Ancient Greek law

Ancient Greek law consists of the laws and legal institutions of Ancient Greece.

The existence of certain general principles of law is implied by the custom of settling a difference between two Greek states, or between members of a single state, by resorting to external arbitration. The general unity of Greek law shows mainly in the laws of inheritance and adoption, in laws of commerce and contract, and in the publicity uniformly given to legal agreements.[1]

While its older forms can be studied by the laws of Gortyn, its influence can be traced in legal documents preserved in Egyptian papyri and it may be recognized as a consistent whole in its ultimate relations to Roman law in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, with scholars in the discipline of comparative law comparing Greek law with both Roman law and the primitive institutions of the Germanic nations.[1]

Historical Sources

There is no systematic collection of Greek laws, thus the knowledge the earliest notions of the subject is derived from the Homeric poems. The works of Theophrastus 'On the Laws', included a recapitulation of the laws of various barbaric as well as of the Grecian states, yet only a few fragments of it remain.[1]


Incidental illustrations of the Athenian law are found in the Laws of Plato, who describes it without exercising influence on its actual practice. Aristotle criticized Plato's Laws in his Politics, in which he reviews the work of certain early Greek lawgivers. The treatise on the Constitution of Athens includes an account of the jurisdiction of the various public officials and of the mechanics of the law courts, and thus enables historians to dispense with the second-hand testimony of grammarians and scholiasts who derived their information from that treatise.[1]

Other evidence for ancient Athenian law comes from statements made in the extant speeches of the Attic orators, and from surviving inscriptions.[1]

Procedural laws


Historians consider the Ancient Athenian law broadly procedural and concerned with the administration of justice rather than substantive.[2] Athenian laws are typically written in the form where if an offense is made, then the offender will be punished according to said law,[3] thus they are more concerned with the legal actions which should be undertaken by the prosecutor, rather than strictly defining which acts are prosecutable.[4] Often, this would have resulted in juries having to decide whether the offense said to have been committed was in fact a violation of the law in question.[5]

Development of Ancient Greek law

The earliest Greek law to survive is the Dreros inscription, a seventh century BC law concerning the role of kosmos.[6] This and other early laws (such as those which survive in only fragmentary form from Tiryns) are primarily concerned not with regulating people's behaviour, but in regulating the power of officials within the community.[7] These laws were probably set up by the élites in order to control the distribution of power among themselves.[8]


One of the earliest dateable events in Athenian history is the creation of the Draconian law code, c.620 BC.[9] We know little about Draco and the code, with the homicide law being the only one known due to it surviving the Solonian reforms.[9] The law seems to have distinguished between premeditated and involuntary homicide, and provided for the reconciliation of the killer with the family of the dead man.[10] The homicide law of Draco was still in force in the fourth century.[10] Though the rest of the code is unknown, it was by Athenian tradition known to have been very harsh.[10]

The Athenian law codes set forth by Draco were completely reformed by Solon, who was the archon of Athens c.593 BC. Solon's reforms included the cancellation of debts and reforms to land ownership, as well as the abolition of slavery for those who were born Athenian.[11] However, attributing specific legal innovations and reforms to Solon and his successors is notoriously difficult because there was a tendency in ancient Athens to ascribe laws to Solon irrespective of the date of enactment.[12]

Courts and judicial system

Along with the official enforcement of the law in the courts in the Grecian states, justice and social cohesion were collectively enforced by society at large.[13] with informal collective justice often being targeted at elite offenders.[14]


Ancient Greek courts were cheap and run by laypeople. Court officials were paid little, if anything, and most trials were completed within a day, with private cases done even quicker. There were no court officials, no lawyers, and no official judges. A normal case consisted of two litigants, arguing if an unlawful act had been committed. The jury would decide whether the accused was guilty, and should he be guilty, what the punishment will be. In Athenian courts, the jury tended to be made of the common people, whereas litigants were mostly from the elites of society.[14]

In the Athenian legal system, the courts have been seen as a system for settling disputes and resolving arguments, rather than enforcing a coherent system of rules, rights and obligations.[15] The Prytaneion court was responsible for trialing random residents, animals, and inanimate objects for homicide, and it is assumed that it was in order to ensure that Athens was free of blood-guilt for the crime.[15]

The Athenian court system was dominated by men. The jury was all-male,[16] and it has been argued that the Athenian court seemed to have been remarkably unwilling to allow any female presence in the civic space of the lawcourt itself.[17]

