Laws and Justice in Ancient Greece

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Socrates death
Poisoning was a common way of murdering people. King Mithridates VI of Pontus was obsessed with the idea of being assassinated by poison. In an efforts to create a defense against such attacks he took minute amounts of toxins to be build up a tolerance to them and developed a complex compound — called methridatium — comprised of 54 toxins, which was taken by him took regularly and leaders after him who feared assassinations.

According to a myth, Medea murdered the uncle of Jason (of the Argonauts fame) by giving him a bath in a deadly poison that the king thought was going to restore his lost youth. Agamemnon was also murdered in a bathtub. His wife struck him twice on the head with an ax after he returned home from the Trojan War.◂

Laws varied from city to city state. The scholar John Gager, told National Geographic, "With the possible exception of modern America, no society has been more notorious for litigation than classical Athens. Women were not normally allowed to testify in Athenian courts.

In ancient times men sometimes made a pledge by putting their hands on their testicles as if to say, "If I am lying you can cut off my balls." The practice of making a pledge on the Bible is said to have its roots in this practice. Burning garments were used to punish criminals in ancient Greece and Rome. Plato described gruesome tortures involving tunics soaked in pitch. Many sentenced to death were poisoned. Excavations have revealed thimble-size terra cotta vessels in which executioners measured doses of hemlock.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

See Curse Tablets Under Superstitions Under Religion

Ancient Greek Citizens

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Ostrakon Megacles
Beginning in the 7th century B.C., ordinary people were freed from the bonds of slavery, debt and serfdom to wealthy aristocrats. "I took away the mortgage stones stuck in earth's breast," wrote Solon. “And she, who was a slave before, is now free."

Most Greek citizens were landowners although the criteria for citizenship varied from city-state to city-state. In Sparta citizens had to be at least thirty and unanimously approved by the existing citizenry. Some states were democracies where citizens voted for city-state magistrates and passed laws. Other were oligarchies or constitutional governments.

Citizens had the right to vote, express their opinions, and participate in policy decisions in the assembly on matters like taxation and war. In wartime citizens were expected to serve as soldiers. In peacetime they were obliged to show up and serve as members of the assembly and as judges. Any citizen who was over 30 could run for office. Women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens. Citizenship was inherited by offspring of two Athenian citizens. Private citizens not part of the ruling class were called “ idiots” .

True representative government was something that never occurred to the ancient Greeks. Serfdom was also passed down from generation to generation. Their labor freed the land owners to make war among themselves and establish philosophy and the arts.

Good and Bad Side of Greek Democracy

Mary Beard wrote in the New Statesman, “In 440BC, a few months after his Antigone won first prize at the Athenian drama festival, Sophocles served as one of the commanding officers of an Athenian task force that sailed off to put down a rebellion on the island of Samos. The inhabitants had decided to break away from Athens's empire - the network of Athenian satellite states spread all over the eastern Mediterranean - and they had to be brought back into the fold. The irony was that a few decades earlier, Athens had led Greece to victory against a vast Persian invasion; now, the Athenians had imposed their own tight control over their former allies (which may have left some wondering whether conquest by the Persians might have been the better option). [Source: Mary Beard, New Statesman, October 14, 2010]

Ostrakon against Melakles,
son of Hyppokrates
"For modern historians with a rose-tinted view of ancient Athenian democracy, the military command of Sophocles counts as a feather in the Athenian cap. The guiding principle of this system was that every citizen should play a full part in political, military and civic life; there were to be no bystanders. By the middle of the 5th century BC, most jobs - from those on the city council to executive officers and juries - were assigned by lot to give everyone an equal chance of running the city. Admittedly, Sophocles's command was one of the very few military offices still assigned by election (not even the Athenians were wide-eyed enough to draw their generals out of a hat), but having a dramatist who was also a general fits nicely with the spirit of their politics. Their slogans were all about equality: citizens were equal in power and equal before the law and had an equal chance of getting their voice heard.

"None of this is bad, as democratic aspirations go. In fact, most modern political systems could learn something from Athens. But there is a darker side to this democracy. Part of that darkness is well known. Athens may have been a city in which every citizen was equal, but those equal citizens were a tiny minority of the population: perhaps 30,000 men out of 250,000 inhabitants altogether. The vast majority - slaves, women and immigrants - were totally excluded from the political process. Ancient Athenian politics was more an exclusive gentleman's club than a democracy in our terms. Even the autocratic Romans welcomed immigrants more warmly than democratic Athens.

