Coins were also cut by Quintus Metellus in 66 BC, and by many other Romans.

Some of the most important buildings of Gortyn are: the Pythian temple, a great temple of  Gortyn, the temple of Isis and the temple of Serapis, the Praetorium (the center of the Roman governor), the church of St. Titus, the ancient Agora and the theater. The Odeon built in the early years of the imperial period (about 30 BC), and the big square in the market area, some years later. Between the Agora and the temple of Apollo, discovered a complex of baths (thermae). Many statues were found, and the Nymphaeum a magnificent fountain.

The Law Code

During the excavations, various inscriptions found in Gortyn, among which the most important is a twelve column inscription, known as the Gortyn Code. The inscription provides important information on the laws of the city and, in general, about the prevalent law. The inscription, despite the shortcomings and the gaps that presents as a text, is the most comprehensive collection of laws of the period (6th-4th cent.BC.), and a major source of legal information, which historically was exceeded only by the subsequent "Laws election" of the Isaurian Dynasty (Byzantine period 717-802 AD.).

The discovery of the inscriptions was partly made, during persistent excavations, from the middle of the 19th century. However, the discovery of the basic section of the Gortyn Code was made by the archaeologist Federico Halbherr, with the support and the guidance of the Italian antiquary Domenico Comparelli. On the supplementation of the inscriptions helped the findings of other archaeologists also. This discovery was considered the largest of this period.

The twelve columns of the inscription (total 630-640 verses) constitute the most comprehensive, the most and the most well preserved ancient Greek text. There were many discussions and disagreements on the interpretation and the age in which it belongs. The most valid opinions place it between the 6th and 5th century BC. The confusion is mainly due to the fact that while there are archaic points and patterns, the legal structure seem to be very sophisticated.

The Code has created many problems and questions to the experts. Among these the most important was whether the code constituted a new law for that period, or was a recording and a more effective use of the customary law. The text contains basically urban, and especially family and inheritance law, in a descriptive and incentive manner, without showing an ordering or imposing tone.

Interesting and detailed are the information about the private law, where can be found sufficient regulation for many cases, such as the law of persons (legal status of free persons, about slaves, etc.), adoption, property relations between spouses, inheritance cases, crimes, divorce and after divorce cases such as parent-child relations and problems of children born after the divorce, gifts between spouses, rules about the status of epikliros (female inheritor of a property) etc.

Specifically interesting is the regulation of the rights of slaves, although they did not had the right to acquire a certain level of ownership. It is indirectly distinguished in the text a respect in their personality, because some kind of behaviour such as a serious insult of a slave or a slave's rape, etc. are not left entirely unpunished. Also, the position of women seems to be better than other places, as it was allowed in many cases self-acting and self-determination.

The woman of Gortyn, for example, except that might have some property, could appear in person to the law court and claim her own right, could dispose at her volition everything that belongs to her and -most important of all- could inherit the paternal property, though in a lower percentage than her male brothers.
Generally in inheritance law, there was the succession of the descendants with a preference for the male children, as happened to all the ancient Greek world.

Also existed the «epikliros» institution of the Attic law, called and «Patroiokoi», a fact which indicates the unity of the ancient Greek law. This institution provided that if there were no males in the family, and the father died, the daughter had to marry a consanguineous to her father, so the race could be continued with the birth of a boy. Then this child would inherit his grandfather.




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