LECTURE 3: INTRODUCTION TO GREEK LAW
• Our focus in this class will be on Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries, but Athenian laws and ideas
of crime developed from a long history in Greece and beyond
• The oldest Greek literature we have is Homer’s Iliad, written sometime in the 8 century BCE and
purporting to represent the 12 century BCE
o Already in the Iliad there is much we can learn
about dispute resolution, self-help, and arbitration
• Description of court case (from Versteeg):
o Earliest description of Greek law
o Crime is murder, in this case
o Man who was responsible for the death claims
that he can pay money to the family of the victim,
but the family is refusing
o It is not the fact of the killing that is in dispute
here, but rather, the nature of the punishment
• The scene on Achilles’ shield also tells us about trial procedure – council of elders present and there
is a crowd around the elders, thus the crowd will play some sort of role in the opinion of the elders; a
reward of gold is to be given to the elder whose decision is the most just
• In the mid-7 century BCE (the Archaic Period), written laws appeared in several places in Greece.
Traditionally, Zaleucus wrote the first law for Locri in southern Italy. One of our most extensive and
important early legal inscriptions is from Gortyn on Crete.
• The most common Greek word for “law” was nomos (plural nomoi), which also means custom. In this
way, the Greek view of law was much like so-called common law. Another early Greek word for “law”
was thesmos (plural thesmoi), which perhaps comes closer to so-called civil law.
• The Archaic Period was a time of intense competition between oligarchs, tyrants, and democrats in
Greece. Although it wasn’t always the case, it was often true in archaic Greece that a city in conflict
would ask a neutral person to make laws. This shows the origin of Greek laws in conflict between
powerful men and explains why Greek laws are so focused on powerful men
• Written laws helped to promote equal treatment, although some inequalities like gender inequality
and slavery were included in the laws. Written laws also made legal procedures mandatory rather
than voluntary and reduced the judicial discretion of magistrates.
• Athenian tradition records that Draco wrote the first law code for Athens in 621 BCE. Draco’s laws
had a reputation for being harsh and we get the word “draconian” from him, but this may be because
Draco allowed lethal self-help. In some instances, however, he made judicial procedure rather than
• In 594 BCE, Solon reformed the Athenian government and law code. He abolished Draco’s laws
except for his homicide law. Solon’s laws were extensive and the Athenians regarded them as the
basis of their laws throughout the Classical Period.
• Solon’s laws and government were more democratic than oligarchic, and one of his more important
acts was the abolition of debt slavery. He nevertheless wrote his laws largely for the purpose of
meditating between aristocratic parties, and under his system it was much easier for aristocrats to
take advantage of the courts than it was for non-elites to do so.
• Before Solon, Athens was mostly ruled by the aristocratic council of elders known by the name of
their meeting place: the Areopagus, which means “the hill of Ares.” They ruled the polis together, and
each one was a member of an aristocratic family. The Greek word for household is oikos (plural
oikoi). The head of a household was a kyrios.
• By the time of Solon, the nine Archons were the most important magistrates and the Areopagus was
made up of former Archons. In the 6 century, they were elected. In the 5 century the Athenians
would elect a short list and then choose the archons from that list by lot. At some point allotment
replaced election even for the preliminary stage. • The archons were:
1. Basileus (king, in charge of religious matters)
2. Polemarchos (warleader)
3. Eponymous archon (the year was named after him)
4. Six thesmothetai (judicial officials)
• Before Solon, magistrates would decide legal cases themselves. Solon allowed litigants to appeal a
magistrate’s decision and he set up a court called the Heliaia, sometimes spelled Eliaia. At first, it
seems that the Heliaia was just the Ekklesia called by a different name.
• Over time, the Heliaia evolved into a complex system, and the word could refer to the whole system
or to an individual court within it. A magistrate with the appropriate jurisdiction would preside over the
court and announce the verdict of the jury.
• In the 5 century, the Athenians selected a volunteer pool of 6000 jurors. Each juror (dikastes) would
take the following oath at the beginning of the year: I will vote in accordance with the laws and
decrees of the people of Athens and of the council of five hundred, and on matters where there are
no laws, I will vote in accordance with the most just opinion.
