Locros, the city that had the first written laws in Europe in the 7th century BC, was founded by escaped slaves with their mistresses

The current town of Locri, on the Calabrian coast in southern Italy, is the site of the ancient Greek city of Locros, founded in the 8th century BC by settlers from the Locrida region north of the Gulf of Corinth.

Strabo asserts that they were Ozolian locrians (literally smelly) and came from the Gulf of Crisa, led by a oikistes (head of colonizing expedition) called Evanto. Polybius, on the other hand, says that they were Eastern Locrians, Epicnemidians (those who lived at the foot of Mount Cnemis) or Opuntians (for their capital Opuntia), something that Virgil also asserts. But it gives an additional curious fact, the city would have been founded by slaves who fled with the wives of their masters while the First Messenian War was taking place.

When that conflict had lasted 10 years, the Spartans, who had sworn not to return to their city without having conquered Messenia, were afraid of not having enough offspring and sent the youngest back to procreate. But they did not allow the Locrians, who were their allies, to do the same even though they were not bound by that oath.

The region of Locris in mainland Greece | photo Eric Gaba on Wikimedia Commons

The Locri were not subject to the curse or the oath that the Spartans had taken not to return to their homes before they had conquered Messenia; it is logical, then, that they did not participate in that massive mailing. They repatriated in groups and only rarely, which led their wives to become more intimate with the slaves than with their own husbands. In this, the maximum point was reached by single women; This circumstance gave rise to emigration.

Polybius, stories XII.6

Polybius did not invent this story, but took it from none other than Aristotle, who quotes it in his Constitution of the Locros, a work now lost but widely cited by Clemente Alejandrino. Perhaps this is related to the fact that in Locros the nobility was transmitted through the mother, inherited from the one hundred original families that maintained the oligarchic government of the colony.

All that is noble and illustrious by birth among them comes from women and not from men. For example, they consider a man to be noble when he is descended from the hundred families. Now, the title of nobility had been granted to these hundred families by the Locrians before they came to settle in Italy, and it was these that an oracle had ordered to choose from among them by lot the hundred maidens who were to be sent to Troy every year. Some of these women were in the colony, and those who descend from them are still considered noble, and are called the sons of the hundred families.

Polybius, stories XII.2

Situation of Locros in Magna Grecia | photo Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

The Locrians founded a first settlement, by indication of the Oracle of Delphi (who was always consulted before embarking on a colonization trip), in the vicinity of Cape Cefirio, in the territory of the current municipality of Bruzzano Zeffirio. But three or four years later, according to Strabo, they abandoned this first settlement and moved 20 kilometers to the north, to the area between the Ionian Sea and the Gerace and Portigliola rivers, where they founded the definitive Epicefirian Locros (Λοκροί Ἐπιζεφύριοι), on a hill called Aesops.

A century later, in VII BC, the lawgiver Zaleucus would give Locros the first written law code of Greek civilization. In no other city of continental Greece, nor of the islands, nor of Magna Graecia, had a similar legislative corpus been drawn up until then. In this sense, it is also the first written laws in Europe.

Zaleuco is an almost mythical character, of whose life little is known. The sources mix legends with contradictory data, such as that he would have been a disciple of Pythagoras (when he lived a century later), or that he had previously been a slave and shepherd.

Ephorus, recalling the written laws of the Locrians, who composed Zaleucus based on the norms of the Cretans, the Laconians and the Areopagus, indicates that the aforementioned Zaleucus was one of the first to introduce innovations, because, while in the past it corresponded to the judges establish the penalties for each crime, he determined them in his laws, considering that the sentences of the judges were not the same on similar matters and that they had to be. He also praises that he had established a simpler form of contracts.

Strabo, Geography VI.1.8

According to Ephorus, quoted by Strabo, Zaleucus composed his laws from the norms of the Cretans, Sparta and the Areopagus. With them he composed the call Locrian Codewhich remained in force for more than 200 years, and whose laws even extended to neighboring (and sometimes enemy) cities such as Crotona and Sybaris.

Among the things that their laws stipulated were the prohibition for a free woman to be accompanied by more than one slave, unless she is drunk. They couldn’t either leave town at night, except if they had a lover.

It was also prohibited drinking wine undiluted with water, except for medical purposes. But perhaps one of the best-known rules of the code is the one that forced anyone who proposed a new law or a modification of an existing one, to appear before the Citizen Council with a noose around their neck. If the Council voted against the proposal, the rope immediately fulfilled its function. According to Demosthenes, thanks to this, only one new law was promulgated in more than 200 years.

After exhorting his fellow citizens, through this preamble, to piety and justice, he added the precept not to consider any citizen as an irreconcilable enemy, but to assume enmities with the idea of ​​once again reaching reconciliation and friendship; and whoever transgressed this principle was to be regarded among his fellow citizens as a cruel-spirited savage. He also exhorted the judges not to be arrogant or haughty and not to be influenced in their judgments by feelings of hatred or friendship. In the particular provisions of the laws, he contributed numerous aspects that were the result of his analysis and that he exposed with great clarity and originality.

Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library XII.20

Crazy Theater | photo Ssandro Baldi on Wikimedia Commons

Today we only have 14 fragments of the Zaleuco law code left. In some, punishments are established, in others prohibitions, such as entering the assembly with swords, selling foodstuffs if you have not produced them yourself, introducing novelties from distant lands, or going to court if reconciliation has not been attempted before. . Currently some of his laws seem strange, disproportionate or directly regrettable. But as we said, they are the first to be written in Europe.

On the other hand, he correctly legislated on many other points related to contracts and other conflictive aspects of daily life; It would take a long time to write about it and it would be inappropriate for the purpose of our story.

Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library XII.21

The city of Locros was an ally of Rome from 215 BC Then, during the Middle Ages, the Arab incursions forced the population to move to Gerace, a town at a higher altitude and therefore easier to defend. By the 7th century the city of Locros had completely disappeared. Until the archaeological excavations began at the end of the 19th century, which gradually brought to light the remains of the ancient city.


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