"But the case of Sophocles raises other issues. The campaign to regain control of Samos was a brutal piece of imperial control: the local leaders in Samos had wanted to get out of Athens's orbit and the Athenians had wanted to keep them in. Not unlike some sections of the modern United States, Athens might deny an overtly imperialist agenda but it pursued regime change and the imposition of democracy wherever it suited Athenian interests."

Lawyers and Jurors in Ancient Greece

In the 4th century B.C. , Athenian jurors cast their votes in terra-cotta ballot boxes. The ballots, stamped "official ballot," resembled metal tops. Each juror was given two ballots: a solid one represented innocent and a hollow one represented guilty. The ballots were made in such a way that they could be deposited in the ballot box without any one seeing the juror's choice.

The first lawyers were 5th century B.C. “ logographoi”, professional Athenian speech writers who were trained in rhetoric and used their persuasive powers to write speeches to help defendants argue cases before a magistrate, to prepare the details of the case, to advise their clients which courts to use, and to come up with a strategy. They differed from modern lawyers however in that they didn't argue the cases themselves for their clients.

Describing a young lawyer in action, the satirical dramatist Aristophanes wrote: "We take our stand before the bench...Your youngster opens fire by discharging a verbal volley. Then he drags up some poor Methuselah and cross-examines him, baiting word traps, tearing, snaring and curdling him. The old fellow mumbles through his toothless gums and goes off with his case lost." Describing another lawyer in “ Clouds” , Aristophanes wrote: he was a "lawbook on legs, who can snoop like a beagle,/a double-faced, lethal-tongued legal eagle."

Athenian lawyers used many tactics well-known modern attorneys: They raised innumerable facts and details to bolster their own case and obscure the main points of their opponents arguments; they brought in weeping wives and children to solicit sympathy. A judge in one of Aristophanes plays said: "There isn't a form of flattery they don't pour into a jury's ear. And some try pleading poverty and giving me hard luck stories...Some crack jokes to get me to laugh and forget I've got it in for them. And, if I prove immune to all these, they'll right away drag up their babes by the hand." In the same play a judge hears a case concerning a dog accused of stealing cheese from a kitchen. The dog wins acquittal by bring his yowling pups to the stand.

Courts in Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “The Athenians have other law courts as well, which are not so famous. We have the Parabystum (Thrust aside) and the Triangle; the former is in an obscure part of the city, and in it the most trivial cases are tried; the latter is named from its shape. The names of Green Court and Red Court, due to their colors, have lasted down to the present day. The largest court, to which the greatest numbers come, is called Heliaea. One of the other courts that deal with bloodshed is called "At Palladium," into which are brought cases of involuntary homicide. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

ruins of the Athens Agora Law Court

“All are agreed that Demophon was the first to be tried there, but as to the nature of the charge accounts differ. It is reported that after the capture of Troy Diomedes was returning home with his fleet when night overtook them as in their voyage they were off Phalerum. The Argives landed, under the impression that it was hostile territory, the darkness preventing them from seeing that it was Attica. Thereupon they say that Demophon, he too being unaware of the facts and ignorant that those who had landed were Argives, attacked them and, having killed a number of them, went off with the Palladium. An Athenian, however, not seeing before him in the dark, was knocked over by the horse of Demophon, trampled upon and killed. Whereupon Demophon was brought to trial, some say by the relatives of the man who was trampled upon, others say by the Argive commonwealth.

“At Delphinium are tried those who claim that they have committed justifiable homicide, the plea put forward by Theseus when he was acquitted, after having killed Pallas, who had risen in revolt against him, and his sons. Before Theseus was acquitted it was the established custom among all men for the shedder of blood to go into exile, or, if he remained, to be put to a similar death. The Court in the Prytaneum, as it is called, where they try iron and all similar inanimate things, had its origin, I believe, in the following incident. It was when Erechtheus was king of Athens that the ox-slayer first killed an ox at the altar of Zeus Polieus. Leaving the axe where it lay he went out of the land into exile, and the axe was forthwith tried and acquitted, and the trial has been repeated year by year down to the present. Furthermore, it is also said that inanimate objects have on occasion of their own accord inflicted righteous retribution upon men, of this the scimitar of Cambyses affords the best and most famous instance.1 Near the sea at the Peiraeus is Phreattys. Here it is that men in exile, when a further charge has been brought against them in their absence, make their defense on a ship while the judges listen on land. The legend is that Teucer first defended himself in this way before Telamon, urging that he was guiltless in the matter of the death of Ajax. Let this account suffice for those who are interested to learn about the law courts.