• Jurors were citizen men over 30 years old, and in the 450s BCE Pericles instituted a payment of two
obols per day (three obols after 425 BCE) for jury service. This was less than a day of physical labor
would earn, and the stereotype was that jurors were men too old for physical labor.
• The evidence is not fully clear, but it seems that for most of the Classical Period the standard jury
size was 500, but special cases sometimes had different numbers of jurors, and there is a report of
one case (a graphe paranomon against Speusippos by Leogoras in 415 BCE) that used the full
• As the system of courts developed, the magistrates presided over courts with specialized
jurisdictions. The jurisdictions of the Archons were:
o Basileus: religious matters and homicide (with the ephetai as jury)
o Polemarchos: cases involving non-Athenians
o Eponymous archon: family and inheritance cases
o Thesmothetai: all cases not under the jurisdiction of the others
• In addition, other officials had other jurisdictions:
o The Eleven: in charge of prisons and executions, but could also try cases of major theft
o Agoranomoi: cases involving disputes in the Agora
o Sitophylakes: cases involving grain
o Epimeletai tou Emporiou: cases involving grain in the port (aka the Peiraeus)
o Eisagogeis: cases involving loans and banking
o The Forty: the tribe judges conducted most of the preliminary hearings for private cases
• Over time, the population of Athens grew further and the city also kept closer ties with its allies in the
Delian League. This necessitated the creation of various boards of minor officialthto oversee cases,
including the nautodikai and xenodikai. These two boards operated from the mid-5 century to the
• In addition to having various types of magistrates with various jurisdictions, the Athenians also
developed a judicial calendar that determined in what months certain kinds of cases could be heard.
For example, from the mid-4 century “mercantile cases” (dikai emporikai) could be brought from
Boedromion to Mounikhion (roughly September to April).
• After the lawgivers Draco and Solon, Kleisthenes reformed the Athenian government in 509 BCE.
Under this government, a citizen could propose a new law to the Boule, a council of 500 that
determined the business to be considered by the Ekklesia, which was the full assembly of Athenian
citizen men. If the Boule agreed to it, the Ekklesia would consider and vote on the new law, which
was called a psephisma (plural psephismata). • In 410 BCE, the Athenians decided to inscribe the laws of Solon and Draco’s homicide law on stone.
As a part of this project, they discovered some contradictions. Before 403 BCE, the contradictions
were resolved by the council (Boule) and assembly (Ekklesia).
• In 404 BCE, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta and Sparta imposed a governing board of
30 on Athens. These men became known as the Thirty Tyrants and the democratic resistance led by
Thrasybulus overthrew them and restored the democracy in 403 BCE.
• After the reinscription of the laws and the reestablishment of the democracy in 403 BCE, the formal
laws inscribed on stone were officially called nomoi (singular nomos) to distinguish them from
psephismata, which is usually translated as “decrees.”
• As a part of the restoration of the democracy, the Athenians decided that no law was valid unless it
had been inscribed on stone during the reinscription of 410-403 BCE and that no prosecution could
be brought for actions taken before the restoration of the democracy.
• Moreover, the restored democracy established a board of Nomothetai, or legislators. The
Nomothetai conducted an annual review of all the laws to resolve contradictions. In addition, the first
meeting of the Ekklesia every year citizens could propose new laws and changes to existing laws. If
the assembly voted to change or add a law, the Nomothetai would review the change and if they
approved it, would inscribe it and announce it.
• In the late 5 century, around the same time as the reinscription of the laws, Athens also introduced
a procedure known as graphe paranomon (misspelled in VerSteeg as “graphe paranomen”). This
was a charge against someone proposing a law or decree that was contrary to already established
• The historical root of Greek law, as we saw in the Illiad was arbitration of a dispute between two
people. In Classical Athens, the simplest and fastest way to resolve a dispute legally was through
arbitration. Although any citizen could serve as a private arbitrator, the state also required male
citizens over the age of 59 to serve as public arbitrators.
• In the Classical Period, if two Athenians had a private legal dispute, the plaintiff would first approach
the four judges of his tribe. If the amount in dispute was more than ten drachmas, the judges would
refer the case to a public arbitrator. If the two parties were satisfied by the arbitrator’s decisio