Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

[ link colors: Demos | External Source | Citation to Evidence| Word Tools ]

Demos Home


→ Introduction.

Summons, Arrest, & Investigation.

Preliminary Procedure.

Courtroom Procedure.

Judgement & Punishment.


Index of Citations

General Index

Demos Home

An Introduction to the Athenian Legal System 

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

page 2 of 7

· Introduction ·

Plot on a Map

“In the criminal justice system, the People are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute offenders.” In the classical period, roughly the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, Athens, a city notorious for its vigorous judicial system, had no comparable legal personnel. Though a small group of men became expert in the workings of the lawcourts, every player in the system—litigant, presiding magistrate, juror—was fundamentally a layman. And though a man might be required to answer charges brought against him, nearly every other participant in the process did so as a volunteer.

Plot on a Map

These features give a populist cast to Athenian law consistent with what one might expect from the West’s first large-scale direct democracy. After all, the Athenian government relied almost entirely on ordinary citizens selected by lot to fill the numerous magistracies of the city (the major exception was election to the board of ten generals). Most important, citizens voted in large assemblies on nearly every decision of the Athenian state, from the making of war and peace to honoring individuals with a free dinner (see C. Blackwell on Assembly). In fact, Aristotle, no enthusiast for democracy, insists that the lawcourts, whose juries were manned by ordinary, lay citizens, are an indispensable component of democratic government. Nevertheless, one hears little of law in the standard encomia of Athens for its invention of democracy. On the contrary, the most well-known example of Athenian justice is an outrage: the trial and execution of Socrates. Athenian law and lawcourts get bad press. Much of the blame for the poor reputation of the Athenian legal system falls on its amateurism, especially as compared to Roman law.

In this world with no shingles hanging out to advertise professional advice for a fee, how did a male citizen with a grievance he wished to pursue by legal means or a man who found himself under legal attack select and implement a course of action? We take a male citizen as our example because individuals in other status groups had a more limited right to engage in litigation in Athenian courts. A foreigner could initiate a suit in commercial cases or in other types of case only by special dispensation of the assembly. The standing of resident aliens, known as “metics,” and slaves to bring suit has been the subject of some debate among scholars. It seems that metics could pursue at least private claims, but may have been otherwise restricted in their legal capacity as compared to citizens. With a few exceptions, slaves could serve as neither plaintiffs nor defendants; when a slave was involved in a dispute, the case was brought by or against the slave’s owner. Similarly, women were forced to depend on their male legal guardians to act on their behalf in the legal sphere.

Here, we outline and illustrate the structure and procedure of the Athenian legal system, giving an overview of topics treated in detail in other lectures. For the most part, we will be drawing on the lawcourt speeches, the principal source of evidence for Athenian law, along with legal inscriptions, the occasional passage in comic plays, and the writings of Plato and Aristotle. To be sure, the roughly one hundred forensic speeches that survive are problematic sources: we almost never have speeches from both sides of a legal contest, we rarely know the outcome of a case, and citations of laws and witness testimony are generally omitted or regarded as inauthentic, later additions. Moreover, our surviving forensic speeches were nearly all written for use by wealthy litigants (see the Orator Biographies; Oratory). This may mean either that Athenian litigants were normally people of the upper class, or that our sample is skewed: court appearances by men too poor to afford the expense of an expert speechwriter (logographos; see the Glossary entry) would leave no trace in the speeches considered good enough to publish, preserve, and sell for study.

[ back to top ]

page 2 of 7