Since Greek city-states* were independent from each other, each made its own laws and enforced them in its own way. Laws made in one city were not valid in another, and even crimes that were illegal in all city-states, such as homicide, were defined and punished in different ways from one city to the next. Scholars know more about Athenian law than the laws of any other city-state. Socrates’ famous trial in Athens in 399 B.C. is dramatically illustrated in Plato’s Apology.

Greek Law Before 600 B.C. The earliest Greek legal codes were oral*, not written. Therefore, little is known of Greek law before the 600s B.C.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* oral by word of mouth rather than in writing

However, the epic* poems of Homer provide some insight into various early Greek legal practices. The Iliad and the Odyssey describe different punishments for similar offenses, indicating that each city had its own way of interpreting and enforcing the law. For example, three different punishments are described for homicide. The first is the vendetta, in which a relative of the victim could take revenge by killing the murderer. A second option was exile, in which the killer was expelled from the city but suffered no other penalty. A third possibility was a payment made by the killer to the victim’s family. All three punishments are referred to in the Iliad, but it is unclear whether more than one of these options was available in any single case or, if they were, how it was decided which punishment was appropriate.

Homer also described the process by which people sought justice under the law. The simplest way was to appeal to the king for judgment, since the king was considered to have greater wisdom than the average person, and he also had the power to enforce his decision. Since not all kings were wise judges, some disputes were settled by a group of elders or community leaders who sat for a trial. A description in the Iliad of one such trial indicates that the disputing parties presented their case to several elders, each of whom pronounced a judgment. The one whose judgment was considered the most correct received a fee that had been contributed by both disputants. According to the poem, the correct judgment was the one that drew the greatest applause from the spectators who were present. This system was a distant forerunner of the modern trial by jury, since, even though the elder made the ruling, it was really the people who decided which ruling was right and appropriate.

Draco is credited with drawing up the first written code of Athenian law in the late 600s B.C. Mostly known for its severity, Draco’s code was almost entirely revised in the early 500s B.C. by the statesman Solon. A complete review of the law was carried out in the late 500s B.C., and most of what is known about Athenian law comes from the code as it was rewritten at that time.

Class Distinctions in Greek Law. An important aspect of legal codes throughout the Greek world concerned the legal status of individuals in a community. For example, the population of Crete was divided into several categories, the most privileged of which was the free citizen, or comrade. Below the comrades were the noncomrades, followed by serfs* and, finally, slaves. The class of both the offender and the victim of a crime determined the punishment. The punishment for a crime committed against a comrade was ten times harsher that of the same crime committed against a noncomrade. Slaves were punished twice as hard as members of the other classes.

Class distinction was also important in Athenian law. Until 451 B.C., if a man was an Athenian citizen, his sons were also considered to be citizens. However, the statesman Pericles changed the law, restricting citizenship to those whose parents were both Athenian citizens. The law also outlawed marriages between citizens and foreigners, which greatly limited the number of people who could claim full rights as Athenian citizens. Free foreigners, known as metics, had the right to live in Athens, but they could not hold office, participate in politics, or own land. They were, however, required to perform military service when needed, and they were spared few of the other duties and responsibilities required of citizens. Below the metics were slaves, who were considered the property of their owners. Slaves could be freed and granted the status of a metic.

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* serf peasant who owes service and loyalty to a lord

Family, Marriage, and Inheritance Laws. Athenian law limited the freedom of women, especially regarding marriage and inheritance. A woman’s father was her master until her marriage, when that role was passed to her husband. If her father or husband died, another male relative assumed responsibility for her. Marriage was arranged by a woman’s father and was considered invalid unless he formally gave her to her future husband in a formal ceremony. A man could divorce his wife by simply returning her to her father, but she could obtain a divorce only with the consent of her husband and father. Although it was illegal for a man to have more than one wife, he was allowed to have a concubine* in addition to his wife.

Inheritance laws also reflected women’s inferior status under the law. A man’s property passed to his legitimate* sons upon his death, or to his grandsons if no sons were living. Only if there were no living sons or grandsons could a daughter inherit property. Even then, she did not own it, but merely held it until she herself had a son to whom it then passed. If the woman was unmarried or widowed, her father’s nearest male relative could claim her in marriage, and he was even allowed to divorce his wife in order to do so. To prevent this, a man without sons often adopted a distant male relative, or even an unrelated male, so that the property would be inherited by someone of his own choosing.