Public and private cases

In Ancient Athens, there were two types of lawsuit. Public prosecutions, or graphai, were heard by juries of 501 or more, increasing in increments of 500 jurors, while private suits, or dikai, were heard by 201 or 401 jurors, depending on the amount of money at stake.[18] Juries were made up of men selected from a panel of 6,000 volunteers, who were selected annually and were required to be full citizens, aged over 30.[19] Juries were paid a small fee from the time of Pericles, which may have led to disproportionate numbers of poor and elderly citizens working on juries.[20]



In the Athenian legal system, there were no professional lawyers, though well-known speechwriters such as Demosthenes composed speeches which were delivered by, or on behalf of others. These speechwriters have been described as being as close as a function of a modern lawyer as the Athenian legal system would permit.[21]

It has been argued that the rhetorical and performative features evident in surviving Classical Athenian law court speeches are evidence that Athenian trials were essentially rhetorical struggles which were generally unconcerned with the strict applicability of the law.[22] It is also said that orators constructing stories played a much more significant role in Athenian court cases than those of the modern day, due to the lack of modern forensic and investigatory techniques which might provide other sources of evidence in the Athenian courtroom.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Sandys 1911, p. 501.
  2. ^ Carey 1998, p. 93.
  3. ^ Carey 1998, p. 95.
  4. ^ Carey 1998, p. 96.
  5. ^ Carey 1998, p. 99.
  6. ^ Osborne 2009, p. 174.
  7. ^ Osborne 2009, pp. 174-6.
  8. ^ Osborne 2009, p. 176.
  9. ^ a b Andrewes, p. 370.
  10. ^ a b c Andrewes, p. 371.
  11. ^ Andrewes, pp. 381–382.
  12. ^ Carey 1998, p. 106.
  13. ^ Forsdyke 2008, p. 6.
  14. ^ a b Forsdyke 2008, p. 7.
  15. ^ a b Davidson, James (1994). "Review of The Shape of Athenian Law by S.C. Todd". The Cambridge Law Journal. 53 (2): 384–385. doi:10.1017/s0008197300099104.
  16. ^ Gagarin 2003, p. 204.
  17. ^ Goldhill, Simon (1994). "Representing Democracy: Women at the Great Dionysia". In Osborne, Robin; Hornblower, Simon (eds.). Ritual, Finance, Politics: Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis. Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press. p. 360.
  18. ^ Hamel 2003, pp. 141–142.
  19. ^ Hamel 2003, p. 142.
  20. ^ Hamel 2003, p. 143.
  21. ^ Cronin, James F. (1939). "Review of J.H. Vince "Demosthenes Against Meidias, Androtion, Aristocrates, Timocrates, Aristogeiton"". The Classical Journal. 34 (8): 491–492.
  22. ^ Gagarin 2003, pp. 198–199.
  23. ^ Gagarin 2003, p. 206.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSandys, John Edwin (1911). "Greek Law" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 501–507. This describes the topic in more procedural detail, and has a large set of citations.
  • Carey, Christopher (1998). "The Shape of Athenian Laws". The Classical Quarterly. 48 (1). doi:10.1093/cq/48.1.93.
  • Andrewes, A. "The Growth of the Athenian State". In Boardman, John; Hammond, N.G.L (eds.). The Cambridge Ancient History Volume III, Part 3: The Expansion of the Greek World, Eighth to Sixth Centuries B.C. ISBN 0-521-23447-6.
  • Forsdyke, Sara (2008). "Street Theatre and Popular Justice in Ancient Greece: Shaming, Stoning, and Starving Offenders Inside and Outside the Courts". Past and Present. 201. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtn014.
  • Gagarin, Michael (2003). "Telling Stories in Athenian Law". Transactions of the American Philological Association. 133 (2). doi:10.1353/apa.2003.0015.
  • Hamel, Debra (2003). Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  • Osborne, Robin (2009). Greece in the Making: 1200-479 BC (2 ed.). London: Routledge.

Further reading

  • Blanshard, Alastair J. L. 2014. "The Permeable Spaces of the Athenian Law-court." Space, place, and landscape in ancient Greek literature and culture. Edited by Kate Gilhuly, 240-275. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Buis, Emiliano. 2014. "Law and Greek Comedy." The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy. Edited by Michael Fontaine, 321-339. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Finley, Moses I. 1975. "The Problem of the Unity of Greek Law." In The Use and Abuse of History. By Moses I. Finley, 134–152, 236–237. London: Viking.
  • Gagarin, Michael and David Cohen, eds. 2005. The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Gagarin, Michael. 2008. Writing Greek Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Harris, Edward M., and Lene Rubinstein. 2004. The Law and the Courts in Ancient Greece. London: Duckworth.
  • MacDowell, Douglas M. 1986. Spartan Law. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
  • Schaps, David M. 1979. Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.
  • Schwartz, Saundra. 2016. From Bedroom to Courtroom: Law and Justice in the Greek Novel. Eelde: Barkhuis.
  • Sealey, Raphael. 1994. The Justice of the Greeks. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Agyrrhius (Greek: Ἀγύρριος) was a native of Collytus in Attica, whom Andocides calls "the noble and the good" (τὸν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν) after being in prison many years for embezzlement of public money. He obtained around 395 BC the restoration of the Theorica, and also tripled the pay for attending the assembly, though he reduced the allowance previously given to the comic writers. By this expenditure of the public revenue Agyrrhius became so popular that he was appointed general (strategos) in 389.


A Delphinion (ancient Greek: Δελφίνιον) found in ancient Greece, was a temple of Apollo Delphinios ("Apollo of the womb") also known as "Delphic Apollo" or "Pythian Apollo", the principal god of Delphi, who was regarded as the protector of ports and ships.

Draco (lawgiver)

Draco (; Greek: Δράκων, Drakōn; fl. c. 7th century BCE), also called Drako or Drakon, was the first recorded legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece. He replaced the prevailing system of oral law and blood feud by a written code to be enforced only by a court of law. Draco was the first democratic legislator, requested by the Athenian citizens to be a lawgiver for the city-state, but the citizens were fully unaware that Draco would establish laws characterized by their harshness. To this day, the adjective draconian (Greek: δρακόντειος) refers to similarly unforgiving rules or laws, in Greek, English and other European languages.

Eva Cantarella

Eva Cantarella (born 1936 in Rome) is an Italian classicist. She is professor of Roman law and ancient Greek law at the University of Milan, and has served as Dean of the Law School at the University of Camerino.


Gamelia (Γαμηλία) in ancient Athens may be a wedding customary law, or a name of a wedding festival or wedding solemnities in general. Gamelion was the name of the month (15 December- 15 January) in the Attic calendar, when marriages took place.

The demes and phratries of Attica possessed various means to prevent metic intruders from assuming the rights of citizens. Among other regulations it was ordained that every bride, previous to her marriage, should be introduced by her parents or guardians to the phratry of her husband (gamelian hyper gynaikos esipherein Isaeus, de Pyrrh. Haered. pp. 62, 65, &c.; cledron. flaered. p. 208 ; Demosth. c. Eubul. p. 1312 and 1320). This introduction of the young women was accompanied by presents to their new phratores, which were called Suidas, s. v.; Schol. ad Dem. c. JSztbul. p. 1312.) The women were enrolled in the lists of the phratries, and this enrolment was also called ya^Xia.. The presents seem to have consisted in a feast given to the phratores, and the phratores in return made some offerings to the gods on behalf of the young bride. (Pollux, iii. 3, viii. 9, 28.) The acceptance of the presents and the permission to enroll the bride in the registers of the phratria, was equivalent to a declaration that she was considered a true citizen, and that consequently her children would have legitimate claims to all the rights and privileges of citizens. (Herm. Lelir. d. griech. StaatsaU. § 100, n. 1.) • -

Gamelia was also the name of a sacrifice offered to Athena on the day previous to the marriage of a girl. She was taken by her parents to the temple of the goddess in the Acropolis, where the offerings were made on her behalf. Suidas, s. v. proteleia) The plural, Gameliai was used to express wedding solemnities in general. (Lycophron, ap, Etym. m.s.v.)

Gortyn code

The Gortyn code (also called the Great Code) was a legal code that was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete.

Graphe paranomon

The graphē paranómōn (Ancient Greek: γραφὴ παρανόμων), was a form of legal action believed to have been introduced at Athens under the democracy somewhere around the year 415 BC; it has been seen as a replacement for ostracism which fell into disuse around the same time, although this view is not held by David Whitehead, who points out that the graphe paranomon was a legal procedure with legal ramifications, including shame, and the convicted had officially committed a crime, whereas the ostrakismos was not shameful in the least.

The name means "suit against (bills) contrary to the laws." The suit could be brought against laws or decrees that had already been passed, or earlier when they were merely proposals. Once someone announced under oath that he intended to bring such a suit, the legislation or decree in question was suspended until the matter was resolved. The thinking was that, as there was no mechanism in Athens for unmaking a law, any new law should not be in contradiction with the already existing laws.