In 2012, an archaeologist said he found what he thought was a murder court in Athens. Yannis Stavrakakis wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Next to the Acropolis' south slope, archaeologists have discovered possible evidence of one of ancient Athens’ murder courts. During several years of excavation, archaeologist Xristos Kontoxristos uncovered artifacts dating from the prehistoric through late Roman periods. He was particularly intrigued by a pedestal formed of sculpted lions’ legs, upon which sat two marble slabs forming a very large table or podium that he dated to the late Classical or early Hellenistic period (about 400–300 B.C.). Near the podium, Kontoxristos found a piece of copper of the type that citizens may have used to record legal verdicts. Kontoxristos suggests that the podium may be part of a complex that includes a very large building foundation and portico dating to the same period—first identified in the 1960s as the Palladium. According to second-century A.D. geographer Pausanias, the Palladium was the court in which cases of involuntary homicide and killing of noncitizens were tried. Kontoxristos stresses that the identification of pedestal and building is not definitive, but he hopes to uncover additional evidence. [Source: Yannis Stavrakakis, Archaeology , Volume 65 Number 4, July/August 2012]

Trial of Socrates

In Socrates trial there were no lawyers and Socrates defended himself, saying simply he was a humble seeker of truth. One by one his accusers, limited by the time established by a water clock, addressed the 501 member jury. His chief accuser, Meletus, was. Socrates said, “an unknown youth with straight hair and a skimpy beard.”

Socrates, then 70 years old, "gave a bumbling performance. He was no orator" said Historian M.I. Finley. In the trial, Socrates said that people were threatened by his self appointed role as "the gadfly of Athens." Socrates's questioning of the existence of the gods, cross-examination of conventional wisdom and criticizing of the government had won him many enemies. Some say he was used as a scapegoat for Athens' loss in the Peloponnesian War.

The jury found Socrates guilty by a vote of 281 to 220 and advocated the death penalty. Socrates was given an opportunity to suggest an alternative punishment. He said he deserved to be treated like an Olympic champion and receive a life-time pension. The jury was not amused and he was sentencing to die by drinking a cup off hemlock.

Accountability, Corruption and Bribes in Ancient Greece

John McK. Campo, a classic professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, wrote in the New York Times: “The Athenians were better than we are at enforcing accountability in their public officials. They had an examination to check the qualifications of an individual before entering office (a "dokimasia” ), but they also had a formal rendering of accounts at the end of a term of office (“euthynai”) and ostracism in the meantime.”

Legislators were wined and dined at public expense using official drinking cups and tableware that one can see today in Athens.

Bribe-taking was not taken lightly in ancient Greece. In “Laws” Plato said that it merited “disgrace”. In Athens it was grounds for having one’s citizenship revoked. Demosthenes was found guilty of accepting bribes in 324 B.C. and was fined 50 talens — which by some estimated is equal to $20 million in today’s money — and ultimately got off with being exiled. Other officials were executed for taking bribes, University of Texas classic professor Michael Gagarin told the New York Times, “Bribery was taken very seriously and certainly could lead to capital punishment.”

Tyrants and Ostracism in Ancient Greece

ostracism token

The first Greek "tyrants" were not tyrants as we think of them today. They were rulers who ousted local oligarchies with the support of the people. On one level they raised expectations of accountability but on other they were often corrupted by power and evolved in despots, who themselves were overthrown with the support of the people.

Politicians who fell out of favor could be ostracized — exiled for 10 years — by a vote of the assembled citizens, who cast their ballots by scratching the name of the ostracized person on a shard of pottery, or “ ostrakon” (source of the word ostracize) used as ballots. The measure was set up not to punishment in any harsh or cruel way; the idea was simply to remove them from the political arena and public life. Many prominent Athenian politicians were ostracized.

Ostracism was introduced by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C. after exiling the tyrant Hippias, reportedly with the aim of preventing the emergence of a dictator who might seize powerful unlawfully by whipping up public discontent. It was used from 487 to 417 B.C., which some historians have pointed out was when Athens was at its peak, According to the procedure, citizens of ancient Athens were instructed to gather once a year and asked if they knew of anyone aiming to be a tyrant. If a simple majority voted yes the members were dispersed and told to come back in two months time and used an “ostrakon” to scratch the name of the citizen whom they deemed most likely to become a tyrant. The person who received the most votes in excess of a set number was expelled from the city-state for 10 years. This simple act is regarded by some historians as the foundation of democracy in ancient Athens.

Pottery shards that were used for secret votes have been found by archaeologists. Among the names that have been found on ostrakons are Pericles, Aristides and Thucydides. Pericles was nearly ostracized over opposition to his plan to build the Parthenon. A pile of 190 shards with the name Themosticles written on them by 12 individuals found in a well and is believed to be one of the first examples of vote rigging.

