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Speeches from Athenian Law

Speeches from Athenian Law

A compilation of speeches covering key issues in Athenian law, drawn from the Oratory of Classical Greece series, that is intended primarily for use in teaching courses in Greek law or related areas such as Greek history.

Series: The Oratory of Classical Greece, Volume 16, Michael Gagarin series editor

March 2011
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408 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 4 family trees, 2 tables |

This is the sixteenth volume in the Oratory of Classical Greece. This series presents all of the surviving speeches from the late fifth and fourth centuries BC in new translations prepared by classical scholars who are at the forefront of the discipline. These translations are especially designed for the needs and interests of today's undergraduates, Greekless scholars in other disciplines, and the general public.

Classical oratory is an invaluable resource for the study of ancient Greek life and culture. The speeches offer evidence on Greek moral views, social and economic conditions, political and social ideology, law and legal procedure, and other aspects of Athenian culture that have recently been attracting particular interest: women and family life, slavery, and religion, to name just a few.

This volume assembles twenty-two speeches previously published in the Oratory series. The speeches are taken from a wide range of different kinds of cases—homicide, assault, commercial law, civic status, sexual offenses, and others—and include many of the best-known speeches in these areas. They are Antiphon, Speeches 1, 2, 5, and 6; Lysias 1, 3, 23, 24, and 32; Isocrates 17, 20; Isaeus 1, 7, 8; Hyperides 3; Demosthenes 27, 35, 54, 55, 57, and 59; and Aeschines 1. The volume is intended primarily for use in teaching courses in Greek law or related areas such as Greek history. It also provides the introductions and notes that originally accompanied the individual speeches, revised slightly to shift the focus onto law.

  • Preface
  • Editor's Note on Abbreviations, Currency, and Dates
  • Introduction. Oratory and Law at Athens
  • I. Homicide and Assault
    • Antiphon 2. First Tetralogy, trans. Michael Gagarin
    • Antiphon 6. On the Chorus Boy, trans. Michael Gagarin
    • Antiphon 1. Against the Stepmother, trans. Michael Gagarin
    • Antiphon 5. On the Murder of Herodes, trans. Michael Gagarin
    • Lysias 1. On the Death of Eratosthenes, trans. S. C. Todd
    • Demosthenes 54. Against Conon, trans. Victor Bers
    • Lysias 3. Against Simon, trans. S. C. Todd
    • Isocrates 20. Against Lochites, trans. David Mirhady
  • II. Status and Citizenship
    • Demosthenes 57. Appeal Against Eubulides, trans. Victor Bers
    • Lysias 23. Against Pancleon, trans. S. C. Todd
    • Demosthenes 59. Against Neaera, trans. Victor Bers
    • Aeschines 1. Against Timarchus, trans. Chris Carey
  • III. Family and Property
    • Isaeus 1. On the Estate of Cleonymus, trans. Michael Edwards
    • Isaeus 7. On the Estate of Apollodorus, trans. Michael Edwards
    • Isaeus 8. On the Estate of Ciron, trans. Michael Edwards
    • Lysias 32. Against Diogeiton, trans. S. C. Todd
    • Demosthenes 27. Against Aphobus I, trans. Douglas MacDowell
  • IV. Commerce and the Economy
    • Demosthenes 55. Against Callicles, trans. Victor Bers
    • Hyperides 3. Against Athenogenes trans. Craig Cooper
    • Lysias 24. For the Disabled Man, trans. S. C. Todd
    • Isocrates 17. Trapeziticus, trans. David Mirhady
    • Demosthenes 35. Against Lacritus, trans. Douglas MacDowell
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Michael Gagarin is James R. Dougherty, Jr. Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and series editor of the Oratory of Classical Greece.


The selection of speeches in this volume is primarily intended to illustrate some of the main features of Athenian law. My aim is to provide teachers of Athenian law and students and scholars wishing to learn about Athenian law with a useful selection of primary sources. The speeches also present a kaleidoscope of life in classical Athens, and so the volume can also serve as a resource for those with other interests. As with any selection, space limitations have forced me to omit speeches I would have liked to include; others would undoubtedly have chosen differently.


