The Great Inscription at Gortyn on the Island of Crete, Greece
Ancient inheritance laws etched in stone walls
Some of the earliest known written inheritance and succession laws can be found at the archaeological site of Gortyn, on the southern side of the island of Crete, Greece. Gortyn, Gortys or Gortyna was once a large, busy metropolis in Ancient Greece.
During excavation in the 1880s the laws of the ancient city of Gortyn on the Greek island of Crete were found inscribed on ashlar stone blocks in twelve columns.1
The Great Inscription
The inscriptions were in the ancient Greek Dorian (Doric) language which was the main language of the region at that time.
The ancient legal code written in stone became known as The Great Inscription.
It was dated to the fifth century BCE, c480-450.2 It is not certain how far back the Gortyn Code applies. Some scholars think to the Bronze Age.
The Great Inscription was found situated in the Odeum, a public building with circular walls. An odeum was a small theatre commonly built throughout Ancient Greece for public activities such as oratory, musical performances and competitions. An ideal place to bring the laws of the land to the attention of those affected by them. No excuse for not knowing the laws that bound you!
These lists of etched laws of the Gortyn Law Code codified the civil law applying to the various classes of people living on Crete at the time. It was not a systematic body of law as we might think today. But it addressed matters of importance in society which it must have been thought, had to be controlled and regulated by clear rules. Slavery for one. Some matters relevant to property related to succession and inheritance follow.
Property and inheritance
Inheritance and intergenerational transfer of property has concerned families and civilisations for centuries.
The ancient law code of Gortyn regulated a range of private law7 matters concerning property, inheritance, divorce, children, personal relationships, families, households, serfs, slaves, and aliens (foreigners). But uppermost were rules about the transfer of property on death. The inscribed legal rules covered the following, among others:
- hereditary succession;
- property rights as to what happens to property when a husband or wife dies;
- rights of the heiress – the heiress was important to transfer and inheritance of property;
- how debts and other obligations of a deceased are to be handled by relatives;
- the order of inheritance – no freedom of choice as to who inherited;
- if an adopted person died childless, property they inherited from their adoptive family had to be returned.
The Inscription has been translated and interpreted by various people. Vasilakis cited R Willets as publishing the ‘finest edition’ in 1967,2 upon which the Greek Lawyers’ Society in Iraklio, Crete based their translation and commentary in 1976.
Reproduced below are some interesting excerpts from a booklet written by Adonis Vasilakis, for visitors to Gortyn and Crete.1
Who takes or inherits – Column V ?
On Column V defining who takes- is a sort of ‘statutory’ order or ‘forced succession’.
In Australian succession law, legislation in all states/territories contains the rules according to a hierarchical, familial order as to who will inherit the property of someone who dies without leaving a will (die intestate).
“If a man or a woman dies, if there are children or grandchildren or great-grand children, they are to obtain the property.
If there is none of the above, but the brothers of the deceased and the children or grand children of his brothers, they are to obtain the property.
If, however, there is none of the above, except the sisters of the deceased and the children or grand children of his brothers and sisters, they are to get the property.”
If none of the above exists, the next of kin (‘epiballontes’) are to obtain the property.
In addition, if there is none of these, those from the household composing the same ‘kleros’ (from the initial division) are to inherit the property.”4
Making sure debts were paid
Column XI contained the rules on resolving the deceased’s debts:
“If someone dies owing money or having been sentenced for debts, if those who are entitled to obtain his property wish to pay the fine and the debts on his behalf, they are to have the property.
If they do not wish to do so, the property is to belong to those who won the trial or to whom he owes money, and the heirs will not be liable to any further fine.”5
Holding property on trust for children
Column VI allowed for property to be held ‘on trust’ where a mother had died leaving under-age children:
“If a mother dies leaving children, the father is to administer the mother’s property, but he should not sell or pledge it, unless the children consent when they are of age.”6
Concept of adopted children having equal rights to inherit as natural-born children
Column X detailed how adopted children had the same rights to inherit as natural children:
“If the adopted obtains all the property (of the adopter) and if there are no legitimate children, he has to fulfill the obligations of the adopter towards gods and men, and receive what is prescribed for legitimate children.”
That adopted children had similar rights to inherit as natural children under Gortyn succession law is not that much different to the legal rights of adopted children in succession law in Australia.
Scholars who have studied the Law Code of Ancient Gortyna say that the legal rules were directed at keeping property in the family household, strengthening it via the male line.8
Keeping property in the male side of the family was a challenge when the only child in a family to inherit was a daughter – an heiress.
The law code of Gortyn appears to deal with this through the concept of the heiress. Nothing was left to choice or chance.
In case there were any doubts over possible suitors, the Code provided a heirarchy of rules prioritising who the prospective husband would be. With no male siblings to take the family/household property, the law required the heiress to marry someone from her next-of-kin, closest in blood line to her father.
The material in this article has been drawn from The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn by A Vasilakis and the Law Code of Gortyn, by R F Willetts.
Images by A Stead.
1. Adonis S Vasilakis, The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn, (date unkown), p.37.
2. R. F. Willetts 1967, Law Code of Gortyn, with translation and commentary by R F Willetts, p. 8.
3. “Ashlar” refers to when stone has been finished to give a smooth finish – essential if something important and permanent is to be etched onto it for all to see.
4. Vasilakis, p. 61.
5. Vasilakis, p. 73.
6. Vasilakis, p. 63.
7. Private law is the law which regulates relationships among individuals.
8. Vasilakis and Willetts.
15 May 2014, updated 27 June 2023