There were abuses of the system, notibly when strong politicians wanted to oust rivals. Pericles used the system to get rid of his main challenger, Thucydides. Ostracism itself was dropped when the powerful politicians Alcibiades and Nikias ganged to on Hyperbolos, a rival to both of them, and had him exiled.

Defense Against a Charge of Black Magic

The Apologia (Apulei Platonici pro Se de Magia) is the version of the defense presented in Sabratha, Libya, in A.D. 158-159, before the proconsul Claudius Maximus, by Apuleius accused of the crime of magic. Apuleius was a priest and an initiate in several Greco-Roman mysteries, including the Dionysian Mysteries. In his defense he said: “For my part, Claudius Maximus, and you, gentlemen who sit beside him on the bench, I regarded it as a foregone conclusion that Sicinius Aemilianus would for sheer lack of any real ground for accusation cram his indictment with mere vulgar abuse; for the old rascal is notorious for his unscrupulous audacity, and, further, launched forth on his task of bringing me to trial in your court before he had given a thought to the line his prosecution should pursue. Now while the most innocent of men may be the victim of false accusation, only the criminal can have his guilt brought home to him. It is this thought that gives me special confidence, but I have further ground for self-congratulation in the fact that I have you for my judge on an occasion when it is my privilege to have the opportunity of clearing philosophy of the aspersions cast upon her by the uninstructed and of proving my own innocence. Nevertheless these false charges are on the face of them serious enough, and the suddenness with which they have been improvised makes them the more difficult to refute. [Source: Apuleius, translated by H. E. Butler, MIT]

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Curse inscription
“For you will remember that it is only four or five days since his advocates of malice prepense attacked me with slanderous accusations, and began to charge me with practice of the black art and with the murder of my step-son Pontianus. I was at the moment totally unprepared for such a charge, and was occupied in defending an action brought by the brothers Granius against my wife Pudentilla. I perceived that these charges were brought forward not so much in a serious spirit as to gratify my opponents' taste for wanton slander. I therefore straightway challenged them, not once only, but frequently and emphatically, to proceed with their accusation...The result was that Aemilianus, perceiving that you, Maximus, not to speak of others, were strongly moved by what had occurred, and that his words had created a serious scandal, began to be alarmed and to seek for some safe refuge from the consequences of his rashness. “Therefore as soon as he was compelled to set his name to the indictment, he conveniently forgot Pontianus, his own brother's son, of whose death he had been continually accusing me only a few days previously. He made absolutely no mention of the death of his young kinsman; he abandoned this most serious charge, but — to avoid the appearance of having totally abandoned his mendacious accusations — he selected, as the sole support of his indictment, the charge of magic — a charge with which it is easy to create a prejudice against the accused, but which it is hard to prove....

“I rely, Maximus, on your sense of justice and on my own innocence, but I hope that in this trial also we shall hear the voice of Lollius raised impulsively in my defence; for Aemilianus is deliberately accusing a man whom he knows to be innocent, a course which comes the more easy to him, since, as I have told you, he has already been convicted of lying in a most important case, heard before the Prefect of the city. Just as a good man studiously avoids the repetition of a sin once committed, so men of depraved character repeat their past offence with increased confidence, and, I may add, the more often they do so, the more openly they display their impudence. For honour is like a garment; the older it gets, the more carelessly it is worn. I think it my duty, therefore, in the interest of my own honour, to refute all my opponent's slanders before I come to the actual indictment itself.

“For I am pleading not merely my own cause, but that of philosophy as well, philosophy, whose grandeur is such that she resents even the slightest slur cast upon her perfection as though it were the most serious accusation. Knowing this, Aemilianus' advocates, only a short time ago, poured forth with all their usual loquacity a flood of drivelling accusations, many of which were specially invented for the purpose of blackening my character, while the remainder were such general charges as the uninstructed are in the habit of levelling at philosophers. It is true that we may regard these accusations as mere interested vapourings, bought at a price and uttered to prove their shamelessness worthy of its hire.

“It is a recognized practice on the part of professional accusers to let out the venom of their tongues to another's hurt; nevertheless, if only in my own interest, I must briefly refute these slanders, lest I, whose most earnest endeavour it is to avoid incurring the slightest spot or blemish to my fair fame, should seem, by passing over some of their more ridiculous charges, to have tacitly admitted their truth, rather than to have treated them with silent contempt. For a man who has any sense of honour or self-respect must needs — such at least is my opinion — feel annoyed when he is thus abused, however falsely. Even those whose conscience reproaches them with some crime, are strongly moved to anger, when men speak ill of them, although they have been accustomed to such ill report ever since they became evildoers. And even though others say naught of their crimes, they are conscious enough that such charges may at any time deservedly be brought against them. It is therefore doubly vexatious to the good and innocent man when charges are undeservedly brought against him which he might with justice bring against others. For his ears are unused and strange to ill report, and he is so accustomed to hear himself praised that insult is more than he can bear.”

