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Greek theater at Epidauros (200 BC)

Greek courts met in places like this theater at Epidauros (200 BC)

Greek courts in the Archaic period

In ancient Athens, in the Archaic period, what did you  do if 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). Then you could try to convince the rich man to order the police to beat the person or kill them.

Solon – writing down the laws

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.

Greek courts in the Classical period

Juries of 500 people

Athenian juries had 500 people on them. They sat in a big theater and listened to the accuser make a speech. Then the defendant got a turn. 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 testified, 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 the police 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?

More about ancient Greek government

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).

More about ancient Greek government
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