* concubine a woman who lives with a man without being married to him

* legitimate born to parents who are married to each other

Criminal Law. By the time of Solon’s reforms, vendetta was no longer allowed in murder cases. Instead, the killer was ordered to stay away from public and religious places, and a series of three hearings were held, followed by a trial. Different types of juries handled cases in which a citizen killed another citizen and cases in which a citizen killed a noncitizen or assisted in a murder. The penalty for intentional homicide was either death or permanent exile and loss of all property. A person’s motive was also important in determining a judgment. For example, a distinction was made between assaulting someone in anger and the crime of hybris, which was a more serious offense—one that involved the intentional disregard for the rights of the victim. Since hybris was not defined in any written law text, it was up to the court to decide whether an act should be considered hybris.

Bringing Cases to Trial in Athens. Most legal cases were private disputes. People who felt that they had been wronged brought their cases to magistrates—public officials who imposed fines for minor offenses or referred the case to juries in more serious matters. Cases involving an offense against the community, such as military cowardice, embezzlement of public funds, or crimes against helpless victims, could be brought by any individual on behalf of the public. Since Athens had virtually no permanent police force, the Athenian government encouraged this type of prosecution. A person who brought such a case was compensated by receiving a portion of the defendant’s property or part of the fine the defendant paid. One drawback of this system was that people often brought cases to harm political opponents or to blackmail individuals by threatening to prosecute them unless they paid to have the case dropped. To discourage such unjustified prosecutions, penalties were enacted for anyone who failed to obtain at least one-fifth of a jury’s votes at trial or who abandoned the case before it went to trial.

Trial by Jury. One of Solon’s main reforms was to allow those dissatisfied with the ruling of a king or elder to appeal to the assembly, or eliaia. (It is generally thought that the eliaia was simply the assembly of all the citizens of Athens, the ekklesia, meeting under a different name for the purpose of trying cases. Eliaia later came to mean an individual court.) As the population of the city grew, it became impractical for the entire eliaia to hear every case, so a jury system developed that allowed a smaller number of citizens to represent the whole assembly. Each year a list of 6,000 jurors was drawn from a pool of volunteers. Each day, jurors drew lots to determine the court to which they would be assigned. The least important cases required about 200 jurors, while some important cases had more than 1,000.

Parties in a dispute presented their own cases. No one was allowed to have a lawyer speak for him, although he could hire a speechwriter to compose a speech for him to deliver, and he could have friends speak in support of his case. Each side had a predetermined amount of time to present its case, after which the jury voted immediately, without deliberating. Punishment was determined in the same way, with the jury choosing between alternatives proposed by each side. The most common penalty was payment of money, although more serious crimes resulted in exile or death. Imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment, and prisons were normally used only to hold those awaiting trial or execution.

Many private cases went to arbitration* rather than to a jury trial. Arbitrators were ordinary citizens of advanced age, and every male citizen was required to serve as an arbitrator when he turned 60. If either party disagreed with the arbitrator’s decision, he could demand a jury trial at which the same evidence was presented. Procedures also existed to address cases in which a person felt that a prosecution was being brought in a way that violated the law or should be handled in a different manner. In the mid-300s B.C., laws intended to speed up trials were enacted, which helped settle disputes involving merchants and traders, who could not afford to spend months waiting for judgment.

* arbitration settlement of a dispute by a person acceptable to both sides


By law, the wealthiest Athenians were required to pay for expensive public services, such as maintaining a ship in the navy. These services were called liturgies. If a man who was required to perform a liturgy felt that another man was richer than he was, he could issue a legal challenge called an antidosis. If the second man admitted to being richer, he took over the liturgy; if he was found to be poorer, he and the man who challenged him exchanged their property with each other. Although it was an unusual law, antidosis helped ensure that the truly wealthy upheld their obligations to the city-state.

The most important legal achievements of the Athenians were the procedures they established that allowed average citizens to administer the law. For the first time, legal power was truly in the hands of the people. (See also Citizenship; Class Structure, Greek; Democracy, Greek; Family, Greek; Iliad; Law, Roman; Marriage and Divorce; Odyssey; Women, Greek.)

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