The translations of each speech together with their introductions and notes are taken directly from volumes of The Oratory of Classical Greece (University of Texas Press 1998– ). Except for minor corrections and stylistic changes, I have not changed the translations; as a result, they are not fully consistent: for example, the dikastai who comprised Athenian juries are translated "judges" or "jurors," or transliterated as "dicasts," according to the preference of the translator. This and other Greek words do not correspond exactly to a single English term, and although the inconsistency may be awkward at first, it also alerts the reader to some of the important differences between Athenian law and our own. I have edited the introductions and notes to each speech more extensively, primarily to provide a sharper focus on law by reducing or eliminating material that is purely historical or otherwise nonlegal. I have also fixed cross-references where necessary and have reorganized material to reduce the amount of repetition.


That said, the different translators have somewhat different interests and emphases and may even on occasion take different positions on a matter. I have not tried to eliminate such discrepancies, preferring to let the reader see that some features of Athenian law (indeed of any legal system) can be understood in different, even opposed, ways.

[UTP note: Some diacritics have been omitted in this online excerpt; they are present in the actual text.]


One of the many intriguing (and unique) aspects of Athenian law is that our information about it comes very largely from speeches composed for delivery in court. These date to the period 420–3201 and reflect in part the high value the Greeks in all periods placed on effective speaking. Even Achilles, whose fame rested primarily on his martial superiority, was brought up to be "a speaker of words and a doer of deeds" (Iliad 9.443). Great Athenian leaders such as Themistocles and Pericles were accomplished public speakers; epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, and history all made frequent use of set speeches. The formal pleadings of the envoys to Achilles in Iliad Book Nine, the messenger speeches in tragedy reporting events like the battle of Salamis in Aeschylus' Persians, and Pericles' funeral oration in Thucydides' History are but a few indications of the Greeks' never-ending fascination with the spoken word, and with formal public speaking in particular, which reached its height in the public oratory of the fifth and fourth centuries.


I. Oratory


Originally, oratory was not a specialized subject of study but was learned by practice and example. The formal study of oratory as an "art" (techne), which we call rhetoric, began, we are told, in the middle of the fifth century in Sicily with Corax and his pupil Tisias. These two are scarcely more than names to us, but another Sicilian, Gorgias of Leontini (ca. 490–390), developed a dazzling new style of speech and argument. Gorgias initiated the practice, which continued into the early fourth century, of composing speeches for mythical or imaginary occasions. This tradition of "intellectual" oratory was continued by the fourth-century educator Isocrates and played a large role in later Greek and Roman education.


By contrast, "practical" oratory—speeches delivered on real occasions in public life—had been practiced throughout Greece for centuries. Athenians, in particular, had been delivering speeches in the courts and public assemblies since the days of Draco and Solon (late seventh and early sixth centuries), if not longer, though these speeches were not put in writing and thus not preserved. But as the participation of citizens in political and legal institutions increased during the fifth century, so too did the importance of oratory. The practice of writing down speeches for use in court began with Antiphon, a fifth-century intellectual sometimes included (with Gorgias) in the group we call the Sophists. Antiphon contributed to the intellectual oratory of the period with his Tetralogies (sets of four fictional speeches each), but he also had a strong practical interest in law. Although he mostly avoided direct involvement in legal or political affairs, he gave advice to others who were engaged in litigation. Probably around 430, Antiphon began writing entire speeches for litigants to memorize and deliver in court. Thus began the practice of "logography"—writing speeches for others—and because these speeches were written, they could be preserved. Logography was a particularly appealing career for those like Lysias who were not Athenian citizens and who were thus barred from active participation in public life, and the practice continued through the fourth century and beyond.


Antiphon and others also began to write down speeches they would themselves deliver in court or (occasionally) in the Assembly. One other type of practical oratory was the special tribute delivered on important public occasions, the best known being the funeral oration. These three types of oratory were later classified by Aristotle (Rhetoric 1.3) as forensic (for the courts), deliberative (for the Assembly), and epideictic (for display). The speeches in this volume are all forensic.


