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Law and Economy in Classical Athens: [Demosthenes], “Against Dionysodorus” 

Edward M. Harris, edition of March 22, 2003

page 5 of 15

· Part 1.4 ·

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Some scholars believe that the enforcement of the law in Classical Athens lay primarily in the hand of private citizens, but it is hard to square this view with the ancient evidence for the administration of law in the agora. In the law of Nicophon the primary responsibility for enforcing the law lies in the hands of a public slave, the Tester, the Syllogeis who supervise him, the Sitophylakes, and the Council, which supervises all these officials. Private individuals can provide information to these officials and receive rewards, but it is the officials who confiscate counterfeit coins and the goods of merchants who do not accept good coins. In the law about weights and measures there is also some role for private initiative in reporting offenses, but the most important tasks in overseeing these regulations lie in the hands of the Metronomoi, public slaves, and the Areopagus. The growth of market transactions in the Athenian agora grew to the extent that strict regulations were needed to ensure fairness and order, and the enforcement of these regulations was primarily in the hands of public officials.

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Extensive specialization of labor and the development of market-relations also created a need for several types of contracts. The laws of Athens contained a general provision that all agreements which the parties entered into willingly and which did not violate the law were binding, that is, the courts would enforce them if one party refused to abide by the terms of the contract. There was also a rule against fraud, which invalidated contracts where one party acted deceitfully. There were various types of contracts for hire (misthosis); like the Roman contract of locatio-conductio, Athenian contracts for hire covered agreements where one hired the labor of another person, where one leased some land, a building, or some movable item, and where one hired a craftsman to produce a certain item or perform a task. There is some controversy about the nature of contracts for sale in Athenian Law, but it is clear that the Athenians recognized that a sale created rights and duties for both parties. In particular the seller was required to “warrant” (bebaioun is the Greek term) the sale, that is, he had to guarantee that he was the actual owner of the object he was selling. This protected the buyer against a third party who might later come forward, claim to be the actual owner, and demand that the buyer return it to him. In the case of slaves, there was also a warranty against latent defects; if one sold a slave who turned out to have a disease, the buyer could return the slave and demand repayment of the sale price, This warranty may have extended to sales of other commodities.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 36).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).
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The Athenians also knew the practice of providing earnest money (arrhabon). When two parties agreed to a sale, but the buyer could not pay the full purchase price, he could give the seller earnest money until he could come up with the rest of the cash. If he failed to make the full payment, the seller could keep the earnest money as a penalty. On the other hand, if the seller refused to accept full payment and convey the item to be sold, the law allowed the buyer to sue him for a certain amount. Theophrastus states that the laws of Thurii permitted the buyer to bring an action for the full amount of the sale price, and the laws of Athens probably contained a similar provision. There were also contracts for deposit (parakatatheke), which were similar to the Roman contract of depositum (Dem. 36.5-6), and suits that enabled lenders to sue borrowers when they defaulted. If the lender made his loan at a rate of 1% interest per month (12% a year) or to provide capital for starting an enterprise, he could bring his case as a “monthly suit.” This meant his case received privileged treatment and was decided within a month, thus avoiding long delays that might causes financial losses (Ath. Pol. 52.2).

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