Gortyn Laws

10/12/2013 17:37

Knossos, Minoan Crete capital, home of the famous and legendary labyrinth, was undoubtedly the most important and known Hellenic island, but that position was disputed for many years, between 1600 and 1100 BC, and not always the capital of King Minos was preeminent. Four more cities disputed that hegemony: Eleftherna, Kydonia, Lyttos and Gortyn.

Fifty kilometres south of Knossos, amid Messara plain and beside Letheós River, once known as Mitropolianós, stands today the ruins of Gortyn, one of the most powerful cities of Dorian Greece which came to house almost forty thousand souls. Once Athens ally, had sea ports in the sea of Libya, where today are the beaches of Matala and where trade flourished between their piers and  Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians and Tartars harbours. Homer's Odyssey already quoted when Nestor related Ulysses men vicissitudes to reach Athens on the way back from Troy: There in the dark ponto a high and steep rock coming out of the sea near Gortyn: there Noto launches the big waves against the left promontory, against Festo ... In such a place were to arrive and so hard was to flee alive ...

The tree where Zeus, transmuted into white ox, seduced Europe after kidnap her in Phoenicia still stands in Gortyn. Three sons were born from their union: Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon. According to ancient mythology Minos would reign at Knossos, where his wife, Pasiphae engenders the famous Minotaur. Rhadamanthys and his son Gortis would found Gortyn. The tree has never lost its leaves, evergreen.

Near the shade of the old tree is carved into the rock, to be eternal, the Gortyn Code, a compendium of oldest surviving western laws and rules. The Queen of Inscriptions, as it’s also called, was carved in the V century BC on dozen stone columns occupying a space of twenty seven feet long by five tall completing six hundred lines.  Each column contains around 53 and 66 lines written in Cretan Doric dialect and arranged in boustrophedon, that’s it every line successively written from left to right and then right to left reversing the characters as they would be seen in a mirror.

Gortyn Code survived to this day is a scattered laws compilation as a civil code comprehensively addressed also to family law, adoption standards, inheritance, divorce and guarantees for women. It also deals with crimes against morality, rape, adultery and the rights of slaves. Assumes no barbaric verdicts or death penalty.

Cretan laws were widely disseminated and recognized in the Greek world. Plato, in his Dialogues on laws, acknowledges that ... there are people of Argos and that lineage among us today has a great reputation: that of Gortyn. Aristotle noted in the Politics that Gortyn laws accord women a freedom similar to those owned by Sparta females, attributing to the physical absence of men who were often engaged in military campaigns.

Gortyn spent his best days with the Roman expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. Latin allied from the year 67 BC, Gortyn became the island's capital and commercial centre. The Empire expanded the city erecting the forum, Apollo Pythias temple, two theatres, agora, stadium, bathhouse and the Odeon. The latter, a covered building, located north of the agora, was built in the first century using in part the drawing stone blocks containing the laws.

During Emperor Hadrian reign, between 120 and 180,  streets were paved, and markets were set,  42 aqueducts and public sources saw its waters flow in the city.

With Christianity, St. Titus, St. Paul disciple and future patron of the island, was the first Crete bishop. A basilica was built in the sixth century dedicated to him and Gortyn  became the seat of the archdiocese until the Arab invasion of year 824.

Crete still would be recovered by Byzantines before returning to be conquered by the Arabs and later by Ottoman Empire. The glory days of Gortyn had gone and his name was forgotten. Until 1884, during the Turkish rule, than an Italian scholar, Federico Halbherr, began archaeological excavations at the site and discovered Odeon  inscriptions, although some lines of the laws had been found a few years earlier, in 1857, in the walls near a mill separated from the blocks by French Thenon and Perrot.

From Gortyn remains today its past glory, the code lines, ancient Greeks writings and the foundations that archaeologists are dusting every day. Ah! And the evergreen tree!

© J.L.Nicolas


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