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Democratic Law in Classical Athens

Democratic Law in Classical Athens

Controlled entirely by the city-state’s ordinary citizens, the Athenian legal system was one of the most unorthodox the world has ever known, and Michael Gagarin offers an in-depth explanation of how that worked.

Series: Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lecture Series

March 2020
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208 pages | 6 x 9 |

The democratic legal system created by the Athenians was completely controlled by ordinary citizens, with no judges, lawyers, or jurists involved. It placed great importance on the litigants’ rhetorical performances. Did this make it nothing more than a rhetorical contest judged by largely uneducated citizens that had nothing to do with law, a criticism that some, including Plato, have made?

Michael Gagarin argues to the contrary, contending that the Athenians both controlled litigants’ performances and incorporated many other unusual features into their legal system, including rules for interrogating slaves and swearing an oath. The Athenians, Gagarin shows, adhered to the law as they understood it, which was a set of principles more flexible than our current understanding allows. The Athenians also insisted that their legal system serve the ends of justice and benefit the city and its people. In this way, the law ultimately satisfied most Athenians and probably produced just results as often as modern legal systems do. Comprehensive and wide-ranging, Democratic Law in Classical Athens offers a new perspective for viewing a legal system that was democratic in a way only the Athenians could achieve.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Democracy
  • Chapter 2. Performance
  • Chapter 3. Negotiation
  • Chapter 4. Rhetoric
  • Chapter 5. Rules and Relevance
  • Chapter 6. Justice
  • Chapter 7. Public Interest
  • Chapter 8. The Rule of Law
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index Locorum
  • General Index

Michael Gagarin
Austin, Texas

Michael Gagarin is the James R. Dougherty, Jr. Centennial Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include, most recently, The Laws of Ancient Crete, c. 650–400 BCE (with Paula Perlman).


“Backed by many years of research in the field of Greek law, the author systematically demonstrates the many ways in which the Athenians ensured that their legal system upheld both the rule of law and democratic ideals and shows clearly that the Athenian legal system was one that achieved its aims and worked as intended in the context in which it developed...Gagarin’s latest work is, as always, accessible and coherent while remaining precise and incisive. It will be a valuable introduction to the Athenian legal system for many and a useful addition to the libraries of scholars and students working on the Athenian democracy.”

“[Democratic Law in Classical Athens] is a discerning overview of the workings of the Athenian judicial system with a crucial emphasis on the context of ancient democracy and culture. The writing is lucid, thorough, meticulously footnoted, well illustrated with copious ancient examples and informative for scholars of all levels...We must always remember that the ancients were regular people with a culture, world view and practice of self-government far different from our own. In constructing this rich and dynamic social setting Gagarin shines.”
Classical Review

“Gagarin's description of the way Athenian democracy worked and how thoroughly law and democracy were entwined is sharpened by constant and interesting comparisons to US democracy and law. His gift here is a clear discernment of differences between the two systems and a clear perception of similarities, helped a great deal by an extensive familiarity with US law bibliography evident throughout the book.”
Adele Scafuro, professor in the Department of Classics, Brown University


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3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca