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Public Finance in Archaic Crete? The Poinikastas of Datala Revisited

Evan J Vance

University of California, Berkeley

            In the archaic Cretan inscription known as the Spensithios decree (SEG XXVII 631, c. 500 BCE), the poinikastas of Datala is tasked with “writing and remembering public things, both divine and human, for the city” (πόλι τὰ δαμόσια τά τε θιήια καὶ τἀνθρώπινα ποινικάζ̣εν τε καὶ μναμονεύϝην). The pairing of writing (poinikazein) and remembering (mnamoneuwen), combined with archaic Crete’s exceptional epigraphic habit, has led most to interpret ta damosia as laws and Spensithios himself as a key transitional figure in the development of written legislation (thus Jeffery and Morpurgo-Davies 1970, Whitley 1997). This paper argues that damosia refers not to laws but to public “things” more generally, including public property from divine and human sources, and that the decree therefore attests to a heretofore unexpected degree of public complexity in archaic Crete.

            There is evidence inside and outside the text for taking damosia to include property. At the broadest level, as our view of written law has changed (Papakonstantinou 2008, Gagarin and Perlman 2016), the idea of a public scribe tasked with writing laws (whether drafting or inscribing them) has become less plausible. In Crete and outside it, mnemones seem to function as expert public witnesses in property disputes rather than keepers of oral law, as was long thought (Carawan 2007). Public property is one of the first phenomena that requires recording elsewhere in the Greek world (Sickinger 1991) and it may be reasonable to see it as the first category of damosia needing to be tracked in Datala as well.

            Within the inscription, tasking Spensithios with public finance could explain why he is also responsible for the public sacrifices (δαμόσια θύματα) and managing the temenos revenues (τὰ τεμένια) of any cult lacking a priest (B.4-6): the same man is tasked with managing cult finance and public finance, as elsewhere in the archaic Greek world (cf., Attic tamiai, Argive hiaromnamones). His expenses are covered as a prerogative, but also to prevent embezzlement (A.11-15). He is restricted from taking security (B.6-7), a market that, if Datala was anything like Gortyn, was an extensive and important part of the economy, subject to misrepresentation of ownership. In this light, the hereditary position of the poinikastas, otherwise very difficult to understand for a scribe (cf., I.Erythrai I.1, 17) makes better sense: this family is limited in their financial dealings to prevent corruption, an odd solution to a problem many cities faced. Outside the decree, the enigmatic “sacred laws” from Tiryns (SEG XXX 380, sixth century) provide an important archaic parallel for ta damosia as property.

            What circumstances could have led to this decree? As often, it is tempting to speculate about a period of stasis, a reading at odds with the image of a generally stable Cretan constitution and aristocracy relative to the rest of the Greek world (Whitley 2015). There seems to be a pervasive concern with maintaining the integrity of public property, and the solution of a public record keeper for life suggests extraordinary measures had to be taken.

            In this light, the Spensithios decree attests to a degree of public complexity which has generally not been imagined for archaic Crete, an island more often associated with Spartan-style austerity. It attests to sacred income, a debt market perhaps comparable to that at Gortyn, and an extraordinary public response to this state of affairs. This reading reveals a unique solution to the problem of how to organize and manage the public sphere as the polis became a more complex entity and can flesh out our understanding of how poleis responded outside the relatively abundant evidence from Athens. Spensithios may have been a scribe, but his office attests to neither limited literacy nor financial stagnation in archaic Crete.

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