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Antiphon 1.

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Athenian Homicide Law: Case Studies 

Michael Gagarin, edition of March 27, 2003

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· Two Case Studies ·

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Antiphon (Antiph. 1).
Lysias (Lys. 1).

Two of our surviving speeches present particularly interesting pictures of the circumstances surrounding a homicide, though we must always bear in mind that any speaker’s allegations may be false and are probably misleading, at the least, and that the two cases would probably look quite different to us if the opposing speeches had survived. The first is Antiphon 1, “Against the Stepmother,” delivered probably between 420 and 411. In it a young man accuses his stepmother of planning the murder of her husband (his father) by supplying poison to a servant, who then put it in his drink. The defense speech would have been delivered by one of her sons (the speaker’s half-brothers) and the woman herself was probably not even present in court. The second case is Lysias 1, “On the Murder of Eratosthenes,” delivered around 400. Here the speaker defends himself by admitting to the act of killing but claiming that it was legally justified because he found Eratosthenes in bed with his wife.

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Despite their differences both speakers rely largely on a vivid narrative account of events leading up to the deaths. Telling stories like these is now recognized to be an important element in much litigation in the United States today, especially in cases heard by juries, but in ancient Greece, before the development of forensic science, it would have been even more important that a litigant tell a convincing story. The large amount of storytelling and its attendant rhetorical features is one reason for the generally unfavorable view many scholars have held of Athenian law, but telling a clear story is necessary if a litigant is going to present his case directly to a group of ordinary citizens in an easily understood fashion. Even in more professional legal systems like our own, much of the pleading, especially in cases without juries, is difficult if not impossible for laymen to understand. All good trial lawyers are masters at telling stories.

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