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Human Rights, Dorian-style

The law code of Gortyn

Gortyn Law Code, Crete

The first block of limestone, discovered in a mill stream near Gortyn, the great Dorian city southwest of Heraklion in 1857, was purchased by the Louvre. It attracted a good deal of attention. At the time no one had ever seen such an ancient inscription in Greek, and it wasn’t until 1878 that this first bit, dealing with adoption, was translated, using the writing on ancient coins as a guide.

No one suspected there was more until 1884, when the archaeologist Halbherr noticed a submerged building – Goryn’s Odeon – while cooling his feet in the same mill stream. The rest of the inscription, over 600 lines on 12 blocks, was found nearby; only the tops of blocks X and XII and a piece of block IX are missing.

It turned out to be the world’s oldest known law code, written in boustrophedon, ‘as the ox ploughs’ – from left to right, then right to left – in the Doric dialect of c. 500 BC. It is the longest such inscription to survive, and, due to it, the civil laws of Archaic Crete are better known in their specific detail than Roman law.

The code was made for public display, and significantly, in spite of the ancient Greek class system, which had different rules for citizens, serfs (the native Minoans) and slaves, the Górtyn Code allows women property rights. Slaves had recourse against cruel masters, and there was a presumption of innocence until proven guilty long before this became the core of Anglo-American law.

Sidelights and Myths

Text © Dana Facaros

Image by Andy Montgomery