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An Introduction to the Athenian Legal System 

Victor Bers & Adriaan Lanni, edition of March 15, 2003

page 6 of 7

· Judgement & Punishment ·

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Apol.).

Once the litigants and men speaking in their behalf made their presentations—the number and length of the speeches varied with the sort of case being heard—the jury proceeded at once to cast their ballots. There was no formal deliberation, though the unruly shouting might have served as a primitive substitute. “Cast” is no metaphor, since Athenian jurors voted by dropping ballots into baskets. (See images of ballots—for the plaintiff, and for the defendant.) In the fourth century these ballots came as a set of two discs with an axle running through the centers: the ballot for the defendant had a solid axle, for the plaintiff a hollow axle. The jurors marched past two urns, and dropped the ballots to be counted into one basket, the ballots to be discarded into another. By holding thumb and forefinger over the axle ends, the jurors were able to conceal their vote from onlookers. The ballots were immediately counted and the totals announced. Decisions were by majority vote, hence the preference for odd-numbered panels, but the exact numbers might be important if the case was in that category for which a prosecutor receiving fewer than one-fifth of the votes was subject to a fine. If the relevant law dictated a penalty, the vote concluded the court’s business; but in many cases, known as the agones timetoi, the opponents would each in separate speeches propose a penalty, and the jury would need to vote one more time, selecting one or the other. This procedure is best known from Plato’s Apology of Socrates, though we have no parallel for Socrates’ address to the jury after the initial verdict and after the jury voted for death rather than a monetary fine.

Imprisonment was rarely, if ever, used as a punishment; the most common types of penalties in public suits were monetary fines and execution, which involved either poisoning by hemlock or, more gruesomely, being shackled to wooden planks and left to die. Magistrates known as “the Eleven” (see the Glossary entry) supervised executions. The collection of monetary fines due to the state was more informal and relied to an extent on private initiative. If a convicted man failed to pay the fine by the appointed date, he became a state debtor and his property was subject to public confiscation initiated by—once again—a volunteer prosecutor. Victorious litigants in private suits were responsible for personally collecting on the judgment, a process that could turn violent.

There was no provision for appeal from a jury verdict per se. A dissatisfied litigant might, however, indirectly attack the judgment by means of a suit for false witness or a new case, ostensibly involving a different incident and/or raising a different complaint. Some of the surviving speeches point explicitly to a protracted series of connected legal confrontations. To cite one example, the prosecution of Neaera for false claims of citizenship in 348 was brought in retaliation for a suit for homicide and an earlier suit for illegal action.

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page 6 of 7