II. The Speeches


We know almost nothing about the "publication" of speeches at this time, but there was an active market for books in Athens, and some speeches may have achieved wide circulation. An author may have circulated copies of his own speeches to advertise his talents or in political cases to make his views more widely known. Booksellers may have collected and copied speeches in order to make money. With the foundation of the great library in Alexandria early in the third century, scholars began to collect and catalogue texts of many classical authors, including orators.


These scholars selected the ten best orators and gathered all their speeches, though among the hundreds of speeches they collected, many were undoubtedly written by other authors of the same period and misattributed. Only a small percentage of these speeches survived to the modern era in manuscript form; a few more have been recovered from ancient papyrus remains. Today the corpus of Attic Oratory consists of about 150 speeches and letters, about 100 of which are forensic speeches. These cover many subjects: important public issues, crimes, business affairs, lovers' quarrels, inheritance, citizenship, and others; the twenty-two speeches in this volume are only a sample.


III. The Orators


In the period 420–320, dozens of now unknown orators and logographers composed speeches for delivery in court. Most of them are now lost, but speeches have survived from the ten authors considered the best by later scholars. The authors represented in this volume are:


  • Aeschines (ca. 390–ca. 322) rose from low origins to become a major political figure and a bitter enemy of Demosthenes. His speeches all concern public issues. He went into exile after losing the case "On the Crown" (Aes. 3) to Demosthenes in 330.
  • Antiphon (ca. 480–411), in addition to writing speeches, was one of the leaders of an oligarchic coup in 411. The democrats quickly regained power, and Antiphon was tried for treason, convicted, and executed.
  • Demosthenes (384–322) is generally considered the greatest Greek orator. His father died when he was a boy, and guardians mismanaged his estate, probably stealing much of it. After turning eighteen, he sued them and won, but despite repeated suits (Dem. 27–31), he never fully recovered the estate. He wrote speeches for others and also for his own use in court and in the Assembly. In the 340s and 330s he vigorously opposed the growing power of Philip of Macedon, and after Athens' defeat he successfully defended this policy against Aeschines in his most famous speech On the Crown (18), delivered in 330.
  • Apollodorus (ca. 394–335?) was probably the author of six or seven of the speeches attributed to Demosthenes (including Dem. 59). His father Pasion was a slave but was later freed and eventually obtained Athenian citizenship.
  • Hyperides (390–322) was a political leader and logographer. With Demosthenes, he led the Athenian resistance to Philip and Alexander and was condemned to death after Athens' final surrender. None of his speeches survived in manuscript form, but all or most of six speeches and parts of others have been recovered from papyrus remains.
  • Isaeus (ca. 415–ca. 340) is said to have been a pupil of Isocrates and the teacher of Demosthenes. He wrote speeches on a wide range of topics, but the eleven that survive in full all concern inheritance.
  • Isocrates (436–338) was a philosopher and educator. He came from a wealthy family that lost most of its property in the Peloponnesian War (431–404). He took up logography but abandoned it about 390 in favor of writing and teaching; six court speeches survive from this period. He taught a broad mixture of statesmanship, public speaking, and practical philosophy, attracting pupils from the entire Greek world and greatly influencing education and rhetoric in the Hellenistic and Roman times.
  • Lysias (ca. 445–ca. 380) was a metic—a noncitizen resident (see below, IVB). Much of his property was seized by the Thirty during their brutal oligarchic coup in 404/3. He wrote speeches for others on a wide range of subjects and may have delivered one himself, on the murder of his brother (Lys. 12). He is particularly known for his engaging narratives, his realistic characters, and his lucid and vivid prose style.


IV. Government


A. Officials


The Athenian political system was a direct democracy, not the representative form of democracy common today. All significant policy decisions were made by the Assembly, in which all citizens could participate (a quorum was 6,000); a small payment for attendance enabled the poor to attend. A Council of 500, 50 from each tribe selected annually by lot, prepared material for and made recommendations to the Assembly; each tribal group of 50 served as an executive committee, the Prytany, for one-tenth of the lunar year (35 or 36 days). The tribe holding the Prytany carried out all the administrative duties of the Council.


All important officials other than military commanders were selected annually by lot, and most offices could be held only once. Thus, many citizens held public office at some point, but almost none served for an extended period of time. The most important officials were the nine Archons (lit. "rulers"): the (eponymous) Archon after whom the year was named, the Basileus ("King" or "King Archon"), the Polemarch, and the six Thesmothetae. The Archons oversaw the courts and had various other duties. The Archon supervised family and inheritance cases, the Basileus was in charge of homicide and religious cases, the Polemarch heard cases involving metics and others who were not Athenian citizens, and the Thesmothetae oversaw political trials. Most private cases were heard by the Forty, four tribal judges from each tribe to whom cases were allocated according to the tribe of the defendant.


All officials and members of the Council underwent a "scrutiny" (dokimasia) before taking office, and officials submitted to a final accounting (euthynai) at the end of their term. Others also underwent scrutiny, among them boys before being granted full citizenship at the age of eighteen and the poor who wished to receive public welfare (see Lys. 24). At the scrutiny, any citizen who wished could challenge a person's fitness for his new position or privilege. The accounting examined the conduct of officials during their term of office in two phases, the first devoted to their financial accounts, the second to their general conduct; at the second stage, it was open to anyone to lodge a complaint.


B. The People


Participation in the political and legal systems was restricted mostly to Athenian citizens, that is, adult male citizens. This restriction applied to holding office, voting in the Assembly, and serving on a jury. Determining citizen status was sometimes difficult (see Lys. 23). In 507 Cleisthenes organized Athens into ten tribes and 139 demes (precincts). Citizenship lists were kept by the demes. Membership was hereditary, and fathers registered their sons in their deme at the age of eighteen. Every citizen also belonged to the tribe to which his deme was assigned. Pericles' citizenship law, enacted in 450, restricted citizenship to those whose parents were both citizens. Although this requirement seems to have been neglected during the Peloponnesian War (431–404), it was reinstated in the archonship of Eucleides in 403/2.


Women citizens could not participate in this system, though they had important roles in many religious rituals and festivals. Their commercial life was also limited. There was apparently a law (Is. 10.10) that women (and children) could not enter into a contract for more than a medimnos of barley (about 1.5 bushels), but we also have evidence that seems to violate this restriction. In financial matters or in court, a woman would normally be represented by her kyrios ("guardian"), usually her husband, brother, father, or son.


Besides citizens, the resident population consisted of metics and slaves. Metics were foreigners residing permanently in Athens. They had to register and pay a metic tax each year and serve in the military. They were not allowed to own real property, but otherwise they could participate fully in the economic life of the city. Many practiced trades, and some became quite rich. Metics could appear in court in certain kinds of cases. They could become citizens only by a vote of the Assembly; this was rare and normally was granted as a reward for special benefactions.


The number and condition of slaves in Athens is a matter of dispute. Many citizens and metics seem to have had one or two slaves helping in the house or in the fields, but apparently even the rich did not have a large number of slaves for these tasks. Small workshops regularly were staffed by slaves; the two owned by Demosthenes' father (Dem. 27), with twenty and thirty slaves respectively, were larger than most. Publicly owned slaves performed some functions in the city but were primarily used in the silver mines, where their lives were extremely hard. Slaves could sometimes earn money for themselves and could occasionally buy their freedom or be freed by their master. Freed slaves had the status of metics.


C. The Liturgy System


Politicians gained influence not by election to office but by their ability to sway the majority of citizens in the Assembly to vote for their policies. Success was often temporary, as victory on one policy issue could quickly be followed by defeat on another. Leading politicians, who were often very wealthy, also gained prominence by undertaking public service in the form of "liturgies" (leitourgiai). Except for occasional war taxes (eisphora), levied on the richest citizens, the Athenians avoided direct taxation, relying instead on a system of liturgies, which were required of the wealthiest citizens on a rotating basis.


The two most important and costly liturgies were the choregia and the trierarchy. In the former, a choregos organized and paid for the training of a chorus either for the dithyrambic contests (see Ant. 6) or for the dramatic competitions. A trierarch equipped a warship (trireme) and paid its expenses, and often commanded it for a year. Shared trierarchies appear to have been introduced in the final years of the Peloponnesian War to cope with financial strains among the Athenian elite. Many litigants refer to their own liturgies to create a favorable impression with the jury. A person liable to a liturgy could challenge a richer man either to undertake the liturgy in his place or else to exchange properties with him: this exchange was called an antidosis. Details are unclear, but it seems most likely that the speaker often accepted the exchange and that disputes then arose about the content or value of the properties.


V. Athenian Law


A. History


The legal system was an integral part of this political system. The first written laws were enacted by Draco (ca. 620) and Solon (ca. 590), and new laws were regularly added. By the end of the fifth century these laws were in a rather chaotic state, and so an appointed commission examined all the laws. They removed conflicting or obsolete laws and reinscribed the valid laws that remained, although whether this project was completed is uncertain. A new procedure was instituted for enacting laws: before a new law could be voted on by the Assembly, a group of Lawgivers (Nomothetai) had to certify that the proposed law did not conflict with any existing law.


After 403 the Athenians distinguished formally between laws (nomoi) and decrees (psephismata), with laws having greater authority. When a decree was proposed in the Assembly, any Athenian who wished could bring suit against it and its proposer by means of a graphe paranomon, or "indictment for illegal [proposals]." A conviction in the case meant that the decree would be rescinded, and its proposer could be fined.


B. Judicial Organization


At the heart of the Athenian judicial system were the popular courts (dikasteria). Most trials were held in these courts before juries that numbered between 201 and 501 citizens but in important cases could be as large as 1501. The older, aristocratic Council of the Areopagus also heard cases, but after 462, its jurisdiction was confined to homicide and some religious cases. It was composed of all former Archons, and would thus have numbered around 200. Trials and the procedures leading up to them were supervised by one of the Archons or one of the Forty (see above, IVA). The role of these officials was purely administrative; they had no professional training and were in no way equivalent to modern judges.


Officials alone decided private cases involving ten drachmas or less, but private disputes concerning larger amounts went first to a public arbitrator; every citizen was required to serve as an arbitrator during the year he turned sixty. At the arbitration hearing, the two litigants presented their cases. The arbitrator collected all the documentation for the case, and he could question either litigant. The arbitrator then rendered a decision that, if accepted by both sides, was final; but either party could reject this decision and take the case to court. In public suits, a preliminary hearing was also held at which documentation was similarly collected. The documents presented at these hearings were sealed in a jar and kept for the trial, and litigants could use only these documents in the trial.


C. The Trial


A trial consisted of one speech by each litigant, beginning with the plaintiff; in some private cases each side gave a second, rebuttal speech. A litigant normally presented his own case. If he could afford it, he could enlist the help of a logographer, who probably gave advice in addition to writing a speech. In addition, one or more friends could serve as a supporting speaker (synegoros), presenting part or all of the case, but payment for this service was prohibited.


Speeches were timed by a water clock (klepsydra) to ensure an equal hearing for both sides, and all trials were completed within a day. During his pleading, a litigant could have the clerk read out a document such as a law, a witness deposition, or a contract; in private cases, the water clock stopped for this. Most of these documents no longer survive, except for a notation in the text, such as "[LAW]." In some cases, documents are preserved in the manuscripts, but these are often (not always) later forgeries.


Jurors (dikastai) were selected by lot from those citizens, who registered each year and who appeared for jury duty that day; only males aged thirty or older were eligible, and as with the Assembly, a small payment allowed the poor to serve. At the beginning of the year, all 6,000 jurors empanelled for that year swore an oath whose clauses included promises to vote according to the laws and the decrees of Athens or—in default of a law—according to "their most just opinion," to give both sides a fair hearing, to cast their vote specifically on the subject under dispute, and to take no bribes. It is common for speakers to remind the jurors of the oath, either in general or with reference to specific clauses.


After both sides spoke, the jury voted immediately, without formal deliberation, in a secret ballot; the litigant with the majority of votes won (a tie favored the defendant). This meant that all the issues in the case, substantive and procedural, were decided in one vote. In some cases in which the penalty was not fixed, after a conviction the jurors voted again in an "assessment" (timesis or timema) of the penalty, choosing between the penalties proposed by each side. A famous example of this is in Plato's Apology. Penalties were typically monetary fines, although litigants could propose other types of penalties, including death.