Herodotus on the Trial by Ordeal of the Getae

Zalmoxix Aleksandrovo, a Thracian Getae king

Herodotus wrote in Histories IV, 93-6: The Getae “pretend to be immortal’ and are “the bravest and most just Thracians of all. Their belief in their immortality is as follows: they believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him. Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs; and this is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men; others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and swing and toss him up on to the spear-points. If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favor; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message. Furthermore, when there is thunder and lightning these same Thracians shoot arrows skyward as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own. [Source: Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920]

“I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontus, that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; [2] then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. [Source: Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920]

“While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him. Now I neither disbelieve nor entirely believe the tale about Salmoxis and his underground chamber; but I think that he lived many years before Pythagoras; and as to whether there was a man called Salmoxis or this is some deity native to the Getae, let the question be dismissed.”

Draco and His Law Code

Draco's image in the US Supreme Court Library

Draco produced a code of laws for Athens in which some relatively minor crimes were punished with death. His form of absolutism gave birth to the term "Draconian." Draco was popular however. In 590 B.C., so many well wishers showed up to see him in an Athens stadium he was smothered under a mountain of cloaks and hats thrown in by fans. Around 632 B.C., Kylon, an aristocrat and former winner at the Olympic games, tried to wrest power from the aristocratic party that ruled Athens and become a sole tyrant in part by fomenting a rebellion of farmers and small land owners, many of whom had lost their land to wealthy landlords due to debts. At that time Athens had no written laws and the poor had no formal way of having injustices addressed. In an attempt to deal with these problems aristocrats asked Draco to create the First Law Code of Athens. This occurred around 620 B.C. and was preserved only by Aristotle in his book The Athenian Constitution. The laws remained in place until they were replaced by Solon’s laws.

Below are some examples from The Athenian Constitution: 1) political rights (in Athens) can only belong to those that carry weapons. These rights are especially for lower rank lords whereas in order for someone to be elected as a general or head of cavalry he should have a fortune of over 100 mnes and have a legitimate Athenian wife and children over 10 years old. [Source: translated by Antonios Loizides, Ancient History Encyclopedia, June 12, 2015]

“2) He who kills another Athenian, without a purpose or by accident should be banished from Athens for ever. If the killer apologizes to the family of the murdered man and the family accepts the apology, then the murderer may stay in Athens.

“3) A relative of a murder victim, can hunt and take into custody the murderer and thus hand him to the authorities where he will be judged. If a relative kills the murderer he will not be allowed to enter the Athenian Forum (agora), or participate in competitions or set foot into sacred places.”

Solon’s Laws

Solon (638-559 B.C.) is credited with codifying Greek laws and laying the foundation for Athenian democracy. A poet and a statesman, he became the ruler of Athens and replaced a dictatorial form government controlled by the aristocracy with a limited democracy made of wealthy citizens. He passed laws to prevent debtors from being enslaved, helped establish a sort of constitution and made it possible for all citizens to become members of the assembly.

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Solon”: Amongst his “laws, one is very peculiar and surprising, which disfranchises all who stand neuter in a sedition; for it seems he would not have any one remain insensible and regardless of the public good, and securing his private affairs, glory that he has no feeling of the distempers of his country; but at once join with the good party and those that have the right upon their side, assist and venture with them, rather than keep out of harm's way and watch who would get the better. It seems an absurd and foolish law which permits an heiress, if her lawful husband fail her, to take his nearest kinsman; yet some say this law was well contrived against those who, conscious of their own unfitness, yet, for the sake of the portion, would match with heiresses, and make use of law to put a violence upon nature; for now, since she can quit him for whom she pleases, they would either abstain from such marriages, or continue them with disgrace, and suffer for their covetousness and designed affront; it is well done, moreover, to confine her to her husband's nearest kinsman, that the children may be of the same family. Agreeable to this is the law that the bride and bridegroom shall be shut into a chamber, and eat a quince together; and that the husband of an heiress shall consort with her thrice a month; for though there be no children, yet it is an honour and due affection which an husband ought to pay to a virtuous, chaste wife; it takes off all petty differences, and will not permit their little quarrels to proceed to a rupture. [Source: Plutarch, “Life of Solon,” A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

