Law in Ancient Greece

courtFrom 1200-900 B.C.E, the Ancient Greeks had no official court system. During this time period, if you committed a murder, you would most likely be killed by the members of the victim’s family. It wasn’t until the middle of the 7th century B.C.E. that official laws were established and the concept of trial by a jury of peers began.

Draco and Solon

In 620 B.C.E., Draco, the first creator of laws in Ancient Athens, replaced these family feuds with a written code that was designed to be enforced by a court of law. The first law that Draco wrote established that the penalty for murder was exile out of the country.

The Athenian statesman Solon was appointed official lawgiver around 594 B.C.E. Solon wrote many of the laws that were used in Athenian courts. There were four types of laws: Tort Laws, Family Laws, Public Laws, and Procedural Laws.

Tort Laws

Tort laws covered situations where someone inflicted harm on an individual or to something that belonged to him or her. Draco and Solon wrote specific penalties for each different type of crime. The judgment for most crimes involved paying money to the victim as part of the penalty. For example, the penalty for a theft depended on the original amount that was stolen. If your dog bit your neighbor, you might be asked to give up your dog with a wooden security collar wrapped around its neck. In addition to these types of injury laws, Solon also wrote laws for the placement of houses, ditches, and water wells. There were even laws to determine the placement of bee hives and trees.

Family Laws

Solon wrote many family laws that provided guidelines for men, women, and their relationships. He wrote laws pertaining to marriage, adoption, and inheritances. The penalties for these laws were not determined in advance, but were set by the head of the family. The role of women in Greek law was very small. Women’s official guardian or kyrios was in charge. The kyrios was either a girl’s father or her husband. On occasion, women did make court appearances to present evidence in a murder case or to try to appeal to the emotions of the jury for pity.

Public Laws

Public laws established guidelines for how public functions and services should be conducted. For example, these types of laws would establish the export and import of goods and the amount of land a man could own.

Procedural Laws

Procedural laws told judges and juries how to use other laws. For example, a procedural law would outline how many witnesses there should be in a murder trial.

The Beginning of Courts and the Judicial System

In order to have the proper penalties carried out, the Athenians needed a system to convict and sentence the guilty. This was the beginning of the democratic court system we know today. There were no professional lawyers in those days. The court officials weren’t paid much and most trials were completed in the same day.

The court case consisted of one person who argued that an unlawful action had taken place and the other person who argued his defense. Today, depending on where you are in the world, a jury could have six to fifteen members. In Ancient Greece, the smallest number of members on a jury was 201 but the average jury contained 501 members. Some juries numbered at 2001 members or more. The idea of having so many jurors was to prevent the jury from being bribed. There were always an odd number of jurors so that there wouldn’t be a tie vote.

Who Could Be a Juror?

Women and men who were not citizens were not allowed to be jurors. Although men over the age of 18 could participate in making the laws, only those over age 30 were able to serve as jurors. Each day’s jury panel would be selected by drawing lots. On most days, far more citizens would show up hoping to serve on a jury than the number who were actually needed.

The jurors weren’t questioned about the case before the trial began. The quantity of jurors plus the fact that they were swearing by the gods Demeter, Apollo, and Zeus, guaranteed that they would remain impartial and cast their votes based on the law regardless of their feelings.

The People’s Court

Because they were run by amateurs, the courts were often very chaotic. Those individuals presenting the cases were not professional lawyers so they sometimes tried to appeal to the jury’s emotions rather than the specifics of the law. Juries were often out of control. Members of the jury would often shout at or insult those who were presenting their cases.

The Verdict

After both sides presented their arguments, the jury members cast their votes. They had two disks, one for each side of the case. There wasn’t any discussion among the panel members. Each jury member dropped his disk into an urn that was marked for the person he wished to receive his vote. Whoever received the most votes won the case.

If an individual was convicted of a crime, there was a second part of the trial where the jury voted which proposed punishment would be used. The decision of the jury was final. There were no appeals in the Ancient Athenian court.