D. Witnesses


In the fifth century, witnesses gave their testimony in person. Early in the fourth century, a system of written depositions was introduced. The litigant drafted the deposition for the witness, who merely affirmed the statement after it was read out by the clerk. Witnesses could be sued for false witness (pseudomartyria); three convictions on this charge resulted in the loss of civic rights. A witness who objected to the deposition prepared for him could take an oath of disclaimer (exomosia) to the effect that he had not been present at the incident in question or did not know that the facts were as stated. If he refused to testify or swear this oath, he was subject to a summons (kleteusis), with a penalty of 1,000 drachmas for failure to respond.


E. Types of Procedure


The traditional form of procedure was a dike ("suit") in which the injured party (or a relative in a homicide case) brought suit against the offender. When the victim was a woman or a slave, the suit was brought by the woman's kyrios (see above, IVB) or the slave's master. Strictly speaking, a dike was a private matter between individuals, though it could have public dimensions. The other main form of procedure was a graphe ("indictment") in which any citizen who wished could prosecute. This procedure was instituted by Solon, probably to allow prosecution of offenses against victims who were unable or unlikely to bring suit themselves, such as orphans, but the use of graphai soon increased to cover many types of public offenses. Other more specialized forms of prosecution, such as eisangelia ("impeachment") used in cases of treason, also depended on prosecution by volunteers. The existence of multiple procedures sometimes meant that different procedures were available for the same offense, but this does not appear to have been a problem (see Dem. 54.1–2). Rather, the system was intended to be flexible so that citizens could easily find a procedure by which to bring their complaints to court.


The system of volunteer prosecutors meant that Athens never had a public prosecutor. By the end of the fifth century the system was apparently being abused by "sykophants" (sykophantai), who, perhaps with trumped-up evidence, brought or threatened to bring suits against rich men, either to gain part of the fine that would be levied or to induce the accused to settle out of court. It is impossible to gauge the true extent of this problem, but many litigants accuse their opponents, usually in rather vague terms, of being sykophants. The Athenians took steps to prevent sykophancy, for example, by subjecting a plaintiff who dropped the case or failed to obtain one-fifth of the jury's votes to a fine of 1,000 drachmas. In any case, litigation was common in Athens and was seen by some as excessive.


F. Laws


Litigants often cite or refer to laws in their pleadings, and they (or their logographer) could read the laws either on public inscriptions or, by the fourth century, in an archive. Statutes were generally written in ordinary, nontechnical language, and offenses were designated by broad terms ("damage," "assault," "impiety") without further precision. Plaintiffs would select an appropriate category and then specify the particulars of the (alleged) offense. There was no need for specialists to interpret the law, and as a result, Athens had no lawyers, no trained judges, and no authoritative interpreters of the law (such as jurists). Religious "exegetes" (cf. Is. 8.39 below) could be consulted on legal matters that had a religious dimension, such as the prosecution of a homicide, and these opinions could be reported in court, but they had no official authority. Thus, litigants could assert whatever interpretation of the law they wished, sometimes adducing the lawgiver's (presumed) intent in support. In such cases, jurors had to decide for themselves whether to accept the litigant's account.


VI. Conclusion


The Athenian legal system operated without professional oversight or control. Until recently, this lack of professional control led most scholars to judge Athenian law quite harshly. For critics like Plato (437–327), who argued against many aspects of Athenian culture (including poetry), democracy was essentially the tyranny of the masses, and the Athenian legal system was capricious and depended entirely on the rhetorical ability of litigants, who had no regard for truth or justice. Scholars often note that Athenian law was closely interwoven with politics and did not have the autonomy it later achieved in Rome and continues to have, at least in theory, in most modern legal systems. Many recent scholars, however, conclude that the aim of Athenian law was a fair and orderly procedure that enabled any citizen to have his grievance heard in court by a group of his peers, and to have it heard quickly and cheaply without the need for special training or professional help. In this it clearly succeeded, and despite several wars and two short-lived oligarchic coups, Athenian democracy and the Athenian legal system remained relatively stable for almost two centuries (508–320).



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