Solon bas-relief in the US House of Representatives

“In all other marriages he forbade dowries to be given; the wife was to have three suits of clothes, a little inconsiderable household stuff, and that was all; for he would not have marriages contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children. When the mother of Dionysius desired him to marry her to one of his citizens, "Indeed," said he, "by my tyranny I have broken my country's laws, but cannot put a violence upon those of nature by an unseasonable marriage." Such disorder is never to be suffered in a commonwealth, nor such unseasonable and unloving and unperforming marriages, which attain no due end or fruit; any provident governor or lawgiver might say to an old man that takes a young wife what is said to Philoctetes in the tragedy-

“"Truly, in a fit state thou to marry! and if he find a young man, with a rich and elderly wife, growing fat in his place, like the partridges, remove him to a young woman of proper age. And of this enough. Another commendable law of Solon's is that which forbids men to speak evil of the dead; for it is pious to think the deceased sacred, and just, not to meddle with those that are gone, and politic, to prevent the perpetuity of discord. He likewise forbade them to speak evil of the living in the temples, the courts of justice, the public offices, or at the games, or else to pay three drachmas to the person, and two to the public. For never to be able to control passion shows a weak nature and ill-breeding; and always to moderate it is very hard, and to some impossible. And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose.

“He is likewise much commended for his law concerning wills; before him none could be made, but all the wealth and estate of the deceased belonged to his family; but he by permitting them, if they had no children to bestow it on whom they pleased, showed that he esteemed friendship a stronger tie than kindred, affection than necessity; and made every man's estate truly his own. Yet he allowed not all sorts of legacies, but those only which were not extorted by the frenzy of a disease, charms, imprisonment, force, or the persuasions of a wife; with good reason thinking that being seduced into wrong was as bad as being forced, and that between deceit and necessity, flattery and compulsion, there was little difference, since both may equally suspend the exercise of reason.

“He regulated the walks, feasts, and mourning of the women and took away everything that was either unbecoming or immodest; when they walked abroad, no more than three articles of dress were allowed them; an obol's worth of meat and drink; and no basket above a cubit high; and at night they were not to go about unless in a chariot with a torch before them. Mourners tearing themselves to raise pity, and set wailings, and at one man's funeral to lament for another, he forbade. To offer an ox at the grave was not permitted, nor to bury above three pieces of dress with the body, or visit the tombs of any besides their own family, unless at the very funeral; most of which are likewise forbidden by our laws, but this is further added in ours, that those that are convicted of extravagance in their mournings are to be punished as soft and effeminate by the censors of women.

“Observing the city to be filled with persons that flocked from all parts into Attica for security of living, and that most of the country was barren and unfruitful, and that traders at sea import nothing to those that could give them nothing in exchange, he turned his citizens to trade, and made a law that no son be obliged to relieve a father who had not bred him up to any calling. It is true, Lycurgus, having a city free from all strangers, and land, according to Euripides- "Large for large hosts, for twice their number much," and, above all, an abundance of labourers about Sparta, who should not be left idle, but be kept down with continual toil and work, did well to take off his citizens from laborious and mechanical occupations, and keep them to their arms, and teach them only the art of war. But Solon, fitting his laws to the state of things, and not making things to suit his laws, and finding the ground scarce rich enough to maintain the husbandmen, and altogether incapable of feeding an unoccupied and leisured multitude, brought trades into credit, and ordered the Areopagites to examine how every man got his living, and chastise the idle. But that law was yet more rigid which, as Heraclides Ponticus delivers, declared the sons of unmarried mothers not obliged to relieve their fathers; for he that avoids the honourable form of union shows that he does not take a woman for children, but for pleasure, and thus gets his just reward, and has taken away from himself every title to upbraid his children, to whom he has made their very birth a scandal and reproach.

Solon’s Laws on Women, Wells and Oil

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Solon”: “Solon's laws in general about women are his strangest; for he permitted any one to kill an adulterer that found him in the act- but if any one forced a free woman, a hundred drachmas was the fine; if he enticed her, twenty; except those that sell themselves openly, that is, harlots, who go openly to those that hire them. He made it unlawful to sell a daughter or a sister, unless, being yet unmarried, she was found wanton. Now it is irrational to punish the same crime sometimes very severely and without remorse, and sometimes very lightly, and as it were in sport, with a trivial fine; unless there being little money then in Athens, scarcity made those mulcts the more grievous punishment. In the valuation for sacrifices, a sheep and a bushel were both estimated at a drachma; the victor in the Isthmian games was to have for reward an hundred drachmas; the conqueror in the Olympian, five hundred; he that brought a wolf, five drachmas; for a whelp, one; the former sum, as Demetrius the Phalerian asserts, was the value of an ox, the latter, of a sheep. The prices which Solon, in his sixteenth table, sets on choice victims, were naturally far greater; yet they, too, are very low in comparison of the present. The Athenians were, from the beginning, great enemies to wolves, their fields being better for pasture than corn. Some affirm their tribes did not take their names from the sons of Ion, but from the different sorts of occupation that they followed; the soldiers were called Hoplitae, the craftsmen Ergades, and, of the remaining two, the farmers Gedeontes, and the shepherds and graziers Aegicores. [Source: Plutarch, “Life of Solon,” A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

