Law in Ancient Greece - What was the ancient Greek court system?
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Greek Law Courts

Theater at Epidauros
Theater at Epidauros, Greece

In ancient Athens, in the Archaic period, when you thought someone had hurt you or stolen something from you, you could drag him or her in front of a rich man (if you were strong enough) and then you could try to convince the rich man to order the person to be beaten or killed.

In the time of Solon, people said that they needed to know what the law was really. What could you be punished for? What was the right punishment for each crime? So the Athenian aristocrats wrote down the laws.

During the Athenian democracy, the system changed again. Now instead of having rich men be the judges, there would be juries of the people deciding who was guilty and how he or she should be punished.

Athenian juries had 500 people on them. They sat in a big theater and listened to the accuser make a speech, and then the defendant. You could get someone to help you write your speech, but you had to give it yourself. When the speeches were over, and witnesses had been called, all the people of the jury voted on whether the accused person was innocent or guilty. Whoever got more votes won. Then each of you would make a speech saying what you thought the punishment should be, and the jury would vote again. The punishment that got more votes would be the one that was carried out.

Under this system, having people like you counted for a lot. Popular people tended to win trials, while unpopular people lost them. It was a trial like this that condemned Socrates to death.

What do you think would happen at your school if they used this system to decide whether you had done anything wrong and what the punishment should be? Is the system you have now better? Why or why not?

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Bibliography and further reading about Greek courts:

The Trial of Socrates (Famous Trials Series), by Don Nardo (1997).

Law, Violence, and Community in Classical Athens, by David Cohen (P. A. Cartledge and Peter Garnsey are the editors) (1995). Cohen shows how agon (fighting) was the main idea behind the Greek court system.

The Law in Classical Athens, by Douglas M. MacDowell (reprinted 1986).

Women in Athenian Law and Life, by Roger Just (reprinted 1991).


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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