Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

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A Summary of: Athenian Homicide Law: Case Studies

Michael Gagarin, edition of March 27, 2003

· Introduction ·

This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.

Read about the evidence
Antiphon (Antiph. 1).
Lysias (Lys. 1).

Suggested Reading: Antiphon 1, “Against the Stepmother”; Lysias 1, “On the Murder of Eratosthenes”.

We know of relatively few prosecutions for homicide in classical Athens and it is tempting to conclude that homicide was relatively rare, except during the brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants (404-403) when killing was rampant but legal action would have been futile. But we do have a few speeches written for plaintiffs or defendants in homicide cases, and these are some of the most interesting that survive. Like almost all offenses against individuals at this time, homicide was legally a matter of concern only to the victim’s family, whose responsibility it was to bring charges against the accused killer. The Athenians considered their homicide laws to be special. They were the oldest of their laws, having been introduced by Draco, their first lawgiver around 620, and they designated special homicide courts with different jurors than in the ordinary courts, and special procedures as well: litigants swore especially solemn oaths and were supposed to adhere to a narrower standard of relevance in their pleadings than in other cases. The main homicide courts were the Council of the Areopagus for those accused of intentional homicide, the Palladium for those accused of unintentional or accidental homicide, and the Delphinium for those accused of homicide who argued a specific justification, such as killing a fellow-soldier in battle by mistake.

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Demosthenes (Dem. 54).

Despite these differences, however, in many respects a homicide case resembled other private suits like the assault case Ariston brought against Conon (Demosthenes 54). Each litigant pleaded his own case in two speeches, the first of which presented the main points in his accusation or defense and might be written for him by a logographer (professional speechwriter) and the second rebutting his opponents arguments. Witnesses could testify if they were male citizens; but if a litigant wanted to introduce the testimony of a slave, he had to ask his opponent to allow the slave to be interrogated under threat of torture in the presence of both parties and only if the opponent agreed (which he very rarely did) could the resulting testimony be presented officially in court. Litigants often tell the court what a slave would have said if interrogated, but no example survives of a slave’s testimony being officially introduced. When the litigants finished their two speeches, the jury voted for acquittal or conviction and the majority carried the day (a tie vote meant acquittal). The penalty for intentional homicide was death, though exile seems to have been a common outcome, and the accused was allowed to go into exile voluntarily at any time up until his second speech in court, which would then be delivered by a friend or relative in the hope of persuading the jury to vote for acquittal despite the accused’s departure. For unintentional homicide the penalty was exile, probably for a specific length of time (perhaps a year). At any point the victim’s family could agree to a lesser penalty, or they could even drop the charges, if they wished, though there was a strong moral obligation to avenge an intentional murder.


This is a summary of, or introduction to, a longer article that is part of Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy. You can also read the whole article.