Solonic constitution

“Since the country has but few rivers, lakes, or large springs, and many used wells which they had dug, there was a law made, that, where there was a public well within a hippicon, that is, four furlongs, all should draw at that; but when it was farther off, they should try and procure a well of their own; and if they had dug ten fathoms deep and could find no water, they had liberty to fetch a pitcherful of four gallons and a half in a day from their neighbours'; for he thought it prudent to make provision against want, but not to supply laziness. He showed skill in his orders about planting, for any one that would plant another tree was not to set it within five feet of his neighbour's field; but if a fig or an olive not within nine; for their roots spread farther, nor can they be planted near all sorts of trees without damage, for they draw away the nourishment, and in some cases are noxious by their effluvia. He that would dig a pit or a ditch was to dig it at the distance of its own depth from his neighbour's ground; and he that would raise stocks of bees was not to place them within three hundred feet of those which another had already raised.

“He permitted only oil to be exported, and those that exported any other fruit, the archon was solemnly to curse, or else pay an hundred drachmas himself; and this law was written in his first table, and, therefore, let none think it incredible, as some affirm, that the exportation of figs was once unlawful, and the informer against the delinquents called a sycophant. He made a law, also, concerning hurts and injuries from beasts, in which he commands the master of any dog that bit a man to deliver him up with a log about his neck, four and a half feet long; a happy device for men's security. The law concerning naturalizing strangers is of doubtful character; he permitted only those to be made free of Athens who were in perpetual exile from their own country, or came with their whole family to trade there; this he did, not to discourage strangers, but rather to invite them to a permanent participation in the privileges of the government; and, besides, he thought those would prove the more faithful citizens who had been forced from their own country, or voluntarily forsook it. The law of public entertainment (parasitein is his name for it) is also peculiarly Solon's; for if any man came often, or if he that was invited refused, they were punished, for he concluded that one was greedy, the other a contemner of the state.

“All his laws he established for an hundred years, and wrote them on wooden tables or rollers, named axones, which might be turned round in oblong cases; some of their relics were in my time still to be seen in the Prytaneum, or common hall at Athens. These, as Aristotle states, were called cyrbes.”

Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.)

The Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) Is the most complete surviving Greek Law code. In Greek tradition, Crete was an early home of law. In the 19th Century, a law code from Gortyn on Crete was discovered, dealing fully with family relations and inheritance; less fully with tools, slightly with property outside of the household relations; slightly too, with contracts; but it contains no criminal law or procedure. This (still visible) inscription is the largest document of Greek law in existence (see above for its chance survival), but from other fragments we may infer that this inscription formed but a small fraction of a great code. Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Hellenistic World, Fordham University]

opening lines of the Law Code of Gortyn

“I. Whoever intends to bring suit in relation to a free man or slave, shall not take action by seizure before trial; but if he do seize him, let the judge fine him ten staters for the free man, five for the slave, and let him release him within three days. But if he do not release him, let the judge sentence him to a stater for a free man, a drachma for a slave, each day until he has released him. But if he deny that he made the seizure, the judge shall decide with oath, unless a witness testify. If one party contend that he is a free man, the other that he is a slave, those who testify that he is free shall be preferred. But if they testify either for both parties or for neither of the two, the judge shall render his decision by oath. But if the slave on account of whom the defendant was defeated take refuge in a temple, the defendant, summoning the plaintiff in the presence of two witnesses of age and free, shall point out the slave at the temple; but if he do not issue the summons or do not point him out, he shall pay what is written. And if he do not return him, even within the year, he shall pay in addition to the sums stated one-fold. But if he die while the suit is progressing, he shall pay his value one-fold.

“XI. If a slave going to a free woman shall wed her, the children shall be free; but if the free woman to a slave, the children shall be slaves; and if from the same mother free and slave children be born, if the mother die and there be property, the free children shall have it; otherwise her free relatives shall succeed to it.

“XVIII. Whatever is written for the judge to decide according to witnesses or by oath of denial, he shall decide as is written, but touching other matters shall decide under oath according to matters in controversy. If a son have given property to his mother, or a husband to his wife, as was written before these writings, it shall not be illegal; but hereafter gifts shall be made as here written.

Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) On Rape and Adultery

“II. If one commit rape on a free man or woman, he shall pay 100 staters, and if on the son or daughter of an apetairos ten, and if a slave on a free man or woman, he shall pay double, and if a free man on a male or female serf five drachmas, and if a serf on a male or female serf, five staters. If one debauch a female house-slave by force he shall pay two staters, but if one already debauched, in the daytime, an obol, but if at night, two obols. If one tries to seduce a free woman, he shall pay ten staters, if a witness testify. . .

“III. If one be taken in adultery with a free woman in her father=s, brother=s, or husband=s house, he shall pay 100 staters, but if in another=s house, fifty; and with the wife of an apetairos, ten. But if a slave with a free woman, he shall pay double, but if a slave with a slave=s wife, five. . .

Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) On Divorce and Adoption

the walls in Crete that contain the Law Code of Gortyn

“IV. If a husband and wife be divorced, she shall have her own property that she came with to her husband, and the half of the income if it be from her own property, and whatever she has woven, the half, whatever it may be, and five staters, if her husband be the cause of her dismissal; but if the husband deny that he was the cause, the judge shall decide. . .

“VI. If a woman bear a child while living apart from her husband after divorce, she shall have it conveyed to the husband at his house, in the presence of three witnesses; if he do not receive the child, it shall be in the power of the mother to bring up or expose. . .

“XVII. Adoption may take place whence one will; and the declaration shall be made in the market-place when the citizens are gathered. If there be no legitimate children, the adopted shall received all the property as for legitimates. If there be legitimate children, the adopted son shall receive with the males the adopted son shall have an equal share. If the adopted son shall die without legitimate children, the property shall return to the pertinent relatives of the adopter. A woman shall not adopt, nor a person under puberty.

Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) On Property and Inheritance

“V. If a man die, leaving children, if his wife wish, she may marry, taking her own property and whatever her husband may have given her, according to what is written, in the presence of three witnesses of age and free. But if she carry away anything belonging to her children she shall be answerable. And if he leaves her childless, she shall have her own property and whatever she has woven, the half, and of the produce on hand in possession of the heirs, a portion, and whatever her husband has given her as is written. If a wife shall die childless, the husband shall return to her heirs her property, and whatever she has woven the half, and of the produce, if it be from her own property, the half. If a female serf be separated from a male serf while alive or in case of his death, she shall have her own property, but if she carry away anything else she shall be answerable.

“VII. The father shall have power over his children and the division of the property, and the mother over her property. As long as they live, it shall not be necessary to make a division. But if a father die, the houses in the city and whatever there is in the houses in which a serf residing in the country does not live, and the sheep and the larger animals which do not belong to the serf, shall belong to the sons; but all the rest of the property shall be divided fairly, and the sons, howsoever many there be, shall receive two parts each, and the daughters one part each. The mother's property also shall be divided, in case she dies, as is written for the father's. And if there should be no property but a house, the daughters shall receive their share as is written. And if a father while living may wish to give to his married daughter, let him give according to what is written, but not more. . .

“X. As long as a father lives, no one shall purchase any of his property from a son, or take it on mortgage; but whatever the son himself may have acquired or inherited, he may sell if he will; nor shall the father sell or pledge the property of his children, whatever they have themselves acquired or succeeded to, nor the husband that of his wife, nor the son that of the mother. . . If a mother die leaving children, the father shall be trustee of the mother's property, but he shall not sell or mortgage unless the children assent, being of age; and if anyone shall otherwise purchase or take on pledge the property, it shall still belong to the children; and to the purchaser or pledgor the seller or pledgee shall pay two-fold the value in damages. But if he wed another, the children shall have control of the mother's property.

“XIV. The heiress shall marry the brother of the father, the eldest of those living; and if there be more heiresses and brothers of the father, they shall marry the eldest in succession. . . But if he do not wish to marry the heiress, the relatives of the heiress shall charge him and the judge shall order him to marry her within two months; and if he do not marry, she shall marry the next eldest. If she do not wish to marry, the heiress shall have the house and whatever is in the house, but sharing the half of the remainder, she may marry another of her tribe, and the other half shall go to the eldest. . .

Law Code of Gortyn, 450 BC

“XVI. A son may give to a mother or a husband to a wife 100 staters or less, but not more; if he should give more, the relatives shall have the property. If anyone owing money, or under obligation for damages, or during the progress of a suit, should give away anything, unless the rest of his property be equal to the obligation, the gift shall be null and void. One shall not buy a man while mortgaged until the mortgagor release him. .

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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