Cretans: Ephoros on civic organization and customs (mid-fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Cretans: Ephoros on civic organization and customs (mid-fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 17, 2024,

Ancient authors: Ephoros of Kyme = FGrHist 70 F148-149 (link to FGrHist), as cited by Polybios, Histories 6.45.1-46.10 (link) and by Strabo, Geography 10.4.16-22 (link)

Comments: Ephoros (or: Ephorus) of Kyme (writing ca. 340 BCE), whose works survive only in brief citations by others (in this case Polybios in the second century BCE and Strabo in the first century CE) had some alternative approaches to describing various peoples, including Greeks such as Aitolians (Aetolians) and Cretans who were sometimes marginalized as “uncivilized” or “semi-barbarian”.  In this case, both Polybios (second century BCE) and Strabo (ca. 18 CE) refer to Ephoros’ substantial discussion of the civic organization of Cretans. Polybios’ discussion reflects his own acceptance and promulgation of common negative stereotypes of his own time concerning the Cretans as generally shameful and greedy. And so Polybios needs to give some attention to refuting Ephoros’ rather positive discussion of Cretans. You can read Polybios’ full comparison of civic organization among different peoples (where Spartans and Romans come out on top) at this link. Strabo’s use of Ephoros notes the chronological priority of Cretan customs over other peoples (such as the Spartans) and preserves more details regarding the customs of the Cretans in Ephoros’ time. Although Strabo concludes by suggesting the Cretans of his own time were quite different, he seems less concerned with reaffirming strongly negative characterizations.

Source of the translation: W.R. Paton, Polybius: The Histories, 6 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922-27), public domain (Paton passed away in 1921), and H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.


FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 148 (in Polybios)

Book 6

[Civic organization of the Cretans / Cretans]

45 To move on to the civic organization (politeia) of the Cretans, two points here demand our attention. How was it that the most learned of the ancient writers – Ephoros, Xenophon, Kallisthenes, and Plato – state in the first place that it is one and the same with that of Lakedaimon [Sparta] and in the second place pronounce it worthy of commendation? In my own opinion neither of these assertions is true.

The following observations will show whether or not I am right. First I will deal with its dissimilarity with the civic organization of the Lakedaimonians. The first of its peculiar features are said to be the land laws by which no citizen may own more than another but all must possess an equal share of the public land. Secondly there is their view of money-making. Since money is considered of no value at all among them, this does away with jealous contention due to the possession of more or less. Thirdly there is the fact that among the civic leaders by whom or by whose cooperation the whole administration is conducted, the kings hold a hereditary office and the elders (gerontes) are elected for life.

[Stereotypes about Cretans]

46 In all these respects, the Cretan practice is exactly the opposite. Their laws go as far as possible in letting them acquire land to the extent of their power, as the saying goes, and money is held in such high honour among them that its acquisition is not only regarded as necessary, but as most honourable. So much in fact do shameful greed and lust for wealth prevail among them, that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful. Again their civic leaders (archontes) are annual and elected on a democratic system.

[Refutation of Ephoros and others]

So it is often surprising that these authors [including Ephoros] claim that these two civic organizations whose nature is so opposed are allied and akin to each other. Besides overlooking such differences, these writers go out of their way to give us their general views, saying that Lykourgos [the eighth century BCE legendary law-giver of the Spartans] was the only man who ever saw the points of vital importance for good government. For, there being two things to which a civic body owes its preservation, courage against the enemy and unity among the citizens, Lykourgos by doing away with the lust for wealth did away also with all civil discord and fights. In consequence of which the Lakedaimonians (Spartans), being free from these evils, excel all the Greeks in the conduct of their internal affairs and in their spirit of union. Although these authors witness that the Cretans – due to their ingrained lust of wealth are involved in constant fights both public and private and in murders and civil wars – they nonetheless regard this as immaterial, and they have the audacity to say that the two are similar. Ephoros actually, apart from the names, uses the same phrases in explaining the nature of the two civic organizations. So that if one did not pay attention to the proper names [“Cretan” and “Lakedaimonian”] it would be impossible to tell which one he is talking about.

[Further negativity about Cretan civic organization and customs]

47 Such are the points on in which I consider these two as different, and I will now give my reasons for not regarding the Cretan civic organization (politeia) as worthy of praise or imitation. In my opinion there are two fundamental things in every civic organization, by virtue of which its principle and civic organization is either desirable or the reverse. I mean customs (ēthē) and laws (nomoi). What is desirable in these makes men’s private lives righteous and well ordered and the general character of the city gentle and just, while what is to be avoided has the opposite effect. So just as when we observe the laws and customs of a people to be good, we have no hesitation in pronouncing that the citizens and the civic organization will consequently be good also. So when we notice that men are covetous in their private lives and that their public actions are unjust, we are plainly justified in saying that their laws, their particular customs, and the civic organization as a whole are bad. Except in some rare instances, it would be impossible to find personal conduct more treacherous or a public policy more unjust than in Crete. Holding then the Cretan civic organization is neither similar to that of Lakedaimonia nor in any way deserving of praise and imitation, I dismiss it from the comparison which I have proposed to make.


FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 149 (in Strabo)

Book 10

[Cretan civic organization and customs]

4 . . . (16) Regarding the civic organization (politeia) [of the Cretans], which is described by Ephoros, it might suffice to tell in a cursory way its most important provisions. The lawgiver, Ephoros says, seems to take it for granted that freedom is a city’s greatest good, for this alone makes property belong specifically to those who have acquired it, whereas in a condition of slavery everything belongs to the rulers and not to the ruled. But those who have freedom must guard it. Now unity ensues when dissension, which is the result of greed and luxury, is removed. For when all citizens live a self-restrained and simple life there arises neither envy nor arrogance nor hatred towards those who are like them. This is why the lawgiver commanded the boys to attend the so-called “herds”​ (agelai), and the full-grown men to eat together in the common halls which they call the “men’s association” (andreia), so that the poorer, being fed at public expense, might be on an equality with the wealthier. In order that courage, and not cowardice, might prevail, he commanded that from boyhood they should grow up accustomed to arms and toils. The aim was to scorn heat, cold, marches over rugged and steep roads, and blows received in gymnasiums or regular battles. They were to practise not only archery, but also the war dance, which was invented and made known by the Kouretes at first and, later, by the man​ who arranged the dance that was named after him, I mean the Pyrrhic dance. The result was that not even their sports were without a share in activities that were useful for warfare. Likewise the lawgiver arranged that they should use in their songs the Cretan rhythms, which were very high-pitched, and were invented by Thales, to whom they ascribe, not only their paeans and other local songs, but also many of their customs. He arranged that they should use military dress and shoes, and that arms should be to them the most valuable of gifts.

[Cretan customs earlier than Spartan customs]

(17) It is said by some writers, Ephoros continues, that most of the Cretan customs are Lakonian [where Sparta was located], but the truth is that they were invented by the Cretans and only perfected by the Spartans. When the Cretans’ cities, especially Knossos, declined, the Cretans neglected military affairs. But some of the customs continued in use among the Lyktians, Gortynians, and certain other small cities [of Crete] to a greater extent than among the Knossians. In fact, the customs of the Lyktians [on Crete] are cited as evidence by those who represent the Lakonian [including Spartan] as older. For, they argue, being colonists, they preserve the customs of the mother-city [Sparta]. So even on general grounds it is absurd to represent those who are better organized and governed as emulators of their inferiors. But this is not correct, Ephoros says, for, in the first place, one should not draw evidence as to antiquity from the present state of things, for both peoples have undergone a complete reversal. For instance, the Cretans in earlier times were masters of the sea, and hence the proverb, “The Cretan does not know the sea,” is applied to those who pretend not to know what they do know, although now the Cretans have lost their fleet. In the second place, it does not follow that, because some of the cities on Crete were Spartan colonies, they were under compulsion to keep Spartan customs. At any rate, many colonial cities do not observe their ancestral customs and many of those in Crete that are not colonial have the same customs as the colonists.

(18) Lykourgos [legendary figure placed in the ninth century BCE] the Spartan law-giver, Ephoros continues, was five generations later than the Althaimenes [legendary Cretan prince] who conducted the colony to Crete. For historians say that Althaimenes was son of the Kissos who founded Argos about the same time when Prokles was establishing Sparta as metropolis. Lykourgos, as agreed by all, was sixth in descent from Prokles. Copies are not earlier than their models, nor more recent things earlier than older things. Not only the dancing which is customary among the Lakedaimonians, but also the rhythms and paeans that are sung according to the law and many other Spartan customs, are called “Cretan” among the Lakedaimonians, as though they originated in Crete. Some of the public offices are not only administered in the same way as in Crete, but also have the same names, as, for instance, the office of the “elders” (gerontes) and that of the “horsemen” (hippeis). (The exception is that the “horsemen” in Crete actually possessed horses, and from this fact it is inferred that the office of the “horsemen” in Crete is older, for they preserve the true meaning of the appellation, whereas the Lakedaimonian “horsemen” do not keep horses). But although the “overseers” (ephoroi) have the same functions as the Cretan “keepers of order” (kosmoi), they have been named differently. Also, the public dining halls are, even today, still called “men’s associations” (andreia) among the Cretans, but among the Spartans they ceased to be called by the same name as in earlier times. Anyways, the following is found in Alkman: “In feasts and festive gatherings, amongst the guests who partake of the men’s associations (andreia), it is fitting to begin the paean.”