The suit served a double function. Firstly, it provided a means of reviewing and perhaps rescinding decrees and legislation passed by the assembly. In this it seems to resemble a court of review such as the modern U.S. Supreme Court. However, the judges (who in English are usually referred to as jurors) of the judicial formations of the Athenian court of Heliaia were, like those attending assembly, ordinary citizens and not legal experts, just as the court used was a general one and not a panel devoted to legislative matters. (Jurors, it is true, had a slightly higher status, as they had to be over thirty, not twenty as for the assembly, and they were under oath.) The mechanism can be compared to the upper houses found in many modern democracies. However, in Athens this review was not automatic, but had to be initiated by a citizen. Unlike both an upper house or a specially established court, the review was not framed as an impartial and objective re-examination, but was couched as a prosecution to be defended by a defendant who stood to suffer a penalty in the event of conviction.

In this lies its second function: it provided a weapon with which rival Athenian politicians could damage or eliminate each other, or from another perspective, a means by which the Athenian demos could favor or punish the leaders who served it. The suit was brought against the speaker who had proposed the motion in the assembly: he was regarded as having misled the people and corrupted the laws of the state, since the assembly itself was not accountable to anyone and by a kind of structural fiction (see legal fiction) could do no wrong. The liability of the proposer expired after one year; after that the law itself could still be attacked and rescinded, but the proposer would not suffer any penalty. After five years the law itself was no longer subject to a suit.The penalty for conviction was usually a fine, sometimes small but sometimes so large it could not be paid. In this case disenfranchisement (atimia) would result, effectively ending a political career. Because of this, active politicians began recruiting surrogates to propose bills that they themselves had authored. Penalties would then fall on the surrogate rather than on the politician himself.

Very many of the known prosecutions concern not substantive legislation but honorary decrees, seemingly of little importance from a modern viewpoint. These did however allow discussion of a wide range of questions and issues. A signal example is the pair of speeches surviving from a graphē paranómōn from 333 BC, Demosthenes' On the Crown in response to Aeschines' Against Ctesiphon.


Heliaia or Heliaea (Ancient Greek: Ἡλιαία; Doric: Ἁλία Halia) was the supreme court of ancient Athens. Τhe view generally held among scholars is that the court drew its name from the ancient Greek verb ἡλιάζεσθαι, which means συναθροίζεσθαι, namely congregate. Another version is that the court took its name from the fact that the hearings were taking place outdoors, under the sun. Initially, this was the name of the place where the hearings were convoked, but later this appellation included the court as well.

The judges were called heliasts (ἡλιασταί) or dikasts (δικασταί, ὀμωμοκότες = those who have sworn, namely the jurors). The operation of judging was called ἡλιάζεσθαι (δικάζειν).


Hieromenia (sacred month's time), was the time of the month at which the sacred festivals of the Greeks began, and in consequence of which the whole month received the name of men hieros (sacred month). It was a part of the international law of Greece that all hostilities should cease for the time between states who took part in these festivals, so that the inhabitants of the different states might go and return in safety. The Hieromeniae of the four great national festivals were the most important: they were proclaimed by heralds (spondophoroi or Theoroi), who visited the different states of Greece for the purpose. The suspension of hostilities was called (Ekecheiria, Truce)

In 420 BC the Spartans were excluded from the Olympics, after they had failed to pay a fine imposed on them, when they invaded Lepreum in Elis. Spartans protested in vain that the hieromenia and ekecheiria had not been declared by heralds on them.(Thuc.5.49-55)

Laws (dialogue)

The Laws (Greek: Νόμοι, Nómoi; Latin: De Legibus) is Plato's last and longest dialogue. The conversation depicted in the work's twelve books begins with the question of who is given the credit for establishing a civilization's laws. Its musings on the ethics of government and law have established it as a classic of political philosophy alongside Plato's more widely read Republic.

Scholars generally agree that Plato wrote this dialogue as an older man, having failed in his effort in Syracuse on the island of Sicily to guide a tyrant's rule, instead having been thrown in prison. These events are alluded to in the Seventh Letter. The text is noteworthy as Plato's only undisputed dialogue not to feature Socrates.

Lycurgus of Sparta

Lycurgus (; Greek: Λυκοῦργος, Lykoûrgos, Ancient Greek: [lykôrɡos]; fl. c. 820 BC) was the quasi-legendary lawgiver of Sparta who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. All his reforms promoted the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity.He is referred to by ancient historians and philosophers Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, Polybius, Plutarch, and Epictetus. It is not clear if Lycurgus was an actual historical figure; however, many ancient historians believed that he instituted the communalistic and militaristic reforms – most notably the Great Rhetra – which transformed Spartan society.

Marriage in ancient Greece

The institution of marriage in ancient Greece encouraged responsibility in personal relationships. Marriages were usually arranged by the parents; professional matchmakers were reluctantly used. Each city was politically independent, with its own laws affecting marriage. Orphaned daughters were left to uncles or cousins. For the marriage to be legal, the woman's father or guardian gave permission to a suitable male who could afford to marry. Wintertime marriages were popular. The couple participated in a ceremony which included rituals such as veil removal but the couple living together made the marriage legal.


In ancient Greece, a metic (Ancient Greek: μέτοικος, métoikos: from μετά, metá, indicating change, and οἶκος, oîkos "dwelling") was a foreign resident of Athens, one who did not have citizen rights in their Greek city-state (polis) of residence.

Politics (Aristotle)

Politics (Greek: Πολιτικά, Politiká) is a work of political philosophy by Aristotle, a 4th-century BC Greek philosopher.

The end of the Nicomachean Ethics declared that the inquiry into ethics necessarily follows into politics, and the two works are frequently considered to be parts of a larger treatise, or perhaps connected lectures, dealing with the "philosophy of human affairs". The title of the Politics literally means "the things concerning the polis".


Proxeny or proxenia (Greek: προξενία) in ancient Greece was an arrangement whereby a citizen (chosen by the city) hosted foreign ambassadors at his own expense, in return for honorary titles from the state. The citizen was called proxenos (πρόξενος; plural: proxenoi or proxeni, "instead of a foreigner") or proxeinos (πρόξεινος). The proxeny decrees, which amount to letters of patent and resolutions of appreciation were issued by one state to a citizen of another for service as proxenos, a kind of honorary consul looking after the interests of the other state's citizens. A cliché phrase is euergetes (benefactor) and proxenos (πρόξεινος τε ειη και ευεργέτης).

A proxenos would use whatever influence he had in his own city to promote policies of friendship or alliance with the city he voluntarily represented. For example, Cimon was Sparta's proxenos at Athens and during his period of prominence in Athenian politics, previous to the outbreak of the First Peloponnesian War, he strongly advocated a policy of cooperation between the two states. Cimon was known to be so fond of Sparta that he named one of his sons Lacedaemonius.Being another city's proxenos did not preclude taking part in war against that city, should it break out – since the proxenos' ultimate loyalty was to his own city. However, a proxenos would naturally try his best to prevent such a war from breaking out and to compose whatever differences were threatening to cause it. And once peace negotiations were on the way, a proxenos' contacts and goodwill in the enemy city could be profitably used by his city.

The position of proxenos for a particular city was often hereditary in a particular family.


The Prytaneis (πρυτάνεις; sing.: πρύτανις prytanis) were the executives of the boule of ancient Athens.


A sympoliteia or sympolity (Ancient Greek: συμπολιτεία "joint citizenship") was a type of treaty for political organization in ancient Greece. By the time of the Hellenistic period, it occurred in two forms. In mainland Greece, the term was often used for a federal state consisting of individual poleis (city-states) with shared political institutions and citizenship. Examples of this are the Achaean League and the Aetolian League. The term was also used for the political merger of two or more neighboring poleis. This could eventually, but not necessarily, lead to the disappearance of one of the participating poleis. This second form was especially common in Hellenistic Asia Minor.A sympoliteia is often contrasted with an isopoliteia, a treaty which granted equal citizenship to the citizens of the participating poleis but maintained their political independence. Contemporary writers of the Hellenistic period could use the term loosely, Polybius for example used the term sympoliteia to refer to the shared citizenship granted by both treaties. In similar fashion there was also considerable overlap between the concepts of synoecism and sympoliteia.

Trial of Socrates

The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities".

The death sentence of Socrates was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, from which resulted the two accusations of moral corruption and of impiety. At trial, the majority of the dikasts (male-citizen jurors chosen by lot) voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice, voted to determine his punishment, and agreed to a sentence of death to be executed by Socrates’s drinking a poisonous beverage of hemlock.

Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens, who had been his student; contemporary interpretations include The Trial of Socrates (1988) by the journalist I. F. Stone, and Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009) by the Classics scholar Robin Waterfield.

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