[Lykourgos learns about law-giving in Crete and Egypt]

(19) Ephoros continues that the Cretans say that Lykourgos [legendary law-giver of Sparta] came to them for the following reason: Polydektes was the elder brother of Lykourgos. When he died he left his wife pregnant. Now for a time Lykourgos reigned in his brother’s place, but when a child was born he became the child’s guardian, since the office of king descended to the child. But some man, accusing Lykourgos, said that he knew for sure that Lykourgos would be king. Lykourgos suspected that in consequence of such talk he himself might be falsely accused of plotting against the child. He also feared that, if by any chance the child should die, he himself might be blamed for it by his enemies. So Lykourgos sailed away to Crete. This, then, is said to be the cause of his sojourn to Crete. When he arrived, he associated with Thales, a melic poet and an expert in lawgiving. After learning from him the manner in which both Rhadamanthys in earlier times and Minos in later times published their laws to men as from Zeus, and after sojourning in Egypt also and learning among other things their customs, and, according to some writers, after meeting Homer, who was living in Chios, he sailed back to his homeland. There he found his brother’s son, Charilaos the son of Polydektes, reigning as king. Then he set out to frame the laws, making visits to the god at Delphi, and bringing the god’s decrees from Delphi, just as Minos and his house had brought their ordinances from the cave of Zeus, most of his being similar to theirs.

[Cretan customs outlined]


(20) The following are the most important provisions in the Cretan customs as stated by Ephoros. In Crete all those who are selected out of the “herd” of boys at the same time are forced to marry at the same time, although they do not take the girls whom they have married to their own homes immediately, but as soon as the girls are qualified to manage the affairs of the house. A girl’s dowry, if she has brothers, is half of the brother’s portion. The children must learn, not only their letters, but also the songs prescribed in the laws and certain forms of music.

[Entrance into the men’s dining associations]

Now those who are still younger are taken to the public dining halls, the “men’s associations” (andreia). They sit together on the ground as they eat their food, dressed in shabby garments, the same in both winter and summer, and they also serve the men as well as themselves. Those who eat together at the same dining hall join battle both with one another and with those from different dining halls. A boy-director presides over each dining hall. But the older boys are taken to the “herds.” The most conspicuous and influential of the boys assemble the “herds,” each collecting as many boys as he possibly can. The leader of each “herd” is generally the father of the assembler, and he has authority to lead them forth to hunt and to run races, and to punish anyone who is disobedient. They are fed at public expense. On certain appointed days, “herd” competes with “herd,” marching rhythmically into battle to the tune of flute and lyre, as is their custom in actual war. They actually bear marks of the blows received, some inflicted by the hand, others by iron weapons.

[Love affairs between adult men and boys]

(21) They have a peculiar custom in regard to love affairs: They win the objects of their love, not by persuasion, but by abduction. The lover [i.e. an adult male] tells the friends of the boy three or four days beforehand that he is going to make the abduction. But it is disgraceful for the friends to conceal the boy or not to let him go forth by the appointed route, which is a confession, so to speak, that the boy is unworthy to obtain such a lover. When they meet, if the abductor is the boy’s equal or superior in rank or other respects, the friends pursue him and lay hold of him, though only in a very gentle way, thus satisfying the custom. After that they cheerfully turn the boy over to him to lead away. If, however, the abductor is unworthy, they take the boy away from him. And the pursuit does not end until the boy is taken to the men’s association (andreion) of his abductor. They regard as a worthy object of love, not the boy who is exceptionally handsome, but the boy who is exceptionally manly and decorous. After giving the boy presents, the abductor takes him away to any place in the country he wishes. Those who were present at the abduction follow after them, and after feasting and hunting with them for two months (for it is not permitted to detain the boy for a longer time), they return to the city. The boy is released after receiving as presents a military habit, an ox, and a drinking-cup (these are the gifts required by law), and other things so numerous and costly that the friends, on account of the number of the expenses, make contributions to the cost. Now the boy sacrifices the ox to Zeus and feasts those who returned with him. Then he makes known the facts about his intimacy with his lover, whether by chance, it has pleased him or not, the law allowing him this privilege in order that, if any force was applied to him at the time of the abduction, he might be able at this feast to avenge himself and be rid of the lover.

It is disgraceful for those who are handsome in appearance or descendants of illustrious ancestors to fail to obtain lovers, the presumption being that their character is responsible for such a fate. But “those who were placed beside” (parastathentes​) – for that is what they call those boys who have been abducted – receive honours. For in both the dances and the races they have the positions of highest honour, and are allowed to dress in better clothes than the rest, that is, in the habit given them by their lovers. Not then only, but even after they have grown to manhood, they wear a distinctive dress, which is intended to make known the fact that each wearer has become “famous” (kleinos), for they call the loved one “famous”” and the lover “darling” (philetor). So much for their customs in regard to love affairs.

[Civic leadership customs]

(22) The Cretans choose ten civic leaders (archontes). Concerning the matters of greatest importance they use as counsellors the so-called “elders” (gerontes). Those who have been thought worthy to hold the office of the “keeper of order” (kosomoi) and are otherwise assessed men of approved worth are appointed members of this council (synedrion).

[Strabo’s conclusion]

I have assumed that the civic organization (politeia) of the Cretans is worthy of description both on account of its peculiar character and on account of its fame. Not many, however, of these customs endure. But the administration of affairs is carried on mostly by means of the decrees of the Romans, as is also the case in the other provinces.

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